Exploring the power of Abraham's legacy

Amid the abundant evidence that violence and military force are not the road to peace in the Holy Land, a few small groups in the region have been searching for common ground within Judaism, Islam, and Christianity as a place to start.

They have a valuable new ally. Bruce Feiler, the bestselling author of "Walking the Bible," has brought his winning mix of insight, passion, and historical research to that task. His latest book focuses on Abraham, the one man to whom all three monotheistic faiths trace their roots.

It was the events of 9/11, Feiler says, that compelled him to pursue a journey into the heart of the three faiths, to explore whether their shared ancestor – "the first person to understand that there is only one God" – might be "a vessel for reconciliation."

The patriarch of the Jewish people and the spiritual forefather of the New Testament, Abraham is also, through his son, Ishmael, considered father of the Arabs. He is a vivid presence in the Koran and a major figure in Muslim religious practice – including the pilgrimage to Mecca and the most important Islamic feast day.

Well aware of the power that history wields in the imagination of the region, Feiler was hoping to find an Abraham of the sacred texts that could serve as a bridge for all the faithful. Instead, he encountered a multitude of Abrahams – some 240, he says! – as the interpretative works of each religion over four millenniums reshaped and often made more exclusive the story of this remarkable figure. Probably less than 1 percent of the Abraham stories appear in the Bible, he says.

Yet Abraham's legacy and his deep yearning for God – as found in legend as well as sacred text – remain a profound presence in the lives of his descendants. Is this yearning powerful enough, Feiler wonders, to outweigh the interpretations that appropriate Abraham and God's promise to him for one particular faith? Can that promise come to stand for what the biblical words suggest: "I will make your name great, ... and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you."

In search of answers, Feiler delves deeply into the most celebrated episodes of Abraham's life and explores their import within each of the faiths. The call from God to go out to an unknown destination, the births of Ishmael and Isaac, the sending of Hagar and her son into the wilderness, Abraham's offering of his son as a sacrifice to God – these momentous narratives, he demonstrates, have resounded down the centuries in the most intimate ways in people's lives.

The story of the offering stands as "the most celebrated" and "most combustible" episode. All three religions "have chosen to place the narrative of a father preparing to kill a son at the heart of their self-understanding," he says. Some Jews in medieval times even found courage in the story to kill themselves and their children rather than be forced to convert. Christians see the story as foreshadowing the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. Muslims see it as symbolizing total surrender to God, and commemorate it in the Feast of the Sacrifice, the final rite of the hajj.

The most sobering question, however, is whether the offering story serves most as a model for holiness or for fanaticism. Does it play a part in today's suicide bombings? And what is the contemporary import of the Ishmael-Isaac rivalry?

The author, who is Jewish, makes his way to prominent sites in Abrahamic history, from the desert of Beersheba to Jerusalem to the patriarch's tomb in Hebron, and his conversations with imams, bishops, and rabbis offer reason for both discouragement and hope.

He finds some encouragement in the perception that in the 21st century, "the battle for God is approaching stalemate." People realize that one religion is not going to extinguish all others. While some faithful still hold on to triumphalism, others recognize the need for a new kind of interaction among the faiths.

Abraham, Feiler decides, "is like a vast underground aquifer that stretches from Mesopotamia to the Nile, from Jerusalem to Mecca, from Kandahar to Kansas City. He's an ever-present, ever-flowing stream that represents the basic desire all people have to form a union with God."

In every generation, people have told themselves stories of Abraham for their times, and now we can too, he proposes: "We can, like Abraham, leave behind our native places – our comfortable, even doctrinaire traditions – and set out for an unknown location, whose dimensions may be known only to God but whose mandate is to be a place where God's blessing is promised to all."

In his view, the need is so great that the writer and his publisher have set out to spark informal interfaith discussions across the US, supported by a professional study guide (www.brucefeiler.com). These gatherings, called Abraham Salons, are forming in local houses of worship, libraries, schools, and homes. A two-week national conversation is planned for Nov. 8-24, and Abraham Summits involving prominent figures are being scheduled in major cities.

Feiler's hopeful perspective is far from naive. This wonderfully readable book inspires because it grapples honestly with how all three faiths have reinterpreted their original truths, often as a means to separate themselves from others. That realistic understanding provides a basis for fostering genuine communication.

• Jane Lampman writes about religion and ethics for the Monitor.

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