Books: The Tent of Abraham

It seems like most of my posts these days are about the books I read. But then, I do spend a lot of time reading. And the things I’m thinking about are often the things I’m reading about, whether it’s the book that got me thinking about them or I read the book because I was already thinking about them.

It’s the latter in the case of today’s post. In the Bible study I lead on Wednesdays, we’re going through a “bird’s eye” view of the Bible, and this week was on Abraham (and Isaac and Jacob). When I was in the library last weekend, it occurred to me to see if there were any interesting books on Abraham.

What I found was The Tent of Abraham: Stories of Hope and Peace for Jews, Christians, and Muslims. I saw that it included chapters written from a Jewish perspective, a Christian perspective, and a Muslim perspective. That would be certainly be interesting, I thought, seeing how the other two faiths view Abraham differently.

What I hadn’t realized when I picked up the book was that it was written, not so much to explore the different points of view, as to find ways to use the story of Abraham to bring together people of these three faiths. All three have roots in Abraham and in his journey of faith in one God.

One characteristic of Abraham was the welcome he gave to traveling strangers. The authors hope that his physical and spiritual descendants can become more welcoming of those they have previously seen as strangers (despite their common roots in Abraham) by the lessons they learn from new perspectives on his story.

I was already familiar with the story of Abraham as told in the Bible and the Jewish midrash. One of my other references is The Bible As It Was, which tells about ways the first five books of the Bible were interpreted in ancient times, and includes a number of extra-biblical Jewish legends. I was less familiar with Islamic tradition regarding Abraham, though I knew some of it from The Bible As It Was.

But what I was more interested in was the different interpretations given to the stories, as there is a section of the book for Jewish interpretations, Christian interpretations, and Muslim interpretations. I didn’t expect to find much that was new to me in the section on Christian interpretations, but I was looking forward to learning from the other sections.

The Jewish section is written by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, and the Christian section by Joan Chittister, a Benedictine nun. Their writings are interesting in terms of addressing the conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, but I didn’t feel I learned much about Abraham.

In Joan Chittister’s section especially, the concern seemed to be less understanding the story of Abraham and more finding ways to use Abraham’s story to deal with current issues. I have always been taught that the way to study and understand the Bible is first to understand it for what it says, in context, and only afterward to look for applications to our lives. Perhaps Chittister has done this, but it does not come through in these chapters.

The Muslim section is written by Murshid Saadi Shakur Chishti, a Sufi Muslim. I don’t think I had read anything by a Sufi Muslim before, though I was familiar with some of the differences among Islamic groups. The emphasis here is one that I have to admit I find strange, looking at interactions among people in the stories and applying them as they represent parts of one’s self.

For instance, the story of Abraham’s sojourn in Egypt and Pharaoh’s attempt to take Sarah as his wife is discussed in terms of the male part of the self, the female part of the self, and the grasping mind that wants to possess the female part. This is somewhat interesting if only because the perspective is a new one to me, but it does not help me understand Abraham or his role in Scripture or history.

I think the goal of the authors is a worthy one, to help Jews, Christians, and Muslims explore what they have in common, and together to try to find ways to live in peace rather than war. But I wonder if anyone who does not already share their views is likely to find their interpretations of Abraham helpful.

I have to add that the last chapter left a bad taste in my mouth. It is a feminist retelling of the story of Sarah and Hagar, intended to show them as role models of cooperation rather than competition. It does this, however, by making Abraham out to be, if not the “bad guy,” then seriously misguided by the dangerous dreams that he thinks come from God.

There are aspects of Abraham’s story that I find unsettling, especially the near-sacrifice of Isaac. But the best response, I think, is to simply let them be unsettling, and perhaps unsettled in terms of what is the “correct interpretation,” not to brand them as “dangerous and outrageous.”

One Response to Books: The Tent of Abraham

  1. modestypress says:

    Speaking as a “Jew,” (or at least as a person whose parents told him he was a Jew), even as a child, I found the near-sacrifice of Isaac unsettling, to put it mildly. Recently, I watched the History Channel’s ANCIENT BATTLES video series. I found the portrayal of Moses and Joshua’s exercises in mass killing and ethnic cleansing unsettling. I have to admit that I did not find their portrayal any more unsettling than the portrayals of Hannibal, Julius Caesar, Xerxes and other notables of the time. I guess. whatever people believed, and whatever gods they believed in, mass killing and ethnic cleansing was just what people did back then. Of course, now that we are in “modern times,” such as Holocaust, Rwanda, Armenian genocide, etc. we are much improved.

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