"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Thursday, July 24, 2014

How Many Ways and for How Many Purposes Can We Divide Abraham?

Following as I do Stephen Prothero's approach in his book God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World, I have long avoided many of the tendentious stock phrases of our time, among which "Abrahamic religions," which became so popular after 9/11, ranks high. I'm not seeking polemically to promote division or triumphalistically to exalt Christianity. But equally I refuse to paper over differences that are profound and cannot be syncretistically conjured away by charlatans. In my course on Eastern Christianity and Islam, e.g., I challenge students to reconcile Islam and Christianity on the question of the Trinity and the Incarnation. I do not think it can be done: these are incommensurate truth-claims, and we must honestly face them squarely.

A new book helps us think further along these lines: Carol Bakhos, The Family of Abraham: Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Interpretations (Harvard UP, 2014), 296pp.

About this book we are told:
The term "Abrahamic religions" has gained considerable currency in both scholarly and ecumenical circles as a way of referring to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In The Family of Abraham, Carol Bakhos steps back from this convention to ask a frequently overlooked question: What, in fact, is Abrahamic about these three faiths? Exploring diverse stories and interpretations relating to the portrayal of Abraham, she reveals how he is venerated in these different scriptural traditions and how scriptural narratives have been pressed into service for nonreligious purposes.

Grounding her study in a close examination of ancient Jewish textual practices, primarily midrash, as well as medieval Muslim Stories of the Prophets and the writings of the early Church Fathers, Bakhos demonstrates that ancient and early-medieval readers often embellished the image of Abraham and his family--Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac. Her analysis dismantles pernicious misrepresentations of Abraham's firstborn son, Ishmael, and provocatively challenges contemporary references to Judaism and Islam as sibling religions.

As Bakhos points out, an uncritical adoption of the term "Abrahamic religions" not only blinds us to the diverse interpretations and traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam but also artificially separates these faiths from their historical contexts. In correcting mistaken assumptions about the narrative and theological significance of Abraham, The Family of Abraham sheds new light on key figures of three world religions.

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