Uffizi, Florence

Caravaggio: The Sacrifice of Isaac, circa 1603–1604

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.)


Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin

Rembrandt: Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, circa 1659–1660

To fully understand what is at stake in this story, however, we have to be able to see that Abraham’s sacrifice “is also an act of self-sacrifice.” In losing Isaac, Abraham stands to lose not just the son he had yearned for, but the whole posterity God promised him. Indeed, the suspense that drives the Abraham story is whether or not he will manage to produce a male heir, without which God’s promise would be nugatory. When he received the Lord’s call, we learn, Abraham was seventy-five years old, with a wife, Sarah, who was almost the same age; yet he was childless, and had by then lost all hope of producing a child. At first, Sarah hopes to circumvent this problem on their own, by having her husband “consort with” her Egyptian maidservant, Hagar. This union produces a son, Ishmael, but God makes clear that while he will become the father of a multitude, he is not the one who will inherit the blessing.

Instead, at the age of one hundred, Abraham finally produces a son by Sarah, and names him Isaac—a pun on the Hebrew word for “laugh,” since Abraham and Sarah had laughed at the notion that they could ever conceive a child. No sooner does Isaac appear, however, than God orders Abraham to take the boy to a mountaintop and offer him as a sacrifice. As Levenson writes, “It is Abraham’s very future, the very promise that issued from the mouth of God, with which he must part.” Yet he is true to what were understood to be the dynamics of sacrifice: by giving up his long-awaited heir, Abraham proves himself worthy to receive Isaac back, to become the founder of a new nation.

This, at least, is the Jewish interpretation of the Aqedah. To Christians, of course, the near sacrifice of Isaac would take on a new dimension; it now mattered not as a moment in the history of the Israelites but as a foreshadowing or “type” of the crucifixion. Just as Isaac carried the wood on which he was to be burned, so Jesus carried his cross. There was, of course, one major difference: “But Christ suffered. Isaac did not suffer, for he was a type of the passion of Christ which was to come,” wrote the second-century-CE anti-Jewish polemicist Melito, bishop of Sardis (near Smyrna). In this way of thinking, the significance of the original episode is exhausted and transcended by its fulfillment in Christ, just as Judaism is rendered null by Christianity:

When the thing comes about of which the sketch was a type,
that which was to be, of which the type bore the likeness,
then the type is destroyed, it has become useless,
it yields up the image to what is truly real.
What was once valuable becomes worthless,
when what is of true value appears.

The tone is more vehement than Paul’s in Galatians, but the effect is the same: in both cases, the Jewish understanding of Abraham as the founder of a nation is canceled, in favor of a new interpretation of Abraham as the forerunner of Christianity. The Koran, naturally, performs its own variation on the same theme, declaring:

Abraham was neither a Jew nor a Christian, but a hanif [i.e., a true monotheist] and a Muslim…. Surely, the people who are worthiest of Abraham are those who followed him, together with this Prophet [i.e., Muhammad] and the believers.

Levenson’s acute awareness of these competing visions of Abraham leaves him deeply skeptical of any modern attempt to regard Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as essentially compatible “Abrahamic faiths.” His last chapter, “One Abraham or Three?,” is devoted to a sometimes acerbic attack on writers and institutions who have tried to paper over those differences, out of what he regards as naive goodwill. The fact remains that Christianity cannot accept Abraham as the founder of a nation that retains God’s special blessing, since it regards that blessing as having passed to the Church; while Islam cannot accept that Christians are Abraham’s spiritual descendants, since it views Abraham simply as a prophetic forerunner to Muhammad. And none of them can accept a view of Abraham as simply a creedless founder of monotheism, in contemporary ecumenical style—especially since, as we have seen, that view is itself quite unbiblical.

The main moral controversy surrounding Abraham has to do with his readiness to sacrifice Isaac. But there is another episode—actually, two episodes, plainly mirrors or duplicates of one another—that lingers as a stain on the patriarch’s reputation. It is potentially more damaging than the Aqedah because it is a matter not of zeal but cowardly self-interest.

This is the story of how Abraham, traveling in a foreign land, pretends that Sarah is not his wife but his sister, in order to deflect the hostility of a local ruler who might want her for his own. This happens in Egypt in Genesis 12, just a few lines after Abraham has arrived in the Promised Land of Canaan, and again in Genesis 20 in the kingdom of Gerar. In each case, the ruse works well for Abraham: when the ruler discovers who Sarah really is, she is sent back to Abraham, who enriches himself in the process. On neither occasion, however, does it reflect well on Abraham, and Levenson is put to some lengths to justify his conduct.

This kind of chicanery may be only a blot on Abraham’s reputation; for his grandson Jacob, it comes close to defining his whole life. That is the stern judgment Yair Zakovitch renders in his short book Jacob: Unexpected Patriarch, which appears in Yale’s Jewish Lives series of biographies. Yet perhaps it is the moral ambiguity of Jacob’s career that makes it possible for him to be the subject of a biography, unconventional though it may be, in the first place. Abraham is too primordial and archetypal a figure to be the subject of a biography, and Isaac barely figures in Genesis except as a link between his father and his son. Jacob is really the first person in the Hebrew Bible who feels like one of us—whose fears, stratagems, and griefs evoke not just awe but human sympathy.

Zakovitch’s book can’t be a conventional biography, most obviously, because everything we know about Jacob comes from Genesis—there is no way to test or fill out the biblical account of a man who probably never existed except as a literary character. But even as a character, the figure of Jacob raises problems, since his story—like most biblical stories—was edited together from a number of sources, and reflects a variety of political and literary concerns. “The Bible’s biographies,” Zakovitch writes, “are not magnificent portrayals painted by artists onto canvas but the work of a mosaic-maker who selected, fashioned, and arranged colorful stones until a well-planned and deliberate work emerged.”

The novel element in Zakovitch’s treatment of the familiar Jacob story is his confidence that it is possible to uncover, through close textual analysis and comparison of sources, the earlier and more transgressive versions of stories that the Bible toned down—“ancient, essential elements that were spurned by the Bible”—for reasons of politics or piety. Take, for instance, the very first episode in Jacob’s story, his struggle inside the womb with his twin brother Esau. When Rebekah gives birth, Esau emerges first, with Jacob clinging to his heel, as though the babies had been wrestling in utero—an omen of their relationship to come. According to Genesis, Jacob’s name (in Hebrew, Ya‘acov) is a pun on the word for heel (‘aqev)—much as his father Isaac’s name commemorated Sarah’s laughter.

But Zakovitch notes that an alternative etymology for the name can be found in the much later book of Hosea. There, the prophet castigates the people of Israel for their deceitfulness, and says that they are true descendants of Jacob, who was so named because “in the womb he deceived his brother” Esau: here, the word for “deceit” (‘aqav) has the same root as the Hebrew Ya‘acov. For Zakovitch, this etymology is not a polemical invention of the prophet, but the survival of an ancient tradition that was carefully erased from Genesis itself. There is no way to prove this absolutely, of course, but Zakovitch holds to the principle that “on the periphery, more ancient traditions will often survive—traditions against which the center was aimed.”

The struggle between the brothers that began in the womb is consummated in Genesis 27, when Jacob, at the direction of his mother, succeeds in cheating Esau out of the paternal blessing that ought to belong to him as the firstborn. We hear of how Jacob covers his smooth arms in kidskin so that the blind Isaac will take him for his hairy brother, and how the deception almost fails: “The voice is the voice of Jacob, yet the hands are the hands of Esau,” Isaac muses. But finally Isaac blesses his younger son, thinking him to be the older; and when the real Esau appears, it is too late to revoke the blessing. “His outburst,” Zakovitch writes, “is one of the purest, most heartbreakingly desperate in Genesis: ‘He burst into wild and bitter sobbing, and said to his father, ‘Bless me too, Father!’”

The rest of Jacob’s life, in Zakovitch’s reading, will be spent expiating this deception. When he flees his brother’s vengeance and goes back to the ancestral homeland in Mesopotamia, he falls in love with Rachel, the beautiful younger daughter of Laban. He works seven years for Rachel’s hand, but on the wedding night, Laban substitutes his older daughter Leah in Jacob’s bed. When Jacob complains, his father-in-law pointedly reproaches him: “It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older.” The implication couldn’t be clearer: here, “matters are not conducted as they are in Canaan, where a younger sibling can bypass the firstborn and steal his rights.” And every subsequent grief in Jacob’s life—from the constant strife between his wives, to his cuckolding at the hands of his son Reuben, to the fate of his favorite son Joseph, sold into slavery by his jealous brothers—can be seen as the revenge of the poisonous family dynamics Jacob instigated when he stole his brother’s birthright.

Yet “despite the narrative’s precise account-keeping, with its assiduous insistence that the transgressor pay in full for his deeds,” the fact remains that it is Jacob who inherits Abraham’s blessing and passes it on to the next generation. Indeed, it is Jacob who has the unique privilege of wrestling with an angel and defeating him, thus earning a change of name to Israel—from the Hebrew for “strives with God.” And it is as the people of Israel that Abraham’s descendants, or some of them, would go on to enjoy, abuse, and strive to regain the favor God promised—a story whose last chapter has yet to be written.