Book review: Abraham

by Bruce Feiler


“So, Professor, what do we know about Abraham?” I asked.

“All we know about Abraham is in the Bible,” he says. “In the ground, there is nothing.”

This book is Bruce Feiler’s best. With no archaeological evidence whatsoever to explore, he embarks on his journey to learn about Abraham by interviewing members of various faiths, and finds himself enmeshed in a bewildering array of legends and claims. Abraham begins life as a polytheist in Ur, but is called by a foreign god, Yahweh, to journey to a new land. The promise by this strange god? “All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” Various passages in the Bible retain echoes of this polytheism; Abraham is a transitional figure, with a foot in both worlds.

In this new land, two sons are born to Abraham, and God asks Abraham to sacrifice one of them as a test of his faith. So diverse are the legends about Abraham that there is not even agreement over which son is the requested sacrifice, but the Biblical account favors Isaac. This sacrifice—of whichever son—plays a major role in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Feiler writes, “Considering that I set out in search of what I thought was one Abraham at the heart of all three faiths, I was amazed by how much time I spent trying to figure out when one religion’s Abraham ended and another began.

The Jewish religion appears to have seniority. “Long before Christians and Muslims set about reinterpreting Abraham, early Jews were the first to perform reconstructive surgery on their purported father.” Feiler describes how the Israelites set about codifying their Bible, gathering and recording oral stories. Suddenly, Israel had scripture that described their ancestors, but what difference did that make? They still needed to make that text relevant to their lives. They needed midrash. Qumran provides excellent examples of Jewish midrash, and how Abraham was molded into their image.

Some  years later, Christians entered the scene. In Paul’s fourteen letters, he refers to Abraham nineteen times, more than any other figure except Jesus. But the idea that Abraham belongs to all humanity, which appears at least in spirit in Paul’s letters, soon begins to dissipate. Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage through Isaac to Abraham. God’s sacrifice of his Son is compared directly to Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham, says John, knew about Jesus thousands of years before Jesus was born. Abraham has been appropriated to the Christian side.

Hundreds of years later, Muslims trace their relevancy through Abraham’s other son, Ishmael. Ibn Kathir accuses Jews of dishonesty and slander, claiming they introduced Isaac into the story, even though the Bible says Abraham went to sacrifice his only son, his favored son. For Muslims, Ishmael was the favored son, so he was the one Abraham took to sacrifice. As Feiler interviews a Muslim leader, he is told, “Abraham is the father of one religion, and that religion is Islam.” “So what will happen to me?” Feiler asked. “You’ll die,” came the answer.

Thoroughly rattled, Feiler retreats. His book has become something entirely different than what he set out to write.

A collage of mementos from my Jerusalem trip

In the latter half of the first century, John the Apostle prophesied, The great city split into three parts, and the cities of the nations collapsed. Could any description of Jerusalem have been more prophetic? Nearly 2,000 years later, Jerusalem has come no closer to becoming a “city of peace,” after its namesake.  It remains a haven of hatred divided by three factions, today the Jews, Muslims, and Christians who have warred over the Holy City since the time of the Crusades.

But if Abraham provided the road map of what had gone wrong among the religions, could he also provide a road map for how to make it right? Bruce Feiler at one point in his research opened the Bible to the moment when Isaac and Ishmael bury their father. “Is that a hopeful moment?” he asked. In September, 2002, Time magazine featured Abraham on its cover. “Jews, Christians, and Muslims all claim him as their father,” the magazine proclaimed. Can he be their peacemaker? The effect was electrifying. Suddenly, interfaith relations became a hot topic among religious leaders.

It’s a struggle for humanity we continue to fight. Please join me.

1 Comment

  1. This review is a thoroughly interesting read. (Plus I just figured out there is a spell checker I can use hear, of course I will still need to look out for homophones here:)

    It makes me interested in this book. I am also interested in the reference for prophecy of John about the city.

    I agree with the need for “?”. I am just not sure if the commonly used word of humanity is the best choice. It is within the whole range of what “humanity” defines that the core causes of the battle lies.

    There are some incredible differences and similarities between these three religions. It is unfortunate that we cannot in peace try to serve God. Man, because of some parts of what is defined by humanity, continues to find new and all to often disturbing ways to use these religions. Maybe the struggle is to redefine humanity. This can only be done by changing what humanity is. I do believe there is a way of changing humanity.

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