While carefully noting the way that Abraham serves as a unifying figure for the three great “Abrahamic” religions, Jon Levenson cautions against a simplistic leveling out of each tradition’s unique interpretation of Abraham’s importance. Levenson, the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University, draws from the depths of his more than three decades of research and teaching to clarify the similarities and also the great differences in the way that the three religions make use of the image of the patriarch.
The author explains upfront (p. xiii) that he is writing for “both general and scholarly readers.” Yet, as readable as this volume is, it is not for those who prefer a facile equivalence of the three faiths’ interpretation of Abraham and his significance. Instead, he looks not only at the usually-cited Genesis texts, but also at the “reception history” of the narratives: the way that each religion has drawn upon and developed the description given in those texts, taking them in markedly different directions.
For Judaism, the author focuses on Abraham as the biological ancestor of the Jewish people, including also those who have converted to Judaism; in doing so, he draws on his masterful understanding of the Hebrew Bible, the rabbinical literature, and the wider Jewish tradition. For Christianity, he explores especially Paul’s reinterpretation of the Genesis stories, reshaping Abraham’s image to portray him as primarily an exemplar of faith. And for Islam, which does not include Genesis along with the Quran in its sacred scripture, he describes its portrait of Abraham, not as the father of a people or of a faith, but as one in a great line of prophets, stretching from Adam to Mohammed: one who fervently and without wavering promoted a strict monotheism.
Levenson concludes (p. 214) by observing: “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.” For those who desire a more-than-superficial understanding of the Abraham who both unites and divides Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, this book is an invaluable resource.
The Rev. Michael Kreutzer serves as rector of St. Mark’s, Dayton.