As the theological undercurrents of the present Middle East turmoil roil ever closer to the surface, well-meaning observers in the West have increasingly looked toward a common biblical ancestor to heal conflict among Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Bruce Feiler’s bestselling Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths (2002), for example, reassures us that “despite the violence, the misunderstanding, and the history of reinterpretation that attends his name, Abraham still is the root of our common heritage and the example for reunion among his children.”
Similar strains of universalism, sometimes embellished with apologetics, have more recently been sounded in the academy. In announcing Oxford University’s new chair in Abrahamic religions, Professor George Pattison of the theology faculty said, “Jews, Christians, and Muslims all refer to Abraham as a friend of God, and I hope that the establishment of this important post will contribute to deepening friendship amongst these three great religions in their diverse quests to honor God rightly.”
But Carol Bakhos of UCLA, in her lucid new book, challenges the notion that the first patriarch can be so innocuously pressed into the service of interfaith reconciliation. “This understanding of Abraham,” she argues, “is rooted neither in Scripture nor in early interpretive traditions but rather in the rhetoric of twentieth-century ecumenical advocacy of religious tolerance and understanding.”
As Jews, Christians, and Muslims forged their respective faiths, Bakhos writes, each evoked and defined itself against the figure of Abraham, who is described in Genesis as “father of a multitude of nations.” She opens her nuanced reading of those traditions—each of which claims to be the sole authentic heir of Abraham’s legacy—with a simple question: “Exactly what is Abrahamic about Judaism, Christianity, and Islam?”
In Genesis, Abraham is the forefather of the Jewish people, a 10th-generation descendant of Noah who is singled out as the bearer of an unconditional covenant which will be that people’s most precious patrimony. This first patriarch exhibits great faith (heeding God’s command to leave his native Mesopotamia and his father’s home for an unknown land), bold compassion (arguing with God to spare the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah), and profound hospitality (welcoming strangers).
Yet Bakhos notes that nowhere does Genesis depict Abraham as arguing with pagans and idolaters. He never fulminates against false gods or rival deities. Neither is he a teacher or proselytizer. Nor, with the exception of circumcision, does he observe Mosaic law. In fact, the ultimate act required of him, the sacrifice of his son, is the very command that cannot be universalized into law.
Such stories come later, when the rabbinic tradition begins to grapple with the early Christian critique of law. Only in the imaginative literature called midrash does Abraham smash his father’s idols. Only in the Mishnah, the earliest compilation of Jewish law, is he said, with some anachronistic license, to have “practiced the entire Torah before it was given.”
In Genesis, however, what matters above all is the question of succession—and it isn’t a question that portends well for interfaith dialogue. Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn (and the subject of an earlier book by Bakhos), is banished. By the early Middle Ages, Bakhos writes, the rabbinic imagination had identified Ishmael with Islam. Isaac, the younger son, is chosen to carry on the covenantal line. “If anything,” Bakhos writes, this is one instance of how well-meaning talk of confraternity “maintains deeply entrenched misconceptions of Islam, and on some level aggravates the very antagonism it hopes to ameliorate.”
If the Jewish Abraham founds a nation, the Christian Abraham undermines the theological significance of nations themselves. If Judaism represents Abraham as the first partner of God’s unretracted promise, Christianity understands him (and his family) as foreshadowing the fulfillment of that promise and the culmination of the covenant.
Take, for instance, his willingness to sacrifice Isaac. Paul declares that God, like Abraham, “did not withhold his own Son.” (In the Koran’s account of this paradigmatic gesture of submission to God’s will, the son Abraham intends to sacrifice goes unnamed, and early Islamic exegetes disagreed about whether it was Ishmael or Isaac.)