Genesis 11:27-12:9 “Was Abraham a Historical Figure?”

Posted on March 29, 2009. Filed under: Genesis: Answers to Life's Crucial Questions |

Redeemer Church Sunday School

Genesis Class

Genesis 11:27-12:9 “Was Abraham a Historical Figure?”

Bryan Walker


Read Genesis 11:27-12:9; Acts 7:1-8


Introduction: Without a doubt Abraham is one of the Big Three Old Testament characters (the other two being Moses and King David). Yet many liberals don’t think there ever was a real Abraham. This morning we are going to look at Abraham in the big picture and then look at his family’s beginnings. We shall see that there is some good supporting evidence for their being an historical Abraham and that amongst his family, when Abram received his call from the LORD, there was one who died, one who stayed, one who stopped, one who strayed, and finally, one who obeyed.


I.                   Historical and Literary Background

A.     Crucial Question: Was Abram a Real, Historical Person?

1.      Post-flood history– The first eleven chapters of the Bible we believe to be historical. In other words, I believe there was a real Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, Methuselah and Noah, Ham and Shem. I believe there was a real Creation with a real Garden of Eden and a talking snake. I believe there was a real Flood and a real Ark with real animals on board. But we have not much extra-biblical support for these things so to an extent, they are beyond history in the strictest sense. For me to affirm their historicity is more of a faith statement based upon the veracity of the rest of Scripture.

2.      With the account of Terah and the Abraham story we get to the part of Scripture that is supported, generally, by history and archeology. Some would say that doesn’t or shouldn’t matter. I say that the historicity of the Bible is one of the major blessings of God as it does support and confirm the doctrines of the inspiration and truthfulness of Scripture. If you want a book that is not rooted in history go to the Book of Mormon. The Bible’s historicity supports its claims that God revealed himself to real people in space and time. Take away the historicity of the Bible and our faith would crumble. Paul speaks of the historicity of the resurrection of Christ in 1 Cor. 15.


Though we do not have any extra-biblical document or artifact that “proves” Abraham was a real person (or Isaac, Jacob or Joseph), what we have is a lot of documents and artifacts that show conclusively that the cultural milieu of Abraham’s day that we see in Genesis is accurate. One reason that this is important is that the Bible claims that Moses wrote Genesis, yet he is writing about things that happened hundreds of years, maybe even a thousand years before his day. Things were enough different in Moses’ day that the general cultural situation was substantially different, yet he gets Abraham’s day right, according to other sources we now have.


For example, we know that Abram was married to his half-sister, Sarai, the daughter of Terah by another wife. This was not allowed in Moses’ day, the Law forbids it. It was allowed, we now know, in Abraham’s day. We now know that Terah’s migration from Ur to Haran, and Abram’s subsequent journey from Haran to Canaan was a part of a broader migration pattern by the people group Abram came from at about the same time.


There have been, and still are, fierce scholarly battles over the historicity of the narratives in the Pentateuch. Beginning in the late 19th century until the middle of the 20th, the liberal critics seriously discredited the historical nature of the Pentateuch. But by the middle of the 20th century there were some conservative scholars who were able to use the science of archeology to prove the background of the narratives in the Pentateuch was accurate. Furthermore, it has been pointed out that liberal scholars treat the Bible differently than they treat other ancient literature and are much more critical of the Bible than they are of other literature. They respond that it is because the Bible is a religious work so the people writing it are biased. Yet, the conservative scholars reply, that the liberal scholars do not treat other ancient religious texts as harshly as the Bible, thus revealing they have an a priori disposition against the Bible. Two of the more conservative OT scholars need to be singled out for their work, William F. Albright and John Bright.


3.      I believe Abraham was a historical figure and that the stories in Genesis are true. Does this mean that the accounts are trouble free? No. But they are true. Abraham is mentioned over 90 times in the NT, so if you deny the historicity of Abraham, you will much difficulty in accepting the veracity of the NT as well.

4.      One of the few things that Christianity, Judaism and islam all share is…Abraham.


B.     Literary Background


1.      The placement of Abraham’s story within the broader framework of Genesis shows him to be the central character of the book. Moses begins the second main section of Genesis with Abraham. Depending on how you count the toledoths, either 10 or 11, Abraham is in a key position (some commentators apparently combine the 2 toledoths in ch. 36:1, 9, the two accounts of Esau). There are 5 pre-Abrahamic toledoths (2:4; 5:1; 6:9; 10:1; 11:9) and 5 post-Abrahamic toledoths (25:12; 25:19; 36:1, 9; 37:2).

2.      Moses has dealt with the larger story of humanity in Gen. 1-11:9. At 11:10 he begins focusing on the genealogy of Shem narrowing the story down to Terah and his 3 sons. (Again, Adam had 3 sons mentioned-Cain, Abel and Seth; Moses had three sons mentioned and now Terah has 3 sons.)

3.      The doctrine of election is subtly portrayed in the genealogies and then boldly portrayed in the Patriarch narratives. Seth over Cain, Shem over Ham or Japheth, Peleg over Joktan, Abram over Nahor and Haran (11:27-32). Shem’s son, Eber, might be where we get the name Hebrews from, ‘eber vs. ‘ibri.


II.                Abraham in Three Religions

A.     Judaism

1.      Above all, Abraham is the Father of the Jewish People. (Deut. 6:10; Josh 24:3; 2Chron 20:7; Psalm 105:6; Isa. 51:2; 63:6; 4 Maccabees 6:16-21; 17:5; 1 Esdra 9:55; Luke 3:8; John 8:39, 53; Acts 3:25; 7:2).

2.      Abraham’s journey from Ur and again later from Egypt, prefigured Israel’s journeys from Egypt with Moses and then, much later, from Babylon under the edict of Cyrus.

3.      God’s covenant with Abraham included a royal land grant centuries prior to the Davidic Kingdom.

4.      Jewish tradition considered Abraham to have kept the Law prior to the giving of the Law. He was the model of righteousness. As such he was considered to be the abode of the pious after death (Matt.8:11; Lk. 13:28; 16:23).

B.     Christianity

1.      The Church accepted Abraham’s place as the recipient of God’s covenant. (Lk.1:73; Acts 3:25; Rom.4:13, 16; Gal.3:16,18; Heb.6:13; 11:17). Jesus is the promised Seed of Abraham. Abraham’s faith was counted as righteousness and that same kind of faith, which preceded the giving of the Law, is what we need to be saved.

2.      Abraham’s circumcision is related to Christian baptism.

3.      Abraham’s offering of his son Isaac points to our hope for resurrection and the substitutionary death of Christ.

4.      Jesus is shown to be a descendant of Abraham’s.

C.     Islam

1.      Muhammad pointed to Abraham as the model for true believers in Islam. He opposed idolatry (Surah 6:74ff; 19:42ff). Islam teaches that Abraham was worshipping Allah and was a Muslim and that Judaism corrupted the religion as did Christianity. Abraham practiced 4 of the 5 “Pillars” 1) rejected false gods for Allah alone; 2)Obeyed God’s will 3) made a pilgrimage to Mecca, and, 4) offered sacrifice to Allah.

2.      Muhammad was a descendant of Abraham through Ishmael.

3.      Abraham and Ishmael, in the Koran, were directed by Allah to go to Mecca and there they founded and purified the holy sanctuary Ka’ba. This parallels the Jewish belief that Abraham offered Isaac on Mt. Moriah which is where Solomon later built his Temple.


III.             Terah’s Family

A.     Ur of the Chaldeans

1.      Ur is traditionally identified as the home of Terah. This city, located in southern Iraq, has been excavated by C.L.Wooley in 1922-34 and was one of the principal cities of ancient Sumer, the cradle of civilization.  

2.      In 15:7 the LORD informs Abram that it was He who brought him out of Ur. Even though Abram was following his father, and his father was probably not a follower of the LORD, it was the LORD who directed their paths. Acts 7 informs us that the call of Abram in ch. 12 occurred while he still lived in Ur. The Elamites destroyed Ur in 1950BC which is close enough to the time of Abram’s journey that it might be one of the causes of Terah wanting to leave as well.

3.      Chaldeans is an added update much later. They were not called Chaldeans until about the 9th century BC.

B.     Family relationships

1.      Marrying close family relations was practiced at this time. Endogamy is the technical term. Sarai was Abram’s half sister we find out in 20:12. Milcah married her uncle Nahor in 11:29. Sarai means princess and Micah is related to the word for queen. Milcah’s granddaughter is Rebekah, born to Milcah’s son, Bethuel, and she marries Abraham’s son Isaac. Milcah’s grandson, Laban, has two daughters, Leah and Rachel who marry Abram’s grandson, Jacob.

2.      Why is Sarai not featured here as Milcah? She is not given a beginning and she is mentioned as being childless. To the people of that day this would communicate meaninglessness, a person with no beginning and no future. Her barrenness is a constant part of the story until the birth of Isaac in her old age. Barrenness, however, as the patriarchal stories unfold, is a sign of God’s blessing, a sign of being of the elect. Look at Rebekah in 25:21; and Rachel, the favorite wife of Jacob. This can even be seen as a metaphor of Israel who was spiritually barren, corrupted by legalism, occupied by Rome, but bore the Messiah, Jesus.


Application: When we are weak and “barren” we can have hope because our God uses the weak and barren in surprising ways. We must always respond in faith, even when we see others being “fruitful” while we seem to be “unfruitful”.


“Have faith in God when your pathway is lonely. He sees and knows all the way you have trod; never alone are the least of his children; have faith in God! Have faith in God


Have faith in God when your prayers are unanswered, your earnest plea he will never forget; wait on the Lord, trust his Word and be patient. Have faith in God, he’ll answer yet.


Have faith in God in your pain and your sorrow, His heart is touched by your grief and despair; Cast all your cares and your burdens upon him, and leave them there, oh, leave them there.


Have faith in God though all else fail about you; Have faith in God, He provides for his own. He cannot fail tho all kingdoms shall perish, he rules, he reigns upon his throne.



Have faith in God, He’s on his throne; Have faith in God he watches o’er his own. He cannot fail, he must prevail; have faith in God, have faith in God.


“Have Faith in God” B.B. McKinney 1934, Broadman Press, The Baptist Hymnal, 1991ed., Convention Press: Nashville, TN. #405.


C.     Setting Out for Canaan

1.      Vs. 28 Haran died-


2.      Vs.31 Terah took …Abram…and Lot…and Sarai (but not Nahor) Why did Nahor not go with the rest of the family? Nahor was the one who stayed. He had no faith for the journey. He stayed in the land of idolatry.

3.      Vs. 31 shows that Terah set out for Canaan, but stopped in Haran, which was way out of the path to Canaan. Was Terah part of the call to Abram to go to Canaan? If so, why did he get sidetracked? Keep in mind that Abram’s family and background was idolatrous (Josh.24:14). When it says that Terah “settled there” in Haran, the meaning is negative, it casts doubt on his decision to stop in Haran. This sets up a negative contrast with the positive obedience of Abram in 12:4. The last time the words “settled there” were used were back in 11:2 where people settled there in the plain of Shinar and built the Tower of Babel. Abraham was to be a sojourner, he would not come to settle in any one place, nor would he own any other land other than his tomb. Terah was the man who stopped. Was Terah a believer or a pretender? Was he like the seed that was choked out by the thorns in Mark 4 where the cares of this world choke off the fruit?

4.      Vs.31 and Lot…his grandson…Lot would be the one who chose to settle by Sodom, then he moves into Sodom, then he is sitting in the gates of the city as a leader in that wicked city, finally he is dragged out of Sodom by two angels before it is destroyed. Lot is the one who strayed.

5.      Vs12:4 So Abram went as the LORD had told him… Abram is the one who obeyed.

6.       Application: There are those who reject the call and stay in their sinful condition, like Nahor. There are those who may seem to be called, like Terah, but get sidetracked easily and choose to settle in Haran instead of continuing the journey to the Promised Land. There are those who follow for a long time but do not finish well and end up straying into gross sin, like Lot. We must fix our eyes on Jesus and never lose sight of the goal of holiness, Christ-likeness and, ultimately, heaven. That would be like Abraham.

7.      And Terah died in Haran. For those whose home is this life and this world, death awaits. For those whose sights are set on the land of promise, they shall be rewarded with seeing God. All those who deny God and suppress the truth, they shall not even find consolation in death.



The New American Commentary Series, Genesis11:27-50:26, Vol.1B by Kenneth A. Matthews. Broadman&Holman: Nashville, TN. 2005 (pp.24-37, 83-104).

Be Basic-Genesis 1-11 Believing the Simple Truth of God’s Word by Warren W. Wiersbe. Chariot Victor Publishing: Colorado Springs, 1998 (p.141).

Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries, Genesis, by Derek Kidner. InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, Ill. 1967 (pp.111-112).

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Volume 2, “Genesis” by John H. Sailhamer. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 1990 (pp.108-111).



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