Whose Abraham Is He Anyway?

Rabbi George's Reflections, The Scroll, June 2013


Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is not a book that would attract the attention of a moviemaker.[1] It is the work of a profound and diligent Judaic Scholar, Harvard Professor Jon Levinson, written in prose that some would characterize as “dense” because the author strives for accuracy and precision, not entertainment. Nevertheless 14 Adat Shalomers signed up to read the book and come to six weekly daytime classes to discuss its content in detail. Like the book, the course had two primary objectives. The first: explore Levenson’s thesis that the significance of the patriarch for each of the three “Abrahamic” religions is so different that he cannot be a unifying figure. The second: see how Jews have viewed Abraham in the Torah and later. Here I want to present one aspect of Levenson’s thesis, critique it, and suggest where in our three traditions we might find common, though not necessarily unifying, bonds.  

Good-hearted people like to say that the three faiths are all “Abrahamic” and therefore should be able to learn from one another and live peaceably together. Levenson rejects this facile proposition in part because it overlooks how differently each faith perceives the patriarch. For us, and classically, Abraham is our founding ancestor, the first Jew to hear God’s promises and obey His demands.[2] The promises extended to Abraham and his seed are the Land of Israel (Canaan then), progeny too numerous to count, and a name so great that all the world will bless themselves by him. God and Abraham made a covenant to which we, his descendants, alone are bound.[3] In fulfillment of the covenant, the Torah shows and later tradition emphasized, he obeyed God’s law and commandments. Although the Bible does not portray Abraham as a “monotheist” later Jewish writings, as would the Qur’an 1,000 years later, portrayed him as a violent opponent of idolatry. And some time early in the  rst millennium the rabbis taught that Abraham’s descendants inherited a presumption that they would inherit “the world to come.”[4] But we never believed that heaven is a Jewish province.  

Once early Christians began to include non-Jews in their communities, descent from Abraham, like observance of Jewish law, became a problem. Could one be a true follower of Jesus without being a Jew? Paul and other early Christians solved this problem by reimagining Abraham and the meaning of Abrahamic descent. For Paul, Abraham became the paradigmatic man of faith before the law was even given. Because of his faith, Abraham was saved. Gentile Christians could follow his example. They need not accept the law or be “materially” descended from Abraham to inherit the promise. Indeed, since no one could follow all the law’s requirements, everyone obliged to do that would be tainted by sin. Repentance in accordance with Jewish law could not relieve anyone of the taint: only faith in Jesus’ divinity and His power to avert the wages of sin could. The promise became not land and progeny but a heavenly, post mortem life with Jesus. In the eyes of the early Christians the near-sacrifice of Isaac became both the proof of Abraham’s faith and a prefiguring of God’s sacri ce of His only begotten son, Jesus, though that sacrifice was greater. Isaac did not die; Jesus did. [5] To a Jew this teaching is at the very least off-putting. Christians supplant us as Abraham’s children and deprive us of the promises God made to his progeny. Indeed, the promises themselves are trans figured and made unrecognizable. Far from bringing us closer, the Christian transformation of Abraham into a believer seems more likely to alienate us. Happily, Catholic and certain other Christian churches no longer assert that only believing Christians can be saved.

If Abraham is less of a uniting figure for us and the Christians than we might wish, “come and hear” what Islam has to say about him. Unlike Jews, Muslims do not see Abraham as their ancestor. Rather, he is a prophet. He is not revered because of his faith but because he submitted himself to God’s will as proven by his acts: the near sacrifice of Ishmael (not Isaac), his moving to Canaan, and his self-circumcision. These make him an honored figure, a hanif, the first Muslim, a fierce monotheist who submitted to God’s will.

Islam is a sternly monotheistic religion. It maintains “there is no God but Allah.” Not surprisingly, the Qur’an regards Jesus as a prophet, but not as God. As with many Jews over the millennia, Islam is quite doubtful of Christianity’s claim to be monotheistic (though for legal purposes our tradition honors the claim). So staunch is Islam’s resistance that a quote from the Qur’an appears on the Al Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, saying of God “that He did not beget and is not begotten.” That text rejects Christianity’s claims that Jesus is God’s son and, indeed, that Jesus and God are equal. These are central tenets of Christianity.

We Jews do not fare much better. Recall that we inherit the promises of Abraham through Isaac; for post-Qua’ranic Muslims Ishmael is the beloved son. Hence, whatever claims we might make as Abraham’s descendants would be rejected. And though our tradition reveres Abraham in part because he obeyed God’s commandments (an obedience that has been central and remains of paramount importance to Jews), Islam treats the pharisaic/rabbinic expansion of the Torah as an excrescence and urges that we narrow or eliminate it.

The most devastating critique Levenson makes of the thesis that our common reverence for Abraham can unite Judaism, Christianity and Islam is that expositors of this idea trip over an inescapable fact: the existence of three separate communities, each assimilating the legacy of Abraham into a distinct narrative and ideational history. On the way to its conclusion, Inheriting Abraham takes us on a fascinating and highly sophisticated tour of Jewish sources relating to Abraham over the millennia, a  ne summary of early Christian thought on the same subject, and trenchant observations about key texts from the Qur’an relating to Abraham, Judaism, and Christianity, all this in just 200 pages.

It’s delightful to see facile reasoning skewered step by step by a combination of deep knowledge and careful analysis. We all learned a lot from the journey. But a nagging question remains: if a common, revered figure cannot bring closer relations among the three faiths, what can? Possibly knowledgeable exploration of shared values such as compassion, social justice, and, most of all, peace that eschews platitudes but is grounded in the divinity that some of us believe is at work in the three faiths that reach out for the God that moves ineluctably in all of them. I pray that this will be possible and, am happy that part of my brief life as a rabbi has been spent with Christian scholars who sought, as I did and do, to teach the unique traditions to which they are committed. And most of all, I am happy because a few patient, thoughtful, and energetic members of this congregation joined me in this pilgrimage.

Rabbi George B. Driesen


[1] Jon Levenson (Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press 2012).

[2] Careful scholar that he is, Levenson eschews the view that Abraham was the first human to discover God. Recall that Adam, Eve, Enoch, and Noah knew God.

[3] Later Jewish writings inferred that Abraham and Sarah made converts. Hence the custom of giving converts a Hebrew name that includes “ben/bat Avraham v’ Sarah,” symbolically including them in “the family.”

[4] The presumption would be of no avail if an Israelite sinned and did not repent in the manner prescribed by the Torah or later Jewish law.

[5] The sacrifice would be redeemed, however, for Jesus will be resurrected to eternal life.