Abraham, the Patriarch of Three Faiths

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

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In view of such claims made by the early Church about Abraham, it is perfectly understandable that the rabbis would feel it essential to assert that he was a truly Jewish figure who had observed the precepts of the Torah even before they were made mandatory by the revelation at Mount Sinai.

Abraham in Islam

The Christians were not the only group who claimed to be the true successors of Abraham. With the rise of Islam in the seventh century the Arabs also came to emphasize their descent from the Patriarch.

Interestingly, the descriptions of Abraham's life as found in the Koran are strongly influenced by Jewish traditions. They incorporate many events not mentioned in the biblical accounts, such as Abraham's disputes with his idol-worshipping father and his conflict with the wicked king Nimrod who cast him into a fiery furnace. All this provides ample proof that Mohammed had Jewish teachers.

The story of the akedah also found its way into the Koran (37:103), where the story conforms in most respects with the biblical version. Later Islamic tradition took it for granted that the sacrificed son was actually Ishmael, the ancestor of the Arabs.

Yet another aspect of the complex inter-relationships between Judaism, Christianity, and Islam is demonstrated by the following example.

The covenant between God and Abraham, as described in Genesis 15, is accompanied by a queer ceremony of splitting the carcasses of various animals into pieces. Verse 11 relates, "And the birds of prey came down upon the carcases, and Abraham drove them away."

A medieval Yemenite midrashic anthology, the Midrash Ha-Gadol, explains this as meaning that "when Abraham laid the halves of the pieces over against each other, they became alive and flew away," this being God's way of demonstrating to him the doctrine of Resurrection of the Dead.

This detail is not mentioned, as far as I am aware, by any talmudic source, though it is alluded to in the Arabic translation of the great 10th Century scholar Rav Saadiah Gaon, who interpreted the Hebrew phrase vayashev otam Avram, normally rendered as "Abram drove [the birds] away," as "Abraham revived them."

The earliest attested version of the legend seems to be the following:

And when Abraham said: "Lord show me how you will revive the dead," He said, "What, do you not yet believe?" Said he, "Yea, but that my heart may be quieted." He said, "Then take four birds, and take them close to yourself; then put a part of them on every mountain; then call them, and they will come to you in haste; and know that God is mighty, wise."

The source for this midrash? It is found in the Koran (2:260).

It would appear possible that later Jewish commentators were making free use of an Islamic tradition that provided corroboration for the Jewish belief in resurrection. The desire to find biblical support for the crucial doctrine of resurrection had long preoccupied the talmudic Rabbis, and Mohammed's exegesis offered a convenient proof-text. The interpretation sounded so "orthodox" that its true origin was eventually forgotten. The possibility should not however be discounted that Mohammed himself may have been citing an originally Jewish teaching which was not preserved in our own sources.

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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.