By Permission of the British Library, London/OR. 2884, Folio 3R(B)

A winged angel protects Abraham (kneeling, in blue) from the flames of the fiery furnace, as King Nimrod of Babylon and his servant look on. The story is not recorded in Genesis, but according to several ancient Jewish legends, Nimrod threw Abraham into the furnace either because the patriarch refused to worship idols or because he would not help build the Tower of Babel. The reasons may vary slightly from legend to legend, but the point of these extrabiblical stories is the same, notes our author in the accompanying article: Since the Bible never says directly why God selected Abraham to be the father of a blessed nation, these stories explained what it was about Abraham that led God to distinguish him above all humankind.

The continuing popularity of these early legends, which fill in the gaps in the Genesis account, is attested by this illumination from the Catalan Haggadah, a 14th-century A.D. Hebrew prayerbook for the Passover holiday.