It is perhaps a vast understatement to say that in the history of monotheism there has been much conflict between the various Abrahamic religions. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all argue that they have the “correct” version of God’s message and have historically been willing to defend this assertion with the sword. In our time, while there is still a large amount of animosity between these various faiths, a growing portion of members from each of these religions have realized that it is important to come together in the name of interfaith and gain a better understanding of others.
Unsurprisingly, one of the prime ways in which interfaith tries to repair the relations between the monotheistic religions is in the name of Abraham. In all three religions Abraham is presented as the father of monotheism, a man who fought against paganism, and spread the name of God. Many interfaith organizations and conversations even go so far as to name their organization after Abraham, such as the Abrahamic initiative. In these organizations Abraham is presented as an ecumenical figure, a man who represented a mythical time period of pure monotheism before any specific religion came onto the scene. If only, they argue, we can go back to this pure monotheistic world of Abraham, bloodshed and hatred would cease to exist between the various religions.
Before I begin my analysis and discussion I want to make one point very clear: I am a huge proponent of interfaith work. Throughout my time in college I have attended many different events, often speaking on behalf of the various Jewish organizations that were in attendance. I have met people of all different background and, through interfaith conversations, have gained a better appreciation for people of beliefs that differ from my own. That said, I think that focusing on Abraham as a starting point for interfaith conversation is antithetical to the entire endeavor.
While it is true that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all consider Abraham to be their father, this does not mean that they view each other as loving brothers. Similar to the problem of primogeniture which is ubiquitous throughout the Bible, the Abrahamic religions are less like brothers in the friendly sense of the word, and more like Jacob and Esau – fighting over the birthright (blessing of chosenness) from their father. Rather then view themselves as sharing Abraham, each of these religions claim Abraham to belong solely to their own tradition. A short summary of the history of the usage of Abraham in scripture and exegetical interpretation should drive home this point home quite nicely.
Our conversation starts about 2,000 years ago at the advent of Christianity. The combination of the destruction of the temple in 70 CE and subsequent failure of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 CE, the imperialistic and oppressive Roman empire, and nascent Christianity presented a multi-dimensional theological attack on Judaism. Did God still care about the Jews after their temple and city was taken over and destroyed by the Romans? This question, when added to the Christian claim that God had deserted the Jewish people, would have stung extra hard at this difficult time period for the Jews. It is at this point in history where our discussion of Abraham will begin.
The details regarding early Jewish-Christian relations are very elusive, and there are very few concrete facts that historians agree upon. This topic happens to be the subject of my master’s thesis and I have very quickly realized that different books and articles (all by reputable historians) come to vastly different conclusions on how much the Jews were in contact and contention with pre-Constantine Christianity. However, according to many historians, much of the early tannaitic and midrashic works were implicit polemics against Christian claims – in particular the claim that the mosaic law has been rendered trite. Interestingly enough, the figure of Abraham was used as a archetypal figure for both religions to base their arguments.
One of the main tenants of early, Pauline Christianity was the abolition of the law. In the book of Galatians, Paul compares the Jews and their adherence to the law, to Hagar the slave. The law Paul argued, was enslaving and to really become free one must cast away the law. Meanwhile, the Christians, who are compared to Sarah, have been freed from this enslavement law by their faith in Jesus (Galatians 4). One of the main arguments of the early Christians was that Abraham, the founder of monotheism, was not a man of action but rather faith. A plethora of verses throughout the New Testament describe Abraham as the paragon of faith, arguing that the law is unimportant as long as one has faith. Take, for example this quote from Romans:
It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith. (Rom 4:13)
The argument does not stop here. Paul, and the early Christians, took the next step by arguing that the offspring of Abraham were not his genealogical descendant (aka the Jews), but rather those who shared his faith.
Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Gal 3:7-9)
The Christian portrayal of Abraham as a man of faith even went so far as to describe his most famous action, the Akeda, as an act of faith:
By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death (Hebrews 11:17-19)
The Akeda, is described as an act of faith, in which Abraham had so much faith in God that the physical act of killing his son is almost a second thought.
This Christian portrayal of Abraham is anything but ecumenical. Paul was not arguing that Jews and Christians were both sons of Abraham, rather he was arguing that the sons of Abraham were exclusively those who has Christological faith – purposely excluding Jews.
As stated earlier, many early rabbinic texts were implicit polemics against Christians. It is then of interest that the famous Jewish idea that Abraham kept the entire Torah appears at exactly this time. A whole array of midrashim (Genesis Rabbah 79:7, 92:4, 95:2, Yevamot 21 and many more) attesting to different biblical commandments that Abraham observed, along with the general idea that he kept the Torah, would have been the perfect counterclaim to the Christian picture of Abraham as the man of faith. While there is much more to be said in regards to the Jewish conception of Abraham’s observation of the commandment, for the sake of brevity I will keep this analysis short. What is important to take from the Midrashic picture of Abraham is that he was depicted as a fully practicing Jew, who learned and observed the Torah. Thus, the Jewish conception of Abraham is also rather non-ecumenical, as he along with his “chosen” descendants are those whom which God entered a special covenant.
Starting in the year 570 CE with the birth of Muhammad – a new conception of Abraham came onto the scene. Islam’s scripture, the Qur’an, draws heavily upon stories from the Hebrew Bible, New Testament, Midrashic literature, and Arabic literature to drive home some of the major values of Islam. One of these values, that is ubiquitous throughout the Qur’an, is the idea that man must submit themselves to God. This idea is so important that Islam actually means ‘submit’ in Arabic, and Muslims are simply those who submit.
One of the premises of Islam is that both the classical Jewish and Christian prophets, were in fact “real prophets”, but their message was corrupted over the years until eventually God sent a new prophet, Muhammad, to re-teach humanity the truth. With this premise, the Qur’an is able to simultaneously borrow from Jewish and Christian texts, while rejecting the parts that they do not agree with. In this light, the Qur’an creates a new conception of Abraham – a man who fully submitted to God.
In Islamic thought, Abraham becomes the father of the prophetic chain, a man who was able to fully submit his will to God and spread monotheism throughout the world. The Qur’an is very clear about the fact that Abraham belongs neither to the Christians or to the Jews, but rather to Islam:
Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but he was one inclining toward truth (a Hanif), a Muslim. (Quran 3.67)
Similar to the New Testament, the Qur’an makes the claim that Abraham was truly a Muslim. Furthermore, the Qur’an explicitly argues against the claim that Abraham could have been either a Jew or Christian:
You people of the book (Jews and Christians), why are you so argumentative about Abraham, seeing that the Torah and Gospel were only sent down after his time? (Qur’an 3.65)
Again, in Islam Abraham is not seen as a unifying figure, but rather he represents the ideal Muslim. According to Islam, the Jews and Christian have incorrect views regarding Abraham and the Qur’an is quite explicit in arguing this point. Accordingly, Abraham becomes the father of Islam, a man who built the Kaaba in Mecca (Qur’an 2.125) and preached Islamic values.
When Abraham is put forth as a unifying figure for the “Abrahamic religions” we run two major risks. The first risk, and one that is the entire premise of the book Abrahamic Religions by Aaron Hughes, is that we are being intellectually dishonest. It is simply false to claim that in Jewish, Christian, and Islamic thought Abraham represents a unifying figure that can mend inter-religious relations.
The second risk, and one that is far more important in my opinion, is that it creates unnecessary confusion between adherents of the various religions. One of the main points of interfaith events is to foster a better understanding of other religions, which will hopefully lead to increased tolerance for other opinions. When Abraham is portrayed as this mythic ecumenical figure, I have observed that it has actually inhibited conversation between people of various faiths. Last year at the end of one of these events a young Christian student came up to me and asked “If Jews believe to be descended from Abraham, how can they reject Jesus, when the New Testament clearly claims that Abraham believed in him?” This question can only be based off of the notion that Abraham is viewed equally in the various religions. About a month ago a similar instant occurred when after my Qur’an class a Muslim girl asked me “Why don’t Jews view the Kaaba as holy when the Qur’an says that Abraham built it?”
These questions are perfect examples of what can go wrong when we incorrectly use Abraham as a unifying figure. Instead of gaining a better understanding of other religions, we are obscuring the lines between them- resulting in people walking away with a confused, and at times incorrect, view of the religions that they set out to understand. Rather than lie to ourselves and pretend that Jews, Christians, and Muslims have always viewed each other as brothers, sharing father Abraham – we need to tell the truth and alleviate unnecessary confusion. There is nothing wrong with disagreement, and interfaith events should be a place to openly discuss and even celebrate these disagreements. Just like it is perfectly acceptable that Jews, Christians, and Muslims differ on conceptions of God, heaven, and other important issues – they can differ on their conception of Abraham too.
While this concludes my thoughts on using Abraham as an exemplar of inter-faith, I feel like I could have written more about what inter-faith organizations should use as a unifying factor instead of Abraham. Sounds like another post…
Stay tuned for more on this next week!
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