On the face of it, there’s a mystery here! If God were looking for someone to be the ‘father’ of his chosen people Israel, why would he choose Abraham, who lived far away in the city of Ur in Babylonia (modern day Iraq)? Later on, in the Book of Joshua, it’s clearly stated that “Abraham .. lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods”. Why choose someone from a very different place, who worships different gods?
We need to understand that the stories about Abraham didn’t reach final form until around the 6th century BCE, when existing oral and written traditions were assembled and fitted into a continuous narrative. Some of these traditions were very old, but transmitted by word of mouth for hundreds of years, with inevitable modifications and elaborations. This doesn’t mean Abraham never existed, but what we have is folktale and legend rather than history. His importance lies in the colourful and dramatic stories which were attached to his name.
What’s so important about the 6th century BCE? Several centuries earlier, Israel had split into northern and southern kingdoms, the southern being the one where the folk-tales about Abraham most likely originated. The northern kingdom was wiped out by the Assyrians in the 8th century, and the southern one in the 6th century by the Babylonians. Jerusalem and its Temple were laid waste, and most of the population exiled to Babylon. Around 70 years later, however, the Babylonians were defeated by the Persians, whose King allowed exiled Jews, if they wished, to return and rebuild their capital city and Temple.
This was a formidable challenge. The Israelites had very nearly been erased from history. In those days, if a people were defeated and their god’s temple destroyed, he became yesterday’s god. Some of the exiles would have cut their losses, and changed their religion. The remnant of exiles, who decided to return to their former land, badly needed to rediscover their identity and reason for being, and to reinvigorate their faith in their God. They needed a national epic – a story about where they’d come from, who had brought them to their promised land, why things had gone so badly, and how things could be righted from now on.
What better then, than beginning that story with an ancestor who, just like the returning exiles, came all the way from Babylon, where he’d been exposed to the Babylonian gods. According to the story, however, a new, and greater God had revealed himself to Abraham, and guided and safeguarded him. If Abraham was faithful and obedient, this God would make him the ‘father’ of his future chosen people, in the promised land of Israel.
Here then, is why we have this somewhat strange Abraham story. It portrayed the God of Israel as being in truth the greatest of gods and, just as with Abraham, so now he had delivered his people from Babylonia, and again established them in the land of promise. The disasters which had befallen them had occurred because, unlike Abraham, they had failed in their worship and obedience. The message was clear. From now onwards, hit the mark and you’ll prosper – miss the mark and you won’t. The rest, as the saying goes, is history …..