Monday 19 July 2021


Antikythera Mechanism from second century BCE. This was an early analog computer which could calculate positions of astronomical objects.


Much has been written about the idea that Judaism, Christianity and Islam are united under the general banner of Abrahamic faiths. This is a good thing because we would all rather live in a world where there is more harmony than disharmony and there are certainly many areas where we have much in common. However, testing the notion of Abrahamic faith from a technically theological position reveals some interesting fault lines.

This article, based extensively on the writings of Professor Jon D Levenson[1] from Harvard Divinity School, explores how differently Abraham is depicted within the three main faith groups of Judaism, Christianity and Islam.



Levenson describes the biblical story of Abraham depicted in Genesis as a “deceptively simple tale”. Abraham is told to leave his homeland in Mesopotamia (Iraq) and is given a series of extravagant promises. Although childless, he will be the father of a great nation and his descendants will be given the land of Canaan. The tension begins immediately because although Abraham gets the wealth associated with the promise quite quickly, Sarah is advancing in years and there is no heir. And when he eventually does get a son, it is not through his main wife, Sarah, but through the Egyptian surrogate Hagar who gives birth to Ishmael. Abraham thinks Ishmael is to be his heir, but then Sarah is told she will give birth to the promised son. This son will inherit not just blessing (wealth) and great nationhood like his brother Ishmael, but – unlike Ishmael – he will inherit the covenant as well. Hagar gets thrown out of the house with her son and eventually finds an Egyptian wife for Ishmael, confirming that the line is not through her son. Meanwhile, Sarah gives birth to Isaac, confirming the line, but then Abraham is told to sacrifice his son. Isaac is saved and Abraham arranges a marriage for him within his family in Mesopotamia. As for the promise of land, all Abraham manages to secure is a small burial plot for Sarah.



This story of promise and partial fulfilment of those promises, is all the Torah really tells us about Abraham. The rest is richly filled in by rabbinic and particularly Midrashic interpretation. But, as Levenson will points out, one can trace patterns of rabbinic thought adding to the Abraham story, that directly correspond to the living conditions of Jews under Greek and Roman domination when these embellishments were made:

Levenson (2012:3) writes:

“The evolution of the figure of Abraham in Jewish sources reflects the evolution of Judaism over the centuries.”

Although Abraham is known as Avraham Avinu (our father Abraham), very little about Judaism and Jewish observance is found in the actual Torah text around Abraham. That gap is readily filled by rabbinic embellishments.

The dictum ma’asei avot siman lebanim (whatever happened to the patriarchs was to happen to the descendants) describes how the Patriarchs are said to have pre-enacted all of future Jewish history and we are told that they kept the entire Torah even before it was given.

מָצִינוּ שֶׁעָשָׂה אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ אֶת כָּל הַתּוֹרָה כֻּלָּהּ עַד שֶׁלֹּא נִתְּנָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר, (שם כו[2]) עֵקֶב אֲשֶׁר שָׁמַע אַבְרָהָם בְּקֹלִי וַיִּשְׁמֹר מִשְׁמַרְתִּי מִצְוֹתַי חֻקּוֹתַי וְתוֹרֹתָי[3]

Yet, Levenson points out that the text of the Torah gives no indication that Abraham kept Shabbat, for example, as that law was - according to the text - only given later in the time of Moshe.[4]

Although Rashi tells us that the angels visited Abraham during the festival of Pesach, and that the food was prepared with the laws of Kashrut in mind, the text itself makes no mention of such laws. Besides for Brit Millah (circumcision), the text tells us nothing about the opposition to idolatry(!), the insistence of belief in one G-d, ethical and legal laws and so on. In fact, very little of what Abraham does is amenable to replication, and in the text, Abraham does not teach anything at all. Levenson (2012:4) mentions that in a sense it is more apt to refer to Moshe as the founder of Jewish practices, rather than Abraham. But all this quickly changes with the application of the rabbinic interpretative tradition. And when and where these interpretations were applied to Abraham, becomes an interesting study in itself.



Around 200 BCE, towards the end of the Second Temple period, the world became a very different place because of certain Greco-Roman scientific advances that changed the way people viewed the universe. Levenson (2012:5) writes:

“[T]he discovery of mathematically predictable regularities inscribed in the motion of the heavenly bodies posed a formidable challenge to the traditional Jewish belief in a personal God who created the world (including the planets and stars) and actively governs it through his providence.”

The response in the rabbinic literature at that time was to show Abraham as one who had found G-d to be above astrology and astronomy (which were not yet separate disciplines). Abraham is then depicted as seeing the movement of the stars and realising that Someone was controlling their movements. Thus, a current reaction to a new challenge was projected back onto the patriarch in the Midrashic literature.



Although the book of Joshua (24:2-4) refers to Abraham's father, Terach, worshiping idols, the Torah text in Genesis makes no mention of Abraham’s opposition to idolatry and there is no mention of false gods. However - also at around the same period - when the Jewish martyrs of the late Second Temple period were prepared to defend monotheism with their very lives, a picture of Abraham emerges in Midrashic literature of a man who too, uncompromisingly, rejected idolatry and defended G-d with his very life. One thinks of the Midrash about a woman who brings fine flour to Abraham to offer the gods. Abraham is looking after his father's shop while he is out, and he smashes all the idols bar the biggest whom he blames for the destruction. Terach turns his son over to Nimrod and Abraham is  depicted as being saved miraculously from the fiery furnace of the idolatrous Nimrod who tries to get Abraham to worship fire. Abraham's brother Haran is not so lucky and he perishes in the flames:

נסתיה ומסרתיה לנמרוד, אמר ליה נסגוד לנורא, אמר ליה נסגוד למייא דמטפין לנורא, אמר ליה ונסגוד למיא, אמר ליה נסגוד לענני דטעני מיא, אמר ליה ונסגוד לעננא, אמר ליה נסגוד לרוחא דמובלי עננא, [אמר ליה] ונסגוד לרוחא, אמר ליה נסגוד לבר נשא דסביל רוחא, אמר ליה מלין את משתעי לא נסגוד אלא לאור הריני משליכך בו ויבוא אלהיך שאתה משתחוה לו ויצילך ממנו

הוה תמן הרן קאים פליג אמר מה נפשך אם נצח אברהם אנא אמר מן דאברם אנא, אם נצח נמרוד אמר אנא מנמרוד אנא, כיון שירד אברם לכבשן האש ונוצל אמ' ליה מן דמן את, אמר ליה מן דאברם, נטלוהו והשליכוהו באש ונחמרו מעיו ויצא ומת על פני אביו. הה"ד וימת הרן על פני תרח אביו

(See footnote for full English translation[5]

The Book of Jubilees (12:12-14), from around the second century BCE, talks of Abraham setting his father’s idols on fire and Haran's death in these very flames trying to save them:

“In the sixtieth year of the life of Abram, i.e. in the fourth week, in its fourth year, Abram arose in the night and burned the house of the idols. And he burned everything in the house. And there was no man who knew. And they rose up in the night, and they wanted to save their gods from the midst of the fire. And Haran rushed to save them, and the fire flared up over him. And he was burned in the fire and died in Ur of the Chaldees before Terah, his father. And they buried him in Ur of the Chaldees (translation by James Kugel).”[6]

Most remarkable about this account which to this day is very well-known, is that the book of Jubilees is not even part of the authorised cannon of the Tanach. [13]

The Midrash and the book of Jubilees offer two very different accounts of the same event but the message against idolatry is the same.

Along similar lines, another work that appears in no scriptural canon, the Apocalypse of Abraham (written between 70 -150 CE) has Abraham’s father Terach depicted as an idol-maker by trade. Terach is shown lifting a fallen idol and the head falls off. He destroys the old head and makes a new one. His son Abraham is quick to point out the absurdity of such an action by pointing out to his father that "They did not help themselves; how can they help you or bless me? (4:3-4)." This too has, surprisingly, become a widespread and accepted interpretation of Abraham's signature challenge to idolatry.

Again, a new perception of Abraham is projected back onto the biblical patriarch by Midrashic and other literature whilst the text itself makes no reference to idolatry. Interestingly, the Qur’an much later, also depicts Abraham’s fierce opposition to idolatry;

"And by Allah, I will show your idols my guile, after you turn your backs. Then he reduced them to pieces except for their chief, so that they might turn to him (Qur'an 21:57-58)."

There is also a reference to the fire (although Nimrod’s name does not appear):

“We [Allah] said: ‘Oh fire, be coolness and peace upon Abraham’ (Qur’an 21:69)”

Islam emphasised Abraham’s fight against idolatry because Muhammad, according to Islamic tradition, also faced fierce opposition from the original Arabian “unbelievers [who] plotted against you, so as to confine you, kill you or expel you (Qur’an 8:30)”.

Christianity however, does not develop this idea of Abraham's opposition to idolatry. 



During the Second Temple period right up to the end of Talmudic times in around 500 CE, the focus was not so much on the number of deities but what seemed to be of primary concern was the general transcendence of G-d over nature. Later, during the Middle Ages, the oneness of G-d took on a more primary focus.

In the Greco-Roman world, around the latter Second Temple period, there existed, surprisingly, a form of pagan monotheism. The Stoic philosophers believed in one god but, unlike Abrahamic religions, this god is not the creator. He is immanent in nature but not transcendent. This is very similar to the Hindu belief where there is no beginning of time as it is considered infinite and cyclic. This existence is just part of many cycles which are self-destroyed and self-re-created. Also, unlike Abrahamic religions, this one god does not reveal himself to his unique and special community.

In Second Temple theology, it was important to emphasise that the one monotheistic God differed from the stoic monotheistic god in that He revealed himself to Abraham and founded His special community with their specific observances. The observances of this community were emphasised and reflected back to Abraham who is said to have kept all the laws before they were given to Moshe.



With the rise of Christianity in the first century CE, there was a new set of challengers which followed from the Stoic era in which the community of Abraham (and their observances) was emphasised. The question now became which specific community and which practices are to be emphasised – Jewish or Christian?

The apostle Paul defined the community of Abraham as all those who “follow the example of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (Rom 4:11-12). Faith was more important than practice and lineage. If you have faith, you belong to the community of Abraham because Abraham was pronounced righteous by G-d long before Moshe gave the Torah to the Israelites and even before Abraham was circumcised. Keeping the commandments of the Torah was therefore no longer necessary.

The early Christian theologian Justin Martyr who wrote just after the failed Bar Kochba Revolt (132-135 CE), took the notion of circumcision to next level. Instead of it being a symbol of G-d’s enduring covenant with Israel, he claimed it was a symbol of rejection by G-d. Although it was handed down through Abraham, it was a sign that:

“[Y]ou and only you might suffer the afflictions that are now justly yours; that only your land be desolate …that not one of you be permitted to enter the city of Jerusalem.”[7]

The rabbinic response in the Talmud, which began to appear at the same time as Christianity was emerging, was to refer to circumcision as the “covenant of Avraham Avinu (our father Abraham)”. The Talmud states:

״אֲשֶׁר קִדְּשָׁנוּ בְּמִצְוֹתָיו וְצִוָּנוּ לְהַכְנִיסוֹ בִּבְרִיתוֹ שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ״


שֶׁאִילְמָלֵא דַּם בְּרִית לֹא נִתְקַיְּימוּ שָׁמַיִם וָאָרֶץ

“Were it not for the blood of circumcision, heaven and earth would not endure.”[8]

This way, together with showing that Abraham kept all the commandments before they were given, the rabbis highlighted their claim as rightful heirs to Abraham through the Brit Millah, which excluded the Christian claim that faith alone brings one into the community of Abraham. And one could add that for the Stoics, they threw in a reference to the heavens and the earth as creations and not just part of a cyclical process, as well.

Levenson (2012:8) does point out, though, that the idea that Abraham kept all the commandments was pre-Christian (see note 4). Nevertheless, emphasising this idea at that time would have been important in order to counter the rise of a new religion also claiming its roots in Abraham.

Another angle taken by early Christians was based on G-d’s promise to Abraham “In you shall all the families of the earth be blessed (Genesis 12:3b)”. Because Christians were concerned with converting all the “families of the earth” and Jews were not[9], they were carrying on the rightful legacy Abraham and not the Jews. Thus, again the Jews were excluded from their Abrahamic legacy.

The Midrashic response was a reinterpretation of “in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed” to “by you”. The notion of zechut avot, or merit of the patriarchs was emphasised.  Jews did not need to convert the world because the spiritual “merit” of Abraham would suffice. The presence of Abraham’s descendants observing his laws was the source of (vicarious) blessing for all the other nations.

וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ, הַגְּשָׁמִים בִּזְכוּתְךָ, הַטְּלָלִים בִּזְכוּתְךָ, הֲדָא הוּא דִכְתִיב (אסתר ב, כב): וַיִּוָּדַע הַדָּבָר לְמָרְדְּכָי וַיַּגֵּד לְאֶסְתֵּר הַמַּלְכָּה וגו'. זֶה מָהוּל וְזֶה עָרֵל, וְחָס עָלָיו, אֶתְמְהָא, רַבִּי יְהוּדָה וְרַבִּי נְחֶמְיָה, רַבִּי יְהוּדָה אוֹמֵר (תהלים קיט, ק): מִזְּקֵנִים אֶתְבּוֹנָן כִּי פִקּוּדֶיךָ נָצָרְתִּי, אָמַר, יַעֲקֹב בֵּרַךְ אֶת פַּרְעֹה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (בראשית מז, ז): וַיְבָרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב אֶת פַּרְעֹה, יוֹסֵף גִּלָּה לוֹ, דָּנִיֵּאל גִּלָּה לִנְבוּכַדְנֶצַר, אַף אֲנִי כֵן וַיַּגֵּד לְאֶסְתֵּר הַמַּלְכָּה. וְרַבִּי נְחֶמְיָה אָמַר, אָמַר הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְאַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ וְנִבְרְכוּ בְךָ כֹּל מִשְׁפְּחֹת הָאֲדָמָה וּבְזַרְעֶךָ, אִין תֵּימַר דְּלֶהֱוֵי עַתִּירִין, הֲרֵי עַתִּירִין אִנּוּן מִינָן, אֶלָּא לִשְׁאֵלָה, כְּשֶׁהֵן נִכְנָסִים לְצָרָה הֵם נִשְׁאָלִים לָנוּ וְאָנוּ מְגַלִּין לָהֶם[10]

This Midrash expounds on numerous examples of Gentiles who prosper because of the activities of the Jews. This “zechut” or merit is what the verse “by you shall all the families of the earth be blessed” refers to – not to the need to convert the world.

Perhaps most importantly, we must remember how Christianity viewed the Akeidah, or the binding of Isaac. Abraham's son, Isaac, is regarded as the prototype for Jesus, the son of G-d:

"in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles (Gal.3:4).”

Paul writes in his letters:

“Now the promises were made to Abraham and his offspring; it does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ as of many; but it says, ‘And to your offspring,’ that is, to one person, who is Christ (Gal. 3:16).”

In the second century CE, Bishop Melito of Sardis wrote:

“As a ram he was bound, he says concerning our Lord Jesus Christ…going up to slaughter like Isaac at the hand of his father. But Christ suffered. Isaac did not suffer, for he was a type of the passion of Christ which was to come

When the thing comes about of which the sketch was a type…then the type is destroyed, it has become useless…What was once valuable becomes worthless… So the people were valuable before the church arose, And the law was wonderful before the illumination of the Gospel. (On Pascha, 76, 37, 40-42. Cited by Levenson 2012:102).”

According to Christianity, Abraham’s legacy is not a particular philosophy nor a practice. It is a faith “that that comes from the preaching of the Christian gospel (Levenson 2012:138).”

Ideas like these, prompt Levenson (2012:104) to state:

“[T]he fact that Judaism and Christianity share scriptures in general and revere the narratives about the patriarchs in particular constitutes a historical bond, and even a theological bond of sorts; but it also constitutes a formidable barrier.”


Islam emerged after the Talmudic period, in the seventh century CE, and it focuses more on Abraham than both Judaism and Christianity (Levenson 2012:8). It too, seeks to distance Abraham from the Jewish people.

However, Islam adopts a very different strategy than Christianity. While Christianity claims that ‘descent’ from Abraham, through faith not birth, is vital – Islam claims that ‘descent’ is of no consequence. Abraham is no longer the Jewish “Abraham our father”, nor the Christian “father of all who have faith”, but now a link in the chain of prophets starting with Adam and a prefiguration of the greatest or the “Seal of the prophets[11], Muhammad (Levenson 2012:105). As the Qur'an states: 

"the people who are worthiest of Abraham are those who followed him, together with this Prophet (3:68)." 

Islam thus sought to restore “the religion of Abraham[12] after its misrepresentation by both Judaism and Christianity. Another great difference is Islam’s rejection of the canonical status of Genesis. This is significant because Genesis claims Isaac as the son who inherits the covenant. The claim of Islam is that the heir is Ishmael regardless of what it states in Genesis.

In the Qur’an the “Akeidah” appears as a very short narrative. Abraham tells his son that saw himself slaughtering him, in a dream. The son replies: “My father, do what you are commanded, you will find me, Allah willing, one of the steadfast (37:102).” After both have submitted, G-d tells Abraham that its is all a test and provides a large sacrifice as a ransom.

The identity of the son is unknown as he is not named. Early Muslim scholars debated over the identity and the consensus was equally shared as pertaining to both Isaac and Ishmael. The older tradition had the identity as Isaac while the later and more modern scholars had it as Ishmael. By the eleventh century al-Tha’labi wrote: “The Jews claim that it was Isaac, but the Jews lie” (Firestone cited by Levenson 2012:105).”

Interestingly, the Pirkei deRabi Eliezer, written after the rise of Islam, becomes zealous about emphasising the disinheritance of Ishmael and his sons. 


Perhaps by understanding how the figure of Abraham has been attempted to be extricated from Jewish theological control, we can better understand the development and the message of extra-biblical literature surrounding the patriarch.

In the Midrashic literature concerning the account of the animals used for the covenant-making ceremony, the animals are said to symbolise the various empires who ruled over the Jewish people culminating in Rome (which ruled at that time and was becoming increasingly Christian). The message was that all empires would come and go but the (Jewish) covenant with Abraham would endure.

Another case in point was the Akeidah (the binding of Abraham’s son, Isaac) which is hardly mentioned again in the Torah. Yet it took on new meaning and relevance especially during the first few centuries of the Common Era.  Perhaps this was in response to the Christian idea of the ‘son’ being sacrificed which was modelled around the Akeidah story.

Interestingly, at the same time that Midrashim were expanding upon Abraham, Christians developed their own extra-biblical interpretations and homiletics where Abraham is said to have talked to Jesus, and Muslims were describing Abraham and his son Ishmael purifying the ka’ba in Mecca.


Whilst achieving harmony between all faiths is most desirable, understanding their differences does not need to be a hindrance to such an endeavour. It may indeed be the very reason to seek out that harmony, because only a harmony based on understanding can endure.

Levenson (2012:8-9) writes:

“[T]he claim that Abraham is the source of reconciliation among the three traditions increasingly called ‘Abrahamic’ is as simplistic as it is now widespread. Historically, Abraham has functioned much more as a point of differentiation among the three religious communities than a node of commonality.”

Significantly he adds:

“[A]lthough interreligious concord is devoutly to be desired, the patriarch is less useful to that end than many think.”



For a different perspective on Abrahamic faith, see: Kotzk Blog: The Retraction of Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

[1] Levenson, J.D., 2012, Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Princeton University Press.

[2] Genesis 26:5.

[3] Mishna Kiddushin 4:14.

[4] I wonder, though, how Levenson would read Genesis 26:5 which reads: "Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” Perhaps Levenson is referring the lack of any concrete mention of any of these laws, or perhaps he reads the verse to simply mean that Abraham obeyed G-d’s instructions such as to travel and so forth (interpreting the rather convincing mitzvotai, chukotai and torotai in a non-literal manner)? 

[5] He (Terah) took him (Abraham) and gave him over to Nimrod. (Nimrod) said to him: Let us worship the fire! (Abraham) said to him: Should we not then worship water, which extinguishes fire! (Nimrod) said to him: Then, let us worship the water! (Abraham) said to him: Should we not then worship the clouds, which carry the water? (Nimrod) said to him: Then, let us worship the cloud! (Abraham) said to him: If so, Should we not then worship the wind, which scatters the clouds? (Nimrod) said to him: Then, let us worship the wind! (Abraham) said to him: Should we not then worship the human, who withstands the wind? (Nimrod) said to him: You are merely piling words; we should bow to none other than the fire. I shall therefore cast you in it, and let your God to whom you bow come and save you from it!

Haran (Abraham's brother) was standing there. He said (to himself): what shall I do? If Abraham wins, I shall say: "I am of Abraham's (followers)," if Nimrod wins I shall say, "I am of Nimrod's (followers)." When Abraham went into the furnace and survived, Haran was asked: "Whose (follower) are you?" and he answered: "I am Abraham's (follower)!" So, they took him and threw him into the furnace, and his innards were burned and he died and predeceased Terah, his father. This is the meaning of the verse (Gen 11:28), “And Haran died in the lifetime of his father Terah.”

[Bereishit Rabbah 38:11]. According to Sefaria, the Midrash Rabbah was completed at around 500 CE. It is most likely that these Midrashim were built upon earlier traditions.

[6] Kiel, Y., 2015, Why the Midrash Has Abraham Thrown into Nimrod's Furnace:

The historical association of Abraham and Nimrod with Zoroaster, the founder of Zoroastrianism. 

[7] See Siker, Disinheriting the Jews, 169. Cited in Levenson (2012:29).

[8] b. Shabbat 137b.

[10] Bereishit Rabba 39:12.

[11] Qur’an 33:40.

[12] Qur’an 2:135.

[13] The book of Joshua 24:2, however, gives idolatry as the reason why Abraham left. Still, Jubilees provides the graphic embellisment. It is also possible that Jubilees was just recording an existing Jewish tradition.

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