Friday, October 11, 2013

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

Since the Torah portion for this week is Lech Lechah, which begins with the calling of Abram, I thought it would be an appropriate time to post a brief review of Jon D. Levenson's fascinating new book on Abraham.  

In an age of ecumenism and interfaith dialogue Abraham is often touted as a source of unity and fraternity among western religions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all of which are called "Abrahamic faiths."  But while Jews, Christians, and Muslims all cherish father Abraham, they have distinct traditions and sources that they use to understand the patriarch.  Thus Abraham can actually illustrate the differences between the faiths as much as, or perhaps more than, he can serve as a source of unity.  In his Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam Jon D. Levenson questions the idea of Abraham as a unifier by exploring the different ways these western faiths have received and understood the patriarch, with particular attention given to Abraham in the Jewish tradition.  

At its heart Inheriting Abraham is a fascinating work on the history of interpretation that also raises important questions about the nature of religious traditions and contemporary interfaith dialogue.  Levenson gives a good deal of attention to what the book of Genesis tells us about Abraham.  But along the way he emphasizes that the book of Genesis by itself cannot tell us what Abraham has meant and continues to mean for the Abrahamic faith communities.  For Muslims Genesis is not canonical, so it is actually the Qur'an that provides the primary source for understanding Abraham's significance.  While Jews and Christians do consider Genesis canonical, both faiths have additional traditions about the patriarch that shape their understanding.  The Protestant impulses ingrained in our culture might urge us to get behind these traditions to the "real" Abraham, but the figure that we would end up with would not be the Abraham who is meaningful to Jews, Christians, or Muslims.  And how can an Abraham who is foreign to these faith traditions or which privileges one tradition's methods or sources over another foster real unity or dialogue?  In his conclusion Levenson argues: 

"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." (214)
Levenson is pointing us past superficial forms of interfaith dialogue that rob faith traditions of their particularity, and encouraging an approach that takes both our similarities and our differences seriously.

As someone whose primary academic interest is in the history of interpretation, I found Inheriting Abraham riveting.  Throughout the book Levenson explores how a wide array of interpretive questions about Abraham have been answered in different ways by both traditional and modern students of the texts.  For instance, what does Genesis 12:3 mean?  Does it mean that Abraham will become so successful that the nations will bless themselves by his name, meaning something like "May you make money like Rockefeller!"? (189)  This is how Rashi and many modern scholars have understood it.  Does it mean that through Jesus, one of Abram's descendants, all of the nations will be blessed?  Or does it mean that through the merit of Abram that the nations are blessed?  Other questions that arise include: What was the nature of Abraham's faith?  Is Judaism's view of Abraham all about "works" while Christianity's is all about "faith"?  What is the meaning of the near-sacrifice of his son?  And was that son Isaac or Ishmael?  What is the relationship of Abraham to the Mosaic Law?  Did he carefully observe the Law even before it was given on Sinai?  Where does the idea that Abraham was a champion and teacher of monotheism come from?  Was Abraham a missionary?  How do we understand the idea of Abraham's election/chosenness?  Is Christianity more "universal" and "inclusive" in its understanding of Abraham and election than Judaism?  In exploring these questions Levenson draws upon 2nd Temple Jewish literature, the Talmud, medieval Jewish commentators, the New Testament, the church fathers, the Qur'an, and modern interpreters.  He manages to skillfully integrate these diverse texts and traditions into an interesting and very readable narrative.

Inheriting Abraham is a fascinating and rewarding book that will appeal to readers with a variety of interests.  Those interested in Genesis/Old Testament studies, the history of interpretation, and/or interfaith relations will benefit from reading it.  It will also be useful in a variety of group settings.  It would be a great text to use in a Bible study on Abraham, an interfaith dialogue group, or as a supplemental textbook in an undergraduate course on topics including Genesis, the Old Testament, biblical interpretation, and Judaism.  While Levenson does explore Abraham in the Islamic tradition, he does not give it quite as much attention as the Jewish and Christian traditions, so some study groups might want to supplement the book with some additional Islamic resources.  A study group with a special interest in the earliest Jewish and Christian interpretations of Abraham might enjoy reading Levenson's book in conjunction with James Kugel's The Bible As it Was.


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