Lesson 3 Ė The Call of Abraham

The Story of the Tower of Babel

Abraham offers Sarah to Pharaoh for his protection.

Covenant with Abraham and Sarah for a child

Childless Sarah offers Hagar, her maidservant, to Abraham and Hagar gives birth to Ishmael.

Genesis 17:10-11 is on the origins of circumcision

    1. Why do you think God would choose only one family line with which to be so close?
    2. Abraham understood that idols were incapable of being gods or a representation of God, why do you think that other people thought idols were effective?
    3. Most biblical scholars would hold that these stories of Abraham and his family are not factual histories. The stories are inspired creations of the early priests and theologians attempting to reconstruct there origins and give meaning to some rituals and religious practices. However, the stories were not created from nothing but based upon stories and an oral tradition that may go back centuries and refer to actual historical entities.


Closing Prayer

God of grace and God of glory on your people pour your power. May we listen to your promises and not take them lightly. May we live according to your promises and act according to your love. Amen.


Background Reading (taken from Journey through the Bible, Christian Board of Publications, 1995, p. 15)


 With the appearance of Abraham, the Bibleís concern with the whole of humankind takes a fresh turn. God has a new way of bringing blessing and peace to the whole world. From now on, God will work through one distinct people, bound to God in covenant, committed to God for all time to do Godís will. Godís choice of Abraham is not explained in the bible, although in later Jewish and Christian writings Abraham is presented as a great religious personality even as a young boy. He was able to demonstrate the foolishness of idolatry to his father in the city of Ur. His father earned his living as an idol-maker. The young Abraham saw that the idols had no power to do anything for their worshipers. How could they, since they themselves were made with human hands? Similar stories of Abrahamís religious discernment are found in the scriptures of Islam known as the Quran or Koran.

But there is none of that in the Bible. Genesis 12 opens with Abraham living with his family in northwest Mesopotamia, not far from modern Baghdad. God addresses Abraham (we do not hear how) and calls on him to leave all the security of homeland and extended family and go where God will lead. The destination is not even given! And Abraham, utterly devoted to God, makes arrangements and leaves, journeying toward what will turn out to be the land of Canaan. Not a word is said about the journey; what counts is what will happen when he reaches this land of Godís promise.

Genesis 12:1-3 is the "good news" of the Hebrew scriptures. Abraham is promised that God will make him prosper, protect him for enemies, and make him the head of a large family. Later on he is assured that the number of his descendants will be like the sand on the seashore or the stars in heaven. And what is Abrahamís obligation? He is to be a blessing to others, for in him, blessing is to come to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:2-3). The covenant with Abraham calls for Abraham to believe in Godís promises, trust his life to Godís care, and live as the ancestor of the Israelites.

We should bear in mind that the covenant with Noah and with all humankind was also a covenant of promise. The only explicit demand found in Genesis 9 is that human beings not take human life. The Jewish community did find six other commandments implicit in Godís dealings with humankind prior to Mosesí receiving the divine law on Mount Sinai. In addition to the prohibition of murder, the rabbis believed that all human beings were required by God:

The last command to all humankind was to establish courts of justice so that Godís justice could be maintained by all.

These commandments also apply, of course, to Abraham and to all the peoples living in his time, according to the rabbis. But we do not hear of these things in our text. The emphasis falls on Godís gracious promises to Abraham, Godís leading him to the land that is to be the land his descendants will occupy, and Godís protecting him and guiding him through all manner of difficulty and danger.

Danger shows up quickly. Abraham confronts a famine and travels to Egypt in order to get food for his family and his livestock. Was that a lack of trust in God? We note that God did not direct him to leave Canaan for Egypt with much more than they had when they entered the land.

Throughout the story of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, one literary and theological theme stands out: the theme of Godís promise on the way to being fulfilled, but never fully fulfilled. And though Abraham or Isaac or Jacob or Esau may endanger the promise, they never fully thwart Godís purposes by their carelessness or selfishness or greed or outright misconduct. God sees to the promise, even as human beings also attempt imperfectly to see to it. But the promise still belongs to the future, awaiting its consummation.

The next series of stories tells about how Godís promise is delayed, but continues to remain a possibility. Abraham holds fast to his belief in Godís promise, hard though it is for him to do so. How can he believe that he and Sarah will have a child who will inherit Godís covenant and Godís promise?

But the point of all the stories is that it will be so, for God is watching over the divine promise, and when the time is right, Sarah herself will have a child.

Other possible heirs to the promise are passed over: Abrahamís nephew Lot moves to the country around the southern end of the Dead Sea. Abrahamís adopted slave, Eliezer of Damascus, is rejected as the heir. And even Ishmael, born to Abraham and to Sarahís slave-girl Hagar, is not to be Abraham and Sarahís heir. It is hard for Abraham to continue to believe in this promise of God, for he is ninety-nine years of age and Sarah is ninety. But Isaac is promised within a year, and the covenant will pass from Abraham to this blessed and precious child in Abraham and Sarahís old age. 

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Genesis 12:1-9, 1:1-9, 15-22

Now the LORD said to Abram,

"Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name

great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."

So Abram went, as the LORD had told him; and Lot went with him. Abram was

seventy-five years old when he departed from Haran.

Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother's son Lot, and all the possessions

that they had gathered, and the persons whom they had acquired in Haran; and

they set forth to go to the land of Canaan. When they had come to the land of

Canaan, Abram passed through the land to the place at Shechem, to the oak of Moreh. At

that time the Canaanites were in the land.

Then the LORD appeared to Abram, and said,

"To your offspring I will give this land."

So he built there an altar to the LORD, who had appeared to him.

From there he moved on to the hill country on the east of Bethel, and pitched his tent, with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to the LORD and invoked the name of the LORD.

And Abram journeyed on by stages toward the Negeb.

(Genesis 17:1-9)

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him,

"I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous."

Then Abram fell on his face; and God said to him,

"As for me, this is my covenant with you: You shall be the ancestor of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham; for I have made you the ancestor of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you. I will establish my covenant between me and you, and your offspring after you throughout their generations, for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you.

And I will give to you, and to your offspring after you, the land where you are now an alien, all the land of Canaan, for a perpetual holding; and I will be their God."

God said to Abraham, "As for you, you shall keep my covenant, you and your offspring after you throughout their generations.

(Genesis 17:15-22)

God said to Abraham, "As for Sarah your wife, you shall not call her Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall give rise to nations; kings of peoples shall come from her."

Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said to himself, "Can a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Can Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?"

And Abraham said to God, "O that Ishmael might live in your sight!"

God said,

"No, but your wife Sarah shall bear you a son, and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him.

As for Ishmael, I have heard you; I will bless him and make him fruitful and exceedingly numerous; he shall be the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation.

But my covenant I will establish with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this season next year."

And when he had finished talking with him, God went up from Abraham.

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Abraham, fl. early 2nd millennium BC Hebrew AVRAHAM, also called ABRAM, Hebrew AVRAM, first of the Hebrew patriarchs and a figure revered by the three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. According to the biblical book of Genesis, Abraham left Ur, in Mesopotamia, because God called him to found a new nation in an undesignated land that he later learned was Canaan. He obeyed unquestioningly the commands of God, from whom he received repeated promises and a covenant that his "seed" would inherit the land.

The critical problem of a "biography" of Abraham.

There can be no biography of Abraham in the ordinary sense. The most that can be done is to apply the interpretation of modern historical finds to biblical materials so as to arrive at a probable judgment as to the background and patterns of events in his life. This involves a reconstruction of the patriarchal age (of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph; early 2nd millennium BC), which until the end of the last century was unknown and considered virtually unknowable. It was assumed, based on a presumed dating of hypothetical biblical sources, that the patriarchal narratives in the Bible were only a projection of the situation and concerns of a much later period (9th-5th century BC) and of dubious historical value.

Several theses were advanced to explain the narratives--e.g., that the patriarchs were mythical beings or the personifications of tribes or folkloric or etiological (explanatory) figures created to account for various social, juridical, or cultic patterns. However, after World War I, archaeological research made enormous strides with the discovery of monuments and documents, many of which date back to the period assigned to the patriarchs in the traditional account. The excavation of a royal palace at Mari, an ancient city on the Euphrates, for example, brought to light thousands of cuneiform tablets (official archives and correspondence and religious and juridical texts) and thereby offered exegesis a new basis, which specialists utilized to show that, in the biblical book of Genesis, narratives fit perfectly with what, from other sources, is known today of the early 2nd millennium BC but imperfectly with a later period. A biblical scholar in the 1940s aptly termed this result "the rediscovery of the Old Testament."

Thus, there are two main sources for reconstructing the figure of father Abraham: the book of Genesis, from the genealogy of Terah, Abraham's father, and his departure from Ur to Harran in chapter 11 to the death of Abraham in chapter 25; and recent archaeological discoveries and interpretations concerning the area and era in which the biblical narrative takes place.

The biblical account.

According to the biblical account, Abram ("The Father [or God] Is Exalted"), who is later named Abraham ("The Father of Many Nations"), a native of Ur in Mesopotamia, is called by God (Yahweh) to leave his own country and people and journey to an undesignated land, where he will become the founder of a new nation. He obeys the call unquestioningly and (at 75 years of age) proceeds with his barren wife, Sarai, later named Sarah ("Princess"), his nephew Lot, and other companions to the land of Canaan (between Syria and Egypt).

There the childless septuagenarian receives repeated promises and a covenant from God that his "seed" will inherit the land and become a numerous nation. He not only has a son, Ishmael, by his wife's maidservant Hagar but has, at 100 years of age, by Sarah, a legitimate son, Isaac, who is to be the heir of the promise. Yet Abraham is ready to obey God's command to sacrifice Isaac, a test of his faith, which he is not required to consummate in the end because God substitutes a ram. At Sarah's death, he purchases the cave of Machpelah near Hebron, together with the adjoining ground, as a family burying place. It is the first clear ownership of a piece of the promised land by Abraham and his posterity. Toward the end of his life, he sees to it that his son Isaac marries a girl from his own people back in Mesopotamia rather than a Canaanite woman. Abraham dies at the age of 175 and is buried next to Sarah in the cave of Machpelah.

Abraham is pictured with various characteristics: a righteous man, with wholehearted commitment to God; a man of peace (in settling a boundary dispute with his nephew Lot), compassionate (he argues and bargains with God to spare the people of Sodom and Gomorrah), and hospitable (he welcomes three visiting angels); a quick-acting warrior (he rescues Lot and his family from a raiding party); and an unscrupulous liar to save his own skin (he passes off Sarah as his sister and lets her be picked by the Egyptian pharaoh for his harem). He appears as both a man of great spiritual depth and strength and a person with common human weaknesses and needs.

The Genesis narrative in the light of recent scholarship.

The saga of Abraham unfolds between two landmarks, the exodus from "Ur of the Chaldeans" (Ur Kasdim) of the family, or clan, of Terah and "the purchase of " (or "the burials in") the cave of Machpelah. Tradition seems particularly firm on this point. The Hebrew text, in fact, locates the departure specifically at Ur Kasdim, the Kasdim being none other than the Kaldu of the cuneiform texts at Mari. It is manifestly a migration of which one tribe is the centre. The leader of the movement is designated by name: Terah, who "takes them out" from Ur, Abram his son, Lot the son of Haran, another son of Terah, and their wives, the best known being Sarai, the wife of Abram. The existence of another son of Terah, Nahor, who appears later, is noted.

Most scholars agree that Ur Kasdim was the Sumerian city of Ur, today Tall al-Muqayyar (or Mughair), about 200 miles (300 km) southeast of Baghdad in lower Mesopotamia, which was excavated from 1922 to 1934. It is certain that the cradle of the ancestors was the seat of a vigorous polytheism whose memory had not been lost and whose uncontested master in Ur was Nanna (or Sin), the Sumero-Akkadian moon god. "They served other gods," Joshua, Moses' successor, recalled, speaking to their descendants at Shechem.

After the migration from Ur (c. 2000 BC), the reasons for which are unknown, the first important stopping place was Harran, where the caravan remained for some time. The city has been definitely located in upper Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, in the Balikh valley and can be found on the site of the modern Harran in Turkey. It has been shown that Harran was a pilgrimage city, for it was a centre of the Sin cult and consequently closely related to the moon-god cult of Ur. The Mari tablets have shed new light on the patriarchal period, specifically in terms of the city of Harran.

There have been many surprising items in the thousands of tablets found in the palace at Mari. Not only are the Hapiru ("Hebrews") mentioned but so also remarkably are the Banu Yamina ("Benjaminites"). It is not that the latter are identical with the family of Benjamin, a son of Jacob, but rather that a name with such a biblical ring appears in these extrabiblical sources in the 18th century BC. What seems beyond doubt is that these Benjaminites (or Yaminites, meaning "Sons of the Right," or "Sons of the South," according to their habits of orientation) are always indicated as being north of Mari and in Harran, in the Temple of Sin.

The Bible provides no information on the itinerary followed between Ur and Harran. Scholars think that the caravan went up the Euphrates, then up the Balikh. After indicating a stay of indeterminate length in Harran, the Bible says only that Terah died there, at the age of 205, and that Abraham was 75 when he took up the journey again with his family and his goods. This time the migration went from east to west, first as far as the Euphrates River, which they may have crossed at Carchemish, since it can be forded during low-water periods.

Here again, the Mari texts supply a reference, for they indicate that there were Benjaminites on the right bank of the river, in the lands of Yamhad (Aleppo), Qatanum (Qatna), and Amurru. Since the ancient trails seem to have been marked with sanctuaries, it is noteworthy that Nayrab, near Aleppo, was, like Harran and Ur, a centre of the Sin cult and that south of Aleppo, on the road to Hamah, there is still a village that bears the name of Benjamin. The route is in the direction of the "land of Canaan," the goal of the journey.

If a stop in Damascus is assumed, the caravan must next have crossed the land of Bashan (the Hawran of today), first crossing the Jabboq, then the Jordan River at the ford of Damiya, and arriving in the heart of the Samaritan country, to reach at last the plain of Shechem, today Balatah, at the foot of the Gerizim and Ebal mountains. Shechem was at the time a political and religious centre, the importance of which has been perceived more clearly as a result of recent archaeological excavations. From the mid-13th to the mid-11th century BC, Shechem was the site of the cult of the Canaanite god Ba'al-Berit (Lord of the Covenant). The architecture uncovered on the site by archaeologists would date to the 18th century BC, in which the presence of the patriarchs in Shechem is placed.

The next stopping place was in Bethel, identified with present-day Baytin, north of Jerusalem. Bethel was also a holy city, whose cult was centred on El, the Canaanite god par excellence. Its name does not lend itself to confusion, for it proclaims that the city is the bet, "house," or temple, of El (God). The Canaanite sanctuary was taken over without hesitation by Abraham, who built an altar there and consecrated it to Yahweh, at least if the Yahwistic tradition in Genesis is to be believed.

Abraham had not yet come to the end of his journey. Between Shechem and Bethel he had gone about 31 miles. It was about as far again from Bethel to Hebron, or more precisely to the oaks of Mamre, "which are at Hebron" (according to the Genesis account). The location of Mamre has been the subject of some indecision. At the present time, there is general agreement in setting it 1.5 miles (3 km) northwest of Hebron at Ramat al-Khalil, an Arabic name which means the "Heights of the Friend," the friend (of God) being Abraham.

Mamre marked the site of Abraham's encampment, but this did not at all exclude episodic travels in the direction of the Negeb, to Gerar and Beersheba. Life was a function of the economic conditions of the moment, of pastures to follow and to find, and thus the patriarchs moved back and forth between the land of Canaan and the Nile River delta. They remained shepherds and never became cultivators.

It was in Mamre that Abraham received the revelation that his race would be perpetuated, and it was there that he learned that his nephew Lot had been taken captive. The latter is an enigmatic episode, an "erratic block" in a story in which nothing prepared the way for it. Suddenly, the life of the patriarch was inserted into a slice of history in which several important persons ("kings") intervene: Amraphel of Shinar, Arioch of Ellasar, Ched-or-laomer of Elam, and Tidal of Goiim. Scholars of previous generations tried to identify these names with important historical figures--e.g., Amraphel with Hammurabi of Babylon--but little remains today of these suppositions. The whole of chapter 14 of Genesis, in which this event is narrated, differs completely from what has preceded and what follows. It may be an extract from some historical annals, belonging to an unknown secular source, for the meeting of Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of God Most High (El 'Elyon), and Abraham is impressive. The king-priest greets him with bread and wine on his victorious return and blesses him in the name of God Most High.

In this scene, the figure of the patriarch takes on a singular aspect. How is his religious behaviour to be characterized? He swears by "the Lord God Most High"--i.e., by both Yahweh and El 'Elyon. It is known that, on the matter of the revelation of Yahweh to man, the biblical traditions differ. According to what scholars call the Yahwistic source (J) in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible), Yahweh had been known and worshiped since Adam's time. According to the so-called Priestly source (P), the name of Yahweh was revealed only to Moses. It may be concluded that it was probably El whom the patriarchs, including Abraham, knew.

As noted before, in Mesopotamia the patriarchs worshiped "other gods." On Canaanite soil, they met the Canaanite supreme god, El, and adopted him, but only partially and nominally, bestowing upon him qualities destined to distinguish him and to assure his preeminence over all other gods. He was thus to become El 'Olam (God the Everlasting One), El 'Elyon (God Most High), El Shaddai (God, the One of the Mountains), and El Ro'i (God of Vision). In short, the god of Abraham possessed duration, transcendence, power, and knowledge. This was not monotheism but monolatry (the worship of one among many gods), with the bases laid for a true universalism. He was a personal god too, with direct relations with the individual, but also a family god and certainly still a tribal god. Here truly was the "God of our fathers," who in the course of time was to become the "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob."

It is not surprising that this bond of the flesh should still manifest itself when it came to gathering together the great ancestors into the family burial chamber, the cave of Machpelah. This place is venerated today in Hebron, at the Haram al-Khalil (Holy Place of the Friend), under the mosque. Abraham, "the friend of God," was forevermore the depositary of the promise, the beneficiary of the Covenant, sealed not by the death of Isaac but by the sacrifice of the ram that was offered up in place of the child on Mount Moriah. (A.Pa.)

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 Pentateuch refers to the first five books of the Bible also called the Torah - the law.

Torah, in Judaism, in the broadest sense the substance of divine revelation to Israel, the Jewish people: God's revealed teaching or guidance for mankind. The meaning of "Torah" is often restricted to signify the first five books of the Old Testament, also called the Law or the Pentateuch. These are the books traditionally ascribed to Moses, the recipient of the original revelation from God on Mt. Sinai. Jewish, Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Protestant canons all agree on their order: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

The written Torah, in the restricted sense of the Pentateuch, is preserved in all Jewish synagogues on handwritten parchment scrolls that reside inside the ark of the Law. They are removed and returned to their place with special reverence. Readings from the Torah (Pentateuch) form an important part of Jewish liturgical services.

The term Torah is also used to designate the entire Hebrew Bible. Since for some Jews the laws and customs passed down through oral traditions are part and parcel of God's revelation to Moses and constitute the "oral Torah," Torah is also understood to include both the Oral Law and the Written Law.

Rabbinic commentaries on and interpretations of both Oral and Written Law have been viewed by some as extensions of sacred oral tradition, thus broadening still further the meaning of Torah to designate the entire body of Jewish laws, customs, and ceremonies.

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Canaan: Syrian and Palestinian religion beliefs of Syria and Palestine between 3000 and 300 BC.

These religions are usually defined by the languages of those who practiced them: e.g., Amorite, Hurrian, Ugaritic, Phoenician, Aramaic, and Moabite. The term "Canaanite" is often used broadly to cover a number of these, as well as the religion of early periods and areas from which there are no written sources. Knowledge of the religions of these groups is very uneven; it usually consists of mere glimpses of one or another aspect. Only from the city-state of Ugarit (14th-13th centuries BC) is there a wide range of religious expression. For historical background on the region, see the articles Jordan, history of, Lebanon, history of: Phoenicia, Palestine, and Syria, history of.

Nature and significance

Internally, the landscape of Syria and Palestine is broken into many different regions. In consequence, the population was generally divided among many polities, each of which had its own official religion. Externally, Syria-Palestine formed a land bridge between the great civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt and faced westward across the Mediterranean Sea toward the cultures of the Aegean. Syria and Palestine were subject to influences from these cultures and in their turn contributed to them. As a result, the official religions of the area were often syncretistic and sometimes cosmopolitan. Particular cults and myths were carried westward and adopted by the Egyptians of the New Kingdom (1539-1075 BC), by the Greeks and their antecedents, and later by the Romans. Despite their many different outer forms, and the individual stamp given them by the various political powers, the religions of Syria and Palestine appear to have been typologically similar. Out of them, however, emerged the ultimately quite distinctive religion of Israel, from which in turn Judaism, Christianity, and, less directly, Islam were formed.

The evidence available is primarily the product of the small, wealthy, ruling elites of these societies. It bears witness primarily to their religion, giving only indirect testimony to the beliefs or practices of the vast majority of the population. This official religion is polytheistic, the anthropomorphic gods as a whole being referred to as an extended family, or an assembly, or by other collective terms. Most earlier sources come from more cosmopolitan contexts and reflect that fact in their attention to a variety of gods. The sources from the 1st millennium suggest a greater concentration on a few gods or indeed on one supreme god.

Some divine names appear through most of the period from 3000 to 300 BC. In other cases, different names appear in different periods and in different regions or languages, and often titles are used instead of names. Consequently, it is sometimes not possible to determine to what extent new names have been assigned to gods whose cult is continuous across these boundaries and to what extent different gods may lie behind the same title. In general it appear that a few types prevailed and persisted over the centuries.

The most pervasive type was the storm god (Hadad, Baal, Teshub), who was associated with rain, thunder, and lightning--and thus with fertility and war. Another type was a more patriarchal creator god, bearing the simple name El ("God"). The major female deities appear to have been of either the belligerent type (Anath, Astarte) or the matriarchal type (Asherah). These often, but not always, served as the respective consorts of the two male types. Also prominent throughout the period were a solar and a lunar deity.

Consistent with the sources of documentation, the monarch emerges as a significant medium between god and people, acting on the people's behalf in the cult of the god and on the god's behalf in the care of the people. The cult was generally practiced in a "house" of the god, where a professional priesthood attended to the daily needs of the god, represented in effigy.

The most recurrent concerns in the written sources are (1) the good relations between monarch and god and the well-being of the monarch and his family (alive and deceased), on which the order of society depended, and (2) the natural conditions--rainfall, sunshine, fertility of soil, flocks, and herds--on which most people depended directly for survival and on which the agrarian economy as a whole depended.

Sources of modern knowledge

Until the late 19th century most of the information about pre-Hellenistic Syria and Palestine came from the Hebrew Bible and from various Greek and Latin sources.

While the Hebrew Bible was largely completed by 300 BC, its attitude toward contemporary religions of the area was generally quite hostile, so that its references to these religions may not only devalue them but also exaggerate or distort various aspects of them. On the other hand, Israelite religion was itself an outgrowth of, as well as a reaction to, the religions of its neighbours, so that many features of Israelite religion found in the Hebrew Bible exemplify the religions of the larger area. The only sure guide to making such discriminations is the knowledge gained from indigenous documents.

Greek and Latin sources may be less hostile, but they are also much later, from the Roman period. While they may be more reliable in their description of the contemporary character of the religions of the area, that character may have been significantly different after several centuries of Hellenism from what it had been even in the middle of the preceding millennium. Notable among the Greek and Latin sources are De Dea Syra ("About the Syrian Goddess") from the 2nd century AD, attributed to Lucian of Samosata, and the section of Eusebius of Caesarea's Praeparatio evangelica ("Preparation for the Gospel"; 4th century AD) that cites extracts from a history of Phoenicia by Philo of Byblos (c. AD 100); Philo himself claimed to be translating the work of an early Phoenician priest, Sanchuniathon. While indigenous sources now confirm isolated elements of this allegedly early description of Phoenician religion, its distortions also have become more demonstrable. Philo's history is in fact an attempt to recount early Phoenician history by constructing a systematic chronological sequence of events out of the various local traditions of his time and interpreting the latter euhemeristically--that is, by treating gods and myths as representative of historical individuals and events.

Beginning in the late 18th century, the finds of early explorers of the area and subsequently of archaeologists engaged in more systematic excavation have produced a rapidly increasing number of firsthand sources. Successive generations of epigraphers and philologists have deciphered the texts and attained an increasingly sophisticated understanding of the languages. Unfortunately, the texts that are best understood tend to be formulaic and yield only the most external kinds of information about the religion, while the more distinctive texts, which seem more interesting and promise to be more revealing, are usually more difficult to penetrate.

Cuneiform archives from various 2nd-millennium sites and from the 3rd millennium at Ebla in northwestern Syria provide some documentation of the religion. The most abundant documentation comes from the 14th- and 13th-century remains of the city of Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra), on the Mediterranean coast of Syria. This includes the only native examples of extended religious narrative. It also comprises the widest range of genres, including myths, legends, liturgical texts, god lists, omens, and correspondence.

From the 1st millennium come scores of Phoenician inscriptions, both from the Phoenician coast and from other areas of the eastern Mediterranean; neo-Hittite hieroglyphic inscriptions and Aramaic inscriptions from northern Syria, almost all from the 9th and 8th centuries; and Moabite, Ammonite, and Hebrew inscriptions. These are very limited in genre, and relatively few are more than a few lines long.

Uninscribed materials from excavated sites throughout Syria and Palestine supplement the picture: they include the foundations of temples, temple furnishings, figurines, images of gods and their emblems, and scenes of gods, myths, and religious activities on reliefs and seals. However, criteria for identifying religious materials have not always been carefully considered, nor has discriminating attention been given to the question of the reflection of religious life in material remains in general. It is often difficult to correlate with confidence written and unwritten materials.

In spite of these new and ever-growing sources of knowledge, the resulting picture is still very irregular. While there is an unparalleled variety of sources, covering a century and a half, from the large cosmopolitan city of Ugarit, other written materials give a much more limited picture. For many periods, areas, and topics there are no written remains. Descriptions of the religion of any one period or area (with the exception of Ugarit) are extremely limited and superficial. Generalizations about the religions of Syria and Palestine may well prove to have significant exceptions as some of these gaps are filled by new discoveries.

Institutions and practices

The temple typically occupied a dominating site in the city along with the palace. Like the palace, it had political, administrative, and economic functions, as well as its distinctive religious functions. The temple, or the temple and palace together, were often raised and/or walled off in a separate precinct or acropolis. The temple was the "house" of the god--often so in both name and form. It was also a storehouse for the god's treasures and hence sometimes particularly thickly walled. The temple staff played a leading role in the life of the city.

In the early 3rd millennium the temples were built on the same plan as houses: a rectangle with the entrance on one of the long sides, with a small altar or a niche for the cult statue opposite the entrance. Sometimes there were benches around the three uninterrupted walls. An outer court contained the main altar, where the larger community could participate in worship. At the beginning of the 2nd millennium the house of the god was extended by the expansion of the niche into an additional room ("cella") and of the entrance into a porch--the form later used by the Phoenician architects of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem. There were also outdoor shrines, such as the "high place" at Gezer (near modern Ramla, Israel) with its row of standing stones and monumental stone basin (and surviving charred animal remains). Over the centuries there was an increasing variety of forms at different sites. At particular sites, however, the plans of temples often remained virtually identical, even after previous superstructures had been destroyed.

Typical temple furniture included the cult statue, standing stones, bowls and their stands, altars, and benches around the walls. Hazor, in the Jordan Valley north of the Sea of Galilee, has yielded a 13th-century statue of a male deity on a bull-shaped base. In another temple a set of cultic objects, also from the 13th century, was found behind a stone slab: a seated male figure and a group of standing stones, the central one of which has engraved on it a vertical pair of arms with hands outstretched toward a disk and crescent.

The palace too might have a chapel. The palace at Mari, on the Euphrates in eastern Syria, housed a statue of a goddess holding a vase from which she dispensed flowing ("living") water; the water was channeled through the statue to the vase. Wall paintings in the palace depict the same image, as well as scenes of the king being presented to a god and making offerings to a god.

A common religious object, not confined to sacred places, is the "Astarte" figurine, depicting a nude woman, often with exaggerated breasts and genitalia, and sometimes holding a child. This was perhaps a fetish representing the mother goddess and used to stimulate conception, childbirth, or lactation.

The temple was staffed by cultic personnel (priests) under a "chief of priests," and by practitioners of the various other skills required by the functions of the temple. These included singers and other musicians, diviners, scribes, and other specialists, depending on the size of the temple. The temple staff was sustained by some of the sacrifices, by supplies from the estates of the temple or palace, or by direct contributions imposed on the surrounding population. Its essential religious function was the care of the cult statue, the offering of sacrifices, and the performance of other rituals for the welfare of god, monarch, and community.

Typically the monarch and sometimes other members of the royal family played a leading role in the most significant cultic acts and festivals. A king of Sidon refers to himself as "priest of Astarte." One text from a town near Ugarit concerns a sacrifice by the queen.

In tombs formed from subterranean caves beneath the western palace of Ebla during the second quarter of the 2nd millennium, skeletal remains and treasures suggest a cult of deceased monarchs. From Mari and Ugarit researchers have learned of a significant cult of former rulers (called "Healers" at Ugarit)--from putative or mythical figures to the most recently deceased--who supported the reigning monarch with divine blessings. The monarch's expectations of life after death are expressed in an inscription on an 8th-century monumental effigy of the god Hadad from Zincirli (ancient Sam'al) in south-central Turkey. King Panammu directs that his future heir, when making sacrifice to Hadad, pray that Panammu's soul may eat and drink with the god. Phoenician kings of Sidon later refer to a resting place with the Healers, and the same word is used by the Israelites to refer to all the dead.

People attempted to influence the gods through animal sacrifices, petitions, and vows (promises of gifts contingent on the deity's response to a request for help). Sacrifice was central to the cult. Domestic animals were the main victims--cattle, sheep, and goats--and also birds. There is clear evidence for two types of sacrifice: simple gifts and whole burned offerings. There also is scattered evidence of human sacrifice, probably limited to situations of unusual extremity (contrast the account of the sacrifice of his eldest son by the king of Moab in 2 Kings 3:26-27 with the more abundant evidence of child sacrifice from Carthage and other Phoenician colonies in the west.)

The will of the gods was discovered in various ways. Use of the Mesopotamian technique of liver divination (hepatoscopy) is evidenced by the discovery of clay liver models (sometimes inscribed with omens) at such sites as Ugarit and Hazor, as well as by abundant written testimony at sites closer to Mesopotamia, such as Mari. Ugarit also had a list of omens based on abnormal births. King Idrimi of Alalakh refers to divining by observation of the flight of released birds.

The correspondence from Mari abundantly testifies to the institution of prophecy--spontaneous pronouncements by cult personnel and occasionally others, delivering messages from the deity. By this means the deity disclosed his or her wishes or gave divine warnings or promises to the king. The Aramaean king Zakir records that he appealed to his god in desperation during a siege and that the god answered him through prophets with promises of deliverance--obviously fulfilled, since the king makes so much of this in his inscription. According to the Egyptian "Report of Wen-Amun," a young man of Byblos went into a trance and resolved a diplomatic deadlock by announcing that the Egyptian envoy whom the local king had refused to see had indeed been sent by the Egyptian god Amun. Biblical narratives portray similar prophetic phenomena in Israel. The gods also revealed themselves through dreams, which again were carefully reported to the monarch by his officers at Mari.

According to later classical sources a central focus of Syrian religion was the rituals surrounding the myth of the dying god. The myth, according to these sources, variously draws on other Middle Eastern or Egyptian traditions but essentially tells of the deity's death and subsequent sojourn in the underworld and of an accommodation reached between the queen of the underworld and the goddess associated with the god that allows him to return to earth for six months of the year. Associated rituals include the sacrifice of a male pig, mourning for the dead god in a funeral procession, cultivating "gardens" in small pots and baskets, and a threshing rite.

Gods, mythology, and worldview

There are significant differences between the divine names used in personal names, those of literary myths and epics, and those of more official pantheons, as found in cultic and political texts.

Personal names are probably the most conservative of these sources. Some of the deities referred to in personal names are not mentioned in other contemporary sources. They may also preserve the memory of old family or clan cults. The piety expressed in personal names shows that people often saw themselves (or their children) as related to a god especially by kin or service. At Ugarit the god was variously conceived as father, mother, brother, sister, mistress, king, or judge, and the person named could be the son, daughter, offspring, servant, boy, or man of the god. The names also refer to individuals as the "gift" or "beloved" of the god. In personal names the relationship between an individual and a god is more important than the particular deity's role in traditional mythology or the official cult.

The projection of anthropomorphic features onto the gods and the need to explain things--from specific rituals to the nature of the world--led to the telling of stories about the gods. The written versions of such myths and epics often preserve older traditions and may figure as their chief divine actors gods other than those prominent in the current official pantheon. The only source of such native Syro-Palestinian religious literature is 14th-century Ugarit.


In the Ugaritic myths, El is depicted as a bearded old man, kindly and wise. In the legend of King Keret (or Kirta; k-r-t), El is the sole benefactor of Keret in that king's various sufferings: he responds to Keret's misery at his lack of a family by appearing to him in a dream and giving him detailed directions for getting a certain princess as his wife. When Keret has successfully followed these directions, El appears at his wedding and pronounces a blessing, promising them many children. After the children are born, Keret becomes sick because of failure to fulfill a vow. No mortal or deity is able to help him until finally El again intervenes and creates a creature for the specific task of healing him. No sooner has Keret recovered and resumed his duties than he faces another crisis--his son proposes to take over from him--but the sequel (a third intervention by El?) has not been preserved. In the text El is called "the Father of humankind." He is the patriarch of the gods, the final power and authority, though he does not always act decisively and he is not always treated with due respect. As the creator god, "the Creator of Creatures" (though no creation myth has been preserved) and the king of the gods, he is the owner and chief executive of the world. Even the forces of chaos, Yamm and Mot ("Sea" and "Death"), are his beloved children. El is called "the Bull" and is represented iconographically by a bull. His consort is Elat, usually known as Asherah, the "Progenitress of the Gods." She is also called simply Qudshu, "Holiness." Asherah is associated with the sea and with serpents.

The Baal cycle

Baal (Hadad) is regularly denominated "the son of Dagan," although Dagan (biblical Dagon) does not appear as an actor in the mythological texts. Baal also bears the titles "Rider of the Clouds," "Almighty," and "Lord of the Earth." He is the god of the thunderstorm, the most vigorous and aggressive of the gods, the one on whom mortals most immediately depend. Baal resides on Mount Zaphon, north of Ugarit, and is usually depicted holding a thunderbolt. He is the protagonist of a cycle of myths from Ugarit. These tell of a challenge from Yamm ("Sea"), to which Baal responds. Armed with magical weapons made by the craftsman god, Kothar, Baal manages to overcome Yamm. Another major episode is instigated by Baal's lack of a house. With the assistance of Asherah and Anath, Baal gets El's approval to build a house; Kothar accomplishes the construction; and Baal celebrates by inviting the gods to a feast. The other major story concerns Baal's relations with Mot ("Death"), whom he initially defies, but to whom he eventually succumbs. The attempt to find a god adequate to assume Baal's role fails. Anath disposes of Mot, and then El learns in a dream that Baal is again alive. Mot also reappears, and he and Baal fight until the sun goddess warns Mot of the consequences. There is apparently a final definition of their respective spheres of influence.

After Baal is swallowed up by Mot, his sister Anath, called "the Maiden," longs for him like a mother. She finds Baal and buries him. She then defeats Mot and disposes of his body as if it were grain, grinding him up and scattering him over land and sea. Elsewhere in the text Anath refers to her victories over various monstrous enemies in single combat, and she is depicted in scenes of bloody slaughter. She is the "villain" of the tale of Aqhat, also from Ugarit. In this story the gods grant the childless Danel a son, Aqhat, on whom Danel confers a bow made by the craftsman god, Kothar. Anath offers Aqhat riches and immortality in exchange for the bow, but Aqhat refuses her offers. After bullying El into letting her have her way with Aqhat, she proceeds, with the aid of her henchman Yutpan, to have Aqhat killed. Danel performs various rites to try to remove the consequent blight on the land, until he is informed of his son's murder. He then seeks his remains and buries him, curses the towns closest to the site of the murder, and mourns for seven years, after which he gives his blessing to his daughter's proposed mission to avenge Aqhat's death. She sets out and comes to the camp of Yutpan, where the two of them start drinking--at which point the preserved portion of the tale ends. Anath is often associated with Athtart (later Hebrew Ashtoreth, Greek Astarte). Both are renowned for their beauty, and both are closely associated with Baal.

Another group of gods play important subordinate roles in the myths. The sun goddess, Shapash, "Light of the Gods," helps Anath in her retrieval of the dead Baal and intervenes in the final conflict between Baal and Mot. The craftsman god, known as both Kothar ("Skilled") and Hasis ("Clever"), makes the weapons with which Baal disposes of Yamm and builds the palace for Baal. He is the source of Aqhat's bow, coveted by Anath. The Kathirat are goddesses of marriage and pregnancy, who appear before the conception of Aqhat and in a brief myth about the marriage of Yarikh ("Moon") and his Mesopotamian consort Nikkal. Shahar and Shalim are the gods of dawn and dusk, whose conception and birth are recounted in a liturgical myth.

While the great cycle of narratives about Baal from Ugarit in its present form is clearly a literary work rather than a myth, it is doubtlessly composed of religiously significant mythic material. It depicts the prevailing order of things as the result of struggles among the gods--successive bids for power in which Yamm and Mot are confined to their present bounds and Baal and Anath (associated with fertility and military prowess, respectively) prevail. Having descended into the underworld and survived Death, Baal embodies the assertiveness and continuity of life.

It is the official documents of religious practice--god lists, sacrificial lists, and temple rituals, as well as the inscribed monuments--that disclose most directly the gods favoured by the authorities of the time. While virtually all the gods of the myths are Semitic in name, the gods of the cult are much more diverse. This official pantheon presumably included the gods of leading families within this cosmopolitan state and the gods of allied neighbouring states.

Other early gods

At 3rd-millennium Ebla the most important god was Dagan, "Lord of Gods" and "Lord of the Land." Other gods of Ebla included El, Resheph, the storm god, Ishtar, Athtart, Chemosh, and the sun goddess. The gods of the city included several referred to by their Sumerian names. The great rivers of northern Syria were also deified, so that their local names remain unknown. Personal or family gods were referred to as "the god of my father" and "the god of the ruler."

In the early 2nd millennium the great goddess, Ishtar, was widely portrayed in contemporary northern Syria as both warrior and fertility goddess. A standing stone from Ebla depicts her in a winged shrine, standing on a bull. Dagan was also popular--there are references to the local Dagan of various towns: Dagan of Terqa, Dagan of Tuttul, and so on. The royal establishments of Mari and Ugarit owed special allegiance to a deity called "The Lady of the Palace."

The Indo-European gods Varuna, Mitra, and Indra were recognized in the kingdom of Mitanni in northeastern Syria, where a Hurrian population was ruled by an Indo-Aryan aristocracy in the third quarter of the 2nd millennium. Little is known of the religion of the Hurrians beyond the names and general character of their chief gods: Teshub, a storm god, and his consort Hepat; their son, Sharruma, also a storm god; the goddess Shaushka, identified with the Mesopotamian Ishtar; and Kushukh and Shimegi, lunar and solar deities, respectively. Hurrian mythology is known only through Hittite versions.

King Idrimi of Alalakh designates himself "servant of the storm god; of Hepat; and of Ishtar, the Lady of Alalakh, my lady." He acknowledges his dependence on the storm god in his adventures and concludes his autobiographical inscription by invoking deified Heaven and Earth, the gods of heaven and earth, the storm god "the lord of heaven and earth," and the great gods. Thus an individual king of the mid-2nd millennium pays tribute specifically to the storm god and then to the two major goddesses of his world, and he acknowledges the rest by means of collectives.

The documentation at Ugarit attests to a more explicit and specific comprehensiveness. Several god lists have been recovered from Ugarit. The most "official" one, which has survived in two Ugaritic copies and one Akkadian translation, consists of 33 items, beginning with a generalized ancestral deity, Ilib, "God of the Father." (One version prefixes the "God of [Mount] Zaphon"--presumably the deity of the mountain north of Ugarit, which is later referred to directly as a god.) Then comes El, followed by Dagan, Baal of Zaphon, and six other Baals. (El, Ilib, or Baal of Ugarit variously come at the head of other god lists.) There follows a small group of gods and goddesses bracketed by Earth-and-Heaven and Mountains-and-Valleys, including the Kathirat, Yarikh, Mount Zaphon, Kothar, and Athtar. Then comes a group of major goddesses, led by Asherah, Anath, and Shapash and concluding with Athtart. The list ends with another group beginning with "the gods who are Baal's auxiliaries," and including the assembly of the gods. This group includes Resheph, Yamm, and Shalim.

Figurines from throughout the area and from a period of many centuries represent an enthroned couple (corresponding to El and Asherah) and a belligerent pair (corresponding to Baal and Anath or Athtart). These figurines are probably replicas of life-size (or larger-than-life) cult images. In any case, they attest to the ongoing official significance of these four types of deity under whatever names.

Developments in the 1st millennium

In the 1st millennium the written documentation shrinks to formulaic inscriptions, very occasionally developed into more expressive literary miniatures. Gods are often referred to in these texts by titles or by new names, so that it is often difficult to ascertain their relationship to the deities of the 2nd millennium, or indeed to determine their individuality in relation to one another. It appears that there was a tendency in this millennium to concentrate all divine power in one deity, as has been noted of Mesopotamia and as is most obviously and extremely the case in Israel.

The storm god, Hadad, appears as the chief god of the Aramaeans in northern Syria in the 9th and 8th centuries. The moon god (under the name Sahar) also is prominent in this area. Some rulers speak of their own dynastic deity. A king who owes his position to the Assyrian emperor refers to the latter and the dynastic deity equally as "my master."

It is clear that several different deities are referred to by the form Baal-X ("Lord of X"). Hadad is probably represented by Baal-Shamen ("Lord of the Heavens"). El appeared under the tile Baal-Hammon--rarely on the mainland, but abundantly in the Phoenician colonies of Africa; under this name he becomes the chief deity of Carthage. In the Phoenician heartland the supreme goddess of Byblos--presumably Asherah--is called simply Baalat Gubl ("the Lady of Byblos"). Anath becomes much less visible during the 1st millennium than at Ugarit. Athtart (Astarte), on the other hand, becomes more prominent. At Sidon, as earlier at Ugarit, she is referred to as "the Name of Baal," perhaps indicating that she was called upon as a mediator with the supreme Baal (Hadad). Alongside other long-familiar deities such as Resheph and Shamash appeared certain new names, including Eshmun (especially at Sidon), Melqart ("king of the [underworld] city"; especially at Tyre), and, of course, Yahweh (in Israel--but also represented at least in personal names at Hamath and Larnaca). According to the Hebrew Bible, Asherah and Astarte were both worshiped in Israel during the first half of the millennium, and Hebrew inscriptions attest to a pairing of Yahweh and Asherah.

Chemosh, known from Ebla and Ugarit, reappears as the national god of Moab. King Mesha of Moab interprets Israel's occupation of his country as a consequence of Chemosh's anger with his land. He claims that, at Chemosh's direction, he reconquered land occupied by Israel, and he attributes his success to Chemosh. He reports that he dedicated the Israelite inhabitants to Chemosh by slaughter and says that Chemosh will henceforth dwell in these territories. This is recorded on the Moabite Stone (now in the Louvre, Paris) a stela that commemorates these events and Mesha's building of a sanctuary for Chemosh in gratitude. The formal identity of these expressions and this kind of religious interpretation of events with those found in some of Israel's literature encourages the surmise that they may also have been shared by the Ammonites with respect to their national god, Milcom.

The Philistines, traditionally believed to have originated in Crete, were one group of the Sea Peoples that moved from the Aegean Sea to the southeastern Mediterranean. They settled in southeastern Palestine after being repulsed by the Egyptians. Their religion, while it retains some Aegean and Egyptian elements from the Philistines' origins and route of migration, appears largely indistinguishable from Canaanite religion in general. The Bible refers to the gods of the Philistines by the familiar Canaanite names Dagon, Baalzebub, and Ashtart. The name of Asherah has been found inscribed on storage jars in a cultic room at Ekron. (S.B.P.)

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Hagar, in the Old Testament, concubine of the patriarch Abraham and mother of Ishmael. Hagar was the handmaid of Abraham's wife, Sarah, who, because she was barren, gave Hagar to her husband in the hope of producing heirs. When Hagar conceived a child, however, Sarah became jealous and regretted her decision. To escape Sarah's persecution, Hagar was forced to flee into the desert. Reassured by an angel, she returned to bear Abraham a son, Ishmael (see Genesis 16). Eventually Sarah conceived and bore a child, who was named Isaac. After Isaac's birth, Sarah persuaded Abraham to drive Ishmael and his mother away. They wandered into the desert, where an angel appeared to them and prophesied greatness for Ishmael (see Genesis 21:1-21).

The story of Hagar has been interpreted in various ways. According to some scholars, Hagar personifies a tribe that at one time had been closely related to some of the Hebrew clans. Rivalry resulted in a separation, which is pictured as a dismissal of the inferior by the superior clan.

The story of Hagar is introduced in the New Testament and in rabbinical literature. She is allegorically contrasted with Sarah by St. Paul, who represents Hagar, the bondwoman, as the earthly Jerusalem and Sarah, the free woman, as the heavenly Jerusalem. Paul also similarly contrasts Ishmael and Isaac (see Gal. 4:22-31). A Jewish tradition identifies Hagar with Abraham's second wife, Keturah (see Genesis 25:1), and another makes her the daughter of an Egyptian pharaoh.

In Islamic tradition, Hagar is Abraham's true wife, and Ishmael, the favorite son. Ishmael is identified as the progenitor of the Arabs.

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Ishmael (Hebrew, "may God hear"), in the Old Testament, the elder son of the Hebrew patriarch Abraham and the reputed ancestor of a group of Arabian tribes. His story (see Genesis 16, 21, 25) is interwoven with that of Isaac. Ishmael's mother was Hagar, Egyptian handmaid to Abraham's wife, Sarah, who was barren. In answer to her prayers, Sarah conceived and was delivered of a son, Isaac. Having thus satisfied Abraham, Sarah demanded that Hagar and Ishmael be driven away. Hagar and her son fled to the south. Ishmael settled in the wilderness, married an Egyptian woman, and became the progenitor of 12 tribes of desert nomads. The region occupied by these Ishmaelites included most of central and northern Arabia. Muslims regard themselves as the descendents of Ishmael but maintain that Hagar was the true wife of Abraham, and Ishmael his favored son. They further contend that Ishmael, not Isaac, was offered for sacrifice by Abraham and transfer the scene of the intended sacrifice, from Moriah, in Palestine, to Mount Arafat, near Mecca. Biblical scholars consider that the story of Ishmael and other narratives in Genesis represent the true history, not only of an individual, but of a nomadic tribe.

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