Monday, August 24, 2015

Abraham by Bruce Feiler (Book Review #66 of 2015)

Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths

I checked out this book partly because we are currently going through Genesis at my church and partly because I've been reading a lot of books on the history of the Middle East. Most books dealing with the latter don't go back much further than the time of the Greeks, so I found the author's quest to be somewhat noble-- retrace the supposed origin of three major religions. Feiler is on an ecumenical quest that he admits is hard and not very hopeful-- all three religions teach incompatible truths. But that doesn't stop his quixotic quest.

Other reviewers have rightly critiqued his limited number of sources, his cherry-picking of what he believes about each religion, lack of philosophical depth, and neglecting to mention major parts of the Abrahamic story from Genesis (he skips to Abraham's death after the binding of Isaac [the Akedah]).

 But I did find the book interesting, particularly the tracing through history of how Abraham has been reinterpreted, particularly by Jewish Rabbis and Islamic commentators since the Middle Ages. For more on how these traditions have changed in Islam, I recommend Tom Holland's In the Shadow of the Sword. I am not as familiar with works on Jewish tradition. FWIW, I think Feiler understands orthodox Christianity and biblical theology correctly, although he rejects the Gospel as possibly true. He quotes extensively from Paul and understands the Gospel and how Isaac prefigured Jesus and how Jesus supercedes him. He also accepts conservative dates for the authorship of New Testament books. He has some good commentary on Genesis that you might find in any text on historical or biblical theology. But his main source on Christianity appears to be the head of the Eastern Orthodox church in Jerusalem, which is problematic.

Feiler concludes early on that the tale represents mutual dependence "God needs Abraham," and "Abraham needs God." God chose Abraham to make Himself known, and Abraham needed God in order to have offspring. Feiler claims only 1% of known traditions regarding Abraham are found in the Bible. The Quran contained other traditions that circulated orally in the Middle East and since then Islamic and Jewish scholars have added some stories. The Quranic stories tend to show Abraham as having earned merit with God by being smarter than his relatives, knowledgeable about astronomy, and rejecting their idolotry. In the Quran, he smashes his father's idols. Islam sees Abraham's submission to God first, and then God's reward to Abraham. Judaism and Islam both focus on this internal action-- submission-- with Jewish rabbis in the Middle Ages holding Isaac up as a symbol of submission as well, preaching him voluntarily sacrificed and even resurrected, in order to encourage Jews being slaughtered by European Crusaders.

The author rightly notes that in Genesis there is a simple call and an immediate response. Moses' call, in contrast, came in the form of the miraculous, and he even asked for further signs as confirmation. Abraham's departure from his home as a sojourner is fundamental to the Christian identity that we are pilgrims on the earth (1 Peter 2:9-12). It is Hagar, and not Abraham, who is the first in the Bible to receive a messenger angel (Genesis 16:7-11) who calls her by name, and gives name to her child (Ishmael). Like many Christian commentators, Feiler notes God's mercy to Hagar demonstrates God's care for other nations than the heirs of Abraham. The "wild donkey" of Ishmael would be dependent, like Abraham, on God to find water and blessing (Gen. 17:20, 21:17-20). (Feiler ignores or misses that the information given in Genesis would make Ishmael a late teenager in Genesis 21.) Isaac being the second-born heir with an eternally uncomfortable relationship with his brother prefigures the relationship of Isaac's children Jacob and Esau.

Feiler does focus some on the traditions of Hagar, Muslim commentators later claimed Hagar as a princess or some sort of royalty. Feiler interviews a scholar on biblical women who notes that the reader of Gensis is asked to sympathize doubly with both barren Sarah (who is given away by Abraham twice out of fear, which Feiler skips over) and the rejected handmaiden Hagar. God blesses both children into great nations which sets the stage for a later clash. Josephus specifically traces the Arabs to Abraham, as do other Jewish sources, but apparently there is little evidence that Arab scholars claimed the same lineage until Mohammed made the claim. In the Quran and various later traditions, Abraham and Ishamel built the Kaaba in Mecca, and then God ordered Abraham to leave Hagar and Ishmael there before returning to Canaan.

The importance of the "Akedah," the binding of Isaac is given its due by the author and brings him to a specific conclusion. Feiler (who is Jewish) interviews rabbis and gives information on how this story has been reinterpreted through the centuries, I recommend reading up some on it.
The Quran is unclear as to who was to be sacrificed, the story is changed to be a dream had by a son, and the son is not named. Perhaps the earliest Muslims assumed this to be Isaac in keeping with the well-known Jewish tradition, but historical documents suggest Islamic scholars being roughly split on whether it was Isaac or Ishmael until a later period when it became generally accepted.

The importance of Isaac to theology is interesting. Feiler asks if Abraham was "testing God" with Isaac or trusting him, and that this event "brings God down to earth" in a unique way. Feiler writes that the tradition of Abraham and Isaac was essentially lost or did not exist until the period of Babylonian exile when the Talmud--the Mishnah and the Torah-- were written and codified during the Babylonian exile. When the scribe Ezra returned to Jerusalem with the exices in the 5th century B.C., these were read aloud and had to be interpreted (Nehemiah 8:8) which Feiler takes to mean the people were hearing these things for the first time. The sojourning Abraham became a necessary figure to the origins of the sojourning exiles in Babylon. Abraham and Isaac are invoked throughout the Old Testament, but Feiler (citing scholars) can ignore this because he apparently believes these were inserted into stories later. He claims the Isaac sacrifice was not found in known Jewish writing again until the first century BCE, and were written in a persecution context. Every persecution and exile seems to bring a new interpretation of both Abraham and Isaac.

Feiler cites evidence from Quran and the Essenes of the Isaac-as-martyr motif in Jewish thought, and the importance of Abraham. Jewish scholars by this time had improved on Abraham, writing that he had not died, creating the idea of Abraham as the coming Messiah as late as 100 BCE. Isaac became a self-sacrificing role model rather than the object of Abraham's obedience, and this sentiment was rekindled again during the persecution of the Middle Ages. It was into this context that Jesus was born, and why Jesus' claim to be before Abraham was immediately heretical (John 8:58, but note that in 8:53 the Jews state that Abraham "died," which runs contra to Feiler's thesis). He ignores any mention of the resurrection or the change of Jesus' followers from defeat to eager evangelists, adopting the stance that they needed something in Jewish history to link Jesus to, and Paul chose Abraham. The geneology in Matthew's gospel likewise includes Abraham, and the Luke's includes the parable of the righteous poor going to "Abraham's bosom." This section seems to contradict what he wrote above about the relatively newly increased importance of Abraham in BCE Palestine. Feiler also makes the claim that "Jews didn't come" to Christian thinking, ignoring that all of Jesus' disciples were Jews, that Jews were the first converts, and the seemingly most important body of believers for the early church was located in Jerusalem (Acts 11 & 15).

Nonetheless, I think Feiner understands Romans 4 and Paul's explanations of the faith of Abraham and what it means for Christians very well. He interviews Richard J. Wood, former Dean of the Yale Divinity School on this subject and gets some decent explanations. However, later Christian apologists and theologians like Justin Martyr, Eusebius, and Irenaeus made claims that Abraham was not Jewish, and the antisemitism that spread in the first few centuries seemed eager to deny any links to Abraham.

After the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, and Christianity was becoming widespread, Rabbis began to teach that Isaac had died and been resurrected. This was to counter the Christian's claim that Jesus was superior to Isaac, whose near sacrifice had simply prefigured Christ's as the Lamb of God. Rabbis facing persecution in the Middle Ages also rekindled the self-sacrifice story, claiming persecution showed God's favor.

Feiler reaches hjis own conclusion that Abraham's decision to sacrifice Isaac is a sign of fanatical devotion, each religion's history would suggest they are all willing to sacrifice their own children out of devotion to God. He asks a Rabbi whether he would devote his own son and gets an immediate "yes," a sign of piety and unattachment to this world. In the Hajj to Mecca, the sacrifice ceremony is the climax, and the history of Islam and Sura 15 of the Quran's exhortation to spreading the faith by the sword is further evidence of at-all-costs violence. "All three religions place the father's willingness to sacrifice his son at the center of their identity."

This is problematic in that Feiler does not note that God in the Torah forbids child sacrifice and repeatedly judged nations that engaged in such practices. In contrast with the Code of Hammurabi, for example, under Mosaic law each is accountable for his own sin, not children for their parent's sins. Under Hammurabi, if a man accidentally killed another man's daughter he responded by sacrificing his own daughter-- not so in Mosaic law, the man himself would be held liable. It is contrary to God's nature to sacrifice innocent blood. Thus, Christ had to "become sin" for us, from which God had to look away. The Bible says Jesus became cursed and suffered God's wrath just as we all would without Christ's atoning for our own sins (Galatians 3).

Feiler includes other historical criticism of Islam, writing that the Arabic language itself keeps the Quran from the same textual criticism that the Bible is subjected to. While attending Friday prayers at a mosque in East Jerusalem he has a disturbing conversation with Muslims intent to kill Jews. Undeterred, Feiler writes of ecumenical councils and the attempts to reach a common ground on Abraham. He notes that at Abraham's burial in Genesis 25, Isaac and Ishmael are both present to bury their father, suggesting peace and unity. (He doesn't mention Abraham's other children and how he sent all them away from Isaac, or how he got a wife for Isaac and other aspects of Abraham's life.)

The Tombs of the Patriarchs located in the West Bank used to be a site of ecumenical worship and respect, but it has more recently seen riots and social unrest. This does not bode well for the future of ecumenicism. After 9/11, the author attempts to see Abraham as the way to create tolerance and peace, as representing "all men's desire to be connected to God," but is able to reach no conclusions other than his own undying hope for peace. While not a great book, it did add some to my understanding of the development of religious thought and tradition in the Middle East and made me curious to read his next book, where he attempts to walk the Bible and retrace Abraham's footsteps. 3.5 stars out of 5.

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