Abraham's wealth
When Abraham was very old he sent his senior servant on a journey to obtain a wife for his son Isaac. When the servant arrived at the home of Abraham's relatives, he introduced himself by saying:
I am Abraham's servant. God has blessed my master abundantly ( מְאֹד ), and he has become rich ( וַיִּגְדַּל ). God has given him sheep and cattle, silver and gold, male and female servants, and camels and donkeys. My master's wife Sarah bore my master a son in her old age, and he has given him everything he owns. (Gen. 24:34-36)
Wealth and inheritance are two keynotes of Abraham's story. He was not born into this wealth--he was not independently wealthy--but accumulated his wealth through a combination of hard toil, business acumen, and good luck. Upon leaving Haran as a younger man, a mere 75 years old, he took with him the servants and other possessions he had already worked to acquire as part of his father's household (or, micro-economy), as well as what he had simply inherited. In other words, he arrived in Canaan with considerable wealth. He did not, however, squander that wealth but continued to grow his household resources.
Abraham used all the means at his disposal to advance his wealth, including, it would seem, his wife. A short time after first entering Canaan and moving his nomadic household to the Negev, a severe famine drew him further south to sojourn in Egypt. While there he passed off Sarah as his sister in order to ensure his own safety and good fortune. (Gen. 12:13, 16) As a result, he came to own more sheep and cattle, camels and donkeys, and servants. When Pharaoh deported the rascal:
Abram went up from Egypt to the Negev, with his wife and everything he owned.... Abram became very wealthy ( כָּבֵד מְאֹד ) in possessions and in silver and gold. (Gen. 13:1-2)1
How wealthy? According to just one measure, he possessed a private army of 318 trained soldiers born into his household. (Gen. 14:14) In addition to the servants born into his household, we are told he had also purchased servants from foreigners with his money. (Gen. 17:23, 27) A reasonable estimate, then, might put the total number of servants implied by this account at over 1000. Hence, very wealthy, easily a 'billionaire' by today's standards.
Abraham's wealth was portable; he moved his tents from place to place as circumstances or opportunities demanded.2 He eventually settled at Hebron. While living at Hebron he was drawn into a military conflict; he and his trained soldiers successfully recovered all the property ( רְכֻשׁ ) and people that had been seized from the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah. At this point the king of Sodom wanted to make a deal with Abraham: give me the people, you take the property. To which Abraham replied:
I will not take anything belonging to you, not even a thread or the thong of a sandal, lest you say, I made Abram rich ( הֶעֱשַׁרְתִּי ). (Gen. 14:23)
Abraham refused the patronage of the king, and in doing so made clear his own claim of responsibility for the wealth he had accumulated. Abraham, maybe the first self-made man!
Abraham's wealth included a large number of male and female servants. These servants (or slaves) were both the property of their master and persons ( הַנֶּפֶשׁ )3 with a place of security and entitlement within the household economy. Whether born into the household or purchased from outside, they were citizens of the household. Their roles and relative positions varied from the tender of the herd, to the food preparer, to the nurse, to the trained soldier, to the household steward, to the wife of the master.
They might even inherit the household of their master: Eliezer of Damascus, the senior servant, was the presumptive heir to Abraham's wealth until the birth of his biological son. Abraham called him the "son of possession of my household" (i.e., heir to my household) and the "son of my household who is my heir."4 He was also a trusted servant, steward of all the household property, and entrusted with the important task of journeying to find a wife for Abraham's son.5
The male servants might participate in the political life of the household: in Abraham's case, they were party to the covenant made by their master and thus were circumcised as the sign of their membership in the covenant people (Gen. 17:27). It is not clear whether their descendants automatically inherited this covenant membership (Gen. 17:21 suggests a limitation), but as long as they remained with the household their status was secure.
The female servants might play an even more significant role: they were sometimes taken as wives (or concubines) by the master and their sons could inherit. I say could because in some cases their sons were dispossessed (Hagar; cf. Gen. 25:6) while in other cases their sons were full heirs of the household (Bilhah and Zilpah, Jacob’s servant-wives).
The availability of water has always been an essential resource. For Abraham’s semi-nomadic6 household in the hill country, wells provided the water necessary to sustain life and livelihood. Both ownership of the wells and knowledge of their locations added to his wealth. While the wells themselves were not portable, they supported a livelihood that required the movement of other forms of wealth from place to place.
“Then Isaac dug again the wells of water they had dug in the days of his father Abraham... and he called them by the same names as his father had called them.” (Gen. 26:18) The wells were subject to disputed ownership, even sabotage, and thus required protection and periodic repair. Ownership of wells meant control over the nearby pasture lands. Wells were recorded by name to identify their locations, and were part of the wealth passed from one generation to another. “Abraham gave all that he owned to Isaac. But to the sons of the concubines, Abraham gave gifts, and sent them away from Isaac his son, while he was still living, eastward, to the east country.” (Gen. 25:5-6) Isaac was the sole heir to his father’s wealth: his livestock, his silver, his slaves, and his wells.
The matter of inheritance points to a broader understanding of Abraham’s wealth. For Isaac was heir to more than livestock, silver, slaves, and wells. Even though Abraham did not own any land, apart from a burial plot, he passed on to Isaac the promise of: (a) all the land of Canaan and more (Gen. 13:12-17, 15:18-20), (b) a great name and a legacy of blessing (Gen. 12:2), (c) descendants beyond number (Gen. 13:16, 15:4-5), (d) a great and singularly chosen nation (Gen. 12:2, 18:18-19), and (e) an everlasting covenant with the Possessor ( קֹנֵה ) of heaven and earth (Gen. 17:9; cf. 14:19).
In addition, Abraham passed on another legacy: a way of life consisting in the faithful practice of righteous and just precepts. “For I chose him in order that he will command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord to practice righteousness ( צְדָקָה ) and justice ( מִשְׁפָּט ) in order that the Lord will bring upon Abraham what he spoke to him.” (Gen. 18:19; cf. 26:5, Neh. 9:8)7 Abraham’s legacy was a practice: doing what was right and just, according to what God commanded him. When the Queen of Sheba praises Solomon, she singles out this same practice: “Blessed be the Lord your God, who delighted in you, to set you on the throne of Israel..., to practice justice and righteousness.” (1 Kings 10:9) When the prophet Isaiah recalls Abraham’s legacy, he recalls the pursuit of righteousness and the devotion to justice, not as vague principles but as core values embodied in commandments, or law. “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness and who seek the Lord: Look to the rock from which you were cut and to the quarry from which you were dug; look to Abraham your father, and to Sarah who gave you birth. When I called him he was one, but I blessed him and made him many.... Pay attention to me, my people, and hear me, my nation: Law ( תוֹרָה ) will go out from me, and my justice I will make a light to the nations.” (Isaiah 51:1-2, 4) The land, the greatness, the blessing, the descendants, the chosenness, and the covenant: all these reached their culmination in Abraham’s true wealth, his faithfulness to God’s commandments in the practice of righteousness and justice, which would be given for “a light to the nations.”

1. Cf. Gen. 26:13, The man [Isaac] became rich ( וַיִּגְדַּל ) and continued to grow richer until he became very rich ( גָדַל מְאֹד ).
2. He located, within the first ten years after arriving in Caanan, at Shechem, Bethel, the Negev, Egypt, the Negev, Bethel, and Hebron. In later years he maintained base points at Hebron and Beersheba (Gen. 22:19), where he is said to have resided ( יֵּשֶׁב ) and owned property: at Hebron, a burial plot, at Beersheba, a well. Contrast this to Gerar, where he sojourned ( יָּגָר ) as a guest in “the land of the Philistines” (Gen. 21:34).
3. Gen.12:5; cf. Gen. 14:21, 46:26. On the dual nature of the slave, see M.I. Finley, The Ancient Economy, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973, pp. 62-63.
4. Here "son" ( בֶן ) probably means one "born" to the household.
5. This is based on the reasonable assumption that the senior servant of Gen. 24 is the same person as Eliezer of Gen. 15. Even if that is not the case, each of these servants were placed in positions of trust and respect.
6. Semi-nomadic in the sense that, (a) they lived in tents, (b) they herded livestock as the primary means of livelihood, (c) Abraham did not own land other than a burial plot (according to the Priestly source) and some wells, but (d) the household maintained base residences at Hebron and Beersheba, where presumably they conducted business and/or planted crops.
7. The citation of Gen. 18:19 is particularly significant, for it is from the earliest thread of the Abraham narrative, commonly known as the J source.
© 2010-2011, Charles F. Hudson