The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam
By Jon D. Levenson
Princeton, 244 pages
I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.
So God informed Abraham when He commanded him to leave his native land, kin, and father’s house thousands of years ago. In the intervening time Abraham’s name has indeed become great. So, too, have many families and nations laid claim to a share of Abraham’s blessing and legacy, but it is most particularly the three great religious traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that have done so. The story of these claims to be Abraham’s heirs is the core subject of Jon D. Levenson’s excellent new book. Inheriting Abraham is informed throughout by Levenson’s characteristically great learning; he is the Albert A. List professor of Jewish studies at Harvard. But add to that virtue, and the graceful and clear prose in which he displays it, wisdom and judiciousness, which are as necessary for the consideration of his subject as they are lacking when the name of this most founding of fathers is invoked to score a political, religious, or cultural point.
The greater portion of this book is devoted to the diverse ways Abraham and his story have been interpreted. But this effort properly begins with the story itself, as presented in Genesis, chapters 11–24, and provides this account with an impressively careful reading and interpretation.
As the biblical account is both complicated and austere, it is open to ambiguities regarding essential issues: Of what did Abraham’s precise blessing consist? In what way was he responsible for it? Was it his faith, his righteousness, or both? If both, which was more important? What was the most crucial evidence for Abraham’s virtue? As Abraham engages in less than laudable activities—lying about Sarah being his wife, for example—how is one to understand him? Is he in fact a model, and does he have a teaching? Is this the blessing he conveys? And does it apply primarily or exclusively to his own privileged descendants through his son Isaac, or does it apply more generally?
Levenson’s discussion raises all these questions clearly, and he offers his own impressive answers within the boundaries of what the Bible actually says. In his view, Abraham’s blessing is relatively restricted and national, focused on the children of Israel, who will eventually come from his loins. The blessing is then modified and specified in such a way that the resulting covenant depends upon both God’s graciousness and Abraham’s own virtues.
Levenson’s account represents an effort to correct a tendency among universalists to neglect the Jewish legacy of Abraham. He stresses how contained the Abrahamic story is to Abraham’s own flock. But is this containment, as he seems to suggest, total? What of Abraham’s famous dialogue with God about the fate of Sodom, in which he asks, “Shall not the Judge of the whole earth do justice?” And even if it is true that in the biblical account Abraham has no “teaching”—no moral instructions of his own—may not his own life be regarded as a teaching?
While these questions may be subject for further discussion, they ably lay the groundwork for Levenson’s analysis of how the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic traditions have claimed Abraham’s partial or total paternity. (Note, though, that latter tradition lays claim not through the Bible but the Koran.)
Here, the question of the universality of Abraham’s blessing is paramount. Levenson finds that all three traditions departed from the immediate facts of the biblical narrative with different consequences.
For example, Jewish tradition insisted on understanding Abraham’s life in the light of other key biblical personages and events—in particular, Moses’s leadership of the exodus from Egypt and the provision of the law at Mount Sinai. These were placed at the center of Jewish history, thus diminishing Abraham’s role and using it instead as a harbinger of more important moments to come.
Jewish tradition found it necessary to answer the ways in which others interpreted Abraham. The Apostle Paul elevated the status of Abraham in such a way as to emphasize Abraham’s faith, rather than his actions, as his highest virtue, and God’s grace as the chief cause of God’s blessing. In this way, Paul found an anchor for the role of Jesus in the Hebrew Bible.
Levenson also describes the Koran’s very extensive and distinctive presentation of Abraham—including his designation as the model Muslim and the model prophet, and, as such, the model for Muhammad.
As Levenson shows, the Jewish tradition affected both the Christian and Muslim ones but also responded to them. Along the way it also responded to the Greek philosophical tradition and sometimes interpreted Abraham partially in its light. But Inheriting Abraham is not merely concerned with this history in its own right. Rather, as Levenson indicates forcefully, this history has had direct and profound consequences.
The three religious traditions have not merely claimed a share in Abraham’s blessing; they have tended to aspire to sole ownership of it. These rivalries led to substantial hostility and persecution among rival claimants. This was true of Christianity and Islam with regard to each other, but especially true of both with regard to Judaism. The dispute over Abraham is part of the explanation for the fact that for Jews over the centuries, God’s blessing has sometimes been difficult to distinguish from a curse.
More recently, something else has happened when it comes to understanding Abraham’s role: the elevation of the virtue of tolerance in the West. Many hope that Abraham’s blessing might somehow be recovered and used as a means of producing understanding and comity among hostile parties. That is why it is now common to speak of “Abrahamic faiths” or “Abrahamic religions” grounded in common respect for and sometime common “descent” from Abraham. Conferences, seminars, and outreach efforts have centered on this supposedly unifying theme in order to convince the Islamic world that it has grounds for fellowship, friendship, and mutual respect with the West. For though Jews and Christians retain their disagreements about the meaning of Abraham’s legacy, since the end of the Second World War they have largely found a civil plane on which to pursue them. In contrast, Muslims remain loudly and sometimes violently insistent on their own interpretation.
Levenson’s book is thus partially addressed to this new “Abrahamic” initiative, most directly in a concluding chapter entitled “One Abraham or Three?” He believes, and argues convincingly, that this effort as it is currently pursued is and will remain a failure. Such failure “surely does not lie in the intention that usually motivates it, to bring about peace and understanding among Jews, Christians, and Muslims,” he writes. “That is an indisputably worthy goal and the respectful study by members of any of these groups of the scriptures and traditions of the other two can definitively advance it and has already done so.” Rather it consists of the fact that it depends upon bringing forth a new and “neutral” Abraham, and in so doing, “in effect creates a new religion that both encompasses these three [Judaism, Christianity, and Islam] and supersedes them.” It is unlikely that many serious Jews, Christians and Muslims can or will embrace this new religion.
Worse still for Jews, the interpretations and formulas by which this new religion is achieved are more hostile to traditional Jewish understanding. They are only mildly less so to traditional Christian understandings. They achieve their greatest convergence or compatibility with traditional Muslim teachings (although it departs from them as well). As Levenson states, the simplest way to see the disproportion is to note that it is the Koran rather than the Jewish and Christian Bibles in which Abraham is most central—a remarkable if often unappreciated fact.
His analysis of the current dynamic helpfully traces its intellectual and spiritual origins to Louis Massignon (1883–1962), a distinguished French Arabist and Roman Catholic who sought to achieve in life and work a union of Christianity and Islam via the figure of Abraham, whom he so admired that he pronounced him a “saint” and took his name. Massignon basically coined the notion of “Abrahamic religions” and in a way privileged a Muslim understanding, albeit in his own idiosyncratic way, by declaring that “the Muslim who believes in the original equality of the three Abrahamic religions, Israel, Christianity, Islam, knows that they refer to the same God of truth.”
Today’s proponents of an “Abrahamic” perspective incline toward this tendency. But to do so now represents a kind of accommodation to the most indignant and violent party to the historical dispute. It is worth noting that the present efforts to write a new Egyptian constitution have produced drafts that would define the freedom of religion in terms of “Abrahamic religions.”
Levenson points out that it is doubtful that even Massignon’s views, let alone those of others, could satisfy Muslim self-understanding. Nor is it to be expected that they will satisfy serious Christians and Jews. He proposes that “rather than inventing a neutral Abraham to whom these three ancient communities must now hold themselves accountable, we would be better served by appreciating better both the profound commonalities and equally profound differences among them and why the commonalities and the differences alike have endured and show every sign of continuing to do so.” The splendid Inheriting Abraham is the very model of that.