Who was Patriarch Abraham's Mother?

    February 2012          
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Who Was Abraham's Mother?

By Meir Loewenberg

The name of Abraham's mother is not mentioned in the Bible. Not only does she remain nameless, but her very existence is only hinted at in the Torah. She does not appear during the story of Abraham's birth (Genesis 11.26), but is mentioned only when Abraham explains to Abimelech, king of Gerar, that Sarah is his sister from his father's side but not from his mother's side (Genesis 20.12).

The Sages of the Talmud record that her name was Amathlai, the daughter of Karnebo, and that she became the wife of Terah, Abraham's father. We do not know how the Sages knew her name, but when they recorded it they also supplied the names of the mother of David, Samson, and Haman. Haman's mother is mentioned only because her name is also Amathlai, identical with the name of Abraham's mother. More interesting is their reason for reporting the names of the other three mothers. The Sages said that the reason they provided these names was to make this information available to those who engage in debates with the minim or sectarians [TB Baba Batra 91a]. This may have been a reference to the debates that the Talmudic Sages had with the early Christians who were their contemporaries. It is also possible that naming the mother of these "founders" of the Jewish religion was meant to counter the Christian argument of the immaculate conception of the Nazarene.

Who was Amathlai and what is known about her? Though ignored in the Torah, one Midrashic legend relates that Amathlai became pregnant with Abraham at the very time that Nimrod learned that a boy would be born soon and this boy wouldsuccessfully rise up against him. After consulting with his princes he ordered the construction of a special compound where all pregnant women were commanded to remain until after they had given birth. He also ordered his midwives to kill all male infants that were born in the special compounds, but to give many presents to all newborn girls. In this way no less than seventy thousand boys were said to have been murdered.

When Amathlai was three months pregnant Terah, her husband, noticed that she was very pale and that her body was growing bigger. She desperately wanted to avoid going to the special compound, so she told her husband that she was not feeling well. But Terah, a loyal subject of King Nimrod, reminded her that she must follow the king's command and report to the special compound if she was pregnant. Since he was still suspicious, he insisted on examining her, but a miracle occurred when his hands passed over her body. He did not feel anything because the embryo rose from Amathlai's womb until it lay beneath her breasts. Terah now permitted her stay at home. Inexplicably her body did not grow any bigger during the last six months of pregnancy. No one, not even her husband, became suspicious that she was pregnant. When the time came for giving birth, she disappeared from the city and wandered alone into the desert. There she found a cave where she gave birth to a son whom she names Abram. However she was very sad because she was certain that sooner or later Nimrod's agents would seize the boy and kill him. In desperation she decided to abandon her baby in the cave and leave him in God's care. Miraculously the angel Gabriel saved the baby boy.

Tradition presents Amathlai as a very brave woman, ready to defy her husband and her king in order to save her unborn child. She receives ongoing Divine help in these efforts. But at the crucial moment, after the birth of her son, she loses hope and abandons him. Now Abraham's survival no longer depends on his mother's efforts. Instead God's wish to have Abraham become the patriarch of the Jewish people becomes the motivation for Divine intervention. In later years Abraham rises to greatness but his mother who abandoned him as an infant is not present to witness this. No more is heard of her.


The story of Abram's birth is reported in Midrash Avraham Avinu, found in Ozar Midrashim (ed. Eisenstein, 1969, vol.1, pp., 2-3). Another, slightly different version of this story appears in Sefer Hayashar, P. Bereishit, pp.18-21.


from the Febuary 2012 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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