The Life of Abraham

The Life of Abraham – Background

The life of Abraham may be broken down into three periods, based upon respective geographic areas. First, Mesopotamia, in the Tigris and Euphrates River Valley, located in modern day Iran not far north of the Persian Gulf. The second period of Abraham’s life consisted of his sojourn in Egypt, and the third – that period with which Scripture is most concerned – was his life in ancient Canaan (modern Palestine).  We will be dealing briefly with each of these.


Mesopotamia, with its rich natural soils watered by the Tigris and the Euphrates, was a very fertile area. Water there was abundant, but it also posed many problems, the most pressing of which involved
getting it from the rivers to the fields. It is not terribly surprising, then, that in ancient Mesopotamia we find one of the most remarkably well-developed irrigation systems in the ancient world.  Nor should we be surprised to learn that in these irrigation systems we find the key to Mesopotamian political power, for he who controlled the irrigation systems held power over entire regions. And indeed we find there were many wars fought for control of these waterways.

The land of Mesopotamia was divided into a number of geopolitical units. There was the lands of Shinar, of the Chaldeans, of Ur and of Akkad. And just to the east of Mesopotamia lay the land of Elim. It is in Elim, on the eastern bank of the Tigris, that many biblical scholars locate the Garden of Eden and the tower of Babel.

Politically, at the time of Abraham, power in Mesopotamia was divided between two racial groups. The eastern and southeastern regions were dominated by the Sumerians, while the northwest was controlled by the Akkadians. The Sumerian culture developed somewhat earlier than the Akkadian, spawning a well-developed monarchy and an array of rich literature, including a fascinating story of a worldwide flood known to us today as the Epic of Gilgamesh. Major Sumerian cities included Ur, Lagash, Babylon and Erech. Ancient Sumerian documents preserve, among other things, lists of kings from both before and after the Gilgamesh flood.

Both the Sumerian and the Akkadian cultures were organized into a series of city-states. Each possessed its own pantheon of gods. And there was constant tension between the two. During this historical period there were several dynasties of great historical significance.

Akkad first prospered under the leadership of Sargon, who organized Akkadian government and attempted to unify the people. He was unsuccessful, however, in establishing a dynasty, and after his death Akkad was nearly destroyed by a vicious internal power struggle.  It wasn’t until the ascension of one Niram-sin, grandson of Sargon, that peace and order were restored. Of note archeologically is the discovery of the Nuzu letters, a collection of documents from this period which provide much insight into the customs and literature of this period of Akkadian history.

The Age of Ur:

But this golden age of Akkad was eclipsed in the last years of the third millennium B.C. by the rise in Sumeria of the Third Dynasty of Ur. The city of Ur had for a number of centuries been the center of Sumerian civilization, but the dawn of the twenty-first century found Ur at the center of a new world empire, the greatest city of the ancient world. The Third Dynasty gave birth to some of ancient civilization’s greatest literature, and spawned systems of government and of civil service that were to remain unmatched for millennia.

Socially, the Sumerians of the Third Dynasty were divided into three clearly-defined classes, while Sumerian religious belief centered around worship of the moon god. Archaeological discoveries
yield hints of a highly-developed cultus, served by a large number of priests.

But, shortly before Abraham was to make his appearance, the Third Dynasty began to crumble in the face of an influx of Amorite peoples, who eventually subdued and conquered Sumeria, and shortly afterwards
established their own dynasty. Amorite civilization is today best known for its greatest king, Hammurapi.

While Hammurapi established a strong Amorite kingdom – established it, in fact, as a leading power of the day – by far his greatest contribution to history was in the legal arena. The Law Code of Hammurapi, a codification of the laws of the ancient Amorite kingdom, has come to be regarded as by far the greatest of the ancient world, unmatched again until the time of Justinian 2500 years later.  Much has been written about the Code of Hammurapi, and much remains yet to be said. But of particular interest to biblical students is the light it sheds on the legal systems of the ancient world. From Hammurapi’s Code, for example, we learn that the laws of the ancient world were commonly considered to be not just civil, but religious as well. Hammurapi himself regarded his Code to be a gift from the gods.  This, coupled with the fact that Abraham and Hammurapi were rough contemporaries – being separated by only a couple of centuries or so – and from the same part of the world, has invited much comparison with the best-known of all ancient legal codes, the Mosaic Law.

In many ways, the Code of Hammurapi was quite advanced, including such ‘modern’ concepts as equal rights for women. Yet at the same time it assigned very harsh and vindictive punishments for seemingly
minor offenses, and homicide was not considered a crime. But Hammurapi was so successful in establishing his code that it was to form the basis of jurisprudence for the next 1500 years. Hammurapi
was, in short, the Justinian of the ancient world.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the ancient world, Egypt was also experiencing cultural ascendance. Contemporary with Hammurapi was that period of Egyptian history known as the Old Kingdom, best known as a time of architectural greatness. It was during this period that the great pyramids were built. The Middle Kingdom of Egyptian history, by contrast, was a time of literary greatness, while the New
Kingdom was considered a time of great political power. It is usually assumed that Abraham was in Egypt either during the time of the Middle Kingdom, or during the second Interim Period, between the Middle and New Kingdoms. It was probably during the New Kingdom period that Israel was enslaved in Egypt.

In Canaan, by contrast, we find a dark period. Populated by Canaanite peoples (descendants of one of the sons of Ham), the land of Canaan was divided politically into a series of independent city-states with considerable inter-city rivalry. There was, in Canaan, no form of centralized power, something which was to remain unknown there until the time of David a millennium later. And the Canaanite religion was an unusually debased form of paganism, encompassing such practices as child sacrifice, sexual corruption and other barbaric practices.

Such, then, was the world of Abraham. Abraham comes to us in Scripture, beginning with the end of Genesis chapter 11, as the first of the biblical patriarchs, marking the beginning of the Patriarchal Period of Israelite history. Abraham himself was a man of little significance, until God chose him to carry out His salvific work, calling him to become the father of a new nation, a nation which was to have a distinct religious significance. And through this agreement, Abraham comes into a special relationship with God.

Calvin Culver

Computers for Christ – Chicago