Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity and Islam
By Jon D. Levenson
Princeton University Press,
288 pp., $29.95
As long ago as 1996, Jon Levenson wrote an important article, "The Universal Horizon of Biblical Particularism." In that piece he reflected on the way in which the Hebrew Bible adjudicated the particularity of Israel and a reach beyond Israel to the nations. In this book he takes up that same question in a different form, now with reference to the complex reality of Judaism, Christianity and Islam as coadherents in important ways to the biblical tradition, and specifically to the tradition of Abraham.
Although the book is of value for its shrewd probes of the Genesis narrative, Levenson has a very different interest in mind. His concern is the current notion that the three "religions of the book" are bound together by a common rootage in the figure of Abraham as "the father of faith." That easy assumption was made popular by Bruce Feiler's book Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths. The claim is also the subject of more serious theological reflection by a Roman Catholic scholar whom Levenson cites, Karl-Josef Kuschel.
Levenson shows that Kuschel is not evenhanded and that Christianity wins out. The same appeal to Abraham was featured, Levenson reports, by the Global Negotiation Project at Harvard. The target of Levenson's book is the kind of easy, romantic ecumenism that assumes that common footage is a basis for trust and solidarity across confessional lines. With tenacious urgency, Levenson shows that such an assumption is at best simplistic, and the implication of his book is that the assumption is a distortion and misconstrual of grave proportions.
Levenson's counter to that assumption is the insistence that one can never understand Abraham simply as a figure in the book of Genesis, for these enigmatic narratives require interpretation. And as soon as one inquires about interpretation, it becomes clear, of course, that Abraham in interpretation comes embedded in a particular interpretive tradition, and that particular tradition is situated in a particular religious community with its own history and self-understanding. Thus the Abraham of Jewish tradition-and-community contrasts starkly with the Abraham of Christian tradition-and-community and the Abraham of Islamic tradition-and-community. It will not do, then, to disregard such resilient particularities. Even Kuschel observes that "Jews, Christians and Muslims are doggedly persisting in their exclusivisms."
A subtopic for Levenson is a running polemic against the Christianly fashioned notion that Judaism is a tradition of particularism and that Christianity is an offer of inclusive universalism. Against that, Levenson insists that Christianity is as particularistic and exclusionary as Judaism and has no more claim to universalism than that faith does. His dip into the epistle to the Romans exhibits Paul as exclusionary of Jews.
This double insistence on the situated particularity of Abraham and the exclusionary particularism of Christianity runs throughout the book. Levenson considers the Abraham text in Genesis and the ways in which it has been variously treated in these interpretive communities. He recognizes, of course, that these particularities fly in the face of Enlightenment criticism, even if particular interpreters (including Levenson himself) attend to critical issues within the context of the tradition. Thus he concludes:
The appropriate goal, then, is, on the one hand, to be open to instruction from history and aware of the cultural embeddedness of the text about Abraham, and, on the other hand, to be equally open to the transcendent and enduring religious message the text conveys.... One of the central claims of the biblical tradition about Abraham from the earliest we can probe is that the very particular, historical people known as Israel carries nonetheless a transhistorical, indeed, everlasting identity and messages. …