The Legend of Abraham’s Father
Abraham has been called the father of the faithful and was a true Old Testament hero. He courageously obeyed God when he was told to leave his father’s household and go to a land that would be shown to him (Gen. 12:1). He lived as stranger in a foreign country dwelling in tents while waiting for the promise of an inheritance. “He was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10). When he was tested, Abraham offered his son Isaac as a sacrifice, knowing that God could raise him from the dead.
The stories of Abraham have been well taught throughout history. When he was ninety-nine years old God changed his name from Abram (high father) to Abraham (father of a multitude) and made a covenant of loyal obedience with him (Gen. 17:1-5). Being a righteous person as Abraham was, one might assume that he probably came from a strong family with and honest and upright parents. We are really told very little about Abraham’s parents in the Bible. In fact, there is no reference at all to his mother. His father is a different story.
The first mention of Abraham’s father, Terah, was in the chronology of Noah’s son Shem (Gen. 11:25). We are also informed that Terah was 70 years old when Abraham was born. He had two other sons, Nahor and Haran. Haran became the father of Lot, the same Lot that was saved from the destruction at Sodom and Gomorrah. Terah took his family with the intention of moving from Ur to Canaan.
When they came to Haran, not to be mistaken with Abraham’s brother Haran, they settled there. Next we are told that Terah lived to be 205 and died in Haran. There is one more brief reference to Terah in Joshua 24:2 where it is mentioned that he worshipped other gods. That's it. The sum total of writings about the father of Abraham occurs in ten verses.
The Written and the Oral Law
According to tradition, the Jewish people received two sets of laws at Mount Sinai. One was the “written law,” the first five books of the Bible. The written law is also known as "the books of Moses” or the "Torah." The other set of instructions is what is known as the “oral law”. The “oral law” was not written down but was kept as oral tradition. Over time, as the Jewish people became scattered throughout the lands the “oral law” was also committed to writing. Therefore, Jewish teachings come in two methods; the written law and the oral law.
One of the writings on the subject of the oral law is called the Midrash. Although the book of Genesis provides scant references to Abraham’s family the Midrash and Jewish legend have quite a bit to say about Terah and Abraham. Let’s take a look at this interesting oral tradition regarding Abraham’s family.
Abraham and the Idol's
The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (c. 37-100) shares the following about Abraham:
[Abraham] was a person of great sagacity [acute mental discernment and soundness of judgment], both for understanding all things and for persuading his hearers. [He] was not mistaken in his opinions … he had higher notions of virtue than others had, and he determined to renew and change the opinion all men happened to have concerning God … [He reasoned] that there was but one God, the Creator of the universe … This opinion was derived from the irregular phenomena that were visible both at land and sea, as well as those that happen to the sun, and moon, and all the heavenly bodies … 'If [said Abraham] these bodies had power of their own, they would certainly take care of their own regular motions; but since they do not preserve such regularity, they make it plain, that in so far as they co-operate to our advantage, they do it not of their own abilities, but as they are subservient to Him that commands them. To whom alone we ought justly to offer our honor and thanksgiving.'1
Abraham concluded early in his life that idol worship was nothing but foolishness. Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 38:13 (Midrash on Genesis, sixth century CE) provides additional information about Abraham’s family. The Midrash tells us that Abraham’s father Terah not only worshipped other gods but also that he was an idol-manufacturer. One time, when Terah had to travel, he left Abraham in charge of the shop. As customers would come in wanting to purchase idols, Abraham would ask them how old they were. The people would answer fifty, sixty, or another age. To which Abraham would respond "Isn't it pathetic that a man of sixty wants to bow down to a one-day-old idol?" At this the customers would hesitate, feel ashamed and leave.2
Yet, Abraham still had to prove his point that idols were of no value. While his father was still traveling Abraham took a hammer and smashed all the idols except for the biggest one. When his father returned and saw the broken idols he was stunned and asked how this happened? Abraham calmly replied that an amazing thing happened. A woman came in with a basket of bread and told him to offer it to the idols. When Abraham brought it up in front of each of the statues, each of the idols said that they were going to eat first. Finally the biggest one got up, took the hammer and broke all the others to pieces.
Terah, dismayed at the answer, asked Abraham he was trying to put over on him. Terah exclaimed "Do they [the idols] have minds?"2To which Abraham responded "Listen to what your own mouth is saying? They have no power at all! Why worship idols?"3 There was nothing for Terah to say, he had no response. He knew, deep down, that Abraham was right. His son had grasped on to a deeper truth.
This story strikes right at the heart and crux of idolatry –– greed and personal gratification. The concept of "one God, the creator of the universe" was an awesome and eternal revelation given to Abraham in a time when idol worship was rampant!
Abraham's Encounter with Nimrod
There is one more part to this passage from the Midrash that is also quite intriguing. Nimrod the “mighty warrior” and “mighty hunter” spoken of in Genesis 10:8 was the most powerful world leader of the time. He was threatened by Abraham’s idea of one supreme God. In fact, Abraham’s generous and caring frame of mind was an affront to the powerful Nimrod. Quoting once again from the same portion of the Midrash:
Nimrod called Abraham and commanded him to worship Fire. Abraham said to him, "So let's worship water since water has the power to extinguish fire."
"Right," said Nimrod, "We should worship water." In that case, we should worship the clouds, since they carry water. Yes, we should worship the clouds."
"Then we should worship the wind, since it drives the clouds across the sky. Yes, we should worship the wind (ru'ach) -- air, spirit."
"But," said Abraham, "humans have the power to rule over the spirit. Should we worship human beings?"
"You're playing with words," cried Nimrod. "I worship only fire, and I am going to throw you into a huge furnace. Let the God you worship come along and save you from it!"4
Exercising his grand power, Nimrod threw Abraham into the fiery furnace. In ancient times a fiery furnace was usually a pit, a large hole in the ground big enough for people to stand up in. The furnace could have been used for the refining of gold or silver, but it was also used at times as a hideous means of putting an end to those who did not agree with the king
Abraham’s brother Haran was along during this encounter with Nimrod. He witnessed the fiery furnace episode. Thoughts of what he would say if Nimrod asked him of his loyalty started to race through his mind while this was going on. He would wisely say “Abraham’s” if he came out alive or “Nimrod’s” if he didn’t. Much to Nimrod’s amazement, Abraham came out of the fiery furnace safe and sound. So Nimrod, in a fit of anger turned around and asked Haran “Whose side are you on?” Haran responded “Abraham’s!”5 Nimrod wasn’t so sure so he threw Haran in the furnace too. Haran's plan didn't work. God did not perform the same miracle for Haran that he did for Abraham.
According to tradition the Jewish people received two sets of laws at Mount Sinai, the written law and the oral law. Over time, the oral law was put to paper as well. The Midrash provides a substantial amount of extra-biblical information regarding the patriarch Abraham. He was a man of great faith who had the courage to smash his father’s idols and confront the “mighty warrior” Nimrod toe to toe. With resentment and rage Nimrod had Abraham cast into a fiery furnace. Like Daniel’s friends Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego much later, Abraham was spared and came out of the furnace unscathed. His brother Haran, who according to the Midrash was only interested in saving his own skin, was not blessed as such.
1. The Works of Flavius Josephus, Book 1, Chapter 7, http://www.biblestudytools.com/history/flavius-josephus/antiquities-jews/book-1/chapter-7.html(accessed February 5, 2011)
2. Abraham Smashes the Idols, http://www.azamra.org/Earth/mount-03.html(accessed January 23, 2011).
3. Ibid #2.
4. Ibid #2.
5. Ibid #2.
Return to Roots of Christianity Page
Click here to return to the Hebraic Roots of Christianity home page