Our Abraham, Not Theirs
Inheriting Abraham, by Jon Levenson, expertly dismantles the idea of the patriarch as the father of three religions
We like to think that mutual understanding promotes tolerance. But sometimes we hate people because we understand them. Martin Luther’s exhaustive study of rabbinic commentaries as well as Hebrew scripture did not prevent him from proposing the destruction of every Jewish home along with every synagogue. Adolf Eichmann hoped to study Hebrew with a Berlin rabbi, the better to understand the people he planned to exterminate.
In Inheriting Abraham, Jon Levenson, the Albert A. List Professor of Bible at Harvard’s Divinity School, throws cold water on the mutual-understanding campfire. Misunderstanding is not what divides the image of Abraham in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the misnomered “Abrahamic religions”; on the contrary, the founders of the younger religions well understood Abraham’s role in Judaism. St. Paul’s transformation of Abraham into the father of all who believe, and the Quran’s recasting of Abraham as a Muslim prophet who prefigured Muhammed, both rejected the Jewish version by design, by inventing their own Abrahams to serve their own doctrinal purposes.
Through published excerpts and interviews, Levenson has been drawing attention to his most provocative conclusion: that it is wrong to present Abraham as a unifying figure who transcends the differences among Christians, Jews, and Muslims. The progressive wings of Christianity as well as Judaism have a great deal invested in this reassuring claim, and Levenson’s devastating refutation of the “three Abraham religions” thesis will be unwelcome. He makes short work of pop theologians like Bruce Feiler, whose best-selling book on the patriarch claims that “Abraham belongs to all of humanity” and that “the carefully balanced message of the Abraham story [is] that God cares for all his children—a tradition that existed for hundreds of years before the religions themselves existed.” Feiler and his co-thinkers, Levenson observes, have essentially invented another Abraham—“a neutral Abraham who can be made to serve as a control on the Abrahams of the three traditions that are thought to derive from him.”
So, it is clear that Levenson’s new book will be resented in liberal religious circles. What it won’t be, however, is easily refuted.
Why should Abraham belong to all of humanity? For Jews and Christians, the answer lies in paternity and covenant: Abraham is the father of God’s people, through his son Isaac in Judaism, and for Christians, through the faith of those who belief in Jesus’ resurrection. Christianity’s departure from Judaism is an argument about lineage and legitimacy. The Abraham of Genesis, as Levenson notes, never preaches monotheism. The Abraham who smashed the idols in his father’s workshop appears in Second Temple sources, and that is the Abraham of the Quran: the prophet of monotheism who prefigures Muhammed. Abraham’s definitive act for Christians and Jews, his obedience to God’s command to sacrifice Isaac, is simply a prooftest of submission for Muslims, who are instructed by Muhammed as prefigured by Abraham.
As Levenson showed in his 1993 book on the binding of Isaac, and reprises here, Jews and Christians sacrifice every day, albeit vicariously—through such rituals as circumcision and the redemption of the firstborn, and above all through sacrificial service. The purpose of religion is to triumph over death. We give our lives to God, who gives us eternal life in return. In ancient Judaism, sacrifice was the religious service for which the rabbis substituted the thrice-daily prayers after the Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E. Jews recite the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22) in every morning service, remembering that God swore by himself to bless the patriarch and his descendants because he did not withhold his only son.
For Jews, the vicarious sacrifice of the ram in place of Isaac prefigures the lamb of the Exodus, whose blood keeps out the Angel of Death. Sacrifice is God’s gift of love, the means by which death is displaced from Isaac and by extension from the whole family of Abraham. Christianity transmutes these themes of love and sacrifice: In place of the near-sacrifice of Isaac, who is bound for death but miraculously spared, Jesus dies and is resurrected.
Paul takes this challenge a step further, Levenson continues. The commonplace notion that Paul wanted to extend the Covenant of Israel to all peoples is entirely wrong: “For Paul, the Gentile Christian has abandoned the Adamic identity for the Abrahamic. He has left the universal identity associated with the sin-infected human essence and been recreated as one who attains righteousness in the sight of God on the basis of his faith, just as Abraham did in the Pauline reading.” Christians thus styled themselves the adoptive children of Abraham, separate from the sinful mass of humanity. On the strength of the promise in Genesis that Abraham would become “the father of the multitude of nations,” Paul proposes a separate lineage for Gentile Christians. As Paula Frederiksen puts it, “Pagans-in-Christ are also from Abraham’s lineage, since Abraham was the father of many nations (Gen. 17:4; Rom. 4:17); but they descend from Abraham alone, not also from Isaac and Jacob.”
A number of Jewish scholars, notably Michael Wyschogrod, have proposed similar readings of Paul. This approach helps explain why the founder of Christianity accepted the continuing existence of the Jewish people, Abraham’s children of the flesh, despite our refusal to acknowledge the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth. Whether Christians are persuaded by such readings of Paul is a different matter. From the beginning, the church identified itself not as a new Abrahamic religion but as Israel itself. St. Peter said (I Peter 2:9), “But you [Christians] are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” From the standpoint of the Catholic Church, the independent existence of the Jewish people represents a schism within Israel, and so it will never abandon its hope for the conversion of the Jews to Christianity. What has changed in Catholic thinking since Vatican II is that the church considers that a question for the end times rather than for missionary activism today. Church doctrine today therefore looks benignly on the Jewish presence on earth—until Jesus should appear once more.
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