The Children of Abraham
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The Children of Abraham

Judaism, Christianity, Islam

Francis Edward Peters

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eBook - ePub

The Children of Abraham

Judaism, Christianity, Islam

Francis Edward Peters

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F.E. Peters, a scholar without peer in the comparative study of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, revisits his pioneering work. Peters has rethought and thoroughly rewritten his classic The Children of Abraham for a new generation of readers-at a time when the understanding of these three religious traditions has taken on a new and critical urgency.
He began writing about all three faiths in the 1970s, long before it was fashionable to treat Islam in the context of Judaism and Christianity, or to align all three for a family portrait. In this updated edition, he lays out the similarities and differences of the three religious siblings with great clarity and succinctness and with that same remarkable objectivity that is the hallmark of all the author's work.
Peters traces the three faiths from the sixth century B.C., when the Jews returned to Palestine from exile in Babylonia, to the time in the Middle Ages when they approached their present form. He points out that all three faith groups, whom the Muslims themselves refer to as "People of the Book, " share much common ground. Most notably, each embraces the practice of worshipping a God who intervenes in history on behalf of His people.
The book's text is direct and accessible with thorough and nuanced discussions of each of the three religions. Footnotes provide the reader with expert guidance into the highly complex issues that lie between every line of this stunning edition of The Children of Abraham. Complete with a new preface by the author, this Princeton Classics edition presents this landmark study to a new generation of readers.

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Información

Año
2018
ISBN
9781400889709
CHAPTER ONE
The Promise and the Heirs
The Bible begins absolutely, “In the beginning …,” with the creation of the world. The Quran speaks of it as well—not by following in the biblical tracks, but allusively, touching the creation story here and there as suits its own highly moralizing purposes. The Bible’s opening book, Genesis, introduces the first of our kind, Adam and Eve, and their fall from the Creator’s grace; we read the same, again with somewhat different nuances, in the Quran. We learn of Noah and the catastrophic flood that nearly destroys humankind. It is not until the eleventh chapter of Genesis that Abraham rather abruptly enters the narrative and the history proper of monotheism begins. Abram, as he is still being called at this point, is the head of a small tribe, an extended family really, just one of many leading a marginal living along the fringes between the Middle Eastern desert and the sown. He had originated in what is today Iraq—“Ur of the Chaldees”—and wandered across the Fertile Crescent before coming to rest in the south of what would later come to be called Palestine. During his trek and on several occasions before his death and burial in Hebron, the god worshiped by Abraham appeared to him and promised the patriarch and his descendants plentiful offspring and a land of their own, the very land in which they were now living.1
It is from this simple but astonishing act, a deity making contact with a paltry sheepherder on the margins of the Fertile Crescent, that the entire history of monotheism flows. That same deity has been worshiped by millions beyond the counting as the One True God, and his devotees have dominated, as Jews, Christians, and Muslims, the most profound sensibilities of humankind for the length of recorded history. What was happening in these scenes recorded so simply and almost matter-of-factly in Genesis? It is not so much a command as an offered contract, whose simple terms were the exclusive worship of this god and the signal circumcision of all the males of the community—which was, in fact, Abraham’s extended family.2 Abraham, it appears, was already a monotheist. He had earlier rejected the heavenly deities worshiped by his father and ancestors in Iraq, as the Quran’s account (6:74–83) makes clear.3 What his god was requesting here was a pledge of continued fidelity, for which he and his descendants would be rewarded.
There is an extended and familiar dialogue between Abraham and his god through the subsequent chapters of Genesis. The issue, it appears, is the inheritance. Abraham and his wife Sarah had no children and they, or at least Sarah, was far beyond the age for bearing them. It was Sarah at any rate who suggested to Abraham that he might father a child with his Egyptian slave-concubine Hagar. The attempt was successful—there is no hint of a miraculous intervention—and Hagar bore him a son. Abraham named him Ishmael and in obedience to the Lord’s command, he circumcised him on the eighth day after his birth. Almost immediately Sarah regretted her suggestion and demanded that Abraham turn mother and child out of the camp, a sentence of almost certain death.
Neither the child Ishmael nor his mother perished, however. God intervened to save them and further promised that Ishmael, though no longer the heir to the promise, would himself be the father of a great nation. Mother and son wandered off into the Negev, out onto the fringes of the biblical account—but not out of history. A later generation of Jews, and then the Christians after them, thought that the Arabs were the descendants of Ishmael—they noted the similarities of Arab culture and practice to that of the Hebrews—and “Arab,” “Ishmaelite,” as well as “Saracen,” with a fanciful etymology that connected it with Sarah, were interchangeable terms for long stretches of Middle Eastern and European history.4
This was not so in Arabia, however. Without any explanation, the Quran (2:125) identifies Ishmael along with his father, Abraham, as builders of the Kaaba, the stone building in the midst of Mecca that Muhammad’s ancestors and the Prophet himself identified as Bayt Allah, the “House of the God.” It was left for the next generation of Muslims to explain how Abraham and his firstborn could have gotten from Palestine to Mecca, but there is no sign whatsoever that Muhammad himself thought that Ishmael was the father of the Arabs, much less that either he or his followers were blood descendants of Abraham.5
To return to the Bible, Abraham had a second son, Isaac, this time miraculously by Sarah, and it was through him that the pledge of a Chosen People and a Promised Land would descend to succeeding generations. The Covenant has to do with worship, but with Isaac, a new motif appears: obedience or “trust.” (“Belief” in the One God is a more modern and less accurate view of what was unfolding in Genesis.) His Lord called on Abraham to sacrifice his sole heir, the young Isaac. It was a terrible act, a perverse command in the light of the just concluded Covenant, but Abraham undertook to fulfill it without question or demur. Only at the last moment did his god stay the patriarch’s hand: Isaac was unbound and a fortuitous ram substituted as the sacrifice. God was pleased, the modern reader is perhaps appalled, but countless generations of Jews, Christians, and Muslims—the Quran (37:102–113) does not make it clear which son was being sacrificed, Isaac or Ishmael—have regarded the “binding of Isaac” as a supreme example of human obedience to God.6
The account in Genesis proceeds, first with its focus on Abraham, then on his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob, whose name is changed to Israel. Benei Israel, in English “Children of Israel” or Israelites, his offspring called themselves: they descend in tribal units from Jacob’s twelve sons. They were lured into Egypt, enslaved there for a number of generations, and finally led forth to freedom by the oddly Egyptian-named prophet Moses.7 According to the Bible’s second book, aptly called Exodus, it was Moses who led the twelve tribes of Israel to safety in Sinai; who received from God on a mountain there the highly detailed terms of the Covenant in the form of a law, in Hebrew, Torah; and who guided them, with God’s frequent miraculous intervention, across the wilderness to the very borders of the promised Eretz Israel, a Land for Israel. It was left to his successor Joshua to lead them into their inheritance.
So end the five biblical books credited to Moses’ authorship and called simply Torah or the “Five Pieces” (Pentateuch), as well as the following book, ascribed to Joshua, which describes the conquest of the land of Canaan. In the books called Samuel and Kings the Bible moves forward in the manner of a history chronicle, which in fact it now is, with an eye chiefly on the rulers of Israel who, beginning with Saul, are recognized as kings. The reign of Saul, and especially of his successors David and Solomon, were periods of expansion, growth, and even modest opulence for the new kingdom of Israel.8 Jerusalem was taken from the local Jebusites and David made it the capital of the realm. He brought into the town the chief totem of the Israelites’ religion, the Ark of the Covenant, a gold-fitted portable cask-shrine decorated with semimythical cherubim on its lid and containing mementos of the Sinai experience and the tablets of the law given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. Jerusalem thus became both the political and the religious center of the Israelites.9 Solomon consecrated this event by constructing atop the eastern hill of the town a splendid temple to “house” the Israelite deity who had no image or icon—a remarkable fact in human religious history—but whose “presence” or “glory,” as it was sometimes called, had an unmistakable spiritual and at times even sensual reality for the Israelites.10
The Bible presents no sunshine history of Israel.11 After Solomon, the kingdom began to disintegrate into a northern and a southern realm—Israel and Judah as they were known—and their kings led and the people followed into rank idolatry. The Covenant lay in tatters and God’s justice was visited on his Chosen People in the impotence of their leaders in the face of their more powerful neighbors, Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon. Above the smoke of idolatrous sacrifice and the din of war could be heard the voice of Yahweh delivered through his prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, now threatening, now warning, now hopeful with the promise of a new age and perhaps even a new Covenant.12
Christians and Muslims have little interest in the post-Pentateuchal books of the Bible as such. The prophets reappear in the New Testament and the Quran, though shorn of their poetic grandeur, in the first as proof texts for a promised Messiah and in the second as exemplary figures to illustrate the price of disregarding God’s warnings. There is, moreover, a notable difference between the Christian and the Muslim reception of these books. The Bible was a profound element in the culture of Jesus’ earliest followers, who were, of course, all Jews, whereas for Muhammad’s audience, for whom its contours and contexts remain unexplained, the Bible is simply an earlier Book whose figures are occasionally, and sometimes opaquely, adduced by the Quran.13
In the late seventh century B.C.E., the northern regions of Solomon’s royal enterprise, now the kingdom of Israel, were overrun and its inhabitants dispersed by the Assyrians; the fate of Israel’s ten tribes that dwelled there remains unknown. In the early sixth century the remaining Israelite polity, the southern kingdom of Judah, fell into ruin. The Babylonians from across the Fertile Crescent took and sacked Jerusalem, plundered Solomon’s temple—the Ark of the Covenant was among the disappeared spoils of war—and carried off the best and brightest Judeans into exile in distant Babylonia.
A New Beginning
The dispersal of Israel’s political and religious elite might well have signaled the end of what would have been nothing more than a curious experiment in monotheism, a somewhat longer Palestinian version of Akhnaton’s ill-fated Atun adventure in Egypt. But it was not so. The Israelites kept intact their national and religious identity—perhaps they were identical at that point—during those two or three generations in Babylonia. And when a regime change occurred in Mesopotamia and the more relaxed Achaemenian Iranians gave their Judean subjects leave to depart, there were enough Israelites with conviction and energy to return to Palestine and attempt to rebuild on that sacred soil not the kingdom of Israel, which would have been impossible under the circumstances, but the people of Israel.
This was no easy endeavor. Resources were exiguous and others had occupied parts of the land. Judea after the Exile was a different place from what it had been before, as was the world around it. The older parochial empires had disappeared and new ecumenical political forms prevailed, accompanied by new social and economic institutions and a quickening of the intellectual life in the Middle East. Judaism too was different, as we can see now with the historian’s hindsight. It both clashed and blended with the new world about it, and though it had done this from the beginning, the effects were now deeper, more volatile, and far more visible.14
Among the new neighbors of the Israelites—or rather, as they were now called, the “Judeans,” a term that comes to rest, via Greek and Latin, in English as “Jews”—were the Hellenes or Greeks. These people had come to the Middle East with Alexander the Great in the 330s B.C.E. and stayed to found kingdoms, build cities, and spread their enormously attractive way of life among the indigenous peoples of the East.15 Pre-Exilic Judaism had been, perhaps, farther up the ladder of religious evolution than the faith of the Philistines, Canaanites, and Phoenicians, and so could resist or assimilate those competitors with relative ease. But the Hellenes were not Canaanites and Caesar Augustus was not Hiram of Tyre or even Ashurbanipal. The new rivals of Judaism were at once more attractive and threatening, and possessed intellectual and spiritual resources little understood in a parochial Judea. Judaism did not simply react. It first refracted the incandescent energies of the new age and then slowly brought them into focus in a form that has survived with vigor into our own day.
In the course of that difficult process of self-transformation, Judaism proved remarkably fertile in new perspectives, some of which were finally rejected but proved nonetheless to have a vitality of their own. Christianity immediately and Islam somewhat more obliquely appear in certain lights like Jewish reform movements. At the very least they are growths from the same stock—post-Exilic Judaism—in a generative process that has no parallel in the varieties of human religious experience. We begin by laying out the chief stages of that process and how they are understood by modern historians.
After the Exile
When the Persian shah Cyrus permitted the Jews exiled in Babylonia to return to Palestine in 534 B.C.E. and to restore both the temple cult and some small element of a national identity, a new chapter in the history of Judaism began. There were two obscure centuries of restoration and growth under Persian sovereignty, followed in quick succession by a cultural, religious, and political confrontation with the Hellenes, a war of national liberation, the restoration of a long-defunct Jewish monarchy, and finally the annexation of Palestine to the powerful Roman Empire, under whose sovereignty it remained for six centuries.16
Many of the themes of this complex period in the history of Judaism appear under various comparative headings in the pages below, and so only general considerations are offered here. From the outset, one should speak more properly of the varieties of post-Exilic Judaism than of a single phenomenon. There were, almost from the beginning of this period, both a Palestinian and a Diaspora Judaism, and if our view of the latter is dominated and partially distorted by the immense preserved literary output of one man—Philo of Alexandria—we can make far more precise and radical distinctions in the Palestinian version.
The biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah provide a portrait of a Judaism already facing both temple and Torah. Ezra himself, who was the chief architect of the post-Exilic restoration, was the perfect type of his age: he was both a priest (kohen) and a scribe (sofer). This latter was already a new office and function, a man learned in the Scriptures, a teacher certainly, and possibly a judge on matters of the law.
Though the older priestly and the new clerical Judaism were united in the person and philosophy of Ezra, that cohesion was not permanent. With the inroads of Hellenism and the affluence it brought to the urban centers of the Middle East, we can observe the natural evolution of the upper levels of the Jewish priesthood into a class of power and privilege that was drawn into the cultural and political orbit of the new Greek rulers of Palestine, whether they governed from Alexandria in Egypt as Ptolemies or, after 200 B.C.E., from Antioch in Syria as the Seleucids.
At first the Hellenic Seleucids of Syria granted extensive privileges—exemptions, actually—to their rather odd monotheistic subjects in Judea. Many upper-class Jews gradually assimilated to the new Hellenic ways. But they did so neither as rapidly nor as totally as their rulers in Antioch might have wished. And in a world where religion was normally a useful subaltern of politics, religious exceptionalism translated rather easily into political insubordination or, to put the precise point upon it, treason.
The Seleucids thought they scented treason in Judea and came down hard on the Jews and their “Mosaic constitution.” To resist was perhaps absurd, but resistance there was. A new leadership arose out of the lower priestly ranks and from among those Judeans the class distinctions of Hellenism had disinherited in their native land. The Maccabees extended social and economic distress into the incendiary area of religion: they equated...

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