Exploring the Power of Abraham's Legacy

Article excerpt

Amid the abundant evidence that violence and military force are not the road to peace in the Holy Land, a few small groups in the region have been searching for common ground within Judaism, Islam, and Christianity as a place to start.

They have a valuable new ally. Bruce Feiler, the bestselling author of "Walking the Bible," has brought his winning mix of insight, passion, and historical research to that task. His latest book focuses on Abraham, the one man to whom all three monotheistic faiths trace their roots.

It was the events of 9/11, Feiler says, that compelled him to pursue a journey into the heart of the three faiths, to explore whether their shared ancestor - "the first person to understand that there is only one God" - might be "a vessel for reconciliation."

The patriarch of the Jewish people and the spiritual forefather of the New Testament, Abraham is also, through his son, Ishmael, considered father of the Arabs. He is a vivid presence in the Koran and a major figure in Muslim religious practice - including the pilgrimage to Mecca and the most important Islamic feast day.

Well aware of the power that history wields in the imagination of the region, Feiler was hoping to find an Abraham of the sacred texts that could serve as a bridge for all the faithful. Instead, he encountered a multitude of Abrahams - some 240, he says! - as the interpretative works of each religion over four millenniums reshaped and often made more exclusive the story of this remarkable figure. Probably less than 1 percent of the Abraham stories appear in the Bible, he says.

Yet Abraham's legacy and his deep yearning for God - as found in legend as well as sacred text - remain a profound presence in the lives of his descendants. Is this yearning powerful enough, Feiler wonders, to outweigh the interpretations that appropriate Abraham and God's promise to him for one particular faith? Can that promise come to stand for what the biblical words suggest: "I will make your name great, ... and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you."

In search of answers, Feiler delves deeply into the most celebrated episodes of Abraham's life and explores their import within each of the faiths. The call from God to go out to an unknown destination, the births of Ishmael and Isaac, the sending of Hagar and her son into the wilderness, Abraham's offering of his son as a sacrifice to God - these momentous narratives, he demonstrates, have resounded down the centuries in the most intimate ways in people's lives.

The story of the offering stands as "the most celebrated" and "most combustible" episode. All three religions "have chosen to place the narrative of a father preparing to kill a son at the heart of their self-understanding," he says. Some Jews in medieval times even found courage in the story to kill themselves and their children rather than be forced to convert. …