Levenson, Jon.”Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, Princeton University Press, 2012.
To Whom, Abraham?
Jon Levenson, Professor of Bible at Harvard’s School of Divinity has something to say about what many have called the Abrahamic religions. He says that Christianity and Islam are incorrect in showing that Abraham is a unifying transcendent figure between them and Judaism. The tradition that Abraham belongs to all three of the religions, Levenson, says, that although very old, is just not true.
There has obviously been some importance and we see this especially in the covenant of paternity which goes something like this: Abraham is the father of God’s people and this carried on through his son, Isaac. Where Christianity leaves Judaism because of the argument of lineage and legitimacy. In Genesis, Abraham does not preach the idea of monotheism and the story of his breaking his father’s idols is found in sources from the time of the Second Temple. The Abraham of the Koran is a prophet of monotheism who precedes Mohammed. What is the definitive act of Abraham for Christians and Jews is his obedience to God’s command to sacrifice his son, Isaac while for Muslims, this is a proof test but Mohammed comes must later in history.
The idea of sacrifice is something that both Jews and Christians do every day but in a vicarious manner. Sacrifice comes in rituals—circumcision, redemption of the first born and general sacrificial service. We are aware that one of the main purposes of religion is triumph over death. We give God our lives and in return we get eternal life. In the Judaism of ancient times, sacrifice was the religious service that rabbis substituted the three times a day prayer after the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E. In every morning service, Jews recite Genesis 22, the binding of Isaac to be reminded that God swore to bless Abraham and his line because he was willing to give up his only son. In Jewish theology, the sacrifice of the ram instead of Isaac goes before the lamb of the Exodus, whose blood keeps the angel of death at bay. What sacrifice is in this instance is God’s gift of love and this simply means that death is displaced by Isaac and in kind from the entire line of Abraham. It takes the place of and represents the almost sacrifice of Isaac who is headed for death but is spared. Likewise Jesus dies and is resurrected. Paul of the Christian Bible goes a step further. It is commonly accepted among Christians that Paul wished to extend the covenant of Israel to all peoples and Levenson maintains that this is not the case at all.
Paul does not hold with the universal identity associated with man and sin; a man who has been recreated as one who achieves righteousness in God’s eyes and bases that on faith. Christians have seen themselves as the adopted children of Abraham and a part of the larger community of sinners. Because Genesis says that Abraham would become the father of nations, Paul says that the gentile Christians have a separate lineage. Some believe that it is only Abraham who is the true ancestor and his line is direct and does not through Isaac and Jacob.
I understand that this is not thinking and other Jewish scholars have come up with similar ideas. By adhering to this idea of Paulian Christianity, we are able to see the continuing existence of the Jewish people despite the fact that we do not acknowledge the divinity of Jesus. From the onset of Christianity, the church has claimed that is Israel itself and that the independence of the Jewish people is a schism within Israel and they continue to hope to convert the Jews. With Vatican II, the church has moved away from evangelicalism and missionary work and is not so concerned with Jews on earth.
Levenson maintains that what is not clear is the relationship between the Christian or new community and the Jews or the old community. Since the Jews are not part of the church, they must reject the sacraments but that the glory of God and the covenants belong to the descendents of the flesh. Further, he says that it is Christians and not the Jews who reject Jesus that are the children of God. It is Paul’s belief that the end of time was near and rendered the whole issue moot because the return of Jesus would show the Jews that they had erred.
Let’s look at the issue of whether or not Abraham actually practiced the Torah before it had been handed down at Sinai. Rashi says that Abraham only practiced those parts of Torah that deal with or accessible by human reason. There are of course different views that different Christian accounts provide such as James’s letter and the Epistles of Paul.
Looking at Islam now we see that it is a bit more difficult to deal with. Levenson notes that the binding of Isaac is very much downplayed in Islam which only uses 6 verses in the Koran (Sura 37: 102-107). While Isaac is mentioned again a few verses later, we get the idea that the Islamic version of the story is just a peek at Genesis 22. There are Muslim commentator that believe that is was Ishmael and not Isaac in the account but this view goes against the plain sense of the text. Ishmael is delivered by killing and then eating a sheep (or goat) on the day regarded as the Feast of Eid al-Adha. Nothing has grown out of this and the repetition of the event has become a family affair with clergy and not within a mosque. In fact, we learn that sacrifice is not one of the pillars of Islam and in fact it was the pagan Arabs that sacrificed to various gods hoping to achieve protection, a favor and some kind of material gain and so did the Jews who hoped to appease their God by blood sacrifice because they believed that sins are absolved by it and burnt offerings. As for the Christians, they believed that Jesus was the last sacrifice. They lived in a world where animal sacrifice had become tradition and was used for the absolution of sins. (Interesting enough is that we really are not sure how to define “sin”). Islam left the tradition of appeasing an angry God and in its place demands personal sacrifice and submission as the only way to reach extinction in Allah.
So then we come to the question as to why in none of the three religions do we sacrifice sons. Consider why so few Muslims partake in terrorist activities and we get Levenson’s implication that terrorism is a form of sacrifice. Looking back we are reminded that the path of Allah means propagating Islam through holy wars and as the obedient Muslims journey on the path to Allah, they take upon themselves the dangers associated with the religion and the observance of its laws. In this way, the piety of the faith of Islam comes into the world.
Both Jews and Christians continue sacrificing their sons through rites such as circumcision which has come to become a substitute for human sacrifice so Levenson maintains. Redemption of the first born requests that the father to relive the binding of Isaac on a personal level. In the Christian world, the sacrifice of Jesus at the Last Supper is a form of sacrifice but in Islam what do we have? It eschews vicarious sacrifice and demands personal sacrifice and Muslims see this as an improvement over the monotheistic religions that came before their own. Can we understand that to mean that death during a jihad is what the Muslims consider as sacrifice of a beloved son in both Judaism and Christianity? If so then we can better understand how life is viewed in Muslim countries and how it is shaped. There have been almost 80,000 terrorist attacks in the world from 2004-2011 with the staggering loss of almost 112,000 people and some 228,000+ injured. Almost all of the casualties were Muslims. Compare this to the fact that there are 1.3 billion Muslims and only a small percentage engages in terrorist activity. It seems that these sacrificial acts are built on solid doctrinal foundations.
Levenson nixes that the story of the binding of Isaac is the inspiration for the Muslim suicide sacrifices and those that try to show that what happened on 9/11/01 and similar atrocities is not really related to the theological basis for the crimes in the minds of those that committed them. Jihad is both a legal and theological issue and is in fact, a sacrament of Islam. We clearly see how Judaism and Christianity compare as religions that are descended from Abraham—they are both religions of sacrifice, covenant and paternal love but the idea is not a part of Islam and, in fact, is alien to it. There is, in Islam a god who “deigns to make no covenants with humans, and the matter of lineal or figurative descent from the patriarch is irrelevant to Islam”. If that is indeed the case what kind of religion is Islam? That is yet to be determined.