FEATURE . Children of Abraham

BOB ABERNETHY, anchor: Now, the legacy of Abraham. Muslims, Jews, and Christians all tell the Abraham story, with its chilling account of God’s command to Abraham to kill his own son. Today, scholars for the three faiths are examining their common and different understandings, hoping that will help bring Middle East peace. But a central problem turns out to be religious claims to the land of Israel: Jews say it is theirs because God promised it to them, through Abraham; Muslims say they are entitled to it because they are the more faithful. Mary Alice Williams tells the story.

MARY ALICE WILLIAMS: One man changed all of human history with a simple, radical idea: there is only one God. And in return, according to Genesis 12, God promised, “I shall make of you a great nation and all the families of the earth shall bless themselves by you.”

Yet Abraham’s progeny have written his name in blood and hatred ever since. Abraham is the spiritual patriarch of half the people alive today. Jews, Christians, and Muslims, in battling over his paternity, have each wreaked havoc in an attempt to commandeer his legacy.

Painting of Abraham Abraham’s story is just that. A story. There is no concrete archaeological or scientific evidence that he even existed. But what a story: a 75-year-old man with a barren wife who is promised not only a child, but a whole nation and a land that will be his legacy.

Abraham heeds God’s call, in Hebrew “Lech Lecha”: “Go forth from your father’s house and go to a land which I will show you.” Homeless and childless, he journeyed in the desert where his wife, Sarah, offered him an Egyptian slave, Hagar, who bore him a son, Ishmael. Then Sarah conceived her own son, Isaac, and Hagar and Ishmael were sent into the desert.

BRUCE FEILER (Author): But this is the key moment. God says it’s okay for Abraham to do that because he will continue to bless Ishmael.

WILLIAMS: Bruce Feiler wrote ABRAHAM: A JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF THREE FAITHS as a way of trying to comprehend the religious enmity that led to September 11.

Mr. FEILER: God will bless Isaac. Isaac will get the land. God will also bless Ishmael. God is trying to bless all humans. He does it through both children.

Photo of Bruce Feiler The children may not be able to get along with each other, but they both get along with God. And I think in a way, it’s harder for people to argue over God. It’s easier to argue over Abraham. And he who controls Abraham, controls God.

WILLIAMS: The Jewish Torah and the Qur’an have parallel stories of Abraham. For the Jews and Christians, Isaac inherits God’s blessing. For Muslims, Ishmael is the chosen son. In Genesis 22, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son. All three religions revere Abraham’s most spectacular test of faith. For Christians, that prophesied the crucifixion. Professor Walter Brueggemann of Columbia Theological Seminary.

Photo of Prof. Wawlter Brueggemnan Professor WALTER BRUEGGEMANN (Columbia Theological Seminary): In John 3:16, that’s quoted in football games and so on, that God so loved the world that he gave his only son. That is a fairly direct appeal to Genesis 22. That then was taken up by Christians to sort of make the case for Jesus as the fulfillment of the Abraham tradition.

WILLIAMS: Jews see the sacrifice as a test of Abraham’s faith in God; Muslims see it as a test of his submission to God. Jews say Isaac was the son to be slaughtered; Muslims say it was Ishmael. Imam Omar Abunamous is the spiritual leader at the Islamic Cultural Center in New York.

Imam OMAR ABUNAMOUS (Islamic Cultural Center): God tests everybody in order to make sure that we are sincere and loyal to him or not, whether we believe in him or not. So God put Abraham face-to-face with a very hard exam.

Photo of stained glass Mr. FEILER: But the point is that it’s about a father attempting to kill a son — it’s a violent act. Abraham is not only the legacy of peace and blessing, but also for violence. That you can fight wars over God, that you can run crusades, that you can fly planes into buildings, that you can kill yourself in the service of killing other people — everything that is going on the front page of the paper today, violence in the service of faith begins with Abraham.WILLIAMS: And explodes today in the Holy Land. Christians converted the Promised Land to a metaphysical Kingdom of God. Muslims actually consider “the land” to be in both Jerusalem and Ishmael’s home in Mecca, where the Qur’an says God commanded Abraham and Ishmael to build a shrine. The Ka’aba is the giant black rock to which Muslims make a pilgrimage of prayer and piety called the hajj.

Photo of Peter Ochs PETER OCHS (Children of Abraham Institute): The people Israel, unique among monotheistic religions, understands itself to be identified with one place, the land of Israel.

WILLIAMS: Theologian Peter Ochs established the Children of Abraham Institute, which brings Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders and scholars together over Abrahamic texts searching for common ground.

Mr. OCHS: Jews believe very simply that as part of God’s promise to them and along with obliging them to observe God’s word, they’re given this land, if they use it well — the land of Israel. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict on one level is an ethnic conflict. But it’s also a religious conflict in understanding. In the Qur’an and the Hadith as I understand it, Islam criticizes Judaism on two levels for its claim to the land. They say the promises to Abraham, including the land, are not simply to whomever are Abraham’s children, but rather to whomever of Abraham’s children by their righteousness of their behavior merit the blessings of God.

Photo of Imam Abunamous Imam ABUNAMOUS: This Promised Land is the Holy Land, and it has to be ruled by people who are most attached and most faithful to the word of God.

WILLIAMS (to Imam Abunamous): Must they be Muslim?

Imam ABUNAMOUS: At the present time we must say that, because the word of God has been abandoned by all the world with the exception of the Muslim nation. The one nation that prays five times a day, the one nation that fasts an entire month every year. It’s the only nation which still observes the word of God, so that’s why it is entitled to be in charge of the Holy Land.

WILLIAMS (to Prof. Brueggemann): If the sibling rivalry over God’s promise, the land, the blessing, continues, how then can Abraham possibly be a source for reconciliation?

Prof. BRUEGGEMANN: Jews, Christians, and Muslims simply have to move over and make room for siblings, because all you get is hate and resentment and greed and anxiety and violence, if every child thinks, “My main task is to drive the other sibling out of the family.”

Photo of middle east violence WILLIAMS: The key to the solution may lie in peace negotiations between Palestinians and Jews which stop ignoring religion as source of the problem, but embrace the commonality of Abraham.

Mr. OCHS: There is one thing that we share profoundly, identically, and passionately. We believe in one God, Creator of Heaven and Earth, who sent Abraham into the world. We all believe that. If we were in the same room and much angrier in debate, but recognized our use of the same texts to adjudicate our differences, I think we would find a root to solution.

WILLIAMS: There is the root of reconciliation in Abraham’s story. Here in war-torn Hebron on the West Bank, beneath this castle built by King Herod to memorialize the father of three great religions, Abraham is buried. Genesis 25 says there were two mourners, Isaac and Ishmael — together.

Mr. FEILER: Think about that, that is the image of the two, Isaac and Ishmael, standing side by side. And Abraham is able to achieve in death what he could never achieve in life — a tiny moment of reconciliation. As they stand there, mourners, looking at their father’s tomb, knowing all the violence that has been wrought in their names and wondering, “What do you want from us, father?”

WILLIAMS: The way believers answer that question today could again change the course of history. For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I’m Mary Alice Williams.