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Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus

Books

Abraham, Isaac, and Jesus

On Judaism and Christianity

The Jewish New Year begins the evening of Sept. 18, and Elliott Rabin’s The Biblical Hero: Portraits in Nobility & Fallibility (Jewish Publication Society, 2020) shows differences between Judaism and Christianity but also points of contact. 

Rabin is willing to undercut accounts in the Talmud, the 63 books of rabbinical discussion produced between a.d. 100 and 500. For example, Rabin writes that “the Rabbis want to see Abraham, the religion’s founder, in far more visibly heroic terms than the biblical account offers.” He criticizes tendencies to “varnish” or “whitewash” six heroes: Moses, Samson, Esther, Abraham, David, and Jacob. (In “Rabbinic tradition … Esau is the real deceiver.”)

Rabin rightly argues that a Moses or a David should be neither “on a pedestal, nor a figure whose feet of clay cause the whole statue to collapse.” Instead, we learn that Moses’ “flaws and virtues are inextricably bound together.” Esther’s “heroism is inseparable from the messiness of her story and the murkiness of her motives.” 

But here’s a problem: Rabin uses the word “flaw” seven times in one paragraph about Moses and avoids the crucial word in the last sentence uttered by Stephen as he is stoned to death: “sin.” The word does appear on page 242—“David is fully cognizant of his sin”—but that recognition is hard to avoid since Rabin is commenting on Psalm 51, in which “sin” appears six times. 

Two other problems affect this well-written book. Rabin makes Abraham seem like an existentialist loner: “He lives independent of anything resembling a society” and has a “dearth of lasting, meaningful human contact.” He is “the most solitary figure in the Bible” and lives in “the tension between abundant bounties offered in the future and the meager circumstances of present life.” Yet, later in the Abraham chapter, Rabin acknowledges that “he never travels entirely without his family … and for most of his life a considerable retinue of household servants accompanies him as well.” 

The main difficulty: Rabin has to go to extraordinary lengths to explain the Akedah, the story in Genesis 22 of Abraham’s almost-sacrifice of Isaac: “Until Abraham, human history has presented God with a string of disappointments. … God chooses Abraham because in him God senses the opportunity for a new beginning to God’s relationship with human beings.” By being ready to kill his son, his only son, “Abraham restores God’s faith in humanity.”

Hmm. Our omniscient God does not need man to educate Him: God educates us. He’s against human sacrifice, so why order a killing and stop it only when Abraham shows he’s ready to kill? Doesn’t it make more sense as preparation for when God the Father kills His Son, His only Son, to save all who believe in Him?

We don’t know what Moses was thinking as he recorded the strange Abraham and Isaac saga, but we do know that he was looking ahead: Kevin Chen’s The Messianic Vision of the Pentateuch (IVP, 2019) is a useful survey.

Bookmarks

“Looking for love in all the wrong places” was a great line in a country music song a generation ago: Emily Sigalow’s American JewBu (Princeton, 2019) enthusiastically describes how a disproportionate number of Jews end up in what Christians know is one of the wrong places, Buddhism. There are also right places: Faithful and Fruitful, edited by William Boekestein and Steven Swets (Reformed Fellowship, 2019) can help elders and deacons use their time well. 

Albert Mohler’s The Gathering Storm (Thomas Nelson, 2020) recognizes the dominance of secularism in today’s culture but also offers hope and ways to push back. The 50 short essays in Fred Smith’s Where the Light Divides (Big Snowy Media, 2019) defy predictability and embrace quirkiness. Matthew Emerson’s “He Descended to the Dead” (IVP, 2019) analyzes the debate over that phrase in the Apostles’ Creed. Melissa Ohden’s You Carried Me (Plough, 2017) is the vivid memoir of a woman who survived a saline abortion and has become a pro-life leader.