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Diana Edelman





Was Abraham Really a Man of Faith?





APA e-journal

Diana Edelman





Was Abraham Really a Man of Faith?








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Was Abraham Really a Man of Faith?

Abraham does not comply with the very first command that YHWH gives him, and throughout his life, he doubts and questions YHWH. Does Abraham ultimately become the man of faith he is reputed to be?


Was Abraham Really a Man of Faith?

God Renews His Promises to Abraham (detail), c. 1896-1902, James Tissot. Jewish Museum

We first meet Abram when his father, Terah, takes him out of Ur of the Chaldeans:[1]

בראשׁית יא:לא וַיִּקַּח תֶּרַח אֶת אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ וְאֶת לוֹט בֶּן הָרָן בֶּן בְּנוֹ וְאֵת שָׂרַי כַּלָּתוֹ אֵשֶׁת אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ וַיֵּצְאוּ אִתָּם מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן וַיָּבֹאוּ עַד חָרָן וַיֵּשְׁבוּ שָׁם.
Gen 11:31 Terah took his son Abram, his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had come as far as Haran, they settled there.[2]

Terah remains in Haran for the rest of his life (v. 32).[3] In the next verse, YHWH speaks to Abram:

בראשׁית יב:א וַיֹּאמֶר יְ־הוָה אֶל אַבְרָם לֶךְ לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ.
Gen 12:1 YHWH said to Abram, “Take yourself from your country/land, that is, from your extended family/place of birth, and from your father’s house to the country I will show you.”[4]

Where is Abram when YHWH tells him to leave? The order of events in the story suggests that it occurs in Haran, but considering that מִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ (moladtekha) refers to Abram’s birthplace or the location of his extended family, the command must have been given while Abram was still in Ur.[5]

Accordingly, Abram did not obey YHWH’s first command to him: he did not leave Ur on his own volition, and his subsequent extended stay in Haran delays his arrival in Canaan. In addition, by taking Lot with him to Canaan (12:4), he continues to disobey YHWH’s command to leave his extended family behind.[6] These actions have consequences.

Abram Excluded from the Land Promise until Lot Leaves

In Ur, YHWH makes Abram several promises that will be fulfilled if he heeds the command he has been given:[7]

בראשׁית יב:ב וְאֶעֶשְׂךָ לְגוֹי גָּדוֹל וַאֲבָרֶכְךָ וַאֲגַדְּלָה שְׁמֶךָ וֶהְיֵה בְּרָכָה. יב:ג וַאֲבָרֲכָה מְבָרְכֶיךָ וּמְקַלֶּלְךָ אָאֹר וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה.
Gen 12:2 “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and it shall be a blessing. 12:3 I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”

After arriving in Canaan, having partially heeded YHWH’s command, the deity appears to Abram at the oak of Moreh beside Shechem and adds one more promise:

בראשׁית יב:ז וַיֵּרָא יְ־הוָה אֶל אַבְרָם וַיֹּאמֶר לְזַרְעֲךָ אֶתֵּן אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת....
Gen 12:7 YHWH appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this country/land….”

Abram himself is not included in the land promise at this point. Only after he has righted the initial act of disobedience by separating from Lot (13:1–13) is he rewarded by being included as a personal recipient of the promise of land alongside his descendants:

בראשׁית יג:טו כִּי אֶת כָּל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַתָּה רֹאֶה לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה וּלְזַרְעֲךָ עַד עוֹלָם.
Gen 13:15 “For all the land that you see I will give to you and your offspring forever.”[8]

This pattern in Abram’s life repeats itself several times in a series of encounters in this section of Genesis: When YHWH speaks to him, Abram responds with either disobedience or doubt.

YHWH Asks Abram to Travel the Land, and Abram Settles Instead

After showing him the land that YHWH will give him, YHWH issues a new command to Abram:

בראשׁית יג:יז קוּם הִתְהַלֵּךְ בָּאָרֶץ לְאָרְכָּהּ וּלְרָחְבָּהּ כִּי לְךָ אֶתְּנֶנָּה.
Gen 13:17 “Arise, walk through the length and breadth of the land, for I will give it to you.”

Abram once again does not obey. Instead of exploring all the land, he only gets as far as the oaks of Mamre, near Hebron; he pitches his tent and is content to settle there:

בראשׁית יג:יח וַיֶּאֱהַל אַבְרָם וַיָּבֹא וַיֵּשֶׁב בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא אֲשֶׁר בְּחֶבְרוֹן וַיִּבֶן שָׁם מִזְבֵּחַ לַי־הוָה.
Gen 13:18 And Abram moved his tent, and came to dwell at the terebinths of Mamre, which are in Hebron; and he built an altar there to YHWH.

YHWH makes no direct response to this disobedience, but in the next episode, Abram is confronted with Lot’s kidnapping and has to go to war against four kings (ch. 14).

A Moment of Faith, and Then Everything Falls Apart

Perhaps Abram’s refusal to take booty from the king of Sodom, lest Abram’s wealth be attributed to anyone but YHWH (14:22–23), earns Abram the next positive encounter with YHWH, at the Covenant of Parts (ברית בין הבתרים):

בראשׁית טו:א אַחַר הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה הָיָה דְבַר יְ־הוָה אֶל אַבְרָם בַּמַּחֲזֶה לֵאמֹר אַל תִּירָא אַבְרָם אָנֹכִי מָגֵן לָךְ שְׂכָרְךָ הַרְבֵּה מְאֹד.
Gen 15:1 Some time later, the word of YHWH came to Abram in a vision. He said, “Fear not, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.”

After his lucrative sojourn in Egypt (Gen 12:10–20), Abram has no need of a material type of blessing. Abram points out that he has no children (15:2), insinuating that YHWH has not kept the promise made in Ur. YHWH proceeds to reaffirm the promise of progeny (vv. 4–5), and for the first time in the narrative, we are told that Abram trusts YHWH:[9]

בראשׁית טו:ו וְהֶאֱמִן בַּי־הוָה וַיַּחְשְׁבֶהָ לּוֹ צְדָקָה.
Gen 15:6 And because he put his trust in YHWH, He reckoned it to his merit.[10]

Abram’s trust seemingly encourages YHWH to reaffirm the promise of the land to Abram himself:

בראשׁית טו:ז וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי יְ־הוָה אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים לָתֶת לְךָ אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת לְרִשְׁתָּהּ.
Gen. 15:7 Then He said to him, “I am YHWH who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to assign this land to you as a possession.”

It seems Abram’s earlier failure to explore the land at YHWH’s command has been fully forgiven. Yet Abram’s trust seems to vanish instantly, as he challenges YHWH’s word a second time:

בראשׁית טו:ח וַיֹּאמַר אֲדֹנָי יֱ־הוִה בַּמָּה אֵדַע כִּי אִירָשֶׁנָּה.
Gen 15:8 And he said, “O Lord YHWH, how am I to know that I will possess it?

Abram wants or needs some sort of confirming sign from the deity. YHWH seems to comply by entering into a covenant with Abram, passing through the animal parts in the form of a smoking pot and flaming torch (vv. 8–11).[11]

Abram then falls into a deep trance, and YHWH tells him that his descendants will be resident aliens outside Canaan and will be slaves there for 400 years before they leave with great possessions and return to Canaan in the fourth generation (vv. 13–16). The consequences for Abram’s slip in trust this time fall on both Abram and the descendants.[12] His descendants will only receive the land after being enslaved in Egypt: a 400-year delay.[13]

Abram’s Doubts Again Prompt Changes to the Promises

For ten years after he leaves Haran, Abram holds out for YHWH to deliver on the promise of offspring, but then he acts on Sarai’s idea of having a child through her female servant, Hagar (16:3).[14] That Abram has Ishmael through Hagar does not appear to be a problem, as the next time YHWH speaks with Abram, 13 years after Ishmael’s birth (16:16–17:1), YHWH offers Abram another chance to enter into a covenant:

בראשׁית יז:א וַיְהִי אַבְרָם בֶּן תִּשְׁעִים שָׁנָה וְתֵשַׁע שָׁנִים וַיֵּרָא יְ־הוָה אֶל אַבְרָם וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי אֵל שַׁדַּי הִתְהַלֵּךְ לְפָנַי וֶהְיֵה תָמִים.
Gen 17:1 When Abram was ninety-nine years old, YHWH appeared to Abram and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Walk in My ways and be blameless.”[15]

These conditions—to be obedient and moral—will underlie the (new?) covenant between the deity and Abram and also determine whether YHWH will deliver on the promise of numerous progeny:

בראשׁית יז:ב וְאֶתְּנָה בְרִיתִי בֵּינִי וּבֵינֶךָ וְאַרְבֶּה אוֹתְךָ בִּמְאֹד מְאֹד.
Gen 17:2 “I will establish My covenant between Me and you, and I will make you exceedingly numerous.”

Abram falls on his face (v. 3), the act of a person of inferior status toward one of high status, indicating his deference and, perhaps, his compliance. YHWH changes Abram’s name—from Abram to Abraham[16]—signaling a new development on the promise of progeny:

בראשׁית יז:ה וְלֹא יִקָּרֵא עוֹד אֶת שִׁמְךָ אַבְרָם וְהָיָה שִׁמְךָ אַבְרָהָם כִּי אַב הֲמוֹן גּוֹיִם נְתַתִּיךָ.
Gen 17:5 “And you shall no longer be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I make you the father of a multitude of nations.

Ishmael’s birth seems to have prompted a change: what was originally a promise that Abram would father one nation has become a promise that he will father a multitude of nations who have a covenant with YHWH:

בראשׁית יז:ז וַהֲקִמֹתִי אֶת־בְּרִיתִי בֵּינִי וּבֵינֶךָ וּבֵין זַרְעֲךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ לְדֹרֹתָם לִבְרִית עוֹלָם לִהְיוֹת לְךָ לֵאלֹהִים וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ.
Gen 17:7 I will maintain/fulfill My covenant between Me and you, and your offspring to come, as an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring to come.

YHWH then spells out the terms of the covenant: YHWH will become their deity and will give Abram and his descendants the land of Canaan. In turn, Abraham and his descendants will circumcise all their males (vv. 8–14).

YHWH Takes Back the Covenant from Ishmael

After instructing Abraham that Sarai will henceforth be called Sarah, YHWH reassures Abraham that she will also have a son (vv. 15–16). Once again, Abraham responds with doubt:

בראשׁית יז:יז וַיִּפֹּל אַבְרָהָם עַל פָּנָיו וַיִּצְחָק וַיֹּאמֶר בְּלִבּוֹ הַלְּבֶן מֵאָה שָׁנָה יִוָּלֵד וְאִם שָׂרָה הֲבַת תִּשְׁעִים שָׁנָה תֵּלֵד. יז:יח וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֶל הָאֱלֹהִים לוּ יִשְׁמָעֵאל יִחְיֶה לְפָנֶיךָ.
Gen 17:17 Abraham threw himself on his face and laughed, as he said to himself, “Can a child be born to a man a hundred years old, or can Sarah bear a child at ninety?” 17:18 And Abraham said to God, “O that Ishmael might live by Your favor!”[17]

YHWH’s response to this lack of trust is to declare that the covenant with YHWH will only apply to the line of Isaac (v. 19). Ishmael will be blessed, but to a lesser degree.[18]

Abraham Does Not Tell Sarah about YHWH’s Promise

The next divine encounter takes place when Abraham and Sarah are back dwelling near Hebron and Mamre. Three divine messengers appear and are given hospitality and a meal. They then announce that Sarah will give birth the following year, even though she is post-menopausal (18:1–11). She overhears this conversation and laughs to herself at the possibility of having עֶדְנָה (ʿednah), “pleasure,” with or from her אדֹנִי זָקֵן (ʾadoni zaqen), “old lord.” The assonance is intentional.

YHWH then asks Abraham why Sarah laughed (v. 13), a question that could be understood as asking why he had never shared the earlier divine pronouncement with his wife.[19] Did he not believe it possible? The narrator now takes him to task for his doubts:

בראשׁית יח:יד הֲיִפָּלֵא מֵיְ־הוָה דָּבָר.
Gen 18:14a “Is anything too difficult for YHWH?”

YHWH reconfirms that in spite of her age, Sarah will indeed bear a child (v. 14b), but when Sarah gives birth, the narrator only mentions fulfilling the promise to Sarah, not to Abraham (21:1).

YHWH Tests Abraham

With the birth of Isaac (21:1–3), YHWH has now delivered on the promises made to Abraham of offspring, blessings, and a good reputation.[20] YHWH then explicitly tests Abraham with the command to bind and sacrifice Isaac (ch. 22).

Although Abraham had questioned YHWH multiple times in the past, now he does not. YHWH is apparently convinced Abraham would have killed Isaac with his knife-wielding hand had he not heard the heavenly voice of the divine messenger stopping him (22:10–12). He has proven his fear of YHWH, and finally demonstrated his acquisition of faith.[21]

A New Version of the Promises

YHWH’s final revelation, given through a divine messenger, contains a new version of the promises to Abraham:[22]

בראשׁית כב:יז כִּי בָרֵךְ אֲבָרֶכְךָ וְהַרְבָּה אַרְבֶּה אֶת זַרְעֲךָ כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם וְכַחוֹל אֲשֶׁר עַל שְׂפַת הַיָּם וְיִרַשׁ זַרְעֲךָ אֵת שַׁעַר אֹיְבָיו. כב:יח וְהִתְבָּרֲכוּ בְזַרְעֲךָ כֹּל גּוֹיֵי הָאָרֶץ עֵקֶב אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַעְתָּ בְּקֹלִי.
Gen 22:17 “I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring [to be] like the stars of heaven and like the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring/seed shall possess the gate of his enemies, 22:18 and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”

The original promises of progeny, blessings for Abraham, and blessings and curses for others are reconfirmed, but since the promises here do not reconfirm that he will personally receive the land of Canaan, we may infer that Abraham has been held accountable for his earlier lack of belief, faith, or relapses in faith. Moreover, in a new permutation, the acquisition of the land will not be through a gift, but will involve conquest.[23]

Abraham Buys a Piece of the Promised Land

When Sarah dies, Abraham purchases a field and cave in which to bury her (ch. 23), the only piece of the promised land that Abraham will actually possess during his lifetime.[24] When he asks the Hittites to sell him the land, the term he uses to describe the tomb is אֲחֻזָּה (ʾachuzzah), “possession”:[25]

בראשׁית כג:ד גֵּר וְתוֹשָׁב אָנֹכִי עִמָּכֶם תְּנוּ לִי אֲחֻזַּת קֶבֶר עִמָּכֶם וְאֶקְבְּרָה מֵתִי מִלְּפָנָי.
Gen 23:4 “I am a resident alien among you; sell me a possession for a grave among you, that I may remove my dead for burial.”

Earlier, before Abram questioned YHWH’s promise to provide an heir through Sarai, YHWH described Canaan as an everlasting ʾachuzzah for Abram and his descendants:

בראשׁית יז:ח וְנָתַתִּי לְךָ וּלְזַרְעֲךָ אַחֲרֶיךָ אֵת אֶרֶץ מְגֻרֶיךָ אֵת כָּל אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן לַאֲחֻזַּת עוֹלָם וְהָיִיתִי לָהֶם לֵאלֹהִים.
Gen 17:8 I assign the land you sojourn in, to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting possession. I will be their God.”

Was this purchase of a field and burial cave what YHWH intended as Abraham’s share in the land? Or has Abraham once again not trusted his divine covenant partner and taken matters into his own hands by buying rights to a field in addition to securing a tomb site?


November 10, 2022


Last Updated

April 9, 2024


View Footnotes

Prof. Diana V. Edelman is Professor (emerita) of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies in the University of Oslo's Department of Theology. She holds an M.A. in Religious Studies and a Ph.D. in Biblical Studies from the University of Chicago. Edelman is the author of The Origins of the ‘Second’ Temple: Persian Imperial Policies and the Rebuilding of Jerusalem (Equinox, 2005) and King Saul in the Historiography of Judah (JSOT, 1991), as well as co-author, editor, and co-editor of many more.