Looking for Abraham’s City -- By: Daniel J. Estes

Journal: Bibliotheca Sacra
Volume: BSAC 147:588 (Oct 1990)
Article: Looking for Abraham’s City
Author: Daniel J. Estes

Looking for Abraham’s City

Daniel J. Estes

Assistant Professor of Bible
Cedarville College, Cedarville, Ohio

Hebrews 11:9–10 describes the life of Abraham in the following way: “By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

In alluding to the Old Testament portrayal of Abraham, these verses raise intriguing questions. On what textual basis is Abraham regarded as looking for the city of God? Does this concept find its roots in the biblical record, or has it been imported from some other source? How did the patriarch come to be viewed as a pilgrim?

Though the complete answer to these questions would require a comprehensive examination of all the relevant biblical and extrabiblical Jewish texts, this article is limited to a survey of several key passages in Genesis that may contain potential for significant metaphorical development into the pilgrim imagery of Hebrews 11. It is argued that the presentation of Abraham in Hebrews 11:9–10 may to a large degree be explained as an extrapolation from the language and ordering of the references to Abraham in Genesis.

The Language of the Genesis Texts

Genesis 12:1-9

Though Abraham is first mentioned in Genesis 11:26–32, it is with Genesis 12 that a new section in the divine program of salvation begins. If Abraham lived in the late third millennium or early second millennium B.C.,1 as the biblical record purports, his migration

would outwardly have been indistinguishable from that of many people who were migrating at that time.2 The biblical story, however, begins with a directive from God, which differentiates Abraham’s journey from that of his contemporaries.3 The selection of details included in the narrative manifests a clear theological interest. Thus, to seek to limit his travels to what can be geographically traced and sociologically explained fails to give full weight to the specific call by Yahweh that introduces the biblical portrayal of Abraham’s trip to Canaan and his subsequent life there. As Speiser remarks, “Abraham’s journey to the Promised Land was thus no routine expe...

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