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Books: The story of Abraham’s three families

by Bruce Feiler
William Morrow, 227 pages, $23.95


“He ain’t heavy; he’s my brother.” Even in the best of families this maxim is not always true. Sometimes it is because one sibling is preferred to another. At other times it is due to basic personality differences. Though such differences are quite common, few families have endured the kind of conflict, alienation and animosity that we find in the people who trace their roots back to Abraham, namely Jews, Christians and Muslims. They claim the same ancestor and the same land of origin, but their memories of him differ significantly and their claims over the land conflict dramatically. Bruce Feiler has been fascinated by both the similarities and the differences among these traditions, and so he set out to discover what lies at their root.

The journey is one of exploration. Convinced that he can know Abraham only through those who claim to be his children, he searches in the Bible, the Quran, and midrashic and apocryphal writings; he travels to synagogues, churches and mosques in Jerusalem, Egypt, Mecca and throughout the United States; he confers with rabbis, priests, and mullahs; he consults scholars from all three religious traditions.

As he traverses a meandering and sometimes war-torn route, he writes an energetic journal containing vivid conversations and insightful gleanings, and he writes in a fast-moving style that captures his own enthusiasm and infuses his reader with the excitement of his adventure. His account is neither naive nor biased; he portrays each religious tradition fairly, uncovering unique interpretations and innovative revisions of common stories. His accepting eye recognizes the religious depth and the cultural wealth of each.

The shadowy figures of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac take on flesh and blood as Feiler probes the various versions of their stories. Was it Isaac who was to be sacrificed or Ishmael? It depends upon which holy book one is consulting. Even those who claim that it was Isaac who faced his father’s blade do not agree on whether or not his blood was actually shed. Biblical scholars have long realized that within the Bible itself there are conflicting accounts of the same event -- two versions of creation (Genesis 1 and 2), two accounts of God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15 and 17). From this they have concluded that the stories tell us more about the storyteller than about the characters in the story. Therefore, why should we be surprised then when we discover that midrashic, apocryphal and Islamic literatures differ in their accounts of the same ancestors? Each group recounts the event in a way that is meaningful to it.

Living at a time when the land that is considered “holy” has become a field of blood and when a post-Sept. 11 suspicion focuses on anyone of Near Eastern ancestry, Feiler’s book introduces us to women and men of intelligence and integrity who hold fast to their own beliefs, yet are tolerant to those of others, even as they defend themselves by piling sandbags against the windows of their homes. Quoting from sacred writings, he shows that all three traditions hold peace and compassion in the highest regard. Such noble values notwithstanding, each has a history of imperialism, violence, persecution and bloodshed that, unfortunately, were often championed in the name of religion. Still, each tradition clings to a vision of hope for the next generation. It is this very vision that inspires hope in Feiler.

The story of Abraham’s descendants is not yet completed. As long as there are those who claim him as their father, there will be versions of his life that give meaning to theirs. In his searching, Feiler discovered that Abraham was not a myth. Rather he is “a vast underground aquifer that stretches from Mesopotamia to the Nile, from Jerusalem to Mecca, from Kandahar to Kansas City. He is an ever-present, ever-flowing stream that represents the basic desire all people have to form a union with God.” When his children, as diverse as they may be, reclaim their inheritance and discover the timeless values that their father embodies, they will be able to respond with genuine peace and compassion: “He ain’t heavy; he’s my brother.”

St. Agnes Sr. Dianne Bergant teaches biblical studies at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago. She is vice president of the Catholic Biblical Society of America.

National Catholic Reporter, October 11, 2002