Abraham: A Journey To The Heart Of Three Faiths


Bruce Feiler
William Morrow and Company ($23.95)

by H. E. Everding

To accompany Bruce Feiler on this journey to understand the roots of the three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) as well as his own identity, the reader travels through place (e.g., the Negev, Jerusalem, Savannah, GA) and time (four millennia), always in the midst of a never-ending war. In pursuit of Abraham and his heirs, Feiler weaves together on the spot observations, conversations, careful reading of texts, and histories of interpretation in a poetic style that both informs and seduces.

Even though there is reason to doubt that Abraham ever existed, Feiler discloses the power and resilience of Abraham as symbolic progenitor of three faith traditions. Through his non-fictional research, Feiler discovers myriads of fictional Abrahams. At various moments in history, each of the three traditions choose and reconstruct Abraham in their own image and for their own exclusive religious and political purposes.

Abraham represents readable and engaging historiography (despite its lack of documentation) and hermeneutics. For example, Feiler frames the chapter on Isaac with a personal conversation with the proprietor of B. Cohen & Sons, a small Judaic shop in Jerusalem's Old City. In between he traces how the figure of Isaac and his potential demise by father Abraham became a symbol of the suffering pious Jew (the "Akedah or binding"), the prototype of Jesus' sacrificial death for some Christians (the "crucifixion"), and was displaced by Ishmael in Islamic tradition as the one rendered (the "Dhabih or cut"). All three traditions place the story of Isaac/Ishmael "at the heart of their self-understanding," revealing both their shared origins but significant differences.

Feiler's journey starts at the Temple Mount in war-torn Jerusalem overlooking the Dome of the Rock—symbolic place of Isaac's near-sacrifice—and ends at Hebron where Abraham was buried. After an excellent analysis of Abraham's birth and call by God, Feiler explores various traditions about Ishmael and Isaac, and how Abraham was re-interpreted in the three faith traditions. The final section reflects on Abraham's "legacy" as symbol and hope for conversation among the three religious traditions. As Feiler puts it:

Abraham is like water . . . He's 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. He's a physical manifestation of the fundamental yearning to be descended from a sacred source. He's a personification of the biological need we all share to feel protected by someone, something. Anything.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2003 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2003