Father Abraham

“Father Abraham had seven sons; seven sons had Father Abraham.” So began a camp song that I learned many years ago. The song always confused me because, no matter how I did the math, Abraham did not have seven sons. Abraham has a way of causing confusion. The story of Abraham contained in Genesis is complex and perplexing. He is presented as a man who experiences extraordinary occasions and then doubts what he learns from them. He is wealthy and timid, yet leads troops against an alliance of five armies. God speaks directly to him, and he remains in self-doubt. He always does what he is told, although he takes initiative once in a while as well. As Genesis tells it, he is the father of Ishmael and Isaac (and six others).

Historians have a somewhat different assessment. The only evidence we have for the historical existence of Abraham is Genesis. Although other ancient documents mention Abraham they clearly received their information from either Genesis itself or its oral sources. A prince powerful enough to route five kings might merit a reference in some clay annals somewhere, one might expect. Yet history is silent. Most historians require either multiple-source attestations or official, non-literary documents to support the historicity of ancient characters. Abraham simply doesn’t qualify. Those Genesis stories are foundation myths just like those common to all cultures. They represent self-understanding, not necessarily actual origins.

Nevertheless, religiously minded debates continue to flair around him. Abraham, through Isaac, is considered father of the Jews. Christians, courtesy of Paul, consider themselves adopted children who inherit over the natural born. Muslims sometimes trace their ancestry to Abraham’s first-born, according to Genesis, Ishmael. Abraham does not exit the stage as a single man, however. He bears in his person the promise of land, a very real commodity, granted by God himself. So the story goes. We have little trouble declaring other ancient (or not-so-ancient) characters legends or myths when they have no direct bearing on the historical origins of religion. Wars are not fought over Heracles or Theseus, after all. Because of Abraham’s inheritance, however, as the singly chosen ancestor receiving the divine favor, all major monotheistic religions wish to claim him. They are often willing to kill to make that claim real. Myths do have serious real-world applications. And I still haven’t figured out that bit about seven sons. Three seem to be far more than enough.

Abraham at sixes and sevens

13 thoughts on “Father Abraham

  1. jason

    I too grew up with that song, but remember it as “had many sons” and not “seven sons”. But then again, it’s been many moons, so perhaps my memory is a bit cloudy.

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    • Steve Wiggins

      @ Jason and Matthew,

      It could be a regional variation as well — songs (and other oral arts) are notorious for shifting form over time and distance. Thanks for the comment!

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  2. Matthew

    I always sang that song this way: “Father Abraham, had many sons. Many sons had father Abraham….” I don’t think I’ve heard it using 7 before.

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  3. Yeah, pretty sure the original is “many sons”. It’s in relation to the “grains of sand” and “stars in the sky” promise, drawing further on Paul’s teaching in Romans and Galatians that the true sons of Abraham are children of faith, not ethnicity (“I am one of them and so are you…”).

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  4. Great post. It was an ah-ha moment for me when I learned that Muslims believe the whole sacrifice scene with Abraham and Isaac actually occurred with Abraham and Ishmael. I’m sure the only truth we can bank on is that the goat bites it in the end. All the best.

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  5. Jonathan

    I hope this though hasn’t gone too stale; a thought occurred to me this morning that refreshed some things I had been thinking about lately.
    Imagine that you’re an Israelite, living in the promised land when Genesis first hits the bestseller lists (or, assuming an oral tradition, when the story first starts being consistently told). You’re aware of a number of things:

    1. Even though we all seem to have different backgrounds, all of us Hebrews seem to have a common heritage.
    2. There are also some people called Edomites living to our southeast. We’re not close, but we know that we’re kind of related to them. They look like us, they kind of talk like us, but for a number of reasons, we’ve never been able to get along.
    3. More than that, there are some Ishmaelites and Midianites and other tribes (to say nothing of those Arameans up to the north) that we need to account for. Again, we can’t quite shake the awareness that we do have a common heritage, even if we don’t want to admit that it doesn’t run very deep.
    4. We’re also pretty committed to the notion that everyone on earth is descended from a single set of original parents.

    If I was writing a book at that time that intended to explain how a bunch of things happened to be the way they were, I can’t imagine that I woouldn’t tell the story any differently.

    1. Despite tribal differences, we’re all descended from the same twelve brothers.
    2. Their father had a brother who was a kind of family black sheep, so we can safely leave his children out of the family reunion.
    3. His father also had some sons by other wives, and some brothers and nephews that were almost on the same page religiously and culturally, even if they’re not our best friends. But we can comfortably look to that guy as the father of us all, and ourselves as his own best sons.

    There doesn’t need to literally, historically be a Father Abraham for this scenario to work, but for explanation purposes, it makes sense, right? I’m happy enough with the idea of Abraham being a real guy, but I can see why he doesn’t need to be a historical figure.

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    • Steve Wiggins

      Well said, Jonathan. The idea of history as the basis for reality or meaningfulness is one that simply doesn’t suit ancient texts such as the Bible. People today would be a lot more satisfied if they could hold such things in creative tension: Abraham — real, yes. Historical, no.

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      • Jonathan

        And it’s interesting that from a literary perspective, as Genesis develops, the characters become better developed. For instance, Noah is a pretty shadowy figure from the ancient past, but Joseph and his brothers are much more richly portrayed. Abraham straddles the line between the shadowy Ur-history and the recognizable history.
        That’s not to suggest that either Noah or Joseph are any more or less historical than Abraham, but one feels ‘realer’ than the other.

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  6. Carey Womack

    This “children’s” song is actuallyabout Jewish persecution under the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes. A Jewish mother has raised seven sons. All are arrested and the attempt is made to force them to eat pork to deny their faith. The seven sons are dismembered and cooked alive one at a time, unwilling to give in to their tormentors.

    The gradual flailing of each of the appendages of the body (“They didn’t laugh no; they didn’t cry no. All they did is go like this… with the right arm…with the left arm…” etc.) is meant to portray the flopping in the giant pan as they are cooked alive.

    Read the story in 2 Maccabees.

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    • Thanks for sharing, Carrie. The lyrics, as musicologists often note, vary from region to region. In the admittedly small region where I grew up, they always sang “seven.” They could’ve been wrong, of course. Thanks for commenting!

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