Abraham, the Patriarch of Three Faiths

Christianity and Islam share a reverence for Judaism's patriarch.

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Reprinted with permission of the author from the Jewish Star.

It is common for Jews to affectionately refer to the first Patriarch as Avraham Avinu, "Abraham our Father." But is Abraham so certainly "our father" alone? 

If we approach the figure of Abraham from the perspective of later Jewish exegesis, we note a number of additions to Abraham's biography that seem peculiar and unwarranted by the biblical text. A more careful examination of the circumstances reveals that some of these added details reflect some very heated controversies that preoccupied the Jewish commentators through the generations in their contacts with competing religious outlooks.

As an example, let us look at an oft-quoted rabbinic tradition:

Our father Abraham observed the entire Torah before it was given to Israel, as it is written (Genesis 26:5) "Because that Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes and my laws"

(Mishnah, end of Kiddushin).

This claim, which was extended to apply to the other patriarchs as well, gave rise to all sorts of difficulties.

For example, in Genesis 18:7-8, we find Abraham hurrying to prepare a meal for his guests that consisted of "a calf tender and good...curd, and milk"--hardly an ideal menu for a kosher meal. Similarly, Jacob's marriage to two sisters should have been prohibited according to subsequent Torah legislation.

It is possible to interpret the verse cited by the Mishnah in a limited way (as referring, for example, to the basic laws of humanity and justice embodied in the "seven precepts of the sons of Noah"). The Mishnah however insists on applying it to "the entire Torah." Why did the rabbis insist on making life so difficult for themselves with their sweeping statement?

Abraham in Christianity

A possible explanation might be found in an exposition by a Jew who wrote towards the end of the First Century C.E.

Saul of Tarsus--who was to become known to the world as Paul, the leading ideologist of early Christianity--made considerable use of the model of Abraham to support his own belief that the observance of laws is not conducive to spiritual salvation.

As developed in the fourth chapter of his Epistle to the Romans, Paul points to Genesis 15:6: "And [Abraham] believed in the Lord and he counted it to him for righteousness." Did Abraham, Paul argues, not live before the receiving of the Torah? Since he did, he could not have observed its laws. Nevertheless, God deems him righteous!

In a typically "midrashic" exposition, Paul notes that the verse in question was placed before the account of Abraham's circumcision precisely in order to emphasize that circumcision (which for Paul represents the totality of ritual observance) is not a requirement for righteousness or salvation, which are earned through belief and trust in God.

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Eliezer Segal

Dr. Eliezer Segal is Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary. A native of Montreal, he holds a PhD in Talmud from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of Holidays, History, and Halakhah, and many of his writings can be found on his personal website.