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Jon D. Levenson, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Jewish Political Studies Review

Jewish Political Studies Review
Volume 26, Numbers 1–2

Jon D. Levenson, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2012, 244 pp.


In recent years, the idea of Abrahamic religion has taken root. Basically, it means that Judaism, Christianity and Islam owe their existence to Abraham who discovered God and acknowledge that the patriarch Abraham is the central figure of their religions. Moreover, a further elaboration of this idea argues that there is a true, authentic Abraham, mainly based upon Genesis 12–25, a text sacred to Jews and Christians, but not to Muslims. This supposedly authentic Abraham transcends the different interpretations and contradictory traditions of the three religions. Accordingly, by finding, defining and reclaiming this alleged authentic Abraham, peace, harmony and unity will prevail among Jews, Christians and Muslims and humanity in general.

In fact, several diverse entities based upon the idea of the commonality of Abrahamic religion have emerged. They include: the Abraham Fund dedicated to advancing coexistence, cooperation and equality between Jews and Arabs in Israel; the chair for the Study of the Abrahamic Religions at Oxford that deals with the teachings of Abraham and his descendants and the relationships between the religions based on Abraham; and the Intercultural Dialogue Institute in Ottawa, Canada that fosters harmony between the Jewish, Christian and Muslim Children of Abraham. Furthermore, the increasing popularity of the Abrahamic idea has resulted in the publication of two major studies: Abraham: Sign of Hope for Jews, Christians and Muslims (1995) by the Catholic scholar, Karl-Josef Kuschel, and Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths (2002) by the Jewish writer, Bruce Feiler. While the desire to find common ground and foster dialogue between the three monotheistic faiths may be laudable on its own terms, Professor Jon D. Levenson expresses serious reservations about the use and misuse of the persona of Abraham in attaining such objectives. He points out that these efforts often tend to obfuscate, distort or dismiss millennia and centuries of traditions unique to each of the respective religions. Levenson’s incisive critique of the works by Feiler and Kuschel brilliantly exposes the major flaws in the methods, quality and purposes of such scholarship. In fact, the last chapter of the book entitled, “One Abraham or Three?” (173–214) asserts that the Abrahamic idea essentially affirms a Protestant Christian tendency of relying solely upon Scripture and jettisoning subsequent commentaries and interpretations. It does not do justice to Abraham and particularly to the plethora of Jewish interpretations.

Levinson’s cogent analysis ultimately leads to the origins of the Abrahamic idea during the mid-twentieth century in the writings of the problematic French Catholic clergyman, mystic, scholar and Arabist, Louis Massignon (1883–1962) who misrepresented Abraham as a Christian saint who transcended any particular religion. In addition, Massignon was a fervent Islamophile and regarded Islam as a divine revelation and as the true expression of what he called Abrahamic faith (210–212). It is noteworthy that Massignon had little use for Judaism and made negative remarks about Jews. Beyond the academy, his work had great influence upon a broad spectrum of French thinkers, clergymen and civil servants. Thus, it was only a matter of several decades until Massignon’s construct morphed into the current trope of Abrahamic religion and its varied manifestations. One may speculate as to whether the revival of this idea somehow may be attributed to the present predicament of the West in dealing with the rise of radical and violent Islam. Whatever the case, Levenson debunks Massignon’s construct as unsound scholarship. As the underpinnings of the current version of the Abrahamic idea appear to be based upon flimsy foundations, it is clear to the author that only a thorough reading and an extensive interpretation of the figure of Abraham in each of the three religions can furnish the reader with a more comprehensive, systematic and scholarly portrait of the Biblical patriarch, untainted by a personal political or philosophical position. Professor Jon D. Levenson, the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University, accomplishes this outstandingly in Inheriting Abraham.

Levenson divides his discussion of Abraham in the Bible and in Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions thematically. After a brief introduction to the Biblical narrative, the following chapters comprise the book: the divine call to Abraham; his problems and fulfillments; the ultimate test, i.e., the ‘Aqedah (the binding) of Isaac; the portrait of Abraham the monotheist; the contrast between Jewish and Christian approaches to the Abrahamic legacy—Torah or Gospel; and the final chapter noted above. Each chapter includes copious quotations from Jewish, Christian and Islamic sources which relate to and elucidate these themes. Inheriting Abraham includes an extensive footnotes referring to scholarly studies as well. While Levenson displays expertise in all three religions, his particular strength lies in his treatment of the numerous, varied and even contradictory Jewish traditions on Abraham and in showing the contrasts between Jewish, Christian and Islamic views of Abraham, thereby questioning the validity of the existence of an authentic, unified supra-Abraham.


One of Levenson’s major contributions is the chapter on the portrait of Abraham as a monotheist entitled “The Rediscovery of God” (113–138). This chapter demonstrates that the emphasis on Abraham’s monotheism emerges in Jewish sources from the later centuries of the Second Temple period (ca. second century BCE—late first century CE) and is virtually absent in the Book of Genesis. The Bible does not portray Abraham as an advocate or missionary for the one God. It is the Book of Jubilees, which was lost to Judaism and whose Hebrew version was found among the Dead Sea Scrolls (ca. second century BCE) and works by the Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria and the Jewish historian, Josephus (late first century CE) that showcase Abraham’s role as the champion of monotheism. This theme continues in rabbinic texts, with the retelling of a narrative in Jubilees where Abraham (then called Abram) smashes the idols in his father Terah’s store, thereby proving the futility of idol worship. More important, however, is that the assertion of Abraham’s faith in one God became the dominant theme of Christianity and Islam. The Qur’an relates his conflict with his father about the worship of celestial bodies—a reworking of another Second Temple Jewish and rabbinic theme (132). Levenson’s attention to the origins, development and prominence of Abraham’s monotheism in Second Temple Judaism, perhaps as a response to the challenge of Hellenistic paganism, presents a welcome historical perspective. Readers who may know rabbinic, Christian or Islamic texts may not be aware of the fact that there were expressions of this idea in earlier works which somehow served as their point of departure, although the means of transmission is not clear.

An additional valuable contribution is the discussion of Abraham’s observance of Torah, which is based upon Genesis 26:5 and is present in rabbinic works of Late Antiquity (Talmud and Midrash) and the Middle Ages (commentaries and treatises). According to Professor Levenson, this notion also has Second Temple origins, in Jubilees and Philo of Alexandria. Some leading medieval rabbis, such as Rashi (eleventh-century France) asserted that Abraham observed all of the commandments of the Written and Oral Law (148), while others, such as Rashbam (twelfth-century France) interpreted the commandments observed by Abraham in a minimalist fashion, namely as the seven Noahide commandments and circumcision (164). The main point of Levenson’s argument is that as far as Judaism is concerned, Moses is the dominant figure and Torah observance, the most important feature of Jewish religion. Therefore, the rabbis insist that Abraham observed the Torah, and regard him as secondary to Moses. This lends further support to the author’s doubts concerning the validity of the Abrahamic idea.

In contrast, the latter is not an issue for Christianity. What is relevant is Abraham’s faith in one God. While this point originates in Second Temple Judaism, according to Christianity, God includes Jesus who was present at the time of Creation. Therefore, Abraham could be regarded as a believer in Jesus, who is God and thus, Abraham fulfills the Gospel (149–163). Accordingly, anyone who accepts Jesus may be considered a descendant of Abraham, as opposed to the Jewish descendants of Abraham—either physically from his son Isaac or through conversion which entails observance of Torah, thereby making the proselyte a child of Abraham. In Judaism, circumcision is a sign of the covenant of“our father Abraham” for males who are either Jews by birth or through conversion to Judaism. Abraham literally is acknowledged as the father of proselytes who become “sons/daughters of Abraham.” Since faith and not Torah are paramount in Christianity, Abraham is more important than Moses. Circumcision of the flesh and Torah observance are not necessary. Levenson refers mainly to the New Testament—both the Gospels and the Epistles of Paul, thereby placing these ideas in the context of Second Temple Judaism or shortly after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE. Despite the fact that his argument is convincing, perhaps he could have included more citations from Church Fathers and medieval churchmen and examples from the rich iconographic traditions of Eastern and Western Christianity. Levenson correctly posits that despite the fact that both Jews and Christians, as opposed to Muslims, share the same sacred text, it serves as a “formidable barrier” as well as a bond. “All the talk … about … the common rooting in Father Abraham … cannot paper over the great question that the survival of the Jews and Judaism after the rise of Christianity poses for Christian theology and for Jewish-Christian relations” (104).

As far as Islam is concerned, Levenson states that “the Qur’anic Abraham is not the father of the Jewish people or the Christian Church at all: he is, rather, a faithful, obedient and monotheistic prophet, a member of a chain of prophets that begins with Adam, includes men like Moses and Jesus, and culminates in Muhammad, ‘the seal of the Prophets’ (Sura 33: 40)” (105). He is not “our father Abraham” as he is for Jews or Christians, but a Muslim prophet. According to Islam, those who follow him and the Prophet Muhammad and the believers (namely, Muslims) are worthiest of Abraham (106). In fact, as Levenson reiterates throughout the book, “Jews and Christians argue about the interpretation of their common text… Muslims begin with a different text, a different story—and, as a result, arguably a very different Abraham.” (106) This statement summarizes the main problem of an Abraham common to the three religions. They seem to be speaking about a different person with the same name whose life had similar events. By giving each religious tradition its due, Levenson demonstrates the importance of Abraham in a historical context, as opposed to an invented construct.

Inheriting Abraham also deals with those who do not admire Abraham or find his actions disappointing or reprehensible. Just as recent works of a religious vein are critical of Jewish interpretations and tend to create a supra-religious, a-historical, and therefore, flawed Abraham, there are studies with a “humanistic” tendency that focus on his deficiencies, particularly when father Abraham agrees to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Such works are concerned with making this Abraham an example worthy of imitation despite the fact that the ‘Aqedah is a one-time occurrence in each of the monotheistic religions. Levenson ultimately traces these arguments to the eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant who regarded Abraham’s decision to obey God’s command to sacrifice his son as immoral (106–110). He regards such concerns with the ‘Aqedah as a product of modern post-Protestant thinking. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all dealt with the problem of God’s request and Abraham’s response and used it to argue against child/human sacrifice. For Jews, the ‘Aqedah is never to be emulated, only admired as the greatest act of faith. For Christians, Isaac is a prototype of a martyr. Levenson refutes Muslims who interpret their narrative of the ‘Aqedah as a pretext for violent jihad (111–112), citing the traditional weakness of such thinking in Islam.

In conclusion, Inheriting Abraham has appeared at an important time in the history of Western thought and scholarship. With impeccable craftsmanship, clarity of expression and rigorous argumentation, Jon D. Levenson presents the traditions of the three monotheistic faiths. He answers those who seek to deny the validity of faith in God or denigrate religion as retrograde and those who wish to create a false, albeit ecumenical, Abrahamic idea that is not based upon the different interpretations of the patriarch accumulated over the centuries. While it should be required reading for scholars of religion and Bible and clergymen/ women, Inheriting Abraham provides clear explanations of difficult and often unfamiliar subjects for the general public. Professor Levenson has performed a great service for all of us.