Several years ago Bruce Feiler headed off to the Middle East for a journey that became a bestseller titled Walking the Bible. His new book, Abraham (Morrow), explores three religious traditions which share the ancient patriarch.
Did you set out to write about Abraham as a possible way for Islam, Christianity, and Judaism to connect?
No, not at all. Walking the Bible describes the year that I spent retracing the five books of Moses through the desert, and I was actually working on a follow-up, which would look at the rest of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. Then I was in New York and got a call from my brother on the morning of September 11. He said: "Look outside your window."
We began to hear these questions: Who are they? Why did they hit us? Can the religions get along? And one name echoed behind those conversations. One man stood at the heart of these religions that suddenly seemed to be at war. Abraham is the shared ancestor of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He stands at the heart of these three faiths. And yet you know almost nothing about him.
The reason that this matters is because if we're going to understand that this ultimately is a family feud, then we have to understand that we have all grown up with our own tradition. And if we want to begin the process of reconciliation, then in some ways we have to do an Abrahamic thing: leave our own tradition and go forth to this destination where God calls us. This is the land where all the families of the earth are blessed by one man.
In your research, what did you learn about the historical Abraham?
There's no archaeological evidence that any of the events in the first five books ever took place. So we don't know that Abraham lived. In some ways that's not surprising, because he was wandering from place to place, living in tents, eating on rugs. The text doesn't say he ever wrote anything down. So what would he have left behind?
While you'd think that would be a problem for the religions, it's proved to be this great opportunity, because each of the religions essentially just chucked out the initial story and made up an Abraham for itself. I don't know if Abraham existed then, but I know he exists now.
How do the three religions see God's covenant with Abraham differently?
God says to Abraham those great and powerful words of Genesis 12: "Go forth from your father's house, from your father's land, to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation. And I will bless you." He goes on to say, "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."
Jews see it as the beginning of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and the beginning of that family line. Paul liked that moment in particular because it showed that Abraham had faith. Muslims tend to emphasize that Abraham submitted himself to God.
To have a son, Abraham makes the leap that God requests, goes down to the Promised Land, goes down to Egypt. Decades pass. Still no son. So Sarah takes matters into her own hands and gives Hagar to Abraham. She gives birth to Ishmael. Should be the end of story. But as soon as Ishmael is born, Sarah gets pregnant and gives birth to Isaac. And so now we have two sons.
Sarah forces Abraham to kick Ishmael off into the desert. Abraham doesn't want to because Ishmael is his firstborn son. Again, even in Abraham's reluctance, we see the love is still there. But Abraham does so only after God says, "Don't worry, I'll continue to bless Ishmael and his children."
I think what you've got there is, first of all, the split that we all face. Muslims consider themselves descended from Ishmael, Jews and Christians from Isaac. But I think it is important to understand that there is a careful balance in the story. Isaac gets the land and the covenant, but in part through the malice of his mother. Ishmael goes off into the desert. His mother is treated in an exalted way, and he never leaves the realm of Abraham's love or of God's blessing.
Ishmael goes off into the desert. And actually, the Jewish tradition and Muslim traditions agree that Abraham went to visit Ishmael when he was in the desert. According to the Muslim tradition, during one of those visits Abraham and Ishmael build the Ka'ba, that's the big black stone in the middle of Mecca, which had been built by Adam and lost in the flood. Abraham reconstructs it and then calls all Muslims to make the pilgrimage.
Why is it that Abraham becomes an important figure in each religion?
God blesses Abraham, both of his children, and all of their descendants. At the heart of it is a message of unity. But what happens is over time is that each of the religions tries to elbow one another aside and claim Abraham for itself. In fact, every generation has done this for 2,500 years.
Jews came first and in the early years stressed the universal message of Abraham. But over time, as they began to feel oppressed, Jews say, "Well, actually we want to keep Abraham for ourselves." So suddenly Abraham's the reason God created the world. Abraham becomes the reason for Passover, which came with Moses, who lived a thousand years after Abraham died. Abraham even keeps kosher, even though the laws of kosher were not invented until 2,000 years after Abraham died. In other words, Abraham, who lives 1,500 years before the birth of Judaism, suddenly becomes a Jew.
The religion most exclusive about Abraham is Islam.
Yes. This is more radical, I think, than the Christian or Jewish exclusivity because it [says that] Abraham doesn't even belong to these others. It can get vicious. I went to see an imam deep in east Jerusalem who quoted Hitler to me and spewed hatred. He's the one who most strongly said to me during my research that Abraham was Muslim and that's the only way to be.
What does Abraham offer us after 9/11?
We face a choice. We're going to have open conflict among the religions or we're going to have to begin a process of dialogue. And I believe that Abraham can advance that conversation. It's going to be difficult. I can't promise that it's going to work, but I think failure here is not an option.
If you want to understand the roots of 9/11, or understand your own neighbor, or your own relationship with God, come on this journey with me. Abraham got into the center of that, and he contains the seeds of hope.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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Earlier Dick Staub Interviews include:
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