In the Hebrew Bible, Abraham is the first person to be called a Prophet (Genesis 20:7); and the first to be described as a “Hebrew” (Genesis 14:13). The term Hebrew comes from the verb ‘to go over a boundary’— like the Euphrates or Jordan river— or ‘to be an immigrant.’
The first thing God told Abraham in the Biblical account was: “Leave your country, your kindred, and your father’s household, and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.” (Genesis 12:1-2)
So Prophet Abraham was what we can call the first ‘Islamic Hebrew’ as the Qur’an indicates: “He (Abraham) was not Yahuudiyyaan, “a Jew”, nor Nasraaniyyaan, ‘a Christian,’ but rather a Haniifaan, ‘a Monotheist,‘… (Quran, 3:67) i.e. ‘a monotheistic Hebrew believer submitting (islam) to the one imageless God’ who created all space and time, and who in Islamic terms made Prophet Abraham-the-Hebrew’s descendants through Prophets Isaac and Jacob (Israel) into a great multitude of monotheists called the Children of Israel —B’nai Israel in Hebrew and Banu Israel in Arabic.
In addition, Prophet Isaiah said: “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord: Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he [Abraham] was only one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him. (Isaiah 51:1-2)
The Qur’an states: “You have an excellent example to follow in Abraham.” (Quran, 60:4) and “Follow the way of Abraham as people of pure (monotheistic) faith.” (Quran, 3:95)
What makes Prophet Abraham-the-Hebrew an excellent example of pure faith according to three different religion’s Sacred Scriptures? It is that all three scriptures proclaim Abraham to be the one “whom God chose to be His friend”: the Arabic Qur’an 4:125, the Hebrew Bible Isaiah 41:8; and the Greek New Testament Book of James (2:23).
Prophet Abraham-the-Hebrew, “whom God chose to be His friend,” is as far as we know, also the only prophet to have two sons who were also prophets. And these two sons of Abraham, Prophets Ishmael and Isaac, are the only two Prophets who each had a physical descendant that, many many centuries later, proclaimed a sacred scripture each of which has become the basis for one of the two largest religions in the whole world.
Prophet Abraham tried for many years to to convince his pagan polytheistic neighbors to give up their images of their Gods. They refused to do that and threaten his life. Prophet Abraham’s wife Sarai (later changed to Sarah by God) was more successful. The Torah states: “Abram took his wife Sarai, his nephew Lot, all their accumulated property, and the souls they had made in Haran and they left to go to the land of Canaan.” (Genesis 12:5)
Since it is impossible to make a soul, this verse must refer to the people that Abram and Sarai influenced to join them in their religious quest. (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 39:14) The Zohar says that all these converts formed a large caravan whose merits protected Abram and Sarai as they traveled from city to city.
Ever since that time the merits of converts to Judaism have added to the strength of the Jewish people and thus helped protect us on our long journey.
If this is true why did so many Jews fail to encourage non-Jews to become Jewish for much of Jewish history? Sometimes it was because they feared a negative reaction on the part of the non-Jew, or on the part of the larger non-Jewish society.
The Midrash correctly indicates that Abraham and Sarah both influenced non-Jews to become Jewish but it doesn’t explain why Sarai made more converts than Abraham. He should have influenced more non-Jews to become Jewish than Sarah since he traveled around more and had greater opportunities to meet people.
Unfortunately, Abraham sometimes rebuffed non-Jews. Rabbi Yohanan claimed that Abraham “barred people from entering under the wings of the Shekinah” (converting to Judaism) and that is why his descendants were enslaved in Egypt. (Talmud Nedarim 32a)
Abraham is specifically criticized for discouraging Timna the sister of Lotan (Genesis 36:12) who the Rabbis determined wanted to convert to Judaism. Because she was rebuffed she married a pagan. Her son Amalek passed on her resentment to his descendants who became the tribe that attacked the Jewish people when they were on the way to Mount Sinai. (Talmud Sanhedrin 99b)
Thus our sages taught that a negative attitude toward non-Jews who are interested in becoming Jewish can lead to anti-Semitism in later generations.
How do we know that Sarah was more successful in encouraging non-Jews to convert to Judaism? Years later when God tells Abraham, “Abide by everything that Sarah tells you” (Genesis 21:12) the Midrash explains, “You should listen to Sarah since in prophecy she is on a higher level than you.” How could Sarah be on a higher spiritual level than Prophet Abraham? Because she influenced more non-Jews to become Jewish than Prophet Abraham did.
This is why the Zohar claims Genesis 12:15 “He was good to Abram because of her” means that God (not Pharaoh) was good to Abram because of Sarai. Why? Because Sarai had influenced so many non-Jews to become Jewish. So when Jewish women influence non-Jews to become Jewish even their husbands benefit from the process.
Sarah’s enthusiastic encouragement of non-Jews to become Jewish set a good example for her daughters and granddaughters. Indeed, her great granddaughter Dinah influenced one of the most righteous men in all history to convert to Judaism when she married him. His name was Job. (Midrash Genesis Rabbah 76)