Will the Real Abraham Please Stand Up?

Article excerpt

Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity and Islam

Jon D. Levenson

Princeton University Press 2012, $29.95, pp. 244

The synthetic term "Abrahamic," habitually used to depict the shared foundation of the three major Western monotheistic faiths, has rapidly gained currency in recent decades. From academic experts in the field of comparative religion to countless clerics involved in interfaith work, labeling Judaism, Christianity and Islam as Abrahamic underscores what they supposedly have in common: a singular God, similar scriptural traditions and, most to the point, a common patriarch in faith. And yet, as a superb new book by Harvard Divinity School's Jon Levenson powerfully argues, this is all deeply misleading, because it obscures fundamental differences and historical antagonisms, many of which are buttressed precisely by exclusive claims to be the sole authentic inheritors of Abraham's legacy.

Of course, as Levenson himself generously allows, the quest to discover shared beliefs and traditions, impelled by the honorable desire to overcome ancient and medieval religious hatreds and to heal wounds that endure to this day, is inherently "an eminently worthy goal." But, as he abundantly demonstrates in his meticulous study of Abraham's widely divergent legacy in each of these three faiths, in focusing on the biblical stories of the Hebrew patriarch and endeavoring to construct a "historical" Abraham who transcends the particular traditions they have developed around him, these scholars and clerics are "looking for love in all the wrong places."

Inheriting Abraham is a deeply scholarly work but also a clear and methodical one, which makes it easily accessible to a wide readership. Levenson does far more than handily demolish the many myths associated with the term "Abrahamic." In each chapter, he begins by revisiting, with rigor and clarity, what the biblical sources (Genesis, 12-24) do, and more importantly and often surprisingly do not disclose about the patriarch. Throughout his close reading of the Abraham narratives in the book of Genesis, Levenson always takes into account both traditional readings, which treat the Torah as the work of a single prophetic author (i.e. Moses), as well as modern academic approaches to the text that point to multiple authors and numerous accretions. One of the book's incidental gifts is that it points a way for those who revere the Torah as divine writ to also take into account the rich findings of critical biblical scholarship.


From his close analysis of Genesis, Levenson moves on to present the divergent, elaborate--and often hostile and mutually exclusive--ways in which these biblical stories were received, elaborated and utilized theologically in each of the three Abrahamic religions. The results of Levenson's assiduous research prove as satisfying as they are startling, and will no doubt prove dizzying to those who have inherited the often pat and comfortable tales of their respective faiths, imbibed in cheders, Sunday schools and madrasas. On one crucially important matter, Levenson leaves absolutely no doubt: There simply is no textual foundation for the Abrahamic construction of a common patriarch whose life and teachings constitute the foundations of Judaism, Christianity or Islam:

"Given these conflicting interpretations of the supposedly common figure, the claim that Abraham is a source of reconciliation among the three traditions increasingly called Abraham' is as simplistic as it is now widespread. Historically, Abraham has functioned much more as a point of differentiation among the three religious communities than as a node of commonality. The assumption that we can I recover a neutral Abraham that is independent of Judaism, Christianity and Islam--yet authoritative over them--is quite unwarranted."

In the course of his study, which largely follows the order of the biblical 0 "biography" of Abraham, from his initial I call by God through his ultimate "test" in the aqeda (the binding, or for Christians, the sacrifice and resurrection, of Isaac) to his death, Levenson treats his readers to Ian enriching, at times astonishing, exploration of the radically divergent voyages on which each religious tradition took its Abraham. …