The father of us all
Bruce Feiler has written a really fascinating book titled “Abraham—a Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths.” It tracks the story of this founder of the three dominant faiths in the world today.
Abraham, the man, if he did exist (calm down religious ones), was indeed every man. All our foibles, all our visions, all our shoulda-couldas are in him. He had a wife who could not bear him a child, so he took his maid to bed. Now in the story, his wife told him to do it. Arnold Schwarzenegger did not have the same excuse.
Later, his wife did bear him a son. So, he had two kids. But was he a good father? He kicked his first son out of the house when he was a youngster. He was ready to kill his younger son. This is the legend as written, stripped of its theological significance.
You know the old game. If you sit 10 people in a circle and have the first one read a paragraph to the second person and pass it on around the circle, the tenth person would read a totally different paragraph than the original.
So must it be with legends passed down over thousands of years, told orally by hundreds of sages and then written down perhaps a thousand years after the happening. But, what is most interesting about the “legend” of Abraham to me is its staying power.
It exists in all three of the dominant religions in the world. He is the one man who held steadfastly to the idea of Monotheism. He believed fervently in God as the only God and the one who directed him to take his clan, his flock and leave Ur, which is today believed to be Iran and head south.
God brought him from a fairly verdant land with adequate rainfall and proximity to neighboring lands full of people to trade with, exchange philosophies and make alliances to a patch of desert and said, “Here, this is yours.” He was a man of tremendous faith to accept this. He must have been a strong leader to get his people to go along with it.
He even got them to move again, when God told him of a coming drought. Thus, he went to Egypt, which, eventually, did not work out too well.
According to Feiler, the aesthetic Jews of Qumran are the ones who dredged Abraham up from the wisps of stories passed down for generations. Perhaps they just needed a starting point for the history of the Jews. If so, they picked a good one. Good enough to make it through at least two more religions.
You have to have a starting point and a lead character to tell a story which will resonate. And this one has, for over five thousand years. In many ways it could make a great Soap Opera. Parts of it have been made into countless movies.
Feiler, in following Abraham, follows the story of all three of the great religions. Jesus, a follower of Abraham, in a way gets to the same point as Isaac. In Christianity, since the time of Constantine, Jesus is referred to as “The Son of God,” thereby taking the story of Isaac to another level, this one without the happy ending.
In the case of Ishmael, he and his mother were thrust out of a warm home into the desert where they might very well have died quickly. They survived and as a survivor, Ishmael was a tough customer. Had to be.
His anger, probably justified, has carried down to today. The Jews founded a nation with real roots in that patch of desert. They were thrust out twice, had a real struggle to return and today, fight at least as well as they pray.
The Arabs, the descendants of Ishmael, continued to be wanderers. Their present nations, as we have discussed previously in this space were created almost exactly 100 years ago by the British and the French. They finally revolted against the tyranny that the Europeans left them and have pretty much catapulted themselves back to the 12th century.
Their murder and chaos reflects the biblical descriptions of Ishmael and his followers. The basic difference between Judaism and the other two faiths is that we keep evolving. Abraham followed a path he felt was guided by God.
His descendants tweaked his ideals and ideas to fit the world in which we live. There are those who follow our faith who are still bound to the traditions of the past. But we are the people of the Book. We learn, we evolve, we accept science and its discoveries.
The very Orthodox among us do not. As do the very Orthodox of Christianity. As do almost all of the followers of Ishmael. Abraham threw one of his children out of the house and almost killed another. We hope we have come a long way from there.