Abram may be one of the most important men in three religions, but the text of the Torah says surprisingly little about him.
We know, first of all, that he is 75 when God spoke to him and commanded him to go forth to Israel. We don’t know whether God spoke to him prior to that time; if He did, it wasn’t documented. We know that his father was Terah, a man who lived to a ripe old age of 205. We also know that it was Terah, not Abram, who started the march of his family from Ur to Canaan, but they stopped part-way, in Haran. Could it be that God also spoke to Terah and commanded him on his march? Could it be that the reason Abram received his call is because Terah gave up and didn’t complete the journey. The bible, of course, doesn’t say.
(Haran was also the name of one of Terah’s sons, Lot’s father. It’s not clear whether the place that Terah stopped was named for the son, whether the son was named for the place, or whether the two names have nothing to do with each other.)
Although 75 is quite old, Abram himself was born when Terah was 70 and was probably the first of three children. So it doesn’t seem entirely impossible that Sarai, probably younger than Abram but unstated, could expect to still have children. She was barren, but all wasn’t hopeless. (Sarai was also Terah’s daughter, in addition to his daughter-in-law. It’s very confusing.)
A telling point is that Abram left his father well before he died. The text implies that the “Lord spoke to Abram” after his father died at 205, but the years don’t add up for that to make sense. Abram was 75 years old when he left Haran and Terah was 70 when he had Abram, so he was a total of 145 years old when Abram left home. That leaves a further 60 years where Terah was living in Haran without Abram. In other words, he survived such that he could have seen both of his grandsons (Ishmael was born when Terah was 161, Isaac when he was 170.) In fact, he very nearly outlived his daughter Sarai – she died only two years after Terah.
But why did God pick him? The text doesn’t say. He’s just one man in Mesopotamia. Midrash holds that he was already a monotheist. Genesis 12:8 says that he knew God’s true name, so God must have shared it with him prior to or separately from his command to “go forth”.
The message here is that one doesn’t necessarily need to be great to be picked to do great things. Noah may have been the most righteous in his generation, but Abram was just one of many. That’s a comfort.
Up next: Is she my wife? My sister? Both?