Jewish Origins Without Revelation (Part 3, final)

More remains to be said about this alleged God who supposedly made promises to Abraham and his progeny’s future conquest and possession of the land of Canaan which, at the time of king David had become a fait accompli. Who was this God and where did he come from? What about his becoming the one and only and unique God of Israel?

In a polytheism practicing religious environment such as was the ancient Near East in the second millenium BCE, the god who allegedly demanded the people’s obedience and worship, as well as recognition of him as the dominant God of the already existing pantheon, had to be properly identified so that his authority be respected by all.

To accomplish this feat, king David’s royal historiographers looked into the mythologies of the countries adjoining Canaan, north and south, Mesopotamia and Egypt. In both those areas they found myths and holy stories that lent themselves to re-interpretation in the light of the Hebrew tribes’ experience in the Exodus-cluster of events. It is probable, given Moses’ experience at the Egyptian royal court, that he remembered what he had heard there and shared this mythological material within the circles of the liberated Hebrew slaves, after Exodus and before his death.

King David, in an effort to justify the conquest of Canaan may have “unpacked” Moses’ Egyptian legacy and with some modifications, introduced it into Israel’s nascent constitution, the Torah.

One of several Egyptian creation myths was contained in what is known to us as a part of the Egyptian Memphite theology. This myth may have served king David’s purpose. Its theme consists of the mechanism of creation which reverberates in the Jewish Bible story of creation.

The myth tells that before creation there existed a watery void, accompanied by darkness, formlessness and invisibility. This sounds very much like the tohu vavohu in Genesis 1:2 which translates as “the earth was without form and void and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” Then, just as the flood waters of the Nile subside and small hillocks of mud appear, the annual event making agriculture of that inundated area feasible, so also according to the creation myth, the primeval waters subsided and the first hillock of earth appeared in the middle of nothingness. On that hillock sat the creator god Atum whose name means that he was “all within himself.”

The phrase “all within himself” resembles the Jewish liturgical text, kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, adonay tseva’ot, melo kol ha’aretz kevodo, or in English, “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory,” (Isa. 6:3)

Note: In Christian Church liturgy this acclamation of the divinity is called the “trishagion” (Greek: thrice holy).

God Atum then brings the other gods into being by naming them. That mode of creation sounds similar to the biblical text in which the biblical God brings animals to Adam, the first human being, so that Adam name them.

The Memphite theology goes even further in terms of being a prototype, as it were, for the biblical creation text. It states that Ptah, the god of Memphis, then the capital of Egypt,was “the heart and tongue of the gods.” Heart and tongue was the Egyptian pictorial way of saying mind and speech. “Indeed, all the divine order came into being through what the heart thought and the tongue commanded.” Interestingly, the biblical creation text echoes this Egyptian concept, “And God said, ‘Let there be light! And there was light.’ ” Creation, in the Genesis text, happens by means of the spoken word of God.

It is worth mentioning here that the Memphite theology precedes early Greek and Hebrew thought by 2,000 years!

It was clever on the part of David to refer in the Torah, Israel’s Constitution, right at its beginning, to the creation event and to credit Israel’s God, elohim, with that accomplishment. Interestingly, the name of the Canaanite chief god was el (plural elim or elohim). In the Genesis text, it is this elohim who is the creator of the world but in the Abraham- related narratives, beginning in Genesis 12, this god has acquired the unpronounceable name YHWH (often pronounced Yahweh, when probable vowels are added to the four consonants). Here lies a contradiction, in as much as the name YHVH, according to the biblical narrative itself, does not become known/revealed until the episode at the Burning Bush in Exodus 3:15 where God introduces himself as YHVH to Moses, an event, in all probability 500 years or more after Abraham.

In many Bible narratives the two names are joined to read YHWH-Elohim. By doing this, the creator God, the God who promised the land of Canaan to Abraham and the victorious God of the Exodus who defeated not only Pharaoh but also the Egyptian gods, are now united into one supreme divinity. No greater god than Israel’s God can now be invoked by anyone to quarrel about Israel’s having taken possession of Canaan. And scrolling forward in history, this also is this very god who has an intimate relationship with David, Israel’s king and author of the new Constitution, the Torah.

For David, the new monarch of the geo-political state of Israel, a state consisting of a number of tribes with each one having its own historical and religious past, unification was of utmost importance.

For Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten (1353-1336 BCE) about whom Moses had undoubtedly heard while at the Egyptian court, this too was a concern. His solution to the problem was the introduction of what we today call monolatry, the rule of a single supreme god. This was not elimination of the pantheon of gods but merely the multiple gods’ demotion to a lesser status. Akhenaten promoted the god Aton (or Aten) to the supreme position and incorporated the god’s name into his own: thus Akhen-aten meaning, “successful for Aten.” or something very similar. The symbol of Aten was the disk of the sun with each of its rays ending in the Egyptian symbol of life, the ankh.

From monolatry to monotheism it is only one step. It is an all important step. Promotion of one god to a supreme position and worship of that one god by all twelve tribes as the one and only true god would undoubtedly encourage and eventually establish unity, a precondition for the establishment of the United Kingdom under David. E pluribus unum.

How can this be accomplished? It is here that we discover David’s genius. Transforming the name el (singular) into elohim (a plural) but having this plural followed by both verbs and adjectives in the singular rather then in the plural, as is grammatically required in Hebrew, the MANY [gods of the tribes] are now changed into ONE [god].. This grammar-related process accomplished the transition from monolatry to monotheism.

The codification of the above grammatical procedure for religio-political purposes is clearly evident from the shema, the single faith affirmation of Judaism to this day. Stemming from the time of Judah’s king Josiah (640 BCE). It was he who instituted the so-called Josianic Reform which consisted of centralizing worship in Jerusalem. The text of the shema is found in Deut. 6:4 and reads in Hebrew, shema yisrael yhvh eloheynu yhvh echad. The literal translation of this text is, “hear Israel YHVH our gods YHVH one.”The usual English rendering of the sentence is, “hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one.”Without going into the intricacies of Hebrew grammar, the shema can also be translated as, “Hear Israel, YHVH is our gods, YHVH is one.” What might strike the reader is that the verb “is” cannot be found in the Hebrew text. Reason for this is that the verb “to be” in conjugated form does not exist in the present tense in biblical Hebrew. An example: to say “I am a woman” is in Hebrew ani ishah or “I woman.” Both the “am” and the “a” (the indefinite article) must be supplied by the reader.

The tradition calls for a circumlocution for God’s name YHVH. Why so? Because the name consists of four consonants only. Written biblical Hebrew consists of consonants only. The vowels must be supplied by the reader. This makes the reading of Hebrew biblical texts tricky and difficult. Besides, there was reluctance to pronounce God’s holy name. This explains the circumlocution adonay employed when the reader of Torah texts encounters the four holy letters of God’s names. The term adonay literally means “my lords” (1st person plural, possessive of adon, meaning “lord” ). Eventually, the term’s usage transformed it into a singular, followed by verbs and adjectives in the singular. It follow that in the shema two nouns in the plural are, on the basis of religious tradition, considered singular and treated as such. Once again, E pluribus unum.

Finally, where did the four holy letters of God’s name, YHVH (also called the tetragrammaton) come from? As far as the Bible is concerned, this was God’s name revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush in the Sinai. Among Bible readers it is rarely known that YHVH was not a complete newcomer to the Near Eastern pantheon. Excavations in the eastern Sinai at Kuntillet Ajrud in 1975-1976 yielded several inscriptions dated to the 9th and 8th centuries BCE in which blessing formulas involving the name Yahweh and Asherah are mentioned. On the wall of a tomb at Khirbet el-Quom the excavators found an inscription reading, “May Uri-Yahu be blessed by Yahweh my guardian and his Asherah.” Also ancient sanctuaries with primitive statuary identified as Yahweh with his consort Asherah were found in that general geographic area.

How and why this particular pagan divinity was adopted by Israel as her God and adapted into playing the major role in certain major historical events, we do not know. Much work dealing with these issues remains to be done.

The term Asherah occurs in the Torah text a number of times. While in the above mentioned excavations, Asherah is identified as Yahweh’s consort, the Torah speaks of it as a sacred pole that stood near Canaanite religious locations to honor the Ugaritic mother-goddess Asherah, consort of El. The biblical texts condemns these poles. So for instance Exod. 34:13 states, “Break down their [Canaanite] altars, smash their sacred stones and cut down their Asherim [Asherah poles].”

It might be of interest to mention that echoes of monolatry within ancient Israel survive within the Jewish siddur (prayer book) such as, mi khamokha ba-elim adonay, “who is like you among the gods, Adonay? In the amidah, the standing prayer, we read, barukh ata Adonay, Eloheynu melekh ha-olam, ha-el ha-gadol, ha-gibbor, ha-norah, el-elyon…:”Praised are you Adonay, our God, king of the world, the great God, the powerful God, the awesome God, the highest God…” Both texts suggest the existence of gods other than YHVH. Are these “errors” in monotheism caused by carelessness of editors?

To summarize, it is my belief that Torah began with King David’s plan to create a founding document for the United Kingdom. In trying to establish justification for the Hebrew tribes’ invasion and taking possession of Canaan and adjoining territories, he invoked God’s promise to Abraham, the head of a tribal group, to take possession of the land of Canaan. To establish this God’s absolute superiority overl the other gods in the tribal and Canaanite pantheon, he appropriated and adapted Egyptian myths of creation and combined these with tribal reminiscences/sagas, forming a pre-history that explained and justified ancient Israel’s hegemony over the defeated local population.

By conquering the city of Jebus, a city previously not conquered by any of the tribes, renaming it Yerushalayim or “Inheritance of Peace,” establishing it as capital and religious pilgrimage center of the newly formed kingdom, he succeeded in temporary unification of the tribes into a quasi-homogeneous geo-political entity.

The United Kingdom did not survive the reign of David’s son, king Solomon. It split into two entities after Solomon’s death, the northern kingdom of Israel, consisting of ten tribes and the southern kingdom of Judah, consisting of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin.

Following the reign of 20 kings in the north, that kingdom fell to Assyria under king Sargon II in 722 BCE. Little or nothing is known about the fate of the conquered northern tribes.

Judah, in the south, following the reign also of 20 kings, was conquered by Babylonia in 586 BCE under king Nebuchadnezzar and a large part of the population was exiled to Babylonia. With the fall of Babylonia to Persia under Persian king Cyrus (538-529 BCE) the Judean exiles were allowed to return home and to rebuild the walls and the Temple of Jerusalem shortly after, but Jewish independence had been lost. With the exception of the roughly 100 years of the Maccabean Kingdom (165-64 BCE) the Jewish state ceased to exist until its rebirth as Eretz Yisrael, the modern State of Israel, in 1948.
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Through the many centuries of Jewish exilic existence, Torah not only has survived but has kept its relevance and even religious authority for many Jews.

Much in Torah draws on the supernatural. As a person bridging the 20th and 21st centuries, I find it impossible to join in my superstitious ancestors’ belief systems. I fully realize, however, that had I lived in their times, I probably would have been on the same page with them. I find it simplistic to criticize past world views from the viewpoint of our times.

I do stand in awe of some of these ancestors’ insights. In my studied opinion the Torah did not originate in heaven and was brought down to us humans by a god or his angels. As I see it, our ancestors recognized certain truths, saw these as critical for the maintenance and well being of their society. As it happened, that wisdom was handed down to us as advice for the viability of future societies.

It was our ancestors’ observation of events and their consequences that helped them arrive at conclusions certain of which, if followed by us today, would undoubtedly improve the lives of many and perhaps even slow down, stop and possibly reverse our descent into planetary human self-destruction.

Reliance on some kind of a future supernatural intervention into human affairs to stop our tendency to self-destruct is counter intuitive and downright dangerous. It will not happen!

As I see it, the purpose of Torah, originally the Constitution and By-laws of a newly formed nation, is not so much about giving us information allegedly relevant about God but rather about a community that considered itself destined to bring enlightenment to the nations, something that remains to this day Judaism’s task and mission.

I continue to be impressed by a text from the Yerushalmi, The Talmud of the Land of Israel (Tj chag. 1:7) in which our sages (z”l) quote God as having said, “Would that they forsake me, but keep my Torah.”

This ends the mini-series.

 


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Jewish Origins Without Revelation (Part 2)

I will begin this essay by dealing in abbreviated form with Jewish origins. To ask about origins is to ask the question: where do we Jews come from? Where are our historical roots? What is the first documentary evidence about Israelite existence? Since the heart of Judaism’s existence is Torah and Torah is our source for the existence of God and his alleged special relationship with the Jewish people, we need to inquire about the Torah’s origins.

I will try to respond to the above questions drawing on both Jewish and non-Jewish scholarship.

It should be clear that in my effort at a non-supernatural reconstruction of Jewish history I will not deal with phenomena such as divine revelation or divine interventions in human affairs because, these belong into the realm of faith and not documentable historical events.

But even documentable historical facts call for interpretation and interpretation is not mathematics! It is always, at least to some extent, subjective because, like everything else in life, it is human and thus suffers from human existential limitation.

Let’s scroll back to the Near-East in pre-biblical times. In an extant letter within a correspondence between the ruler of a Canaanite city-state and his powerful overlord, a pharaoh in Tel el-Amarna, probably pharaoh Akhenaten (d. 1336 BCE), in Upper Egypt, we read, “There are marauding habiru tribes here who cause damage to our land and its farmers.”

While we do not have a response from this unnamed pharaoh, this sentence introduces us to the term HABIRU which, even without sophisticated knowledge of linguistics, corresponds by and large to our term HEBREW. The Canaanite letters forming the term Habiru are related to the Hebrew term ‘ivriy from which our word “Hebrew” is derived. Interestingly, the Hebrew ‘ivriy, in turn, derives from the Hebrew verb ‘avar which means “to move, crossover, pass over.” What do semi-nomadic tribes do? They move, they cross over, they pass over land.

The Habirus were semi-nomads. With their cattle they crisscrossed the land looking for fertile areas, settled here and there, let their cattle graze, and when nothing was left for the cattle to eat, moved on to the next fertile spot. No wonder that the local Canaanite farmers considered them intruders and asked pharaoh for help to keep the Habirus and their herds away.

It is likely that the earliest historical ancestors of the Hebrews were these Near Eastern semi-nomadic Habiru tribes. Avram, later to become Abraham, (approx. date between 2,000 and 1,700 BCE), who with his family and tribe had moved from Ur of the Chaldeans to Haran in Syria and settled there was subsequently told by the LORD to move on.

Genesis 12:1-3 is a seminal chapter for my thesis. It is here that the LORD (i.e., YHWH, name of God allegedly revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush in the Sinai peninsula) ordered Abraham to

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you…”

And so, according to Gen 12:4, “Abraham went, as the LORD had told him.” Thus, from Haran in Syria, Abraham’s family/tribe traveled south, to the Land of Canaan, allegedly guided by the LORD.

Some scholars suggest that the person of Abraham is a personification of a migratory movement. Semi-nomads migrate, remember! It is a well established fact that different Near Eastern tribes worshiped and followed their particular God. The time frame we are considering here is one in which polytheism was the generally practised form of religion in the Near East.

In the Bible, the stories about Abraham are followed by the tribal stories of Abraham’s son Isaac and his wife Rebecca. These, in turn, are followed by the stories covering the exploits of their son Jacob and his wives Leah and Rachel whose twelve sons become the eponymous ancestors of the so-called Twelve Tribes of Israel. Their daughter Dinah did not become ancestress of a tribe.

Now to a quick forward in biblical history. The book of Genesis reports that the Twelve Tribes, during a devastating famine in Canaan where they had settled, migrated south to Egypt where there was food available and where they established themselves under favorable circumstances. Without going here into the details of many associated stories like, for instance, the Joseph narratives, we are told that eventually they became enslaved in Egypt. How so?

Upon arrival of the Hebrews in Egypt, an unnamed Hyksos-related pharaoh ruled over Egypt (the Hyksos invaders’ reign in Egypt: 1730-1570 BCE). The Hyksos people were of Semitic ethnic background, (like the Habirus/Hebrews), which explains the favorable welcome they extended to the Twelve Tribes, by now known as Israel. When the Hyksos’ relatively brief dynasty was terminated by one Ahmose who expulsed them and re-established the pre-Hyksos native Egyptian royal dynasty, the Israelites fell into disfavor. The biblical narrative conveys this development rather laconically: “Now a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph” (Exod. 1:8f.) This unnamed new Pharaoh was in all probability Ramses II, a ruler generally considered to have been a megalomaniac, suggestion based on the ubiquitous statuary of his person found all over Egypt.

This is not the proper place for a detailed account of Israel’s slavery in Egypt. Based on biblical chronologies which do not agree with each other, approximately 400 years.

As a result of the alleged Ten Plagues which God brought down on Egypt, the last of which was the death of the Egyptian firstborns which included Pharaoh’s son, the slaves were released and traveled toward the land of Canaan, located north of the Nile Delta. Still scrolling forward, the liberated slaves stopped over at the Sinai desert where, on Mount Sinai, (exact location to this day not identified), according to the tradition, Moses received both the Written and the Oral Torah, containing among other laws, the famous Ten Commandments.

After Moses’ death, the liberated slaves under the leadership of Joshua, followed by the so-called Judges (military leaders), engaged in the conquest of the land of Canaan whose possession had been promised to Abraham and his posterity. According to Deut. 7:1-5, God’s promise of giving to the Israelites the land of Canaan took place as prophesied. It was fulfilled by means of what in our time would be called “ethnic cleansing” or the destruction of the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites. It would seem that despite temporary setbacks here and there, in the end everything went as planned and the liberated Hebrew tribes, by slaughtering the natives in their land with God’s help, achieved God’s plan of coming into possession of the land of Canaan. It should be noted that apart from the biblical witness to these events, none is preserved in extra biblical documentation.

The two biblical books of Samuel tell us about the transition of the liberated tribes from functioning as a loose confederation to a monarchy, first under king Saul and subsequently under king David who became the intermediary between God Yahweh and the people Israel. The previous direct theocratic rule of Israel was now modified.

David was a very astute politician. Having conquered the city of Jebus, capital of the Jebusites, he established it as the political capital of the newly conquered country, as well as its religious center. This was accomplished by bringing the Ark of the Covenant containing the Ten Commandments from Sinai, previously held by the various tribes in rotation, to this city and renaming it Yerushalayim, “Inheritance of Peace.” It was a brilliant move in as much as it brought the Twelve Tribes into a closer relationship with each other, both politically and religiously, the latter by means of designating the city as the pilgrimage center for the three ancient Israelite pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, (Passover), Shavuot (lit. “Weeks,” commemorating the giving of the Torah) and Sukkoth (Feast of Booths, a reminder of Israel’s desert wanderings).

Solomon, David’s son and successor, built the Solomonic Temple in Jerusalem that took the place of the movable desert sanctuary (‘ohel ha-mo’ed or Tent of Meeting). This was undoubtedly a further effort to unify the tribes and to strengthen the newly created geo-political nation. As presented in the Bible, it was done in response to God’s desire to dwell in a house.

After Solomon’s death, the misbehavior of his son Rehoboam, resulted in separation of the northern and southern tribes and the formation of two distinct countries.

Note: The ten northern tribes, calling themselves Israel, fell to an invasion by the kingdom of Assyria in 722 BCE whereas the remaining southern tribes, calling themselves the kingdom of Judah, fell to an invasion of Babylonia in 586 BCE.

Back to king David now and my reconstruction of Israel’s history.

A newly established nation needs a constitution or founding document that conveys to its own country’s population, as well as to its geographical neighbors, the raison d’etre for its existence. Such a document explains the justification for its incursion into and its establishment in the geographical and political space held by its previous owners; the salient events in history that led to and legitimize the conquest; the civil and religious legislation that would from here on guide its society in its pursuit of daily life; last but not least ,the relationship between God, king, nation and each individual.

It is here that king David’s and king Solomon’s historiographers went to work. By combing through the Hebrew tribal records, oral and perhaps also written, they found treasures that lent themselves for such an undertaking. Scouring the oral and written histories of Mesopotamia, in the north, and Egypt in the south, as also the myths and legends of the conquered land of Canaan itself, turned out to be helpful.

Their most important discovery was the Abraham (the Habiru?) stories, beginning in Genesis at chapter 12. “Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. I will make of you a great nation and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing… so Abram went as the LORD had told him.” According to Gen. 15, the commanding voice of the divinity said to Abraham, “I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess,” etc. And in Gen 15:18 a further promise, “On that day the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying, “To your descendants I give this land from the River of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kennizites, the Kadminites, the Hittites, the Perrizites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.”

The divinity’s alleged promise to Israel now fulfilled, was incorporated into the country’s founding document or, as I call it, the Constitution of the new land of Israel – the Torah.

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Abraham in Interfaith Dialogue

A few days ago I ran into an acquaintance with whom I had a brief conversation about interfaith dialogue. In the course of our conversation he used the term “Abrahamic religions.” At other times I have also heard the phrase “the Abrahamic faiths” referring to Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Having been involved in interfaith conversations myself, these phrase trigger in me a number of thoughts. I do not know the origin of their usage but their meaning is clear enough as they points to Judaism, Christianity and Islam being sibling religions, as it were. In Judaism, Christianity and in Islam Abraham occupies a key position and so suggests a basic commonality between them.

This commonality is generally seen as something positive in as much as it holds the potential for interfaith respect at a minimum, and a feeling of religious brother-and sisterhood at best. It suggests the possibility if not a mandate for peaceful coexistence and cooperation in our common need to confront all kinds of dangers we humans face. Sadly enough, the opposite has been taking place as the three religions oppose, denigrate and fight each other.

Contrary to many folks’ expectations, the religions that claim common origins are precisely the ones that are in tension with each other. Islam, the youngest among the three, belittles and attacks both Christianity and Judaism in the Qur’an, its holy book, as religions who tampered with the original holy texts given to them by God Allah (Sura 3:81-56). There are Qur’anic texts that warn Muslims from having social relationships with practitioners of Judaism and Christianity… The New Testament, especially in its gospel of John, is stridently anti-Jewish… Judaism, in some of its holy scriptures ridicules other ancient Near Eastern religions as examples of gross superstitions. In the Hebrew Bible there is no criticism of either Christianity or of Islam for the simple reason that neither Christianity nor Islam existed prior to the 1st cent. CE, i.e., before Christianity and later Islam came into existence. However in the post-biblical Jewish rabbinical literature we do find statements slanderous of Jesus and Christianity.

In this connection it is worth observing that no animosity exists between Judaism and say Hinduism whose respective sacred texts hold nothing in common. The same is true for Christianity and its relationship say to Confucianism. No animosity there either. So also Islam, to my knowledge, has no quarrel with Buddhism, etc. O n the other hand within Islam itself we find deadly animosity between the Shia and the Sunni movements, both of which claim Islam as their religious legacy and fight each other in the name of Allah.

Let me then restate here that it is precisely religions that claim common origins that are the ones that are in conflict with each other because their interpretations of these common origins vary from each other. The newer interpretations often segue into formation of sects and into new religions that claim to be correctives to previous expressions, take on new names and announce to the world ultimate truths only they hold. These latest revelations from divinity become ultimate authority trying to eclipse precedent expressions of faith by means of missionary teaching or worse, violent conflict.

How does the personage of Abraham relate to all this?

In Judaism, which is not a monolithic religion, Abraham is often claimed as its founder. I would rather vote for Moses and the Exodus from Egypt as the founding experience of Judaism. There are Jews who see in Abraham the founder of monotheism. He is one of the three patriarchs (with Isaac and Jacob) or eponymous ancestors of the religion. He is the role model of the person who obediently carries out God’s instructions. His obedience goes so far as being willing to sacrifice his own son Isaac to God. He lives according to God’s laws by faith before the Torah is given to Moses on Mount Sinai. He is the first to practice circumcision. It is to him and his progeny that God promises possession of what is commonly called the Holy Land. Because of Abraham’s merits, God grants to the people Israel and to its later expression, the Jewish people, his covenant or special relationship with him and so also the promised land. There are other promises too numerous to mention here.

In Christianity, which is not a monolithic religion either, Abraham is seen as the role model of human faith and obedience to God. In that sense he is the prefiguration par excellence of Jesus, the Christ. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac is proleptic of God’s subsequent willingness to give His son Jesus as a sacrifice for the redemption of humankind. And Isaac, Judaism’s second patriarch who according to the biblical text is willing to be sacrificed, foreshadows Jesus’ willingness to die on the cross for the salvation of humanity. Thus, according to Christianity (cf. the apostle Paul’s writing), the Abraham story foreshadows its actualization in Jesus Christ. Actualization is, of course, of greater value than mere prophecy! Given this Christian valuation, Christianity and the Christian people supercede and displace Judaism and Jews from their special relationship to God. The covenant with the Jews is annulled and instead, established with the Christian Church, i.e., the Christian people.

In Islam, which is not a monolithic religion either, Abraham is the believer par excellence who obeys God Allah. The term Islam means submission and Muslims are the people who in following Allah’s word in the holy book called the Qur’an (or recitation) submit to the divinity. In Muslim theology, Abraham, in Arabic Ibrahim, is the first who submits to Allah’s word and so, here also, is the role model for what it means to live in submission or surrender to God. Also, however,  Abraham, or rather Ibrahim, in Islam’s teaching is thus the first Muslim, having totally surrendered to Allah’s will. Whereas in Judaism it is Abraham’s son Isaac who was to be sacrificed, in Islam it is Abraham’s and Sarah’s older son Ishmael (in Arabic, Ismail) who was to die and so, by submitting to be sacrificed, Ishmael becomes the eponymous ancestor of Muslims. Ibrahim and Ishmael built the Kaaba, Islam’s holiest shrine, in the city of Mecca. Jerusalem is the place from where the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven after his Night Journey from Mecca and thus the Dome of the Rock, from where the prophet ascended and the nearby al-Aqsa mosque are the third holiest shrines for Muslims, the second holiest site being the al-Masjid an-Nabawi (Mosque of the Prophet) in the city of Medina. Because it is Allah’s word in the Qur’an, transmitted to humanity by the prophet Muhammad, it is by virtue of these words being the latest divine revelation, that the Qur’an displaces both the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) and the Christian New Testament. According to Muslim scholars, the Qur’an corrects both the Jewish and Christian Holy Scriptures where they had been tampered with and so restores the antecedent original revelations from God.

These three sets of religious affirmations, all three claiming to have issued from the God of the Hebrew Bible and the Jews, the trinitarian God of the New Testament and the Christians, and from Allah, the Qur’an’s God of Islam and the Muslims, respectively, do not agree with one another. In the minds of each of these religions’ literalist readers and practitioners, their God and their scripture calls for unquestioning acceptance and adherence. Figurative and/or metaphorical exegesis of holy book texts are not permitted. In that kind of religious fundamentalism it is “we” (believers) against “them” (unbelievers). Every reading and sermon of these divisive texts underlines and perpetuates separation and superiority, two disturbing and destructive attitudes.

Returning now to modern interfaith dialogue, it is my contention that problems of this kind, rather than to be swept under the rug, must be honestly confronted and discussed, before lasting improvement in interfaith relations can be achieved through inter-faith conversations. I do not believe that sitting around a campfire, holding hands and singing “kumbaya, my lord” will get us anywhere.

The regular reading in mosque, church, synagogue or at home of these divisive texts perpetuate misunderstanding and mutual alienation. Only the honest facing of the divisive texts, their learned study and discussion which involves historical context, perhaps even their elimination altogether or, at the least, critical annotation in Bibles, New Testaments and Qur’ans, will advance mutual respect and rapprochement. Perhaps I am asking for the impossible.

This said, I recommend the teaching of the great Rabbi Tarfon (1st to 2nd cent. CE), “It is not your responsibility to finish the work of perfecting the world, but you are not free to desist from it either,” (Babylonian Talmud, Avot 2:21).

Congratulations are due to those interfaith groups who are courageous and dedicated enough to undertake that difficult and risky task.