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Who Was (and Is) Abraham?

On the day when Our Father Abraham passed away from the 

world, all the great people of the nations of the world stood in a 

line and said, “Alas for the world that has lost its leader, and alas 

for the ship that has lost its pilot!”

— Talmud


The oldest source for the story of Abraham is in the biblical book 

of Genesis, where it occupies about fourteen chapters, or roughly 

twenty pages. Readers who are unfamiliar with the story would be well 

advised to read it now, and in a modern, accessible translation.



they do, they will see that it is the deceptively simple tale of a person 

to whom God, suddenly and without preparation, makes some rather 

extravagant promises. This childless man (whose wife is infertile) is to 

be the father of a great nation; he will become famous and blessed, in 

fact a source or byword of blessing for many; and his descendants will 

be given the land of Canaan, to which he is commanded to journey, 

leaving his homeland in Mesopotamia (today, Iraq) and his family 

of origin behind. Much of the drama in these early chapters of the 

story derives from the question, how will this man whose wife has 

never been able to conceive a child and is now advancing in years 

ever beget the great nation that is at the center of the promise? The 

wealth associated with that promise comes quickly, but the son who 

will be Abraham’s heir and continuator does not, and this casts into 

doubt both the reliability of the promise and the God who made it.

When at long last Abraham does gain a son, it is not through 

his primary wife, but, at her suggestion, through an Egyptian slave 

who serves as a surrogate mother for her mistress. The resolution 

is short- lived. For no sooner is Abraham’s ostensible heir (Ishmael) 

born than God makes the astounding promise that the infertile wife, 

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Sarah, now eighty- nine years old, will give birth to the promised son 

after all, and that this son will inherit not only the promises of bless-

ing and great nationhood, as does Ishmael, but, unlike Ishmael, the 

covenant as well. Much of the second half of the story of Abraham 

focuses on the relationship of these two sons (and that of their moth-

ers as well), until finally Ishmael and his mother Hagar are removed 

from the household and Hagar procures an Egyptian wife for her 

son, confirming, as it were, the divine prediction that his would not 

be Abraham’s prime lineage. That status has been reserved for Sarah’s 

son Isaac, who is born not through the course of nature but through 

nothing less than a miracle. But this time, too, the happy resolution is 

short- lived, for soon after it is established that Sarah’s son Isaac is the 

promised offspring, God again, suddenly and without warning, com-

mands Abraham to sacrifice this child, the son he loves and on whom 

he has staked his life, as a burnt offering on an as- yet- unspecified 

mountain in a distant land.

And yet, once again, Abraham obeys God’s inscrutable will. At the 

last  minute,  God  interrupts  the  sacrifice,  having  determined  that 

Abraham obeys even when that means acting against his own self- 

interest and paternal love. Isaac survives. Abraham, before he dies, 

succeeds in buying a gravesite for Sarah, his only acquisition of real 

estate in the land promised his descendants. He also arranges a mar-

riage for Isaac within his extended family back in Mesopotamia, en-

suring that the promise will not die in his generation but extend into 

the next, as Isaac and Rebekah succeed Abraham and Sarah as the 

progenitors of the special nation. The promise secured— and to some 

extent realized— Abraham passes away at a ripe old age, contented.

So much for Abraham in the Jewish Bible, the subject of our first 

two chapters and part of the third (and to be treated at greater length 

later in this introduction). What is too easily missed is that in the Jew-

ish tradition, the Bible comes bundled with a rich body of interpreta-

tion that has grown over many centuries. This makes it inadequate 

to restrict a discussion of Abraham in Judaism to the figure who ap-

pears in Genesis. Rather, the story continued to grow even after the 

biblical texts became fixed, and expanded versions of the story in 

Genesis— along with some that seem to have no or only slight root-

ing there— became plentiful among Jews living under various forms  

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Who Was (and Is) Abraham?  •  3

of Greek or Roman domination. In fact, as Judaism changed under 

the impact of fresh challenges and resources, the conception of Abra-

ham changed as well. Much richer and more variegated portraits of 

him emerge, along with new conceptions of his significance and his 

legacy. The evolution of the figure of Abraham in Jewish sources re-

flects the evolution of Judaism itself over the centuries.

In the Jewish tradition, Abraham is known as ’Avraham ’Avinu, 

“Our Father Abraham.” As the father of the Jewish people, he is not 

simply their biological progenitor (and, as the tradition would have 

it, the father of all who have converted to Judaism as well); he is also 

the founder of Judaism itself— the first Jew, as it were— and the man 

whose life in some mysterious ways pre- enacts the experience of the 

Jewish people, who are his descendants and who are to walk in trails 

he blazed. The major way in which they are to do so is by serving and 

worshipping the God whom, according to those postbiblical but still 

authoritative traditions, Abraham rediscovered. To this day, the Jew-

ish liturgy speaks of God as “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, 

and the God of Jacob,” referring in the last two phrases to the special 

son and grandson through whom, according to the biblical narrative, 

the Jewish people came into existence.

That Abraham should have assumed such prominence is more 

than a little surprising, and for at least two reasons. The first is that 

so little of what the tradition instructs Jews to practice can be found 

in the biblical narratives about Abraham. Neither he nor anyone else 

in Genesis, for example, observes the Sabbath (Shabbat), a central 

focus of Jewish life from antiquity till the present. True, God “ceases” 

(Hebrew,  shavat) from his labors on the seventh day of creation, 

but, as the Torah’s story has it, he does not disclose Shabbat itself or 

command any human beings to keep it until the time of Moses, long 

after the death of Abraham. The same can be said about the great 

bulk of the commandments of the Torah. The opposition to idolatry 

and the insistence on the one God who has created the world, the 

characteristic ethical and legal norms, the laws governing sacrificial 

worship, the dietary laws, the festivals— Abraham is involved with 

none of these, the single, glaring exception being circumcision. But 

in time all this changes, as Abraham the father becomes Abraham 

the founder as well— the man who heroically stands up for the one 

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invisible and transcendent God, who created the world, guides and 

governs it through his providence, and gave the Torah and its com-

mandments to the Jewish people.

To historians, this postbiblical reconception of Abraham as the 

founder of Judaism is, of course, problematic, and not simply be-

cause it fails to reflect the earliest surviving sources about him. To the 

modern historian, the whole concept of a single person founding a 

great religion is too simplistic to account for the complex cultural and 

social dynamics by which any religious tradition comes into being. 

There is ample room to reject the notions, for example, that the tradi-

tion Westerners call “Confucianism” was founded by Confucius and 

that Christianity was founded by the man its adherents called “Jesus 

Christ” (who was, in fact, an observant Jew). In both those cases, 

however, the putative founder is revered and viewed as a paradigm 

for the adherents to follow, and no later figure in the tradition even 

begins to equal him. The same can be said for the Buddha and Mu-

hammad. Abraham as he appears in the Torah is arguably (but not 

indisputably) presented as worthy of reverence, but little of what he is 

reported to have done is directly amenable to imitation. On the basis 

of the biblical traditions, if the problematic title of “founder” must be 

invoked at all, Moses would seem to have a much better claim to it 

than Abraham.

This brings us to the second reason that the reconception of Abra-

ham in Jewish tradition is surprising. It is not simply that in Genesis

Abraham does not teach what Moses is said to have taught; it is that 

he does not teach anything at all. In this, too, he distinguishes himself 

radically from other putative founder- figures, like the Buddha, Con-

fucius, Jesus, and Muhammad. Genesis, like the entire Jewish Bible, 

is extraordinarily reticent about providing editorial evaluations of 

Abraham. The same reticence also partly accounts for the occasional 

willingness of the Jewish tradition to find serious fault with Abra-



 In this, too, Judaism seems radically different from the way 

most religious traditions treat their founders, who are regarded as 

models for emulation and, in the case of orthodox Christianity, as the 

very incarnation of God himself.

In the later part of the Second Temple period (roughly 200 B.C.E.– 

 70 C.E.), when the latest compositions in the Hebrew Bible were 

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Who Was (and Is) Abraham?  •  5

being finished, Judaism faced one of those challenges to its concep- 

tion of Abraham alluded to above and found the resources to deal 

with it. The challenge lay in the advance of scientific thinking in the 

Greco- Roman world and the philosophical claims on behalf of natu-

ralism with which it was associated. In particular, the 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. As 

we shall see in chapter 4, one way in which Judaism sought to meet 

the new challenge was by finding in Abraham the man who had seen 

through astrology/astronomy (the two were not yet distinguished) 

and discovered the God who is above nature and not wholly imma-

nent in it or constrained by it. The traditional absence of an icon 

of the Deity in Jewish worship lent itself to making a similar point. 

Whereas in the Abraham narratives of Genesis, there is no notion 

at all of idolatry or of false gods, late Second Temple Jewish litera- 

ture exhibits an Abraham who, strikingly, not only intuits the non-

corporeal nature of God but also sets himself courageously against 

the  regnant idolatry. In the manner of biblical prophets like Elijah 

and Jeremiah, or of Jewish martyrs of the late Second Temple period 

itself, this Abraham is willing to witness to the highest truth with, if 

need be, his very life. This idea of Abraham’s uncompromising oppo-

sition to idolatry carries over into rabbinic and later Jewish sources; 

it is familiar to many Jews today, some of whom are surprised to 

learn that there is not a word to that effect in Genesis. Appearing 

prominently in the Qur’an as well, it becomes an important part of 

the common heritage of Judaism and Islam.

Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are often described as the mono-

theistic religions, meaning those that insist there is but one God 

(though the one God of Christian tradition is believed to exist in 

three  equally  divine  “persons”).  Although  in  the  Middle  Ages  the 

oneness of God becomes a focus of important philosophical reflec-

tion, monotheism among the Jews of biblical, Second Temple, and 

rabbinic times (the last period runs roughly from about 70 C.E. to 

500 C.E.) was not focused primarily on the number of deities but 

on the transcendence of the true God over nature and humankind, 

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which are his handiwork and ultimately dependent upon him and 

his generosity. Importantly, there was also a pagan monotheism in 

the Greco- Roman world (“pagan” in this usage is not derogatory but 

simply designates someone whose identity did not in any way derive 

from ancient Israel). But the one God in whom the Stoic philoso-

phers believed, to use them as an example, was not the creator of the 

world and did not transcend the natural order, as did the creator God 

of the Jews and the Christians (and later, the Muslims). At least just 

as important is the crucial fact, too often overlooked, that Jewish, 

Christian, and Muslim monotheism focuses not only on the one God 

but also on the special human community to whom he has graciously 

revealed himself and his will in sacred scripture— another aspect un-

paralleled in pagan (or, philosophical) monotheism.

In the context of Judaism, one thus cannot speak very long or very 

adequately about God without speaking about the people Israel, the 

people descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; conversely, one 

cannot speak very long or very adequately about the people Israel 

without speaking about the God of Israel. Something analogous can 

be said about Christianity and Islam, but not about pagan monothe-

ism. In Second Temple and rabbinic tradition, Abraham is not just 

the man who rediscovered the one God; he is also, as in the Hebrew 

Bible, the forefather of the Jewish people, who, like him, are witnesses 

to that God.

The rise of Christianity in the first century of the Common Era 

posed a different sort of challenge to Judaism and elicited a different 

sort of response. In this case, the central issue was twofold: Which 

community today can lay just claim to the promises made to Abra-

ham’s descendants, and what is that community obligated to practice? 

For the Christian apostle Paul, Abraham was “the father of all who 

have faith without being circumcised and who thus have righteous-

ness reckoned to them, and likewise the father of the circumcised 

who are not only circumcised but who also follow the example of the 

faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised” (Rom 

4:11– 12).


 Here, the key thing is not birth but faith, and Gentiles and 

Jews— the uncircumcised and the circumcised— qualify equally for 

“descent” from Abraham if they have faith. That Abraham lived  before  

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Who Was (and Is) Abraham?  •  7

Moses’s reception of the Torah and, according to Genesis, was pro-

nounced righteous by God because of his faith proved to Paul, him-

self once a practicing Jew, that the commandments of the Torah were 

not necessary for a right relationship with God.

Even the mitsvah (commandment) of ritual circumcision, which 

Abraham and his descendants were categorically commanded to 

practice, was no exception, for, as Paul sees it, Abraham was pro-

nounced righteous because of his faith before that commandment 

was ever given.


 And so, ritual circumcision, a requirement for men 

converting to Judaism, would not be required of Christians at all. The 

faith of Abraham the Gentile made him righteous in God’s eyes even 

before circumcision made him into Abraham the first Jew. In Paul’s 

theology, the community for which Abraham served as a paradigm 

was thus a mixed group of Gentiles and Jews, a community created 

by God and founded upon faith in the gospel of Christ crucified and 

risen from the dead. It was, in other words, the Church, and so it 

remains in the minds of most Christians to this day.

The precise innovation brought about by the Jewish response to 

Paul’s and kindred early Christian theologies is difficult to establish, 

since we cannot easily distinguish between a response to a Christian 

challenge and the natural unfolding of Jewish theology and biblical 

interpretation. (The current Jewish Bible, give or take a few books, 

was the only Bible the earliest Christians knew.) A good case in point  

is the issue of the dispensability of ritual circumcision for men of 

Abrahamic descent. When the Talmudic sages, who refer to the cir- 

cumcision ceremony as inducting the boy into “the covenant of 

Abraham Our Father,” also devised a liturgy that proclaims, “Were 

it not for the blood of circumcision, heaven and earth would not en-

dure!”  (Babylonian  Talmud  [b.],  Shabbat  [Shab.] 137b), were they 

responding to the contrary Christian theology; to long- standing, in 

fact pre- Christian, Gentile contempt for the practice; to the great em-

phasis the Torah itself places upon the ritual; or to some combination 

of these three possibilities? Whatever the answer, it is certainly the 

case that the rabbis refused to dispense with circumcision or to sub-

ordinate it or the rest of the mitsvot (commandments) of the Torah 

to faith.

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Indeed, in a number of places in rabbinic literature, we find Abra-

ham practicing other mitsvot as well, even those undisclosed until 

after his death. “Thus,” a rabbinic text reports, “we find that Our Fa-

ther Abraham practiced the whole Torah, in its entirety, before it was 

given” (Mishnah [m.] Q

iddushin 14:4). It is tempting to view this as 

a response to Paul’s insistence that the case of Abraham shows the 

Torah and its commandments are not necessary and that it is faith 

that determines who belongs to the people of God and who does 

not. This may well be so, though, as we shall see in chapter 5, the idea 

that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob observed the Mosaic Torah is also 

pre- Christian. The rabbis continued this idea but did not originate it. 

They also challenged it on occasion.

Islam (which arose in the seventh century C.E.) focuses on Abra-

ham more than does either Judaism or Christianity.


 Like Christi-

anity, it seeks to detach Abraham from the flesh- and- blood Jewish 

people. But there is an extremely important difference between the 

Christian and the Muslim cases. Christianity has historically taught 

that descent from Abraham is essential; it differs from Judaism in 

holding that one becomes a descendant of Abraham through Chris-

tian faith and not through natural birth as a Jew or conversion to 

Judaism. Islam, on the other hand, beginning in the Qur’an itself, 

has  taught  that  descent  is  insignificant.  Abraham,  in  other  words, 

is not the father of the believing community— neither “Our Father 

Abraham” nor “the father of all who have faith”— but rather a link in 

the chain of prophets that begins with Adam and culminates in the 

greatest of all prophets, Muhammad. As we shall see in chapter 6, the 

Qur’an conceives of Abraham as submitted to God (Arabic, muslim) 

and believes that those worthy of him are the followers of the man he 

foreshadowed, Muhammad, “Seal of the prophets” (33:40).



side Abraham the Jew and Abraham the Christian (or at least the 

man who foreshadowed Christian faith), we thus must also reckon 

with Abraham the Muslim, or, to put the same point differently, 

with the Muslim claim that Islam is the restoration of “the religion 

of Abraham” (Qur’an 2:135), a religion long distorted and misinter-

preted by Jews and Christians alike.

Given these conflicting interpretations of the supposedly common 

figure, the claim that Abraham is a source of reconciliation among 

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Who Was (and Is) Abraham?  •  9

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 commu-

nities than as a node of commonality. The assumption that we can 

recover a neutral Abraham that is independent of Judaism, Chris-

tianity, and Islam— yet authoritative over them— is, as we shall see 

in chapter 6, quite unwarranted. Any argument that the Abraham 

of one of these three religions is the real Abraham will necessarily 

be fatally circular and privilege the scriptures and traditions of the 

very religion it seeks to validate. Thus, our concentration on the Jew-

ish Abraham in this book implies no claim that the rival Abrahams 

of Christianity and Islam lack a parallel integrity of their own. On 

the contrary, the distinctive character of Abraham in Judaism— and 

to a large degree the distinctive character of Judaism itself— can be 

best understood through an honest and nonapologetic comparison 

and contrast with Abraham as he appears in the other two traditions 

now conventionally termed Abrahamic. It is surely the case that Jews, 

Christians, and Muslims have more in common than most of their 

adherents recognize, and one important item they have in common 

is a tendency to reflect on the figure of Abraham as he appears in their 

respective collections of authoritative literature. But those collections 

differ, the Abraham who appears in each of them is distinctive in 

important ways, and, although interreligious concord is devoutly to 

be desired, the patriarch is less useful to that end than many think.

The separation of Abraham from the subsequent history of the Jews 

and Judaism that Christianity and Islam brought about has, over the 

centuries, served as a sign of a potent challenge to traditional Jewish 

identity. In response, the Jewish tradition, building on certain clues 

in Genesis itself, has connected Abraham’s experience to that of the 

people Israel over the centuries. Thus, when he is instructed to take a 

certain set of animals to use in the covenant- making ceremony, a mid- 

rash (an imaginative rabbinic interpretation of biblical verses) sees 

the animals as symbolizing the sequence of empires that ruled over 

the Jewish people, culminating in Rome, which dominated in the 

rabbis’ own time.


 The implication is that the covenant with Abra-

ham will outlast those who have triumphed over his descendants 

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(including the increasingly Christianized Roman Empire), and the 

Jewish people will outlive each of their vanquishers and reclaim the 

land that God solemnly covenanted with their father to give them.

Another midrash relates to the near- sacrifice of Isaac— the  Aqedah, 

or “Binding,” as it is known in rabbinic literature. The midrash dwells 

on a verse that has God showing Abraham the Temple: “built, de-

stroyed, and rebuilt” (Genesis R

abbah [Gen. Rab.] 56:10). Developing 

a late biblical identification of the mountain in the land of Moriah,



on which the Binding took place, with the Temple Mount in Jeru-

salem, this midrash makes Abraham a sign of eventual Jewish res-

toration but only after unspeakable travail— travail that he already 

pre- enacted.

The story of the Aqedah is the subject of chapter 3. We turn to 

that episode now because it points to a critical dimension of the de-

velopment of Jewish reflection on Abraham that is too often missed. 

It is not the case that as new challenges arose, the Jewish tradition 

responded to them by merely rejecting the new thinking out of hand 

and restating the old theology. Rather, the new challenges prompted 

Jewish thinkers to delve deeper, probing and adjusting the contours 

of their own tradition. The Aqedah represents a case in which a pas-

sage that is almost never referred to again in the Hebrew Bible grew 

in importance in the late Second Temple period and became central 

to the theology of the rabbis in the first several centuries after the 

birth of Christianity. Was this last turn just the natural continuation 

of  an  evolutionary  process?  Or  was  it  a  response  to  the  Christian 

story of the father who was willing to sacrifice his beloved son and 

the son who was willing to lay down his own life in obedience and 

love— a story that had itself developed in part with the Aqedah as a 


As so often in the relationship of Judaism with Christianity (and 

later with Islam as well), we are not dealing with a straightforward 

instance of mother- religion and daughter- religion, but rather with 

complex patterns of dependence and mutual influence in traditions 

that change over time. Whatever the case may be with regard to the 

Aqedah, the fact remains that this text, though commonly and in-

deed drastically misinterpreted today, is extremely important for 

understanding the role Abraham plays in Judaism— and for under-

standing Judaism itself. Something similar can be said about the   

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Who Was (and Is) Abraham?  •  11

important role of this same highly enigmatic and brilliantly narrated 

story in Christianity and Islam. Against these traditional readings, 

in modern times there has emerged an interpretation of the Aqedah 

that sees in Abraham not a man who passed the most demanding 

of tests but rather one who failed it by his willingness to murder an 

innocent person in response to a voice that could not possibly have 

been God’s. In chapter 3, we will explore not only the various reli-

gious contexts in which the Aqedah has been read but also this mod-

ern assault on the story itself and seek to uncover the deeper issues 

at work.

So far, we have spoken of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam as if 

they all have a common Abrahamic legacy, but with some important 

differences along the way. One difference, so far unmentioned but 

very fundamental, divides the first two traditions from the third.

However much Judaism and Christianity may diverge, they agree 

on the canonical status of Genesis. With the rendition in that book 

of the story of Abraham, the question of which son and grandson 

inherit the patriarchal promise is acute. Is the son Ishmael or Isaac? 

Is the grandson Esau or Jacob/Israel? From the biblical standpoint, 

then, the Muslim dismissal of this issue of chosenness or election 

seems absurd. But Jews and Christians need to remember that Islam 

does not regard Genesis as canonical scripture, a status that the 

Qur’an holds uniquely. So, although the Qur’an exhibits wide and 

deep indebtedness to the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament (and 

affirms respect for the antecedent scriptures), as well as to postbibli-

cal Jewish and Christian traditions, it omits passages that Jews and 

Christians consider essential, and it encompasses materials those 

two communities lack.

Nonetheless, it remains fair to say that the Jewish response to 

Christianity served the Jews against the challenge of Islam as well. 

For, despite the enormous differences between them, both challeng-

ers sought to detach Abraham from the Jewish people, and in the 

face of both challenges, the Jewish people in the aggregate clung 

stubbornly to the man they called Our Father Abraham.

The competition among Jews, Christians, and Muslims over the ques-

tion of which community is truly Abrahamic, fascinating as it may be 

in itself, clearly leaves a sour taste in the mouths of many Westerners. 

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For, the thinking goes, how can we hope to understand Abraham be-

fore we have recovered the historical individual from the millennia 

of traditions that have accumulated around his name, progressively 

obscuring his identity and co- opting him for various agendas? To the 

modern Western mind, with its characteristic suspicion of tradition 

and its keen sense of historical change, the real question is not how 

this figure has been appropriated in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam 

over the centuries but rather, “Who was the real Abraham?” Without 

answering that all- important question, so the thinking goes, we have 

no basis to assess the relative value of those appropriations.

The question, it turns out, is considerably more complicated than 

most people think. One reason is that we have no  contemporaneous 

references to Abraham whatsoever,


 despite the discovery of thou-

sands upon thousands of documents from the ancient Mesopotamian, 

Syro- Palestinian, and Egyptian cultures in which Genesis reports 

him to have lived. To be sure, the recovery of those long- lost cul-

tures over the past century and a half has enabled us to understand 

many aspects of Genesis much better than we did, though in a way 

that also challenges interpretations provided by the postbiblical tra-

ditions. Forty years ago, American scholars (Europeans tended to be 

more skeptical) often thought they could accurately date Abraham to 

the first half of the second millennium B.C.E., when names and legal 

institutions appear that are reminiscent of some in the patriarchal 

narratives. Beginning in the 1970s, this line of thought received a 

solid drubbing, as scholars pointed out that the names and institu-

tions in question, even when properly interpreted (as had not always 

been the case), tended to be more general and more enduring than 

had been assumed.


Indeed, evidence from the ancient Near East (including other bib-

lical evidence) and from the field of anthropology has increasingly 

suggested that the quest for the historical patriarchs may be a wild 

goose chase. “Abraham,” “Isaac,” and “Jacob,” so the reasoning goes, 

may have been names of tribes or tribal confederations whose ex-

periences over the centuries came to be expressed in stories about 

their putative ancestors. If so, “Abraham” may have been analogous 

to  the  American  “uncle  Sam”  or  the  English  “John  Bull”  (whose 

activities have similarly become the objects of tales). In any event, 

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Who Was (and Is) Abraham?  •  13

even if Abraham was a “real” individual, he seems to have left a vastly 

smaller impression on his contemporaries than the ongoing tradi-

tions of the Jews, Christians, and Muslims (including biblical tradi-

tions) later imagined. Indeed, the very idea that he had a connection 

with those subsequent traditions— even those of biblical Israel— is 

open to doubt in the minds of most historians who seek to be intel-

lectually honest.

To many religious traditionalists, of course, these findings of his-

torical research matter not a whit. To them, the mere fact that their 

respective scriptures tell us of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob means 

these men must not only have existed but must also have done what 

the canonical narratives say they did.

In the Jewish case, such an affirmation of historical accuracy often 

goes beyond the biblical accounts, incorporating the midrashim of 

the Talmudic rabbis into the historical picture as well. This stance 

produces the figure of an Abraham who preached monotheism, de-

stroyed his father’s idols, survived lethal persecution by an idolatrous 

king, and, what is more, practiced the whole Torah— both the Writ-

ten (biblical) and Oral (rabbinic)— before it was given on Sinai or 

otherwise made publicly available. In the Christian case, an analo-

gous traditionalism of roughly the same period yields, for example, 

an Abraham who talked with Jesus.


 In Muslim tradition, it produces 

an Abraham who, together with his son Ishmael, purified the ka‘ba, 

the building in Mecca that is the holiest site in Islam, for proper wor-



 This sort of traditionalism fits well with the high esteem for  

tradition (one’s own, but not that of others) and the weak or non-

existent sense of historical change characteristic of pre- Enlightenment 

thinking everywhere.

The modern suspicion of tradition, especially on questions of 

scripture, draws added strength from the slogan of the Protestant 

Reformation that theology should be governed sola  scriptura, “by 

scripture alone,” and not by the accumulated teachings of the Church 

over the centuries. Applied to our subject and detached from Prot-

estant theology, this idea leads to the claim that the exclusive key to 

the “real” Abraham is Genesis itself, and not later elaborations of its 

narratives, no matter how hallowed or even authoritative they have 

become. But tradition is not so easily eliminated, and, in the case 

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of biblical literature, what was thrown out through the front door 

has quietly reentered through the back. In particular, the assumption 

that the oldest narratives about any person or event must convey au-

thentic historical information has been cast into grave doubt. In the 

case of the Abrahamic narratives in Genesis, the current consensus 

among historians is that the material dates to the first millennium 

B.C.E. (some of it even to the second half) and is thus centuries re-

moved from the supposedly historical figure it renders. To recon-

struct the traditionary process that predates these literary composi-

tions is at best exceedingly speculative and impossible to do with any 


In sum, scripture is itself partly a product of tradition. Anyone 

inclined to doubt that new material about a revered figure like Abra-

ham could come into existence in a religious tradition and be readily 

accepted need only consult the examples cited above from Second 

Temple and rabbinic Judaism, as well as Christianity and Islam, to 

grasp how general that process is. What is not so general— and, in 

fact, almost limited to the modern West— is the familiar idea that the 

significance of a foundational figure is limited to the historical pe-

riod in which he or she lived and is undermined by introducing new, 

historically implausible material. The profoundly antitraditional idea 

that the “real” Abraham is the original Abraham undercuts all three 

traditions and, effectively, leaves us with no Abraham at all.

Modern biblical historians have likewise challenged another famil-

iar idea— the notion that the biblical text is unitary and therefore 

lacking the internal diversity characteristic of tradition everywhere 

else. Even a cursory reading of the Abraham story in Genesis reveals 

features that suggest either that the received text made use of diverse 

and not altogether consistent sources or that massive interpretive 

imagination is necessary to provide the astute reader with a sense of 

narrative harmony. For example, in Genesis 21, as Abraham expels 

Ishmael and his mother Hagar from his household at his wife Sarah’s 

insistence, he seems to place his son on Hagar’s shoulder, along with 

some food and water, and send them on their way (v. 14). When the 

water runs out in the desert, the distraught mother leaves her son 

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Who Was (and Is) Abraham?  •  15

under a bush and moves some distance away, saying, “Let me not 

look on as the child dies” (v. 16).

All this makes a great deal of sense if Ishmael is a baby or a toddler, 

but according to the chronological information Genesis provides, he 

is actually well into his teens! For he was thirteen when the miracu-

lous birth of his brother Isaac was announced, and Isaac has now 

already been weaned.


 It is no easy thing for a mother to carry her 

teenaged son on her shoulder on a trek into the desert or to leave him 

crying under a bush with certainty that he will not move away.

From the standpoint of modern historical scholarship, the answer 

to this problem is that we are dealing with diverse sources that may 

not know of each other and that were combined by an editor (redac-

tor) who did not feel free to eliminate the inconsistencies by dropping 

or changing his sources.


 A traditional answer to the same problem, 

though, appears in a midrash that tells us that Sarah had cast the evil 

eye on Ishmael (whose age is there given as twenty- seven), rendering 

him too ill to walk on his own.


 The midrash may seem fanciful and 

intrusive, but without it, the smoothly unitary quality of the narra-

tive vanishes, and we are left with differing narratives— even differ-

ing Abrahams.

The same sort of resolution of the text as we now have it into an-

tecedent sources can be invoked to explain a host of other curious 

features of the Abraham narratives, especially texts that seem to be 

doublets. It explains, for example, why Abraham twice passes his wife 

off as his sister, why God twice (and under different names) makes 

a covenant with him, why explanations of the origin of Isaac’s name 

appear twice (once in relation to the father and once in relation to 

the mother), and why, for that matter, Hagar and Ishmael are twice 



 Contrary to what is sometimes asserted, the goal of these 

historical- critical explanations is not to atomize the text as an end 

in itself but, instead, to understand better the process by which the 

text over time came to assume the shape it now has. The identifica-

tion of sources (or source criticism, as the activity is called) is in the 

service of reconstructing the history of the religion of ancient Israel. 

In the case at hand, the goal is to reconstruct the earliest surviving 

literary traditions about the figure of Abraham by putting the biblical 

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evidence we have into chronological order. When we do so, we see 

that the growth of the Abraham tradition is actually internal to the 

book of Genesis itself; it is not the creation of postbiblical Jewish (or 

Christian or Muslim) figures who were insufficiently attentive to the 

text of Genesis.

To many Jewish traditionalists (and not a few traditional Chris-

tians as well), historical- critical analysis of the Pentateuch is unac-

ceptable on principle, since, by impugning the traditional doctrine 

that the author of those books is Moses, it undermines the divine ori-

gin of the five books and treats them merely as contingent products 

of human culture. This objection, on the one hand, is based on some 

confusions and misunderstandings, but, on the other, does raise an 

important point too little attended to by historical scholars.

The first confusion is the identification of Mosaic authorship with 

divine revelation. It implies that God could not speak through other 

individuals as well, in a more complicated historical process of reve-

lation than the traditional image suggests. Yet the historical evidence, 

unknown until modern times and thus unavailable to those who for-

mulated the doctrine of Moses’s authorship, now points to the need 

to develop a model of revelation that can deal with the new chal-



 A second confusion is the assumption that the classic (i.e., 

premodern) Jewish tradition adhered without dissent to the doctrine 

of Mosaic authorship of the Torah, an assumption that cannot with-

stand scrutiny.


 On both these points, traditionalists miss the mark.

The important question to which they do properly point, however, 

is this: How do we perceive God within, and receive instruction from, 

texts that we interpret only as artifacts of human culture? Within the 

paradigm of the historical- critical scholar of religious  literature, there 

is no immediate need to face this issue. Indeed, biblical scholars who 

are not only secular themselves but utterly uninterested in norma-

tive theological questions have become a familiar presence in recent 



 By treating only the historical dimension of the text, they 

imply, whether intentionally or not, that the larger, transhistorical 

meanings either do not exist or are not of central importance.

From the perspective of the classical Jewish tradition, however, holi-

ness pervades all the authoritative texts, even those openly acknowl-

edged to have human authors who were teaching, at one level, within 

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Who Was (and Is) Abraham?  •  17

the limits of their historical culture. The elucidation of historical 

context— surely a great boon to interpretation— must not be allowed 

to distract us from seeking to identify and develop the larger theo-

logical claims that the texts made in their own time and that, for 

committed Jews, they continue to make today. An analogous point 

about the Christian and Muslim traditions can be easily made.

The appropriate goal, then, is, on the one hand, to be open to in-

struction from history and aware of the cultural embeddedness of 

the texts about Abraham and, on the other hand, to be equally open 

to the transcendent and enduring religious messages these texts con-

vey. As we are about to see, one of the central claims of the biblical 

tradition about Abraham from the earliest we can probe it is that the 

very particular, historical people known as Israel carries nonetheless 

a transhistorical, indeed, everlasting identity and message.

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