The Idea of Abrahamic Religions: A Qualified Dissent

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)

Abraham Blessing

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 tohis 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 toAbraham, 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.


rom 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 thepeoples because he would teach them and make them know the true faith in such a way thatthe world would be perfected by means of him. And He (may He be blessed!) informed him thatHis 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)

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.

Islamic Abraham

We have seen that the attempt to treat the Abraham of Genesis as the founder of a religion is in fundamental error. In that book, what he founds is not a religion—he has no theological teaching—but a family. When we came to the Abraham of Second Temple and rabbinic Judaism, however, we found that he has now acquired a teaching. This Abraham stands foursquare against the widespread folly of idolatry and the mistake of thinking that the world is governed by physical phenomena. Instead, he teaches about the one God who is the creator and owner of the world and whose purposes the very singling out of Abraham and his descendants manifests and advances. The father has become a founder.

To the extent that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are focused on a belief in that God and a proclamation of him to the world, we can indeed speak of them as Abrahamic religions, a confraternity of three communities devoted to the one God whose character was discovered and taught by their common revered antecedent. And to that extent, too, the appeal to Abraham as a source of commonality and kinship among these three groups makes eminent sense and can help defeat the widespread notion that strong religious commitments can be a source only of division and discord.

There are, however, some serious qualifications about this use of Abraham in interreligious contexts that the texts we have seen underscore. If an appeal to Abraham simply invokes his name in pursuit of inter-communal peace and harmony but disregards the teachings with which these three communities associate him, it can only be shallow and self-defeating. And if that is the case, then the appeal to Abraham the monotheist must of necessity be founded upon that belief in the invisible, transcendent, superintending, and providential God that he is thought to have rediscovered or reencountered.

The appeal to Abraham, in other words, is necessarily also a critique of polytheism, atheism, and pantheism in their various forms, and those who belong to an Abrahamic confraternity of communities would have to oppose rigorously any attempt to reduce nature or human nature to their physical manifestations. Needless to say, this position would be highly offensive in some influential circles, since it opposes not only naturalism, or scientism, but also the position, widespread nowadays, that ultimately no theological or philosophical worldview is any better or truer than any other. Those who invoke Abraham out of a commendable desire for inter-communal peace must be careful not to allow their pluralism to slide into relativism, as if the figure they invoke made no truth claims and opposed no idolatries. Abraham is, after all, the man who in many texts remonstrates with his idolatrous father and townsmen and, in at least one that we have seen, burns down the idolaters’ temple. It is one thing to deplore the burning; it is quite another to deny that idolatry, and the transcendent truth that exposes its limitations, exist.

The belief in the sovereignty and providence of God evident in these Jewish texts from the Greco-Roman period was hardly unique to the Jews. It finds resonance among the pagans of the time, especially figures influenced by Stoicism. Indeed, there is a pagan monotheism, but if we are to use the term “monotheism” in connection with the so-called Abrahamic religions, we must also be careful not to allow that misleading term to imply a simple equation of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob with the God of the philosophers. Martin S. Jaffee points to one key difference when he describes as the “essential marker” of the sort of monotheism represented by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. That marker, in his words, “is not the uniqueness of God alone. Rather, it lies in the desire of the unique God to summon from out of the human mass a unique community established in his name and the desire of that community to serve God in love and obedience by responding to his call.” In Judaism, that “unique community” is called the people Israel. In Christianity, it is known as the Church. In Islam, it is called the Umma, the body of the faithful who have submitted to God as he has commanded them to do.

This is not to claim that the three traditions hold the same theology of election, or chosenness. They do not. Indeed, in the Muslim case, it is doubtful that Allah has elected Abraham at all; he is, rather, a prophet in the chain whose culmination is Muhammad, “the seal of the prophets.” To speak of the God of Abraham, however, without regard to the identity and nature of the “unique community” that he is thought to have founded and prefigured or, in the case of Islam, exemplified, is drastically to misunderstand how Abraham functions in these three traditions.

Some, to be sure, see this communal dimension as unnecessary. Bruce Feiler, author of a bestselling book on Abraham, laments that “suddenly the carefully balanced message of the Abraham story—that God cares for all his children—a tradition that existed for hundreds of years before the religions themselves existed, was put in jeopardy by the inheritors of that tradition [the Jews].” But the question of which community is the true heir of Abraham is hardly the creation of medieval polemic among Jews, Christians, and Muslims. It is, in fact, internal to the book of Genesis itself, whose central drama turns on the key question of which son will inherit the covenantal promise made by God to his father.

As for Abraham’s first two sons, Genesis 17:18–21 records God’s promise that although Ishmael will become the father of a great and numerous nation, it is with Isaac alone that God will make the covenant. In this theology, the subtlety of which is often missed, Ishmael is not disowned: rather, he inherits the promise but not the covenant, while Isaac inherits both. A similar dynamic can be seen in the next generation, when it is Isaac’s younger son Jacob who acquires the status of the firstborn and his father’s blessing, not the older brother Esau. The point of such narratives is clear: Not all biological descendants of Abraham are members of the Abrahamic community. It was never the case that “the balanced message of the Abraham story [was] that God cares for all his children,” as Feiler mistakenly thinks. For in the biblical telling, the fathers of the whole human race are Adam and Noah; Abraham is the father of the Jewish people. All people are created “in the image of God,” as Genesis 1 famously puts it, but not all peoples, not even all monotheists, are descendants of Abraham. If the three Abrahamic religions agree on the specialness and preciousness of the human race in the eyes of God, it is not because of Abraham.

We have seen that the nature of the monotheism of the Abrahamic religious traditions is one that is inextricably involved with the formation of a distinct community, distinguised in one way or another from the rest of humanity to give testimony to God in distinctive ways. Here, Jaffee’s term, “elective monotheism,” is useful. It reminds us that in Genesis (though not in the Qur’an) the patriarch’s discovery of God or God’s revelation to him is only half the story; the other half involves the question of inheritance: Which son most fully carries on the father’s promise? In sum, the theme of election or chosenness is an inextricable part of the Abrahamic tradition in both Judaism and Christianity, though Islam takes a somewhat different path. We can go further: if the communal dimension is an intrinsic aspect of Abrahamic monotheism in its Jewish and Christian manifestations, then it makes sense that each of the three self-styled Abrahamic traditions would sometimes portray their founder as practicing that tradition. And indeed, in Jewish tradition we meet an Abraham who kept the mitzvot, the commandments of the Torah, before the Torah was given; in Christian tradition, we hear of an Abraham who was pronounced righteous by God as an uncircumcised Gentile without the Torah and its commandments; and in Islam, as we shall soon see, there is the Abraham/Ibrahim who was neither a Jew nor a Christian precisely because he lived before there was a Torah or a gospel but who was instead a Muslim prophet whose true followers today are those who follow Muhammad.

The connection of Abraham with ongoing communities and their distinctive practices and beliefs is what makes it possible for Abraham to have become a point of controversy among them and not simply, as many would desire today, a node of commonality. The Jewish Abraham who observes the commandments of the Torah even before it has been given through Moses (which is, importantly, not the only Jewish view of the matter) originates before the Pauline Abraham who is, to use Paul’s language, reckoned as righteous by faith alone, but it is not hard to see how the two images became opposing sides of a continuing and community-defining disputation.

In the Qur’an, the Jews and Christians are chided for just that: for arguing anachronistically about Abraham.

O People of the Book, why do you dispute concerning Abraham, when the Torah and the Gospel were only revealed after him? Do you have no sense?
There, you have disputed concerning what you know; so why do you dispute concerning what you do not know? Allah knows and you do not know.
Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but a hanif [i.e., a true monotheist] and a Muslim. And he was not one of the polytheists.
Surely, the people who are worthiest of Abraham are those who followed him, together with this Prophet and the believers. Allah is the guardian of the believers! (Qur’an 3:65–68)

At first, this passage may seem to prefigure the modern belief in a three-fold confraternity of Abrahamic religions, all of them focused on their mutual founder. A closer look reveals, however, that the passage removes Abraham from Jews and Christians alike, directing these communities, who have so long denied each other’s continuity with him, to see him as something different from themselves and more ancient—as one who was muslim, submitted to God and untainted by idolatry of any sort. What he prefigures, in short, is not the confraternity of Abrahamic religions but rather the one true Abrahamic religion, Islam, which the Jews and Christians, for all their disputatious prattle about the patriarch, have distorted.

There is something truly outward-looking and expansive in the story of the man who is promised that he shall be “the father of a multitude of nations,” and the efforts of the three “Abrahamic religions” to associate him exclusively with their own communities cannot altogether obliterate this. But in the case of Jews and Christians, the commonality of the three communities will always be limited by the focus of the book of Genesis on chosenness or election. The very claim that God has graciously singled out a particular people—the people of Israel or the Church—constitutes both a bond and a barrier between these two continuing communities, one that they do not share with Islam. But even in the case of Jews and Christians, to speak of the Abrahamic legacy as only a bond, or as only a barrier, is to simplify matters to the point of falsification. In this instance, as in so many others, the challenge before Jews and Christians alike is to uphold with integrity both the connections and the divisions. Since today the pressure to uphold the connections is vastly greater than the pressure to uphold the divisions, this is, alas, no easy task.


  1. luke.lea

    Prof. Levenson might be interested in some original (I think?) research I did on the historicity of the Patriarchal narratives in the course of a scholarly article I once wrote for the journal Judaism, with the decidedly un-scholarly title, The Torah and the West Bank. Here is a link: If it doesn't work consult the library or send me an email luke dot lea at gmail

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