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The Idea of Abrahamic Religions: A Qualified Dissent

By Jon D. Levenson | Originally published in Jewish Review of Books, Spring 2010

One of the most remarkable things about the Jewish and Christian traditions is that they both revere figures who predated the central events of their redemptive histories. Both hold in high esteem the patriarchs of Genesis—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob— even though these figures precede Moses or Jesus. The cases of Isaac and Jacob are complicated by the fact that they were in conflict with Ishmael and Esau, respectively. But in the case of Abraham, there is no such conflict, and so it should come as no surprise that nowadays many find in him a focus of Jewish-Christian commonality. That Abraham, or Ibrahim in Arabic, is a person of high importance in the Qur’an and the continuing Muslim tradition adds to his luster as a figure on whom those who seek peace and inter-communal reconciliation can focus.

A particularly apt example of the hopes currently attached to the patriarch comes from the Abraham Path Initiative, an organization dedicated to getting people to “follow the footsteps of Abraham/Ibrahim through the Middle East.” As their literature notes, “three and a half billion people—over half the human family—trace their history or faith back to Abraham, considered the father of monotheism.” Their aim is to develop a thoroughly modern interfaith and intercultural pilgrimage, which will inspire “respect and understanding among people, young and old, around the world.”

Needless to say, groups like this have their work cut out for them. For it certainly seems that most Jews, Christians, and Muslims regard Abraham as the father of their own community alone, a view that is easily explained if we consider the foundational literatures of the three putatively Abrahamic communities. In Judaism, Abraham serves as the first Jew, the biological father of most Jews and the adoptive yet no less real father of those who have converted to the religion of his descendants. For Christians, Abraham has long been “the father of all that believe,” in the words of the apostle Paul (Rom 4:5), who clearly thinks that what those believers believe—and what the patriarch’s life prefigures—is the core message of the gospel. In the Islamic case, as early as the Qur’an, Abraham is emphatically said to be neither a Jew nor a Christian but rather a muslim, one who has submitted to God. In the words of the Muslim scripture itself, “the people who are worthiest of Abraham are those who followed him, together with this Prophet and the believers.” As an imam in Jerusalem put it not long ago, “Abraham is the father of one religion, and that religion is Islam.” That there are now, and have long been, Jews and Christians who make the same statement in behalf of their own religions merits serious thought.

The Muslim case is unique among the three, though, since however sharply Jews and Christians differ in their interpretation of the scriptures they hold in common, they are after all working from the same text. To paraphrase George Bernard Shaw’s quip, if “England and America are two countries separated by a common language,” then Judaism and Christianity are two religions separated by a common Abraham. Genesis is not part of Muslim scripture, however, and the Qur’anic Ibrahim is different from that of Genesis in ways great and small. Another way of stating this is to say that whereas Judaism and Christianity have long diverged in their interpretations of Abraham, it is not at all clear that Islam is interpreting what the other two mean by “Abraham.”

Then again, Islam may be less of an outlier than first seems the case. For if we compare Abraham as he is presented in Genesis with the figure of the same name as he is reinterpreted in post-biblical Jewish sources, it is not at all clear that Jews and Christians are talking about the same figure, either. There is something historically unrealistic, and I daresay rather Protestant as well, about the assumption that the commonality of scripture in Judaism and Christianity implies that they are talking about the selfsame figure.

In the case of the Abraham of Genesis, there is something in the text that resists the notion that he is equally the father of more than one community, but also something that renders a larger perspective if not inevitable, then at least hard to avoid for very long. Let us begin with God’s first address to the man who was known at first as “Abram”:

The LORD said to Abram, “Go forth from your native land, from your kin-group, and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.

I will make of you a great nation. And I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse him that curses you; and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” (Gen. 12:1–3)

In the context of Genesis itself, the land the LORD will show Abraham—and promise to give to his descendants a few verses later—is Canaan, and the “great nation” that will derive from this still childless man with a barren wife turns out to be the people of Israel, named for his grandson. Yet, the very passage that puts the Israelite patriarch-to-be into motion toward the promised land looks beyond the promised people and perhaps the promised land as well, in its enigmatic last verse: “And all the families of the earth / Shall bless themselves by you” (Gen. 12:3). What, precisely, does this mean? Here is the comment of the best-known medieval Jewish commentator, Rashi:

There are many freer interpretive traditions, but this is its contextual sense: A man says to
his son, “May you be like Abraham!” And this is so in every case of those words “shall bless
themselves by you” in the Bible, and here is the proof: “By you shall Israel invoke blessings,
saying, ‘May God make you like Ephraim and Manasseh.’”
(Gen. 48:20)

Rashi, in short, thinks the Hebrew preposition in question here does not mean “in” or “through,” as many translations render it; it means “by.” This traditional Jewish reading obviously influenced the translation from the Jewish Publication Society that I have quoted (“And all the families of the earth / Shall bless themselves by you”).

The immediate context in Genesis and Rashi’s astute reference to Jacob’s blessing of his grandsons Ephraim and Manasseh speak strongly for this interpretation. If Rashi and those who follow him have understood the verse correctly, what God promises Abraham in Genesis 12:3 is that he shall become a byword of blessing. In other words, it is by reference to him that members of the families of the earth shall give blessings. It is as if someone were to say, to use American analogies, “May you make money like Rockefeller!” or “May you dunk like LeBron!”

The traditional Christian interpretation moves in the opposite direction. For Christianity has long seen in the election of Abraham the beginning of a movement that reaches fruition only with the incorporation of all the nations of the world into the Abrahamic promise. In this reading, the Jewish people are—or, to be more precise, were—a prototype for the Church, a multi-ethnic body that early on made a claim to be the true Israel. For many Christians, the new relationship initiated with God’s call and commission of Abraham involves a dramatic movement away from particularism towards universalism, away from a particular land and a particular people and towards the salvation of the entire world. As for the call of Abraham in Genesis 12:1–3, this interpretation places the greatest emphasis, not surprisingly, on that final clause, rendered as, “in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.” For Paul, the Jew who after the death of Jesus became his “apostle to the Gentiles,” these words became the prooftext for a theology that insisted that the blessing in question falls on the Gentiles and not only on the Jews (and perhaps not on the Jews at all):

Just as Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” [Gen. 15:6],
so, you see, those who believe are the descendants of Abraham. And the scripture,
foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to
Abraham, saying, “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you” [Gen. 12:3]. For this reason,
those who believe are blessed with Abraham who believed.”
(Galatians 3:6–9)

To the modern mind, Paul’s words can give the impression that he wished to counter the particularism of Judaism, and its retrograde doctrine of the “chosen people,” with a more universalistic affirmation, one that included all of humanity within God’s promise—universalistic Christianity replacing particularistic Judaism.

Paul’s goal was actually quite different from this characteristic post-Enlightenment reading. What he sought was the universal diffusion of the particularistic—and rather tiny—community that was the nascent Church. And here is the point with which the familiar depiction of Judaism as particularistic and Christianity as universalistic fails to reckon, with drastic consequences over the centuries: for Paul, the Church was not just a particular community. It was a particular community made up exclusively of descendants of Abraham. “And if you belong to Christ,” the apostle to the Gentiles wrote in the same letter, “then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” Conversion to Christianity (to use terminology that did not exist in Paul’s time) thus gives Gentiles the status that Jews claimed for themselves: it makes them descendants of Abraham and thus heirs to the promises given to him. It does so, to be sure, while bypassing the laws of Moses and even the commandment of circumcision, given to Abraham himself six generations before Moses. But the Gentile’s Christian identity has markers of its own, the best known being the conversion or initiation rite of baptism. Baptism makes a Gentile, as it were, into a Jew, and is thus properly compared with the conversion-rites of Judaism, which in the case of male converts require circumcision. In both the Christian and the Jewish cases, the rites in question underscore the separation of the community—the Church of Jesus Christ and the people Israel, respectively—from humanity at large. Were the goal to affirm the dignity of all humans—a theme that is, to be sure, prominent in both traditions—then the focus would be on the universal fathers of the human race, Adam and Noah, and surely not on Abraham.

Where does Paul’s Christological reading of Abraham leave those who have been Jews all along and who are not persuaded by the new phenomenon that comes to be called Christianity? On the one hand, Paul expresses great concern for his “kindred according to the flesh.” He declares that the covenant and the patriarchs are still theirs, and explicitly denies that God has rejected his people. On the other hand, in the same passage he iterates his view that “not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants,” since the promise trumps the flesh (that is, birth), and declares that the Jews are branches that have been lopped off the tree due to unbelief and replaced by Gentiles who have been grafted in “in their place.” To complicate the picture still further, however, Paul closes with what seems to be a prediction that “these natural branches [will] be grafted back into their own olive tree.” This last turn probably relates to Paul’s expectations for the end-time, when he thought Jesus would return. What he seems to have believed is that in the end of days, the Jews, like the rest of the world, would turn to Jesus, and as a consequence God would lift his punishment on them and restore his chosen people to their prior and ultimately irrevocable glory.

Unfortunately, even Paul’s ambivalence about Jews who do not become Christians was largely lost in the subsequent centuries of Christian history, and the blessing for the nations turned into a curse for the Jews. The author of the early Christian work known as the Epistle of Barnabas, writing about 100 C.E., expands upon God’s declaration in Genesis that Abraham—then still uncircumcised—is righteous on the basis of his faith thus: “Behold, I have made thee, Abraham, the father of the Gentiles . . . who believe in God in uncircumcision.” The same author declares, as Jeffrey Siker puts it, that “God has abandoned the Jews for the Gentiles.” The apologist Justin, who wrote after the Roman Empire had brutally defeated the Jews in the Bar Kokhba War (132-135 C.E.), took the next step. He transformed circumcision from a sign of God’s enduring and unbreakable covenant into its opposite, a sign of divine rejection and Jewish suffering, painfully evident in their loss of the Land of Israel, the enormous destruction that the Romans wrought there, and especially the Roman exclusion of the Jews from Jerusalem.

This notion that the singling-out of Abraham never referred to the Jews, or no longer refers to the Jews, but applies only to the Church, interprets the event as purely instrumental: God did not fall in love with Abraham and the nation that would descend from him for their own sake. Rather, he singled them out strictly for the purpose first declared in Genesis 12:3: “And all the families of the earth / Shall bless themselves by you/be blessed in you.” The traditional effort of Christians to convert all nations and the lack of just such an effort among the Jews for the last two millennia could then be interpreted as further proof that only the Church, not the people Israel, carried on the Abrahamic legacy.

From what I have said so far, one could easily devise a simple contrast between the Jewish and the Christian interpretations of their common father that would go like this: The Jewish understanding of Abraham focuses on the Jewish people, and others are brought in only to highlight the blessedness of Abraham and the family that descends from him. The Christian understanding of Abraham is no less focused on a specific group, in this case the Church, but it conceives of Abraham in an expansive context, as a man who bears a message of universal import, foreshadowing the universal aspirations of the Church for its gospel. Whereas, to revert to Genesis 12:3, the Jews think all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by reference to Abraham, the Christians think that in Abraham all the families of the earth shall be blessed. Though each tradition is particularistic in its own way, Judaism is inward-looking and Christianity outward-looking. But this grand contrast, like so many others involving these two traditions, is much too simple.

To understand why, let us first turn to those alternative, “freer interpretive traditions” of Genesis 12:3b that Rashi mentions. An ancient midrash, in fact, paraphrases the divine prediction this way: “Rain comes through your merit; dew comes through your merit.” The midrash thus shows that the blessing on Abraham has positive consequences for “all the families of the earth,” whose prosperity is owing to him through the benefits his descendants, the Jewish people, confer. He is thus not simply a byword of blessing, as Rashi was to think; he is a universal source of blessing. The midrash that offers this reading supports it with intriguing examples of Gentiles who prosper because of the interventions of Jews, for example, the pharaoh to whom Joseph revealed the coming famine and how to survive it and whom Jacob later explicitly blesses, and the Persian king Ahasuerus, whose life Mordecai and Esther save from an assassination plot.

This ancient midrashic notion that God will bless “all the families of the earth” because of Abraham is a notion that developed much further in the Middle Ages. An example of the most expansive understanding of the clause appears in the works of the great medieval philosopher, commentator, and statesman Isaac Abarbanel, who himself was exiled from Portugal and Spain.

The goal of his journeying is hinted at in the expression, “you shall be a blessing” (Gen. 12:2),
for He commanded him that when he would journey, there would be a blessing among the
peoples because he would teach them and make them know the true faith in such a way that
the world would be perfected by means of him. And He (may He be blessed!) informed him that
His providence would adhere to those people who accept his teaching and learn his faith.

Abarbanel thus draws a tight connection between Abraham’s journeys conveyed at the beginning of God’s initial charge to him (“Go forth from your native land,” Gen. 12:1) and the enigmatic blessing at its end (“And all the families of the earth / Shall bless themselves by you”).

In Abarbanel’s view, it is Abraham and, by implication, the Jewish people, who instruct the world. God’s singling out of the Jews does not, to be sure, depend on their fulfilling any mission. But in Abarbanel’s theology and that of the sources upon which he depends, the Jews do have a mission to fulfill nonetheless, to share the universal and transcendent truth to which they have graciously been made privy. The blessing of Abraham and the blessing of all the peoples of the earth are not at odds with each other. They are related parts of the same divine initiative.

The notion that Abraham held a distinctive theological idea that he felt charged to disseminate is so widespread in the Jewish tradition that to some it comes as a surprise that it has no basis in the text of Genesis itself. There, what Abraham founds is not a religion or a theology but a family. He is the first father of the people Israel, named for his grandson, Jacob/Israel. There is no reason to think of Abraham as holding a purer view of God than any of the people with whom he comes into contact or objecting to their mode of worship in the slightest.

In Genesis, that is. For elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Joshua, we find a hint of a dynamic within Abraham’s family of origin that does not appear in Genesis. In his farewell address, Joshua, Moses’ successor, begins thus: “In olden times, your forefathers—Terah, the father of Abraham and father of Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and worshiped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from beyond the Euphrates and led him through the whole land of Canaan and multiplied his offspring.” Why God chose Abraham—and not, for example, his brother Nahor—remains a question here, to be sure, but it is one that later traditions would answer in rich and imaginative detail.

The earliest example seems to be the book of Jubilees, a Jewish work from the mid-second century B.C.E. that never became part of the biblical canon of rabbinic Judaism. After telling us the circumstances of Abraham’s birth, the eleventh chapter of Jubilees reports this: “And the lad began understanding the straying of the land, that everyone went astray after graven images and after pollution . . . And he separated from his father so that he might not worship the idols with him. And he began to pray to the Creator of all so that He might save him from the straying of the sons of men, and so that his portion might not fall into straying after the pollution and scorn.” Soon thereafter, we read of Abraham’s confronting his father with the message that the idols are useless. “Do not worship them,” he tells Terah. “Worship the God of heaven.” “And his father said to him, ‘I also know (that), my son, but what shall I do to the people who have made me minister before them? . . . Be silent, my son, lest they kill you.’” But Abraham refuses to go along and burns down the idolatrous temple.

Jubilees also reports that once when Abraham was observing the stars in hopes of predicting the weather, “a word came into his heart, saying, ‘All the signs of the stars and the signs of the sun and the moon are all in the hand of the LORD. Why am I seeking?” (Jub. 12:17). Here, the polemic against idolatry clothes a key philosophical claim. Nature is not God; God is above nature. This insight then provokes Abraham to pray that God protect him from straying from God’s service and that he reveal to Abraham whether he should return to Ur or stay in Haran. Only then, as Jubilees would have it, does God give him the command with which Genesis 12 begins, to leave his native land and his father’s household and to set out for the unnamed land that turns out, of course, to be Canaan.

The command to leave the land of the idolaters and the promise of a new land to be deeded to Abraham’s descendants are, on this account, a divine response to Abraham’s discovery of a profound theological truth, the nature of the God who is above nature.

The tale of Abraham’s confrontation with his idolater father underlies a number of stories still familiar to traditional Jews. According to the one that is perhaps the best known, Abraham’s father hands him over to the idolatrous king Nimrod, who, eager to show that fire is divine, casts him into a furnace, from which, of course, God rescues Abraham. The story is so familiar that, in my experience, many Jews are surprised to discover that it is not in the Bible.

If the idea of Abraham’s conflict with his idolatrous father is not scriptural in Judaism (or Christianity), however, it is, however, scriptural in Islam. In this, we see a commonality of Judaism and Islam not paralleled in ancient Christianity. In the Qur’an, the story of Abraham’s confrontation with his father appears, in fact, in association with another Jewish theme that we have already examined, his attack on astrology:

And when Abraham said to his father Azar, “Do you take idols for gods? I see you and your
people are in manifest error.”


Thus We show Abraham the kingdom of the heavens and the earth, that he might be one of those
possessed of certainty.
And when night fell, he saw a star; so he said: “This is my Lord”, but when it set, he said: “I do
not like those that set.”
Then, when he saw the moon rising, he said: “This is my Lord”, but when it set, he said:
“If my Lord does not guide me rightly, I will be one of the erring people.
”Then, when he saw the sun rising, he said: “This is my Lord; this is larger”, but when it set,
he said: “O, my people, I am innocent of what you associate [with God].
“I turn my face towards Him Who fashioned the heavens and the earth, as an upright man,
and I am not one of the polytheists.”
(Qur’an 6:74–79)

However weak the stories of Abraham and his father’s idols may be as an interpretation of the function of religious iconography (as practitioners of Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity and several other living traditions can attest), the stories do have one great strength nonetheless: they readily communicate the difference between the Creator and His creation to the mind of a child, implanting this key theological point deeply in the culture of the faithful.