“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.