People mean well when they say it, but is it true? Is there any scriptural basis for Abraham as a prototype for all faiths at once?
In Judaism, Abraham is an ancestor by blood. In Christianity he is an ancestor by faith. In Islam he is an intolerant role model. The first is ethnically supremacist, the second is spiritually supremacist, and the third is militantly supremacist. None leaves much room for religious pluralism as they are presented.
My approach to the question of Abraham is similar to that of Jon Levenson, and not someone like Bruce Feiler. We do ourselves a disservice when we are afraid to be honest about religious traditions. By all means turn Abraham into a multiculturalist if you want to. But be upfront about what you’re doing, and don’t claim a scriptural precedent for it.
The Hebrew Bible opposes the idea that Abraham is the ancestor of more than one people on an equal basis. His line of inheritance passes to one son and one grandson (Isaac and Jacob), but not the others. He is the ancestor of this line by blood, the Jewish forefather by natural descent (Isa 51:2). The Jewish people are his seed (Ps 105:6, Isa 41:8). He was circumcised and even kept the Torah, though it hadn’t been given yet (Sir 44:19-20). He’s the father of many nations (Gen 17:5), but proselyte conversion — getting circumcised and taking on the full Torah — is the only way for pagans to be saved on an equal basis; becoming Jewish is the way Gentiles become children of Abraham.
Otherwise they are just Noah’s children. They can still be saved, and in fact most Jewish expectations entertain pagan salvation on a second-class basis. Many texts speak of Israel as a light to the nations, and her salvation going forth to the ends of the earth (Isa 49:6, 51:4; Mic 4:1); Gentiles would be added to Israel and thus saved (Isa 56:6-8; Zech 2:11, 8:20-23; Isa 45:22; Tob 14:6f; I En 90:30-33). Other texts speak of the Gentiles being subjugated under Jewish imperialism (Isa 49:23; Mic 7:17; I En 90:30; 1QM 12:13), and still others hope that Gentiles will be destroyed and their cities occupied by Israel (Isa 54:3; Ben Sira 36:7,9; I En 91:9; Bar 4:25,31,35; 1QM 12:10).
There is diversity, but it’s generally clear. The Jews — the physical descendents of Abraham — stand at the center of human history, and their blessings radiate outward to pagans who acknowledge the significance of God’s covenant with Israel. Gentiles can be saved as Gentiles, if they turn from idolatry to the worship of Israel’s God, and follow minimal Torah standards required of righteous Gentiles. If they fully convert (get circumcised and take on the whole Torah), then they become Jews and are saved as children of Abraham. If they chose the former option, they are saved as second-class members of the covenant community.
It’s a common belief that the Abraham of Christianity breaks down racial barriers, and to some extent that’s true. According to the apostle Paul, Abraham was justified by his faith alone, and such faith is the common ground uniting Jews and Gentiles on an equal basis. But two things need to be kept in mind.
(1) Paul demolished Jewish privilege, but he introduced a new form of supremacism: obviously, the exclusion of non-Christians. If salvation is by faith in Christ, how meaningful is it, really, to speak of such faith “breaking down barriers”? In fact, Paul’s language of destruction for the unsaved (throughout all his letters) is more grim and uncompromising than most of the Jewish texts mentioned above, which at least entertain hope for pagan salvation, even if as “Noahide” second-class citizens.
(2) Paul not only introduced a new form of supremacism, but in one letter he went even further by replacing Jewish privilege with an implied Gentile privilege. In Galatians he disinherits the Jewish people by claiming they were no longer even Abraham’s seed. In Romans he had the sense to drop this argument.
Let’s see how Paul radically reinterprets the figure of Abraham in the two letters (for more detail on what follows, see Philip Esler’s books).
In Galatians, Abraham is primarily the ancestor of Gentiles (Gal 3:6-9,14). His seed refers to Christ (Gal 3:16), and Gentiles are then included in this seed via Christ, through spiritual adoption as sons of God (Gal 3:26-29). Paul’s argument is rather ridiculous, but he seems to think he has scored a zinger. He fixes on the fact that Abraham’s seed is singular throughout Genesis, insisting with relish that “scripture does not say ‘seeds” but ‘seed'” (Gal 3:16), which he then (re-)interprets as Christ instead of the Jewish people. As if that weren’t offensive enough, he then includes uncircumcised Gentiles in Abraham’s seed at the expense of law-abiding Jews.
Abraham’s seed is obviously singular in Genesis, but it’s also obviously a collective noun (Gen 12:7,13:15,16; 15:5,13,18; 17:7,8,9,10,12,19; 22:17,18; 24:7). The seed refers to the Jewish people who keep circumcision and the Torah yet to be handed down by Moses (Gen 17:9-14). By making the seed refer to Christ, Paul disinherits the Jewish people. The promise bypasses them altogether, referring directly to the messiah, and then brings law-free Christians (who are mostly Gentiles) into the seed from there.
As for what Paul says about faith-righteousness, it’s admittedly clever. He exploits a chronological technicality: Abraham had faith before he was circumcised (and before the law was given), and since that faith made him righteous, what’s good enough for Abraham is good enough for pagans. Rival missionaries in Galatia would have made the obvious retort: you can’t cite Gen 15:6 while ignoring Gen 17:9-14. Abraham’s faith-righteousness in Gen 15 was credited to him on account of his covenant loyalty in Gen 17, without which the former would not have been credited to him. Paul simply denies the second part.
It’s one thing to put Gentiles on equal footing by exploiting a chronological technicality. And it’s certainly nice to insist that Gentiles don’t need to become Jews in order to be saved on an equal basis. But it’s quite another to go beyond this with the “seed” argument implying that Jews have been disenfranchised and Gentiles have the leading edge.
In Romans, Paul tries to sanitize and improve his argument. Abraham is now the impartial ancestor of the Jewish and Gentile peoples (Rom 4:1-17). His seed does not refer to Christ anymore, but to both ethnic groups (Rom 4:16-17), against the polarizing implication of Galatians that Jews have been disinherited. In fact, Abraham became circumcised and sealed his faith-righteousness precisely in order to become the ancestor of Jews as much as Gentiles (4:11-12).
Paul no longer wants to abolish ethnic boundaries, as he did in Galatians. He does not repeat the offensive baptismal formula that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal 3:27-28). Now he uses baptism (Rom 6:1-15) to reinforce ethnic differences: Gentiles escape the power of sin (Rom 6:16-23) in a different way than Jews (Rom 7:1-25). Gentiles die to ungodliness — to “impurity and lawlessness” (Rom 6:19) — and then become slaves of God (Rom 6:22), while Jews die to the law (Rom 7:4). But even though the law has no saving value, Jews are encouraged to practice it (Rom 14:5-6), and Gentiles are even commanded to obey at least parts of it while in Jewish company (Rom 14:15,21), so as not to give offense.
It’s important not to lose sight here. As “Jewish-friendly” as the Romans version is, Paul’s view of Abraham is still radical and supremacist. Christians descend from Abraham, but not from Isaac and Jacob — Jewish lineage is still skipped over. It’s a spiritual ancestry. The promises made to Abraham benefit Christians alone, and in Paul’s day there were less and less Jews becoming Christians. Paul hoped in vain that this was a temporary state of affairs, that the biological children of Abraham had been “cut off” only to make room for Gentiles, and would be “regrafted” at the apocalypse (Rom 11). But of course the apocalypse didn’t come, and in twenty years Judaism split forever with Christianity.
If Paul could finally insist on a measure of respect for the Torah and Jewish heritage in Romans, it was lip-service, since the law was ultimately useless and Jewish election a farce. Abraham was an ancestor by faith — Christian faith — and a clear prototype of spiritual supremacism.
In Islam, Abraham isn’t an ancestor. He isn’t the “father of many nations”, as he is in Judaism and Christianity. He is one of many prophets who points towards Muhammad — a true Muslim, in other words, like Moses and Jesus (Qur’an 3:67). According to the Qur’an, the original forms of Judaism and Christianity were Islam. Abraham, Moses, and Jesus all taught Islam and it was their followers who later hijacked Islam and created what we know as Judaism and Christianity. As such, the Jewish and Christian preoccupations with ancestry and election distort the true Muslim teachings. Abraham is a role model — an intolerant one — not a father figure.
Qur’an 60:4 specifies this role model in relation to people of other religions. Abraham expressed animosity and hatred for people including his father, who don’t worship Allah. His hatred is precisely what makes him a good role model. The same passage (Qur’an 60:4) also makes clear that Abraham told his father he would pray mercy for him, and that this prayer of mercy (believe it or not) is what makes him a bad role model. In other words, Muslim believers should imitate Abraham when he says — to even his closest relative — that he hates someone and will hate him forever because he is not a Muslim. But believers should not imitate Abraham when he says that he will pray for a non-Muslim.
So in the Qur’an, Abraham is an exemplar of intolerance and hatred for non-Muslims.
Jon Levenson even suggests that the jihad could be the spiritual successor to Abraham’s binding of Isaac. Where Jews have the substitutes of circumcision and the passover lamb, and Christians the eucharist, Islam has never accepted vicarious sacrifice. It demands personal sacrifice only, and the jihad is one such way to put the role demanded by Qur’an 60:4 into practice.
As a liberal Unitarian I sympathize with the intentions behind interfaith dialogue — intentions, basically, to turn Abraham into a prototype of Unitarianism! We need to respect each other, and to respect each others’ creeds. But respect entails honesty, not distortion; reading in context, not cherry-picking; and being willing to disagree with scriptures that are not enlightened, instead of claiming that such scriptures are actually enlightened but woefully misunderstood.
If we have problems with our sacred cows, we can do as Paul did, and reinterpret as we please. We can turn Abraham into a prototype that serves our needs. We can make him a Unitarian and respecter of all faiths. But unlike Paul, we should acknowledge what we’re doing: reinterpreting a problem, not agreeing with something which has been there all along but tragically misread. It’s often claimed that the Qur’an is a book promoting peace, and that those who say otherwise, or act on it otherwise, misunderstand the Qur’an. In fact they understand it very well.
Someone like Robert Spencer also understands the Qur’an, and rightly points out its supremacism. But he then somewhat misleadingly claims that “in the understanding of both Jews and Christians, Abraham is a great father figure who embraces a huge variety of people”. As we’ve seen, Abraham excludes and embraces in all three religions. It’s true that the exclusive factor is particularly aggressive in Islam, and that Judaism and Christianity at least carry supplements in their theology that facilitate moving beyond the supremacism. But no one was a pluralist in antiquity. Whether ethnically, spiritually, or militantly, the monotheist religions enshrine a supremacist Abraham in their scriptures.
I hope it isn't too nit picky to point out that you left out the role of Edom and Moab for ancient Israel.
Good point Paul, thanks.