Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
by Jon D. Levenson
Princeton University Press, 288 pp., $29.95
Early on in Harvard biblicist Jon D. Levenson's engaging new book, he reminds us that it is a bit of a surprise that the biblical Abraham came to be regarded as the founder of Judaism. "It is not simply that in Genesis, Abraham does not teach what Moses is said to have taught," he writes, "it is that he does not teach anything at all." Of course, this was eventually a problem not only for Jewish tradition but for Christianity and Islam as well, who also regarded themselves as heirs of the patriarch. And so each tradition produced its own evolving "usable Abraham," complete with a full biography and theology (Abraham the idol smasher, monotheistic missionary, would-be martyr, and so on), often building upon and responding to one another, in midrashic literature, the New Testament, the Qur'an, and elsewhere.
Levenson wisely does not ask which Abraham is the real one, nor does he attempt to uncover kernels of historical truth beneath the biblical narrative and later traditions (an impossible task anyway). Rather, he compares the biblical Abraham to the portraits painted in subsequent centuries in rabbinic Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and asks a probing set of questions that lay bare the internal dynamics of each tradition as well as the tensions between them.
Levenson's literary skill and encyclopedic grasp of the exegetical traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and (to a somewhat lesser extent) Islam makes this volume a valuable exercise in comparison. But the book also makes a strong and controversial argument about what that comparison actually reveals about the role of Abraham in the relationship between the three "Abrahamic" religions. As he writes in his introduction: