Will the Real Abraham Please Stand Up?
The synthetic term “Abrahamic,” habitually used to depict the shared foundation of the three major Western monotheistic faiths, has rapidly gained currency in recent decades. From academic experts in the field of comparative religion to countless clerics involved in interfaith work, labeling Judaism, Christianity and Islam as Abrahamic underscores what they supposedly have in common: a singular God, similar scriptural traditions and, most to the point, a common patriarch in faith. And yet, as a superb new book by Harvard Divinity School’s Jon Levenson powerfully argues, this is all deeply misleading, because it obscures fundamental differences and historical antagonisms, many of which are buttressed precisely by exclusive claims to be the sole authentic inheritors of Abraham’s legacy.
Of course, as Levenson himself generously allows, the quest to discover shared beliefs and traditions, impelled by the honorable desire to overcome ancient and medieval religious hatreds and to heal wounds that endure to this day, is inherently “an eminently worthy goal.” But, as he abundantly demonstrates in his meticulous study of Abraham’s widely divergent legacy in each of these three faiths, in focusing on the biblical stories of the Hebrew patriarch and endeavoring to construct a “historical” Abraham who transcends the particular traditions they have developed around him, these scholars and clerics are “looking for love in all the wrong places.”
Inheriting Abraham is a deeply scholarly work but also a clear and methodical one, which makes it easily accessible to a wide readership. Levenson does far more than handily demolish the many myths associated with the term “Abrahamic.” In each chapter, he begins by revisiting, with rigor and clarity, what the biblical sources (Genesis, 12-24) do, and more importantly and often surprisingly do not disclose about the patriarch. Throughout his close reading of the Abraham narratives in the book of Genesis, Levenson always takes into account both traditional readings, which treat the Torah as the work of a single prophetic author (i.e. Moses), as well as modern academic approaches to the text that point to multiple authors and numerous accretions. One of the book’s incidental gifts is that it points a way for those who revere the Torah as divine writ to also take into account the rich findings of critical biblical scholarship.
From his close analysis of Genesis, Levenson moves on to present the divergent, elaborate—and often hostile and mutually exclusive—ways in which these biblical stories were received, elaborated and utilized theologically in each of the three Abrahamic religions. The results of Levenson’s assiduous research prove as satisfying as they are startling, and will no doubt prove dizzying to those who have inherited the often pat and comfortable tales of their respective faiths, imbibed in cheders, Sunday schools and madrasas. On one crucially important matter, Levenson leaves absolutely no doubt: There simply is no textual foundation for the Abrahamic construction of a common patriarch whose life and teachings constitute the foundations of Judaism, Christianity or Islam:
“Given these conflicting interpretations of the supposedly common figure, the claim that Abraham is a source of reconciliation among the three traditions increasingly called ‘Abrahamic’ is as simplistic as it is now widespread. Historically, Abraham has functioned much more as a point of differentiation among the three religious communities than as a node of commonality. The assumption that we can recover a neutral Abraham that is independent of Judaism, Christianity and Islam—yet authoritative over them—is quite unwarranted.”
In the course of his study, which largely follows the order of the biblical “biography” of Abraham, from his initial call by God through his ultimate “test” in the aqeda (the binding, or for Christians, the sacrifice and resurrection, of Isaac) to his death, Levenson treats his readers to an enriching, at times astonishing, exploration of the radically divergent voyages on which each religious tradition took its Abraham. A major challenge addressed early on by Levenson is to identify the competing claimants to the inheritance of the grand promises made to Abraham when he is first called by God; namely, that he will be the founder of a great people and a father to many nations, who will be either blessed or cursed on his account. Levenson richly explores competing answers to the question of which nation, or nations, are the true seed of Abraham and thus beneficiaries of these magnificent promises.
In Judaism, the matter is quite straight-forward: Following the biblical narrative and its chronology of blessings from generation to generation—through Isaac, Jacob and the latter’s 12 sons, the tribes of Israel—the Jews and none else are the true “children of Abraham.” In this tradition, as every Jewish child is taught in Hebrew school, Abraham is the first Jew, an assignation that Levenson quite rightly dismisses as a flagrant anachronism.
As Levenson shows, the post-biblical Jewish traditions that accrued to the biblical sources produced an elaborately mythical Abraham, depicting him as the first missionary of monotheism who did battle with the idolatrous polytheists of his times and who observed all the laws later revealed through Moses. But, as he dryly points out, there is quite simply nothing in the book of Genesis to substantiate this portrait. Although Abraham was called upon by God and he, in turn, sacrificed and called to God, thereby entering into a personal covenant with Him, nowhere in the Torah is he depicted as arguing with pagans and idolators or observing the Mosaic Law.
Early Christianity took a radically different take on the meaning of God’s assurances to Abraham, one that emphasizes not biological, but rather spiritual, descent. Levenson does a masterful job presenting the Christian appropriation from the Jews and Judaism of what the New Testament establishes to be the true legacy of Abraham—namely, his faith, only fully realized in the advent of Jesus, and faith in him as Lord and Savior. Levenson’s exposition of the treatment of Abraham in the Gospels, and even more so in the Epistles of Paul, makes abundantly clear that from its inception, and with an increasing fervor often accompanied with violence over the subsequent centuries, Christianity vehemently denied any claim on the Jews’ part to be Abraham’s spiritual heirs, thus stripping Jews of any share in God’s blessings. In the Gospels, Jesus himself is depicted as indignantly rejecting the Jews’ claim to be Abraham’s children, particularly in the famous epigram in response to their claim of Abrahamic descent, “Before Abraham was, I am,” by which, as Levenson observes, “Jesus trumps Abraham.”
In Paul’s letters, the displacement of Abraham from the Jews is articulated more systematically. Levenson offers a superb reading of Galatians 3, in which Paul argues that the only legitimate heirs of Abraham are those who share his faith in divine redemption realized only in the acceptance of salvation through Christ. After all, Paul argues, Abraham was blessed by God for his faith long before God issued his first single commandment, namely circumcision, and he lived more than four centuries before the full law of Moses was ordained, proving the irrelevance of the law to the true progeny-in-faith of the patriarch.
In presenting the post-biblical Jewish traditions about Abraham, Levenson presents what most effectively served as the Jewish retort to Paul’s dispossession of them, namely, the rabbinic tradition that Abraham observed the entire Mosaic Law, ordained to him orally before being explicitly set down by Moses in the Torah. Levenson is too meticulous a scholar to suggest that this myth was a direct response to Paul, since it has antecedents in post-biblical Jewish writings of the late Second Temple era, before the birth of Jesus. Yet he also is not so cautious as to discount its later effectiveness for the Jews’ insistence on their being Abraham’s sole authentic heirs.
Levenson spends far more time elucidating the New Testament’s radical revision of the role of Abraham than he does examining the Koran’s treatment of Abraham, or later Islamic traditions regarding the patriarch. This may seem paradoxical, given Levenson’s repeated assertion that Abraham plays a more central role in Islamic theology than he does in either Judaism or Christianity, in which he is superseded by Moses and Jesus, respectively. Still, there is good reason for this: Unlike Christianity, Islam did not regard the Torah as sacred scripture, but rather, as the remnants of a divine writ corrupted by the Jews. Thus, there is no elaborate, competing exegesis of Genesis to be found in Islamic writings, analogous to that found in Christian scriptures. Still, Islam appropriated Abraham no less than Christianity; also as a model of true faith, but more centrally, as the finest prophet of true monotheism who, like the final seal of the prophets, Muhammad, did battle with paganism and idolatry. So, to paraphrase Levenson, Muhammed trumps Abraham, even while Muslims revere him to this day, if only as a distant precursor. Islam is then Abrahamic in an entirely different sense: Although Muslims make no claim to be Abraham’s biological descendants as do the Jews (the Arabs do, as children of Ishmael, but that is an entirely different matter), neither do they, like the Christians, claim to be his true successors in faith. Islam itself is seen as the only full realization of the pure monotheism initially heralded by Abraham. Far from being the “first Jew” then, Abraham is the first Muslim.
Levenson’s goal is far nobler than to undermine good-faith efforts at enhancing interreligious understanding. Quite the contrary, as he makes clear in the book’s conclusion: True understanding is better achieved through an honest, good-faith confrontation with differences than by inventing a pan-denominational, allegedly historical and neutral Abraham for whom there is no evidence either in the Torah or other ancient Near Eastern sources. His book is a masterful corrective to the ever more popular, pat and misleading myths that have emerged under the “Abrahamic” banner.
Allan Nadler, a professor of religious studies and director of the Jewish Studies Program at Drew University, is currently a visiting professor of Jewish studies at McGill University and rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Montreal, Canada.