The Four Abrahams
Lesson 1 (The Jewish Abraham – Part 1)
When a new series of lessons is started most people want to know what direction the
class will take. We will have twelve sessions and we propose to spend three classes on each
of four perceptions of Abraham. One segment as defined by the Jews, one by the Muslims
(or Islam), one by ―Christianity‖ as a group, and one to examine what the Bible says about
the man, his life, his promises, and his place in the scheme of redemption.
Since September 11, 2001 there have been many questions about who these people
are, what do they believe, what do they want? When the answers begin to arrive they all
seem to point back to one man, Abraham. Many groups claim Abraham as the forefather in
their history. Abraham is the central figure in their genealogies, at least one of the principle
ones. As one reads the literature of Jews, Muslims and Christians, Abraham is a dominant
personality—one of the pivotal—one of the required.
Right at the first, I want to give some basic assumptions for our study. I assume you
are interested in the facts anyone could gather from many sources such as she internet as long
as you know how to find them; especially what is believe and why it is believed. Therefore, I
assume no one will become offended at what is said when it is a quotation, or idea, from a
reliable source even when it is against all the previous knowledge we may have and against
our cherished beliefs. I expect some of you will be saying, ―How can they believe that?‖
But, many do!
I assume most everyone will want to attend all the classes and, therefore, will be able
to follow the connections between the four segments within a given religious belief and as
they may be contrasted, one religion with another. That is a not a too subtle hint that if you
miss a class you might not be able to completely understand the succeeding ones.
I assume that everyone will not consider that everything I say, I believe. When you
study other religions it is necessary to read and discuss what they believe, not necessarily
what you believe.
I assume you will forgive me for some of the pronunciation of words in Hebrew,
Arabic, Greek, etc. because no one knows today precisely how ancient languages were
pronounced; we just make acceptable guesses. You should also be aware that Hebrew
pronunciation, and therefore transliteration, is different between the Sephardic and the
Ashkenazi speakers. Sephardic Hebrew came into being in the 14th century, is a soft
sounding language, and is sometimes called ―Spanish‖ Hebrew. Ashkenazi Hebrew is
northern European, a more harsh sounding language akin to German, and is the mother of
Yiddish Hebrew. In Israel today all types of Hebrew may be heard.
And, it is assumed that you will agree that we do not have to adopt every language
nuance and prohibition a race of people may have; by that I mean, it is alright to pronounce
the names by which God is called. The word ―god‖ is not a name, it is a designation. In
Jewish literature, including the Bible, God has many names. The Jews do not speak one of
the names as it is too sacred to them to vocalize. Today, even when they write the word
―God‖, they spell it ―G-d‖ to remove the vowel so it cannot be pronounced. Jews do not
write G-d's name in a place where it may be discarded or erased.
Because of the importance of names in this study, I want to go more deeply into the
names of God. The most important and most often written name of God in Judaism is the
Tetragrammaton, the four-letter name of God. In English it is written as YHWH, YHVH,
or JHVH depending on the transliteration convention that is used. "Tetragrammaton" derives
from the Greek prefix tetra- translated ―four‖, and gramma –from the Greek word grapheme
– translated ―letters‖.
Tetragrammaton is first found in the book of Genesis and is usually translated as ―the
LORD‖. Because Judaism forbids pronouncing the name outside the Temple in Jerusalem,
the correct pronunciation of this name has been lost. The original Hebrew texts only
included consonants, no vowels. Some scholar‘s conjecture it was pronounced "Yahweh",
but others suggest it never had a pronunciation; which is extremely unlikely given that it is
found as an element, or part, in numerous Hebrew names.
The Hebrew letters are named Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh: ;הוהיremember that Hebrew is
written from right to left, rather than left to right as in English. The Tetragrammaton was
written in contrasting Paleo-Hebrew characters in some of the oldest surviving square
Aramaic Hebrew texts, and it is speculated that it was, even at that period, read as Adonai,
"My Lord", when read aloud..
In appearance, YHWH is the third person singular imperfect of the verb "to be",
meaning, therefore, "He is". This explanation agrees with the meaning of the name given in
Exodus 3:14, where God is speaking, and therefore uses the first person — "I am." It stems
from the Hebrew conception of monotheism that God exists by himself, the uncreated
Creator who doesn't depend on anything or anyone else; therefore I am who I am. The idea
of 'life' has been traditionally connected with the name YHWH from medieval times. God is
presented as a living God, as contrasted with the lifeless gods of the heathen: God is
presented as the source and author of life.
The name YHWH is often reconstructed as Yahweh or oftentimes Jehovah in the
English language. The prohibition of blasphemy, for which capital punishment is prescribed
in Jewish law, refers only to the Tetragrammaton. (Soferim iv., end; comp. Sanh. 66a).
Modern denominations of Judaism teach that the four letter name of God, YHWH, is
forbidden to be uttered except by the High Priest, in the Temple. Since the Temple in
Jerusalem no longer exists, this name is never said in religious rituals by Jews. Orthodox and
Conservative Jews never pronounce it for any reason. Some religious non-Orthodox Jews
are willing to pronounce it, but for educational purposes only, and never in casual
conversation or in prayer. Instead of pronouncing YHWH during prayer, Jews say Adonai,
though passages such as:
"And, behold, Boaz came from Bethlehem, and said unto the reapers, YHWH [be]
with you. And they answered him, YHWH bless thee" (Ruth 2:4).
This strongly indicates that there was a time when the name was in common usage.
Also, the fact that many Hebrew names consist of verb forms contracted with the
tetragrammaton indicates that the people knew the verbalization of the name in order to
understand the connection. The prohibition against verbalizing the name never applied to the
forms of the name within these contractions and their pronunciation remains known.
English translations of the Bible generally render YHWH as "Jehovah" in several
locations, while replacing the name altogether as "the LORD" (in small capitals), and Adonai
as "Lord" (in normal case). In a few cases, where "Lord YHWH" (Adonai YHWH) appears,
the combination is written as "Lord GOD" (Adonai elohim). Other names for God in the
Jewish Bible are: Adonai, Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh ("I will be because I will be"), El, Elohim,
‗Elyon, HaShem, Shaddai, Shalom (peace, hello, goodby), Shekhinah, and Yah. Many of
these are incorporated in the names of individuals, which is a study within itself. I have a
book, the title of which suggests more than 500 names for God and Christ. The Qur‘an has
99 names for the being they call Allah.
The significance of this is best seen when I remind you that Abraham‘s name was
changed from Abram, to Abraham; and this is attributed to God wanting to include his name
in that of the man He chose to establish the linage for producing the solution to the promises
Jehovah God made to Abraham. Not to be omitted, Sarai‘s name was also changed to add
the tetragrammaton insignia, the ―H‖, on her by renaming her Sarah. As we get deeper into
the study the importance of a name will be emphasized.
All of our study this quarter is predicated on one long passage in the Bible: Genesis
12:1 through Genesis 17:27. Since we are starting by examining Abraham from the Jewish
viewpoint, it is appropriate that we read his story from their scripture. When I say ―their
scripture‖, I mean the Tenach (Tanakh): a collection composed of five divisions: The first
and best known is Torah - The Law (Bereshit – Genesis; Shemot – Exodus; VaYikra –
Leviticus; BaMidbar – Numbers; Devarim – Deuteronomy). The second division containing
the prophets is called the Neviim.(it corresponds closely to what we call the major prophets).
The third division is Treisar, the section we call the Minor Prophets. The fourth division is
Ketuvim - The Writings. - Psalms, Proverbs, Job. And, the last division is Megilot
containing the reminder of the Hebrew books, some of which we call history, some poetry,
and some prophets.
For those of you who are aware of the several renderings of the Tenakh, the
Masoretic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Kaplan, and JPS (which stands for Jewish Publication Society),
I have chosen for this study to use the JPS which is available free on the Internet.
The story of Abraham starts with what the Jews call Lekh Lekha. This translation
was taken from the JPS Tanakh
The Lord said to Abram, Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the
land that I will show you.
I will make of you a great nation,
And I will bless you;
I will make your name great,
And you shall be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you
And curse him that curses you;
And all the families of the earth
Shall bless themselves by you."
Abram went forth as the Lord had commanded him, and Lot went with him. Abram was
seventy-five years old when he left Haran.
These words express the deep meaning of the words Lech Lekha. Normally they are
translated as, "Go, leave, travel." What they really mean is: journey [lekh] to yourself [lekha].
Leave behind all external influences that turn one into victims of circumstances beyond their
control, and travel inward to the self. Abraham is commanded to leave his land, birthplace
and father's house to travel into the unknown. The history of the Jews is begun with the
covenant established between Abraham and God, with the promise that his descendents will
be like the dust of the earth and as numerous as the stars in the heavens.
Frequently in Biblical literature, pairs are put into opposing positions to contrast
attributes to draw lessons: Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah. Not only does Abraham leave
his land, birthplace and father's house; but we will also see that Hagar leaves hers and she as
well as Abraham experiences an encounter with God.
More than one hundred years ago author Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain, The
Complete Essays of Mark Twain [New York: Double Day: 1963] 2490 posed a fascinating
question concerning the Jews:
If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one percent of the human
race. It suggests a nebulous dim puff of smoke lost in the blaze of the Milky
Way. Properly the Jew ought hardly to be heard of; but he is heard of, has
always been heard of. He is as prominent on the planet as any other people,
and his commercial importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the
smallness of his bulk. His contributions to the world's list of great names in
literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine, and abstruse learning, are
also way out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers. He has made a
marvelous fight in this world, in all ages: and has done it with his hands tied
behind him. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he
remains. What is the secret of his immortality? .
The answer to this question can be found in the remote beginnings of the Jewish people, in
the earliest stories in the Bible. Genesis 27: beginning at verse 1.
And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, HaShem appeared to Abram, and
said unto him: 'I am G-d Almighty; walk before Me, and be you wholehearted.
And I will make My covenant between Me and you, and will multiply you
And Abram fell on his face; and G-d talked with him, saying:
'As for Me, behold, My covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a
multitude of nations.
Neither shall your name any more be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham;
for the father of a multitude of nations have I made you.
And I will make you exceeding fruitful, and I will make nations of you, and kings
shall come out of you.
And I will establish My covenant between Me and you and you seed after you
throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a G-d unto you and to
your seed after you.
And I will give unto you, and to your seed after you, the land of your sojourning, all
the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession; and I will be their G-d.'
And G-d said unto Abraham: 'And as for you, you shalt keep My covenant, you, and
your seed after you throughout their generations.
Jewish tradition says that Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, was the epitome
of greatness. ―God said to Abraham, go for yourself from your land, and from your
birthplace, and from your father's house, to the land that I will show you ...‖ (Genesis 12:1)
This command is puzzling. At this point in the Torah, Abraham has already left his
land and his birthplace. So why is God instructing him to leave a place that he has already
left? The answer lies in understanding that Abraham's move is more than physical. God is
asking him to make a journey not just of the body but of the soul. He is asking him to leave
the comfort of the assumptions he holds about the meaning of life. God is asking Abraham
to re-think his values and his goals and decide whether they are in fact his or simply the
result of the environment in which he happened to be born.
Think for a moment about when and where you were born and raised. Under
different circumstances you could just as easily have been born in Germany or Iraq or Africa.
And here you are today. What if today were 1940 or 2140? In a different place or time we
would probably be very different people, with very different values. So would our children.
The early lessons of Jewish history reveal a pattern, so we have to pay extra special
attention to anything that happens at this period of time. We also have to pay special
attention to the characters themselves. Just as these early stories are the paradigm for future
events, so too are the earliest personalities in Genesis the model for the collective nature of
the Jewish people throughout history.
If this be true, then from the Jewish perspective, the most important Biblical character
to understand is Abraham. This is why he is called "the proto-Jew." He personifies
everything that could be characterized as the "Jewish personality." His strengths, mission,
drive and idealism are reflected in all the generations of the Jewish people that come after
Abraham was certainly one of the great truth-seekers of all time. He was famous for
his kindness and hospitality. But the attribute that probably stands out more than any other
and truly epitomizes the essence of what Abraham, and therefore the Jewish people, is all
about is drive. To stand alone for thousands of years against the entire world; to dedicate
oneself, heart and soul, to the ultimate cause of perfecting the world requires tremendous
strength of character. This drive is an outstanding feature of Abraham's personality
Many believe it is because of this inherited drive the Jews have historically been
tremendous over-achievers and have been at the forefront of virtually every major advance,
cause, or social movement in world history. Jews have not only been awarded a
disproportionate number of Nobel prizes for their intellectual contributions, but have led
movements such as communism, socialism, feminism, civil rights, labor unions, etc. The
professor of Social Philosophy Ernest Van den Haag states:
Asked to make a list of the men who have most dominated the thinking of the modern
world, many educated people would name Freud, Einstein, Marx and Darwin. Of these four,
only Darwin was not Jewish. In a world where Jews are only a tiny percentage of the
population, what is the secret of the disproportionate importance the Jews have had in the
history of Western culture? ... The Jews have invented more ideas; have made the world
more intelligible, for a longer span and for more people than any other group. They have
done this indirectly, always unintentionally and certainly not in concert, but never the less
comprehensibly... Jews continue to feel the yoke, the task, the moral mission of being Jews—
of preserving themselves as such, and to the surprise, scorn, and at times hatred of the rest of
the world, of refusing to become anything else... Jews may call themselves humanists, or
atheists, socialists or communists...they may even dislike Jewishness and deny it in scientific
terms. But, rarely do they refuse to carry it...They won't give up being Jewish even when they
consciously try to, when they change their names, intermarry, and do everything to deny
Jewishness. Yet they remain aware of it, and though repudiating it, they cling to it; they may
repress it, but do act it out symptomatically. Their awareness of their Judaism is shared by
others simply because their denial is so ambivalent. Unconscious or not, at least some part
of every Jew does not want to give up its Jewishness.
The answer to Van den Haag's question, ―what is the Jews secret?‖ lies in
understanding the personality of Abraham. If the Bible is our paradigm for Jewish history
and if Abraham is the model for generations of Jews then we must pay special attention to
the earliest descriptions of Abraham in Genesis. By examining just the first few sentences in
Genesis 12 we can identify several sweeping and unique patterns that will characterize all
future Jewish history giving us the reason why Jews believe and act the way they do.
God said to Abram, "Go from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father's house
to the land that I will show you. (Genesis 12:1)
We know that the Bible isn't like the writings of Charles Dickens. Dickens got paid
by the word, and he would be as verbose as possible. God is the exact opposite. Instead of
filling the text of the Bible with pages of details and minutia, the narrative is limited to the
bare minimum of relevant information that we need to know. So the question we have to ask
is: Why does God, Who uses words so sparingly throughout the whole Bible, repeat this
command so emphatically? "Separate yourself completely, not just from your land, but from
your birthplace, from your father's house."
If you grew up in a specific house for a period of time, that place will always be home
for you. When you think of home, no matter where you've lived after that and how
comfortable you've been, you'll always think about it as home. There's a very deep
connection. So God is saying to Abraham: "Separate yourself on the most basic emotional
More importantly, from the macrocosmic, historical perspective, God is saying to
Abraham, and therefore the Jewish people: "Separate yourself completely and go in a
different direction." The journey that God is directing Abraham to undertake is not just a
physical journey; it's a journey through history that is going to be different from anyone
else's. Abraham is going to become a father to a unique nation with a unique destiny. "...a
nation that dwells alone and is not reckoned among the rest of the nations." (Numbers 23:9)
Jewish people today want us to see this concept of the Jews as a unique nation manifest itself
in the double standard constantly applied to modern Israel. Remember this when we
examine the real Biblical Abraham.
In this first sentence, we see that God not only commands Abraham to leave his
homeland, but to go to a specific piece of real estate which will later be known as the Land of
Israel. This is the first promise of the land to Abraham and his descendants. From this point
on we will see that there is a special relationship between the Land of Israel and the Jews.
Another unique aspect of Jewish history we see in the next verse:
"I will make you into a great nation, I will bless you and make your name great; and you will
be a blessing." (Genesis 12:2)
This verse conveys God's promise that He will be actively involved in Jewish history: "I will
make you ..."
In the 17th century when Blaise Pascal, the great French enlightenment philosopher,
was asked by Louis XIV for proof of the supernatural, he answered, "The Jewish people,
your Majesty." Why? Because he knew Jewish history and he realized that for the Jewish
people to survive to the 17th century, violated all the laws of history. Can you imagine what
he'd say seeing the Jews made it to the 2tst century?!
To Jews, Jewish history is a supernatural phenomenon. The Jewish people should
never have come into existence. With Abraham's wife Sarah being barren, that should have
been it. Abraham would have died childless, and his mission would have died with him. But
it didn't. A miracle happened. Many scholars and well-known personalities have taken note
that Jewish history is in fact unique, that it violates all the laws of history. Writes Professor
Nicholai Berdyaev (Russian philosopher 1874-1948):
Their [the Jews] destiny is too imbued with the "metaphysical" to be explained either
by material or positive historical terms... Its survival is a mysterious and wonderful
phenomenon demonstrating that the life of this people is governed by special
Someone put it this way, ―From history we learn that the Jewish people come into
being miraculously and survive all of human history miraculously, outlasting even the
greatest empires. Things happen to the Jews that don't happen to other peoples. This is so
because the Jews are a nation with a unique mission, a nation with a unique history—A
nation whose role is so essential that they cannot be allowed to disappear. To live for 2000
years as a nation without a national homeland is not normal. It's unique in human history.
To re-establish a homeland in the place that was yours 2000 years ago is not normal. It's
unprecedented in human history and the cause of enormous problems in the world today.‖
A fourth unique aspect of Jewish history is found in the second half of the same
sentence: "...and you will be a blessing." The modern Jew today believes this promise of
God is being fulfilled in the present by the tiny Jewish nation that should never have come
into existence and should certainly never have survived and that it will profoundly impact all
of humanity; a belief that refers back to the unique mission of Abraham and his descendants
as "a light to the nations." More than 3,700 years after the birth of Abraham, they, and
others, firmly believe that the world has been profoundly blessed by the Jews. In the words
of John Adams, second president of the United States:
I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other
nation...They are the most glorious nation to ever inhabit this earth...They have given
religion to three quarters of the Globe and have influenced the affairs of Mankind, more and
more happily than any other nation, ancient or modern. John Adams, From a letter to F.A.
Van der Kemp, 1806.
President Adam‘s statement suggests what God did with and for Abraham has a
present day physical and incredibly positive impact evident by what the Jews have
accomplished and influenced in the world. The most basic of all is that the Jews have
contributed the values that are now linked with democracy—the values that come from the
Torah—respect for life, justice, equality, peace, love, education, social responsibility etc.
Remember, this is not spiritual results, but societal results.
And the last statement and their perception of the blessing God gave Abraham is
where the text says:
"I will bless those who bless you, and curse those who curse you, and through you, will be
blessed all the families of the earth." (Genesis 12:3)
The Jewish interpretation of this verse is that, ―God is saying here to Abraham that he
and his descendants—the Jews—will be under God's protection. The empires, nations and
peoples that are good to the Jews will do well. Empires, nations and peoples that are bad to
the Jews will do poorly. And the whole world is going to be changed by the Jewish people.‖
The application by Jewish historians is to land, and to nation, and literal.
We are asked to believe that one can literally chart the rise and fall of virtually all the
civilizations in the western world and the Middle East, Spain, Germany, Poland, America or
Turkey etc, by how they treated the Jews. Ironically, most nations have treated the Jews both
benevolently and malevolently. It is an oft repeated pattern that the Jews are first invited into
a country and then later persecuted and expelled from the same country.
Part of this phenomenon is not so supernatural, because if you have a group of people
living within your country—an educated, driven, dedicated, loyal, creative, well-connected
people—and you're nice to them and you allow them to participate and contribute in a
meaningful way, your country is going to benefit. If you crush those people and expel them,
you're going to suffer, because of the economic fallout. But, of course, there's much more
going on than just that. In the words of Thomas Newton (1704-1782), the Bishop of Bristol:
The preservation of the Jews is really one of the most signal and illustrious acts of
Divine Providence...and what but a supernatural power could have preserved them in such a
manner as none other nation upon earth hath been preserved. Nor is the providence of God
less remarkable in the destruction of their enemies, than in their preservation... Allan Gould,
ed. What Did They Think of the Jews? (Northvale, New Jersey :Jason Aronson Inc..1997),
So we have a final pattern—the rise and fall of nations and empires is going to be
based on how they treat the descendents of Abraham, the Jews, which is an amazing idea,
and one many believe can be clearly demonstrate in human history. This is the Jewish
viewpoint. We must ask, and keep asking in this study, ―which people are the descendents of
and recipients of God‘s blessings of Abraham?‖
When God asks Abraham to leave the land of his birth He gives the instructions in a
curious order. First He tells him to leave his country, then his city, then his family's home.
Normally when one is leaving the order is reversed—you leave your home, then your city,
and then your country. This tells us that when re-examining our values, it's easiest to begin
with the values of our country, for it has the least impact on us as compared to our
community, or our home. The order is not geographical, but personal. What we believe in,
what we stand for, and what we are living for should be well thought out, not dependent on
where we happen to reside or what is in fashion.
Abraham is a fascinating individual. As we study about him through the eyes of
divergent views we must look for truth if we also want to partake of the promise God made
to Abraham. Next week, we will start with some of the stories of Abraham‘s youth as told in
the Jewish Mishna, a history written by Rabbis in the second century A.D.