I will make you exceedingly fruitful; and I will make nations of you, and kings shall come from you.

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Nine generations of Shem’s descendants, the Semites, pass. God calls on a man named Abram, living with his father Terah and his wife Sarai in Haran, a city in upper Mesopotamia. God makes a covenant with Abram, promising to make Abram’s descendants into a great nation. Abram agrees to leave his home and move southwest to Canaan with his wife and his nephew, Lot, to a land that God has promised to give to Abram’s descendants. Abram takes up residence there and erects a number of altars throughout the land as symbols of his devotion to God.

After a brief stay in Egypt, Abram becomes wealthy and returns to Canaan, where, with the help of only 318 men, he defeats a legion of marauding armies from the East that has descended upon Sodom, where Lot is currently living. The king of Sodom recognizes Abram for his great deed, and the priest Melchizedek blesses Abram with a gift of bread and wine. Abram returns home where God speaks to him again regarding his covenant. Abram’s descendants, God promises, will be as numerous as the stars in the sky. A ceremony is performed in which God passes a blazing pot through pieces of sacrificed animals, symbolizing that his promise will not be broken. The writer notes that God considers Abram’s faith in him as a form of righteousness.

Sarai cannot become pregnant, but she wants to give her husband an heir. To this end, she sends her handmaiden Hagar to sleep with Abram. When Sarai becomes upset because of Hagar’s contempt, the handmaiden flees in fear. God speaks to Hagar and comforts her, promising her a son who will be a “wild ass of a man,” and Hagar returns to give birth to Abram’s first son, Ishmael (16:12). Once again, God speaks with Abram, this time enjoining Abram to remain blameless in his behavior and adding a new requirement to his everlasting covenant. Abram and all his descendants must now be circumcised as a symbol of the covenant, and God promises Abram a son through Sarai. The son is to be called Isaac, and it will be through Isaac that the covenant is fulfilled. God renames Abram “Abraham,” meaning “father of many,” and gives Sarai a new name, “Sarah.”

One day, God appears to Abraham in the form of three men. The three men say that Sarah will have a son, but Sarah, who is now ninety years old, laughs. The three men travel toward the eastern cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to destroy the cities because of their flagrant wickedness and corruption. Abraham pleads on the cities’ behalf, convincing the Lord not to destroy the cities if only a handful of good men can be found there. The men enter the city of Sodom, and Lot welcomes them into his home. Night falls, and the men of the city surround Lot’s home, wishing to rape the three messengers. The messengers persuade Lot to flee the city with his family, telling him and his family not to look back as they leave. However, as God rains down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot’s wife looks back at her home and is turned into a pillar of salt.

Abraham continues to gain political status in the area of Canaan, and Sarah eventually gives birth to Isaac. At Sarah’s bidding, Abraham sends Hagar and Ishmael away. God again speaks to Abraham in a test, asking Abraham to kill his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. Abraham quietly resolves to obey, and when he takes Isaac to the mountains, Isaac asks what animal they are going to sacrifice. Abraham replies that God will provide an offering. Isaac is laid on the altar, and just as Abraham is ready to strike, the angel of the Lord stops him. God is impressed with Abraham’s great devotion and, once again, reaffirms his covenant.

Sarah dies. Abraham sends his chief servant to Abraham’s relatives in Assyria to find a wife for Isaac, to prevent his lineage from being sullied by Canaanite influence. The servant prays to be guided to the correct wife for Isaac. God leads him to Rebekah, whom he brings back to Isaac. Isaac marries Rebekah, and Abraham dies soon thereafter.


This section contrasts with the earlier parts of Genesis by telling the extended story of one man, Abraham, and his family rather than combining stories, songs, and genealogies. Genesis traces Abraham’s ancestry to Noah’s son, Shem, in order to establish that Abraham is a member of both the Hebrew and Semitic peoples. Historically, tribes of nomadic people known as habiru—many of whom were Semitic—frequently moved among the ancient Canaanite cities; scholars believe that these nomads may be the roots of the Hebrew people. Whether or not Abraham was indeed the original ancestor of the Hebrew people is uncertain. But the story of Abraham is nevertheless significant to the religious tradition of faith and obedience it prescribes.

God’s affirmation of his covenant with humankind now takes the form of an ongoing, personal relationship with a specific man and his descendants. The authors of Genesis describe God himself as a storyteller who uses the lives of the people who are obedient to him to describe a divine plot. God creates various symbols as reminders of the covenant, including the fiery pot at his second encounter with Abram, the custom of circumcision, and the renaming of Abram and Sarai. Poetic devices further emphasize the literary nature of the story and the importance of the covenant. God first verbalizes his covenant with Abram in the form of a song and later comforts Hagar in verse. These elements, especially the poetic, provide a break in the Genesis narrative, slowing down the plot and suggesting the grand, metaphysical significance of God’s promise to Abraham.

These stories demonstrate the ways in which God gives dramatic rewards for absolute faith and obedience. At God’s command, Abraham leaves his home to roam in a strange land; God’s reward is to cause Abraham to discover great wealth. Sarah, barren her entire life, gives birth to a son at the age of ninety, an event so unlikely that she laughs when she is told that it will occur. And finally, Abraham receives God’s greatest praise when he obediently stands poised to kill the very son through whom God has promised to fulfill his covenant. These moments depict absolute faith in God, despite the fact that his demands may seem illogical or unreasonable. What God consistently rewards is the abandonment of human reason and free will in favor of actions whose purpose is unknown or unknowable. As a result, these stories establish a version of God who knows what is best for mankind, but who reveals his purposes only selectively.

Another characteristic of the Old Testament God is the elusive manner in which he communicates with humans. Sometimes, people directly encounter God, as when God and Abraham converse. Frequently, however, God appears in the form of someone or something else, as when he visits Abraham in the form of three men. Throughout the Old Testament, God is alternately seen and unseen. Unlike the epics of the ancient Greeks, in which every event or action is described in full detail, there are always details in Genesis and the Hebrew Bible that remain unexplained because God so often insists on removing himself from the action. The most important instance of God’s absence is when God tests Abraham. After requesting that Abraham sacrifice Isaac, God disappears without stating his true intentions, leaving Abraham to move forward in silence to the mountain where he will, supposedly, kill his son. In this story, God’s absence serves the purpose of testing Abraham’s faith in the infallibility of God, even when God does not explain his demands. Furthermore, the removal of God from the story greatly increases the drama and suspense of the Genesis narrative.