The first eleven chapters of the book of Genesis are an almost unrelieved chronicle of human evil, corruption, and malice. The first human beings, Adam and Eve, are given a single commandment by God, not to eat of the tree of knowledge; but they listen to the serpent, transgress God’s order, and are expelled from Eden. In the next generation, Cain murders his brother Abel and is sent to wander the earth. By chapter six, “the Lord saw how great was man’s wickedness on earth, and how every plan devised by his mind was nothing but evil all the time.” Regretting that man was ever made, God sends the Flood to wipe out his creation, sparing only Noah and his family.
But no sooner do the waters recede than Noah gets drunk and falls asleep naked, whereupon his son Ham “saw his father’s nakedness”—a profound violation that earns Ham a perpetual curse. This is followed by the story of the Tower of Babel, in which human beings try to build a heaven-storming tower, only to be scattered and divided by God. By the time we reach the twelfth chapter of Genesis, it is hard to see how human beings could be any worse, or any more incorrigible. Divine threats and punishments seem to have no effect on mankind; God has bound himself not to send a second Flood, but if He did, no one could say He wasn’t provoked. It seems as if the human story has reached a dead end in wickedness.
And then comes Abraham—or, as he is still known at this point in the story, Abram. His name appears first in a long genealogy, along with a dozen other names—Arpachshad, Peleg, Serug—that now mean nothing to us. There is no reason to expect that Abram will be singled out in the story to come. Yet chapter 12 begins with God plucking Abram from obscurity and making him, spontaneously and for no clear reason, a tremendous promise:
Go forth from your native land and from your father’s house to the land that I will show you.
I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
And you shall be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you
And curse him that curses you;
And all the families of the earth
Shall bless themselves by you.
As Jon D. Levenson writes in Inheriting Abraham, the “call and commission” of Abraham represents “a new beginning” for the human story. So far in Genesis, we have read of exile, destruction, scattering; now, for the first time, we hear of homecoming, flourishing, covenant.
It is, in fact, several new beginnings. In the near term, it begins the story that will take up the rest of Genesis: the epic of the patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, which begins in Mesopotamia, meanders through the land of Canaan, and ends with Jacob’s sons in a new exile in Egypt. On a longer view, it begins the story of the Israelites, which will extend through the rest of the Bible, from the Exodus down to the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century BCE and beyond. And finally, the “calling” of Abraham, as it is traditionally described, can be seen as the inauguration of what would become the religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Today, half the world’s population trace their spiritual lineage back to Abram son of Terah.
Yet it is plain that this common origin has not diminished the hostilities between these faiths. On the contrary, the figure of Abraham has more often been a battleground than a meeting place. This is the brilliantly elaborated theme of Levenson’s book, which retells the Abraham story while examining the use made of Abraham in later Jewish, Christian, and (to a lesser extent) Muslim thought. “Historically,” he writes, “Abraham has functioned much more as a point of differentiation among the three religious communities than as a node of commonality.”
Take, for instance, the seemingly straightforward words of God’s blessing: “All the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.” That, like the other quotations I have used, comes from the Jewish Publication Society translation of the Bible. The King James Bible, on the other hand, reads: “And in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” On that choice of prepositions, “by” versus “in,” depends a fundamental controversy between Judaism and Christianity over the proper understanding of Abraham’s legacy. To traditional Jewish commentators, Levenson shows, the phrase suggested that Abraham would become a byword for prosperity and divine favor: as the medieval French commentator Rashi put it, “A man says to his son, ‘May you be like Abraham!’” “To use modern analogies,” Levenson adds, somewhat datedly, “it is as if someone were to say, ‘May you make money like Rockefeller!’ or ‘May you dunk like Michael Jordan!’”
To Saint Paul, on the other hand, the phrase had a much more particular theological implication. In the Epistle to the Galatians, Paul explains that Abraham’s true descendants are not the Israelites, as the Jews believe, but all people who have faith in Jesus Christ. “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.’” On this reading, Abraham is the prototype of the believer, the conduit by which God’s blessing is delivered to the faithful of all nations—not just his own biological descendants.
Paul’s argument rests on a distinction between faith and works that is foreign to Judaism but central to Christianity. Abraham, we read, was blessed because of his faith: “And because he put his trust in the Lord, He reckoned it to his merit.” In context, this refers specifically to his faith that he would produce an heir, even though he and his wife Sarah were in their eighties and childless. To Paul, however, it suggested that “trust” (or, depending on the translation, “faith”) in God was itself enough to be considered righteous; Abraham, on this view, was justified by the blessing of faith alone. Indeed, he would have to be, because the Law of Moses—which became the basis for all Jewish practice and belief—would not be delivered until hundreds of years after Abraham’s death.
The rich ambiguity of Jewish identity comes from this strange double founding. To be a Jew, religiously speaking, means to follow the Law of Moses—the 613 commandments delivered to the Israelites on Sinai, and the unwritten Oral Law that is the basis of rabbinic Judaism. Yet to be a Jew also means to be a biological descendant of Abraham, an inheritor of the promise God made to Abraham and his ancestors. The result, Levenson writes, is that
the people Israel is neither a nationality in the conventional sense nor a churchlike body composed of like-minded believers or practitioners of a common set of norms…. Rather,…it is a natural family with a supernatural mandate.
Abraham, then, is the father of a people, but not a teacher or a prophet or the founder of a religion. Specifically, he is not—in the Bible, at least—what he is often praised for being, the originator of monotheism. “At no point,” Levenson underscores, “does Abraham utter even a word of testimony to the uniqueness, incomparability, or exclusive claim of his God.” It is true that God singles out Abraham and promises to care for him and his descendants forever: “an everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your offspring to come.” But this does not mean that Abraham denies the existence of all gods other than his own. On the contrary, the Bible shows him negotiating with Canaanite kings who worship other gods; in Genesis 14, Abraham even accepts the blessing of King Melchizedek in the name of a god called El Elyon, “God Most High.”
Where, then, does Abraham’s reputation as a foe of idolatry come from? The answer, Levenson shows, is that it is a creation of the Second Temple period of Judaism, in the first few centuries BCE. It is in apocryphal books of that era, such as the Book of Jubilees and the Apocalypse of Abraham, that we find stories of the young Abraham destroying his father’s household idols. One of the most famous such stories dates to the rabbinic period, in the first centuries CE, and shows the boy Abraham smashing all his father’s idols except the biggest, in whose hand he places a club. When Terah discovers the carnage, Abraham tells him that the largest idol had destroyed the others in a competition over which would get to eat a sacrifice. By refusing to believe the story, Terah proves out of his own mouth that idols are useless pieces of wood. The story, Levenson notes, “has become a staple of Jewish folklore and elementary education,” but it appears nowhere in Genesis. In fact, the only scripture in which Abraham appears as an unabashed monotheist is the Koran, which adopts some of these post-biblical tales into its own account of Abraham.
It is tempting to say that Abraham the monotheist is not the “real” Abraham—to restrict the authentic patriarch to what we learn about him in the earliest source, the book of Genesis. One of the main arguments of Inheriting Abraham, however, is that this sort of truncation does violence to the integrity of religious traditions—that the Abraham who matters is the figure who evolved over centuries of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim interpretation and storytelling, not the protagonist of the earliest narratives (which are themselves, of course, quite unhistorical). And these later Abrahams, Levenson shows, cannot easily be reconciled with one another.
Perhaps the best example of this incompatibility comes in the chapter of Inheriting Abraham called “The Test,” which recounts the story of the Binding of Isaac, told in Genesis 22. In this narrative, which builds a remarkable suspense and pathos out of a spare, short tale, we read how God commands Abraham to take Isaac to a nearby mountain and sacrifice him as a burnt offering. Abraham instantly sets off with Isaac, who bears the wood on which he is to be sacrificed, and gets to the point of laying his son on the altar before God intervenes and calls off the slaying: “Do not raise your hand against the boy, or do anything to him. For now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your favored one, from me.” Instead, Abraham sacrifices a ram, and receives a renewal of God’s promises to him. So central was the story to Israelite faith that a later tradition held that the site of the Aqedah, to use the Hebrew, became the site of the Temple in Jerusalem.
This story has always been morally difficult for readers, as proved by the amount of commentary it provoked. But in the post-Enlightenment period, Levenson shows, it became a focus of moral execration; for Kant and others after him, Abraham in the Binding of Isaac became “a paragon of unethical behavior, moral failure, religious fanaticism, and much else, all of it very bad.” It is difficult for us to enter into a spiritual world in which such an act may be the most praiseworthy example of faith. (Oddly, Levenson refers only in a footnote to the greatest modern attempt to enter into the spirit of the Aqedah, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling.)