by Doug Ward

OXFORD, OHIO-The patriarch Abraham is a foundational figure in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, the world's three great monotheistic religions. In Judaism Abraham is an ambassador for the one true God and an observer of God's Torah (or at least its essence) centuries before it was formally revealed and codified (Gen 26:5). In Christianity Abraham is the father of all those who come to faith in Jesus Christ (Gal 3:26-29). In Islam Abraham is a forerunner of Mohammed, known for his defense of monotheism and his submission to God.


Some well-meaning scholars have proposed programs for uniting these three faiths on the basis of their shared esteem for Abraham. Such programs are non-starters, however, since each of the three sees Abraham as a forerunner of its particular community above the others. One might say that the three traditions are divided by their common founder.1 Indeed, one way to find out about their differences is to compare their teachings about Abraham.


Although Abraham will not unite the world's religions, there is much to be learned from his story. One Christian scholar who has long pondered the meaning of Abraham's life is Dr. Marvin R. Wilson. Through his classes at Gordon College and his book Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith (Eerdmans, 1989), he has shown thousands of Christians how an understanding of Judaism can enhance their walk with God. He has also been involved in serious Christian-Jewish dialogue for many years. These experiences have led him to reflect deeply on the commonalities and differences between Christianity and Judaism. On March 8, 2014, he shared some insights from his lifetime of study with an audience at Miami University in a lecture about the place of Abraham in Judaism and Christianity.2


Father of Two Peoples

The Bible tells us that Abraham's Mesopotamian family "worshiped other gods" (Josh 24:2). Then when Abraham was 75 years old, he received a divine call to leave his family behind and follow the true God, who promised to make great nations from him and ultimately to bless all nations through him (Gen 12:1-3; 17:4-5). Abraham obediently followed God over the ensuing century, prevailing through numerous challenges.


Abraham's journey of faith is chronicled in Gen 12-25 and commented upon throughout the Hebrew Scriptures shared by Jews and Christians. The book of Genesis is honest about Abraham's shortcomings. There were occasions when his faith faltered, like the times he identified his wife Sarah as his sister out of fear that foreign leaders would kill him in order to have her (Gen 12:11-13; 20:2, 10-13). Wilson commented, "In my mind, the fact that the Bible records such incidents makes the message of the Bible more believable. These are the stories of real men and real women coming to know God."


Both Jewish and Christian traditions emphasize the overall story of Abraham's successes rather than his failures. Abraham was a prophet (Gen 20:7; Ps 105:15), a servant of God (Ps 105:42), and a friend of God (Isa 41:8; James 2:23). The Wisdom of Ben Sirach, an intertestamental work, summarizes his life this way: "Abraham was the great father of a multitude of nations, and no one has been found like him in glory. He kept the law of the Most High, and entered into a covenant with him; he certified the covenant in his flesh, and when he was tested he proved faithful" (44:19-20).


On the other hand, the two traditions highlight different aspects of Abraham's calling and character. In Judaism Abraham is the father of the people of Israel (Isa 51:1-2), and God chose him, in part, to pass along the ways of righteousness and justice to future generations (Gen 18:19). Abraham modeled those ways in his own life, setting examples of hospitality (Gen 18:1-18) and concern for others (vv. 22-33). He was a traveling missionary, a witness to the true God wherever he went. Coming into covenant with God by undergoing circumcision at age 99 (Gen 17), he also became a forerunner of those who are proselytes to Judaism.


Wilson explained that in Judaism, Abraham is connected to the concept of zekhut avot or "merit of the fathers," which is "the belief that mercy will be shown to the Jewish people for generations to come on account of the goodness of their ancestors." He explained that this concept "does not absolve individual Jews of moral responsibility based on the good deeds of the founding fathers. Rather it is a reminder that patriarchs such as Abraham, and indeed the righteous few of any generation, can impact those who follow them." In particular, Abraham's willingness to offer his son Isaac at God's request, and Isaac's submission to Abraham in this matter, are seen as acts of vicarious atonement that have benefitted their descendants ever since.3


After Abraham passed that ultimate test, God promised to him that "in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed" (Gen 22:18). Christians view this promise as fulfilled especially by the coming of Jesus of Nazareth (Gal 3:16). The Gospel of Matthew begins with a genealogy demonstrating that Jesus was indeed a descendant of Abraham. In Christianity Abraham is the father of disciples of Jesus from every nation. "And if you are Christ's," wrote the apostle Paul, "then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise" (Gal 3:29).


Paul developed this theme further in his epistle to the Romans, where he likened the people of Israel to an olive tree (Rom 11:17-24). In his analogy, Christians from the nations are like wild olive shoots grafted into this olive tree, where they are nourished by the root of the tree. Wilson asserted, "From the context of Romans 9-11, the root most likely represents the patriarchs, Abraham being the deepest of those roots."


Paul cautioned his readers not to be arrogant toward the natural branches of the tree, the people of Israel (Rom 11:18), and envisioned a time when much of Israel would accept Jesus as Messiah (vv. 23-26). Wilson observed that Christians through the centuries have too often ignored his words, even going so far as to consider the Jewish people to be permanently excluded from the ranks of the children of Abraham.


In Christian tradition Abraham is admired for his pilgrim lifestyle. Abraham was a sojourner during the last one hundred years of his life, owning very little property in the land God promised to his descendants (Acts 7:5; Heb 11:9). According to the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, Abraham set an example of faith by "looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God" (Heb 11:10). In other words, Abraham pinned his hopes on an eschatological New Jerusalem (Rev 21-22). Christians, whose "citizenship is in heaven" (Phil 3:20), hope to join Abraham at a future messianic banquet (Matt 8:11; Luke 13:28-29).


Key Theological Themes

Wilson went on to examine some major theological themes involving Abraham, beginning with the concept of divine election. The biblical account of Abraham's life begins with God choosing him for a special mission. God did single him out for special reward, but for the purpose of blessing the entire human race (Gen 12:1-3).


Since the Bible says almost nothing about the first 75 years of Abraham's life, ancient readers naturally wondered what qualities he possessed that resulted in his selection for such an important task. A tradition developed in Judaism that Abraham was a sort of early philosopher who deduced the existence of God and biblical principles of morality through the exercise of reason.


Though agreeing that Abraham was an exceptional individual, Wilson stated that it was not his search for God that led to his calling. Rather it was God's search for man, a theme emphasized by Jewish philosopher Abraham Joshua Heschel. It was God's love for his creation, more than man's search for truth, that brought Abraham and his descendants into a relationship with God.


This relationship was formalized in a covenant that likewise was initiated by God. When ancient peoples entered into a covenant, both parties to the agreement would walk between the pieces of slaughtered animals (Jer 34:18-20). In doing so they were saying, in effect, "May I be cut off and as dead as these animals should I renege on the terms of this agreement." However, in God's covenant with Abraham, only God passed between the pieces (Gen 15). So this was covenant was unilateral, a permanent, unbreakable promise.


Circumcision of male descendants of Abraham is the sign of the covenant (Gen 17). This outward sign is to be accompanied by an attitude of love and obedience, what the Bible calls "circumcision of the heart" (Deut 10:16; Jer 9:25-26). The Torah and prophets foretold that in a future messianic age, all Israel would experience this spiritual kind of circumcision, with hearts transformed by the Spirit of God in a new covenant (Deut 30:6; Ezek 36:26-27; Jer 31:33-34).


Early Christians believed that the messianic age had begun with the coming of Jesus. This was also prophesied to be a time when people from all nations would seek the God of Israel while maintaining their distinct national identities (Isa 2:1-4). In the landmark decision of the Council of Jerusalem in about 49 A.D., the church took guidance from such prophecies and ruled that non-Israelites could join the people of God without the requirement of physical circumcision (Acts 15). It was circumcision of the heart that was to be the sign of the new covenant (Rom 2:25-29).


Some formulations of Christian theology feature a strict dichotomy between faith and works. There is also a common stereotype that Christianity is mainly about creeds and Judaism mainly about deeds. A good corrective for such views, Wilson said, is the discussion of Abraham in James 2:14-26. James, a brother of Jesus and leader of the early Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, wrote in this passage about the living faith that Abraham exhibited in his obedience to God. In Abraham's life faith and deeds went hand in hand, and he showed his faith by his deeds. Wilson noted that for James, "there is no great divide or major conflict between faith and deeds. If there are differences, they are more a matter of emphasis than of substance. Both faith and deeds are essential to the teachings of Judaism and Christianity."


Dr. Wilson pointed out some parallels between Abraham and the Christian apostle Peter. Both were given new names (Gen 17:4-5; Matt 16:28; John 1:42). Abraham is pictured in scripture as a rock or foundation for the covenant people (Isa 51:1-2); while Peter, whose name means "rock," is a foundation for the Christian movement (Matt 16:18).4 Paul wrote that the church is "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone" (Eph 2:20). Peter is one of the apostles, and Abraham is one of the prophets. These parallels suggest that Peter can be thought of as a "second Abraham."


Eschatological Convergence

One area of disagreement between Christians and Jews is the identity of the children of Abraham. In Christian teaching true offspring of Abraham are defined not by physical descent but by faith, including one's response to Jesus and the message of the Gospel (Matt 3:7-9; John 8:31-59). However, the thrust of the Christian program is the inclusion of as many as possible from all nations in the people of God. Paul affirmed the eternal, unbreakable nature of the Abrahamic covenant (Rom 11:29) and predicted that one day "all Israel will be saved" (v. 26).


Wilson stated that there is a convergence in Christian and Jewish hopes about the final goal and result of God's plan. He concluded, "Abraham is a symbol of hope; he binds Christians and Jews together with a common vision of the outworking of the kingdom of God: Abraham, `All peoples on earth will be blessed through you' (Gen 12:3)."


1Jon D. Levenson makes this point convincingly in the sixth chapter of his book Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Princeton University Press, 2012.


2For a written version of this lecture, see Dr. Wilson's paper, "Our Father Abraham: A Point of Theological Convergence and Divergence for Christians and Jews," pp. 41-64 in Jews and Christians: People of God, edited by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 2003. Quotes from Dr. Wilson in the present article are taken from that paper.


3On this point, see the comments of John D. Garr on pp. 111-112 of Life from the Dead: The Dynamic Saga of the Chosen People, Golden Key Press, Atlanta, 2014.


4Wilson mentioned that the "rock" upon which the church is built in Matt 16:18 can be seen as (a) Jesus; (b) Peter's affirmation that Jesus is the Messiah; or (c) Peter himself.

Issue 30


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