Jacob in the Bible and Abraham in the Qur’an

A question that might occur to the reader of the Hebrew Bible is why exactly Jacob, who becomes the namesake of the nation of Israel and father of the twelve tribes, is portrayed in such a negative light — scheming, manipulative, always striving for advantage. My dear friend Bruce Rosenstock, who sadly passed away recently, once gave what must be the right answer: somebody has to want it. Every other character in Genesis simply hears and obeys, but Jacob alone actively seeks out the blessing. The fact that he does so in morally questionable ways only reinforces the point.

Teaching my class on the Qur’an, I was recently thinking related thoughts about the figure of Abraham. This is not to say that the Qur’an portrays Abraham as morally ambiguous — that would be completely contrary to the theological goals of its appropriation of the biblical heritage. Instead, Abraham seems to be portrayed as a kind of meeting place between reason and revelation. He doesn’t fight and scheme to get God’s blessing, but he does “independently” want it, because he reasons his way to it before God explicitly reveals himself.

In the Bible, Abraham simply receives the commandment to leave his family and country and obeys. The Qur’an gives us many more episodes (reminiscent of rabbinic traditions in some cases) from Abraham’s youth and his conflicts with his family’s idol-worshipping ways. One key episode is found in Sura 6 (Livestock):

Remember when Abraham said to his father, Azar, “How can you take idols as gods? I see that you and your people have clearly gone astray.” In this way We showed Abraham [God’s] mighty dominion over the heavens and the earth, so that he might be a firm believer. When the night grew dark over him he saw a star and said, “This is my Lord,” but when it set, he said, “I do not like things that set.” And when he saw the moon rising he said, “This is my Lord,” but when it set, he said, “If my Lord does not guide me, I shall be one of those who go astray.” Then he saw the sun rising and cried, “This is my Lord! This is greater.” But when the sun set, he said, “My people, I disown all that you worship beside God. I have turned my face as a true believer towards Him who created the heavens and the earth. I am not one of the polytheists.” (Qur’an 6:74-79, Haleem trans.)

This is a systematic, almost “scientific” investigation — Abraham turns to successively greater heavenly bodies, eliminating each in turn as limited and concluding (albeit with a bit of a logical leap from our perspective) that there must be something even bigger beyond them all. Here I detect a distant echo of this sequence in another text I frequently teach, ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzan, where the study of astronomy becomes a crucial step in the title character’s journey to God.

Abraham’s logical bent is also seen in a story from 21:51-70, wherein he smashes idols and claims that the gods were fighting among themselves — forcing the idolaters to admit that idols can neither act nor speak. But the most crucial moment is in the Qur’an’s reworking of the sacrifice of Isaac– which may in this case be the sacrifice of Ishmael, the legendary ancestor of the Arabs:

When the boy was old enough to work with his father, Abraham said, “My son, I have seen myself sacrificing you in a dream. What do you think?” He said, “Father, do as you are commanded and, God willing, you will find me steadfast. When they had both submitted to God, and he had laid his son down on the side of his face, We called out to him, “Abraham, you have fulfilled the dream.” This is how We reward those who do good—it was a test to prove [their true characters]—We ransomed his son with a momentous sacrifice, and We let him be praised by succeeding generations. (37:102-109, Haleem trans.)

Crucial here is the fact that his unnamed son is an adult and that the two reason through the revelation together before concluding it must be real and agreeing to follow through with it. I can’t help but think of the hadith stories about Muhammad’s much less measured early reactions to his revelations — which were much less distressing than an apparent commandment to sacrifice one’s own son! — and the way that his wife Khadija had to “talk him down” from his fears that they may have been poetic inspirations from demons rather than authentic divine messages.

Qur’anic storytelling is remarkably spare in its use of details, so the fact that any distinctive character trait of Abraham clearly emerges from the stories is a strong signal. In this case, the reasonableness of Abraham fits well with another important feature of Abraham in the Qur’an’s rhetorical economy — the fact that, in an unexpected echo of Paul’s arguments in Galatians and Romans — Sura 2 (The Cow) repeatedly tries to find a way “back behind” the historical revelations of Judaism and Christianity to reconnect with the foundational religion of Abraham. And you can tell this religion is foundational because it is so simple, so reasonable, so free of the accretions of spurious laws, morally ambiguous stories, and challenges to monotheism that mark Islam’s predecessors. Believe in God and the last day, say the prayers, give to the poor — you could almost reason your way to that on your own!

But in another turn of the screw, Abraham also becomes the foundation of Islamic particularism, because the same sura presents Abraham and Ishmael as the builders of the shrine in Mecca. Hence his destruction of his father’s idols becomes a prefiguration of the cleansing of that shrine, which becomes the crowning achievement of Muhammad’s career as a prophet. This is where Abraham and Muhammad cannot finally follow Hayy ibn Yaqzan. The monotheistic demand, despite its universal claim on human reason, is always already embedded in a particular history — and that history is always one of failure and betrayal, which the supposed reasonableness and self-evidence of the revelation only serves to throw into starker relief.

3 thoughts on “Jacob in the Bible and Abraham in the Qur’an

  1. The spectre of child sacrifice haunts Genesis, and not simply in the denouement of the Akedah. I guess one reading – using the theological goals of the Qu’ran (and its appropriation of the biblical heritage) that could logically ‘cut through’ biblical strata- is that Jacob’s (and indeed Sarah and Rebecca’s) behaviour only makes sense in the context of state-sponsored rituals of child sacrifice of the first born. Ishamel – banished (and saved) ultimately by a cynical Sarah, Esau – no longer recognized as the first born -(thus saved by a canny Jacob), Reuben’s birthright as a postscript, is transferred to Joseph – though it is the latter who is sacrificed and saved by being sold into slavery into Egypt (interestingly and ironically by Ishmaelites).

    ‘Birthright’ therefore seems to hold a dubious honour in the mileu.

    It’s not suprise us that Abimelek appears directly after the story of Ishamel, with Abraham complaining about the well of water that Abimelek’s servants had seized (recall, Ishmael is saved by a well). Taken together, what are these stories about? It’s a question.

    Genesis is deeply coded – it’s there in the names of Nahor and Reumah’s sons – Re’umah – “see what”; Tevah -”slaughtered”; Gaham – “burning’, Tahash – “skin” , Ma‘akah – “crushed” or in the rabbinic gloss Re’umah “see what”, ”Tebah – ”they slaughter”, Gaham -”they burn”, Tahash – ” they silence”, Maacah – ”they crush”.

    It’s there in the name of Isaac’s wells, where shortly after Abimelek again appears.

    Contrast the Wife–sister narratives with the servants journey to Aram Naharaim, (indeed with the treatment of guests in Sodom and Gomorrah) and your left with the impression of Canaanite society as bunch of child burning rapists. These stories are displaying the tension, against the grain even of themselves, of navigating that society.

    It seems to me, my contention even, when stories are purposefully overwrought and don’t make sense (like Isaac/Ishmael and Esau/Jacob) that it is indicative of something else.

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