Principal Crisis, Call, and Leadership in the Abrahamic Traditions
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Crisis, Call, and Leadership in the Abrahamic Traditions

Over three years of study and fellowship, sixteen Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scholars sought to answer one question: “Do our three scriptures unite or divide us?” They offer their answers in this book: sixteen essays on how certain ways of reading scripture may draw us apart and other ways may draw us, together, into the source that each tradition calls peace. Reading scriptural sources in the classical and medieval traditions, the authors examine how each tradition addresses the “other” within its tradition and without, how all three traditions attend to poverty as a societal and spiritual condition, and what it means to read scripture while facing the challenges of modernity. Ochs and Johnson have assembled a unique approach to inter-religious scholarship and a rare look at scriptural study as a pathway to peace.
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Crisis, Call, and Leadership in
the Abrahamic Traditions

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Crisis, Call, and Leadership in
the Abrahamic Traditions
Edited by
Peter Ochs
William Stacy Johnson


Copyright © Peter Ochs and William Stacy Johnson, 2009.
All rights reserved.
First published in 2009 by
in the United States—a division of St. Martin’s Press LLC,
175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010.
Where this book is distributed in the UK, Europe and the rest of the world,
this is by Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited,
registered in England, company number 785998, of Houndmills,
Basingstoke, Hampshire RG21 6XS.
Palgrave Macmillan is the global academic imprint of the above companies and
has companies and representatives throughout the world.
Palgrave® and Macmillan® are registered trademarks in the United States,
the United Kingdom, Europe and other countries.
ISBN: 978–0–230–61825–1
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Crisis, call, and leadership in the Abrahamic traditions / edited by
Peter Ochs and Stacy Johnson.
p. cm.
Includes bibliographical references and index.
ISBN 0-230-61825-1 (alk. paper)
1. Abrahamic religions. 2. Christianity and other religions.
3. Religions—Relations. 4. Abraham (Biblical patriarch) 5. Bible.
O.T.—Criticism, interpretation, etc. I. Ochs, Peter, 1950–
II. Johnson, William Stacy.
BR127.C74 2009


A catalogue record of the book is available from the British Library.
Design by Newgen Imaging Systems (P) Ltd., Chennai, India.
First edition: November 2009
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Printed in the United States of America.

This book is written in loving memory of Michael A. Signer
who taught us to read the plain sense with the interpreted sense, the ancestors’
sense with our generation’s sense, the Jewish sense with the Christian sense
with the Muslim sense, the divine sense with our human sense, the sense of
this world with a sense of the ne; xt

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Introduction: Crisis and the Call to Leadership in
the Abrahamic Traditions
William Stacy Johnson and Peter Ochs

Part I

Communal Identity and the Other

Introduction: The Other Within and the Other Without
William Stacy Johnson

The Sign of Jonah: A Christian Perspective on
the Relation of the Abrahamic Faiths
R. Kendall Soulen

Three Hagar and Esau: From Others to Sisters and Brothers
Steven Kepnes






Qur’an and the Image of the “Other”: The Good,
the Bad, the Ugly
Mehdi Aminrazavi


“These Are the Generations”: Reasoning with
Rabbi Samuel ben Meier
Michael A. Signer


Three Voices, One Response: Here I Am: A Reformed
Christian Perspective on Abraham’s Dilemma
William Stacy Johnson


Part II

Spirituality and Social Responsibility:
Poverty and Charity

Introduction: The Cry of the Poor
Kevin L. Hughes







The Poor Are Always with You
Kevin L. Hughes
Hearing the Cry of the Poor
Aryeh Cohen
The Tests of Poverty: Qur’anic Perspectives
Timothy J. Gianotti
In the Bosom of Abraham: Saint Bonaventure,
Lazarus, and the Houses of Hospitality
Ann W. Astell
Charity and the Good Life: On Islamic
Prophetic Ethics
Mohammad Azadpur
Lawe, loue, and lewete: The Kenotic Vision of
Traditional Christian Political Theology
R.R. Reno

Part III





Abrahamic Traditions and Modernity

Introduction: The Scriptural Traditions and
Modernity: The Unhappy Relations between
Traditions and Modern Historical Consciousness
Maria Massi Dakake
Thirteen Human Contention and Divine Argument:
Faith and Truth in the Qur’anic Story of Abraham
Maria Massi Dakake
Fourteen Abraham in the Image of Job: A Model for
Postcritical Readings of Scripture
Elizabeth Shanks Alexander
Moses and the Mountain of Knowledge
Robert W. Jenson
Moses in the Sea: Reading Scripture as
Liturgical Performance
Peter Ochs
Seventeen Transfigured Exegesis
C. Clifton Black










Index of Scriptural Sources and Commentaries


Index of Modern Authors


Subject Index


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Introduction: Crisis and the Call to
Leadership in the Abrahamic Traditions
Wi lli am Stac y Johnson and Pete r O ch s

All people were a single community, so Allah raised prophets as
bearers of good news and warners and He revealed to them the
Book with Truth that it might judge between people in that in
which they differed.
(Qur’an 2:213)
Verily, Abraham himself was like a community who believed in
the true Allah and was not one of the idolaters.
(Qur’an 16:120)
These verses from the Qur’an capture the energy and hope of this book:
to celebrate each of the three Abrahamic traditions and to examine
their capacity for mutually enriching dialogue. Each of these traditions
has placed great responsibility on specially endowed leaders—prophets,
priests, imams, pastors, rabbis—who are charged with leading the community into paths of righteousness and peace. Leaders of this sort do
not arise in isolation. On the one hand, they draw spiritual life from
the vitality and vision of their own communities. On the other hand,
Jewish, Christian, and Muslim leaders in today’s world also need the
vitality and vision that can be sparked by dialogue with one another.
Finding a hospitable space for productive dialogue is not so simple in
the world we currently inhabit. We are living in a time of crisis. In many
parts of the world, Jews, Christians, and Muslims dwell in profound


William Stacy Johnson and Peter Ochs

tension with one another. As we know, these tensions sometimes break
out into violence. Such hostilities are never purely religious in origin
but are fueled by historical injustices, geopolitical disruptions, economic
dislocations, and other complex situational factors. Nonetheless, the
power of religion may add volatile fuel to already smouldering embers.
As British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has wisely noted, religion “is a fire—
and like fire, it warms but it also burns. . . . Religious leaders must take
responsibility for being ‘guardians of the f lame.’ ”1
But how are religious leaders to exercise this responsibility in
today’s world? How, in particular, are Jewish, Christian, and Muslim
leaders to engage one another in a time of such crisis? The authors
of this book—Muslim, Jewish, and Christian scholars of scriptural
commentary—joined together to respond to some aspects of this question. They agreed that each Abrahamic tradition turns to its scriptures
to seek out the “fire” that warms them. They also agreed that each
fire can burn as well as warm, and they decided to make this the
theme of their three-year project of study: to see if and how their
three scriptural traditions offer both the warmth of faith in God and
also protection against faith’s burning fire. The authors agreed to work
within the limits of their disciplines of study—scripture, interpretation, and commentary—while also stretching beyond these limits,
at times, to entertain broad questions like these: Was there a basis
for popular claims in the Western media that, at bottom, the three
scriptures nurtured three conf licting paths of devotion, so the more
piously a community observed its scriptural faith, the more intolerant
it would become toward all other faiths? Did the three scriptures have
to be “tamed,” therefore, by translating their separate claims into the
universal terms of modern Western reason and ethics? Or, to the contrary, does each scripture offer its wisdoms in terms that could never
be translated, so that peace is best achieved among the Abrahamic religions by providing each one its separate place: a peace of tolerance and
distance, maintained by the separation of each church and each state?
To address these questions fairly, the authors agreed they had to
avoid two customary approaches to scriptural study. On the one hand,
they could not presume that the modern academy defined the only
path for interreligious study. If they did, they would have answered
the first set of questions before their study even began: assuming that
modern Western reason, alone, provided a basis for peaceful study
across the borders of the three traditions. On the other hand, they
could not presume that each scriptural tradition defined strictly separate methods for studying its founding canon. If they did, they would
already have answered the second set of questions: assuming, before



they began their project, that these traditions can be studied only separately and in separate terms. But what other approach could they take
than these two?
The authors decided to take up and reframe a practice of interAbrahamic study called scriptural reasoning.2 This practice gathers
Muslims, Christians, and Jews who are devoted to their own traditions
of learning and practice but who are also graced with fellow-feeling
and eager to engage in dialogue with members of the other traditions.
This model offers an alternative to the dominant way of dealing with
religious differences in the West since the Enlightenment. According
to the Enlightenment model, the primary way to reduce conf lict is to
eliminate or suppress religious difference. This has been sought either
through the secularization of religious elites or through the assimilation of any two of the Abrahamic religions to the cultural and political
hegemony of the other one. In scriptural reasoning, by contrast, the
accent is on interpretive hospitality. Participants from all three traditions
read, struggle over, challenge, and interpret texts from their own and
the others’ traditions with a sense of openness and mutuality. There
may arise argument, to be sure—debate, discussion, questioning—
but this takes place in a spirit of mutual respect and of wonder—and,
throughout, of love for God’s word as embodied in our respective
scriptures. Previous scholarly groups have applied scriptural reasoning
to the study of the scriptural canons by themselves. The authors of this
book decided both to replicate such study and to add something new:
studying medieval scriptural commentaries in the spirit of scriptural
reasoning. In this way, the group could examine the “fire” of religious
faith within the terms of each commentary tradition as well as from
the group’s own readings and debates about the primary scriptural
The Study Plan
The group’s three years of dialogue were hosted, graciously and courageously, by the Center of Theological Inquiry (CTI) in Princeton,
New Jersey. We are grateful to William Storrar and Wallace Alston,
the current and former directors of CTI respectively, for funding the
project. As a center for Christian theological studies, CTI had never
before sponsored a fellowship of Muslim-Jewish-Christian study. Like
previous research groups hosted by CTI, this one engaged scholars
twice a year for intense and lively sessions of study undertaken both for
their own sake and for the sake of writing a collected work that would


William Stacy Johnson and Peter Ochs

share the group’s insights with a broader reading community. Unlike
previous groups, however, this one began each week of work (three to
four days) with an initial day and a half of scriptural text study. The rest
of each week was devoted to medieval commentaries on each scriptural
The use of medieval commentaries was emphasized for two reasons.
First, the scriptural traditions have been mediated to us through a tradition of interpretation. In reading these sacred texts, it is illuminating
to peer over the shoulders of the master interpreters who have preceded us. Second, the group recognized that the potential for profound
religious dialogue had already been introduced and tested in the late
medieval period in Muslim Spain and in several later contexts of scholarly exchange in late medieval France and Italy. In medieval Spain, for
example, a society arose in which a certain measure of tolerance was
practiced. Arab and Berber Muslims conquered the Iberian Peninsula
in 711, a conquest that spelled defeat for Christians, but deliverance
for Jews. Yet out of this conquest emerged something positive for
everyone—at least for a time. The Muslim policy of openness toward
the People of the Book, the dhimmi, meant that Jews, Christians, and
Muslims studied one another’s sacred texts and imbibed one another’s
cultures. Eventually, the texts of Aristotle, which had been preserved
in Arabic, were reintroduced to the West. An age of unprecedented
interaction was born that f lowed over into Christian regions of Spain
as well.
Of course, this achievement of toleration fell well short of full acceptance. The cities of this region remained divided into Jewish, Christian,
and Muslim quarters. As the political landscape changed—including
the preaching of the first Crusade—accommodation for the dhimmi
eventually would be revoked, and non-Muslims would be forced to
assent to Muslim ways. Although it took eight centuries to accomplish, Christians eventually reconquered Spain. In 1492 the last Muslim
stronghold surrendered, and in the same year the Jews were brutally
expelled from Spain.
This experience, and many others like it, reminds us that while toleration is a great achievement, it is not enough. A grudging tolerance
is something far less than the true openness and welcome to which we
are called by the highest and best of our scriptural traditions. As easily
as toleration can be extended, it can also be revoked. So then, how do
Jews, Christians, and Muslims find the grace to move beyond mere toleration and somehow to welcome one another with open arms? After
all, if God is sovereign, as the Abrahamic religions all assert, then we



must see in one another’s existence something that God has ordained.
A famous passage from the Qur’an makes this clear:
We have ordained a law and assigned a path to each of you. Had
God pleased, He could have made you one nation, but it is His
wish to prove you by that which He has bestowed upon you. Vie,
then, with each other in good works, for to God you shall all be
returned, and He shall declare to you what you have disagreed
about. (Surah 5:48)
An Experiment in Hospitality
What would it look like, then, for Jews, Christians, and Muslims to outdo
one another in extending hospitality? The group decided to engage in
an experiment in such hospitality, paying special attention to the religious situation of the medieval period.
Each week of work began with formational study: sustained periods
of unfettered discussion of a few verses from each of the three scriptural canons. Before each meeting, each participant was responsible
for preparing larger portions of scripture, reading for the plain sense as
well as examining text-historical studies and traditional commentaries. After hearing an introduction to each selection by an appropriate
text scholar, participants then broke into small groups of three to six
scholars (comprised ideally of at least one member from each tradition)
for hours of close textual study and dialogue. This study would be
interspersed with one or two plenary sessions: occasions to discuss texts
that proved particularly challenging and themes that proved particularly compelling. The group considered this initial work “formational”
because it shaped the kind of fellowship that would unfold the rest of
the week: how participants heard the plain sense of each scriptural text;
how they experienced interrelations among the texts; how they spoke
and listened to one another; and how they began to reason together.
Participants also introduced new passages that might illuminate the
group’s initial readings. Significant medieval commentators from the
past were also invoked to enhance the group’s appreciation of the text.
Over time, this collection of very different scholars became transformed into a community of care and of inquiry: directing its energies,
at once, to friendship, to careful study of scriptures and commentaries,
and to discovering the unexpected kinds of dialogue that emerge both
within and across the borders of each religious tradition.


William Stacy Johnson and Peter Ochs

The importance of friendship cannot be overemphasized. Participants
discovered ways in which the scriptural traditions called them to fellowship as a dimension of study itself. They were instructed, for example, by the rabbinic tradition of chevruta, or “fellowships of study,” in
which the scripture and commentary texts were discussed back-andforth by study partners.3 Here the texts functioned like cookbooks
that we could not fully understand until we “cooked” with them—at
least on the limited “stove” that was available to the participants: the
stove of a table, with chairs seated around it, and small selections of
each scriptural canon placed on top. The “cooking” included textual
and historical analyses, plain sense study, comparative text reading and
examination, several levels of interpretive activity, and the various
rounds of argument, debate, storytelling, song, and play that rose up
out of hours of reading and interpretation.
To take another example, participants were instructed by the medieval Church traditions of lectio divina: giving voice to images that the
scriptural texts brought to mind, and thereby, sharing personal religious ref lections alongside more academic analyses of the texts’ rhetorical forms and semantic force. The group was inspired, in this way,
by the Qur’anic portrayal of God as a friend of Abraham (Q.4:125 “For
God did take Abraham for a friend”). Participants sought to discover
ways that scriptural study opened them, at once, to friendship with the
God of Abraham and with each other who sat together bearing witness
to God’s word. They were also inspired by each tradition’s witness to
joy within God’s creation: “Raise a shout to the Lord of all the earth;
worship the Lord in gladness; come into his presence with shouts of
joy” (Ps. 100). Joy bubbled up in study and also around it. The participants’ study was often punctuated with laughter and, in the evenings
after study, they were wont to play; there was guitar playing and song
and word games and more laughter. Throughout, however, they were
also driven by the sense of crisis that brought them together; and they
were instructed by each scripture’s traditions about how to respond to
crisis. These were instructions to turn toward the crisis; to observe it;
to study scripture in order to understand how to respond; to hear, to
examine, to discuss, and to act.
Tradition and Modernity
Shaped by this formational study of scripture, the group turned to its
focal work: re-examining medieval scriptural commentaries in light of



today’s crisis of relations among the three Abrahamic traditions of faith.
A year of preliminary study led the group to these working hypotheses:
(1) That the crisis we observe is specific to modernity: that is, to the
way that the three Abrahamic traditions interrelate in the context of
their relations to modern Western civilization; (2) That we therefore
have two crises to consider: the crisis of modernity (the troubled relation of each tradition to modern civilization) and the crisis of traditions
(troubled relations among the traditions); (3) That these two crises are
intimately related. In modern times, each tradition tends to adopt modern models of clarity, defining its identity more clearly and sharply than
it did in premodern times. As a result, each tradition tends to define
its “borders” more sharply and thus its differences from whatever lies
outside its borders; (4) That these sharper differences also appear within
each tradition as differences between true “insiders” and others. There
are thus “others within” and “others without.”
After a year of study, the group organized itself into three smaller
fellowships, generating the three sections of this book. Each fellowship
continued to focus on inter-Abrahamic study. Nonetheless, all participants agreed that each essay in this collection should be composed out
of its author’s individual faith tradition. The participants agreed that
scriptural reasoning is dialogue from out of the three scriptural traditions, rather than any amalgam. The group’s model of peace is dialogue
among different voices and traditions, not a loss of individual voice.
Its model of scholarship is not to replace the many with one, but to
provide a context of sustained fellowship within which the many may
be transformed from mere multiplicity to many-in-relationship. The
essays therefore display a dialogue—sometimes explicit, at other times
implicit—between the scholars’ modern text scholarship and this new
voice of inter-Abrahamic scriptural reasoning. Many of the essays are
preceded by a short statement of how the group’s ongoing interaction
and dialogue shaped the work of the author.
The participants hope that this dialogue may itself be a healing
response to the crisis that has given rise to this book: a living illustration of how Muslim, Christian, Jewish, and modern academic thinkers
can read and reason together in harmony rather than in conf lict. They
hope, secondly, that the contents of these essays open a broader window
into the classical sources of these three traditions and that through this
window readers will see that these same sources may give rise to peace
as well as provide distinct identities for each of the three communities. They hope, thirdly, that readers may see through this “window”
another model for inter-Abrahamic peace. This is not the model of


William Stacy Johnson and Peter Ochs

mere “agreement”: there is no “shared declaration of belief ” to offer.
It is, instead, a model of shared space on which Jews, Muslims, and
Christians inspired by the word of God may share, discuss, and debate
their inspirations in the spirit of fellowship and love that each sacred
text demands.
Here is an overview of the themes and goals of each of the three
parts of this book. Part I, “Communal Identity and the Other” opens
with a set of ref lections offering a gateway to our study as a whole. Its
essays examine each tradition’s sense of its own identity in relation to
the “other”—both the “other within” and the “other without.” Part II,
“Spirituality and Social Responsibility: Poverty and Charity” moves
beyond the broad question of identity to explore how the three traditions treat the concrete social issue of poverty. Its goal is not to compare
the traditions but to illustrate the various ways in which each tradition
integrates questions of the spirit with questions of earthly life. Part III,
“Abrahamic Traditions and Modernity” addresses the crisis of traditions
and modernity that underlies the group’s project as a whole. Its essays
ask: What kind of historical consciousness has entered each of these
traditions as a result of their encounter with the modern West? Is there
a way to honor both history and tradition in the study of scripture?
In sum, the most significant findings of the authors’ three years of fellowship are that the three scriptures, indeed, offer resources for peace as
well as occasions for potential conf lict and that to examine the sources
of peace is at the same time to join the practices of peace these sources
inspire. Within the realm of scriptural scholarship, this is the practice of
face-to-face study and fellowship. Readers inspired by this book’s goal
may conclude that the best way to read it is also face-to-face study and
fellowship across the borders of different text traditions.
1. Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference, (London: Continuum Publishers, 2003) 11.
2. The Society for Scriptural Reasoning was established in 1994 to promote shared scriptural
study among Muslim, Jewish, and Christian readers of the three scriptural traditions. See the
Journal of Scriptural Reasoning ( and its Forum
3. See, for example, Steven Fraade, “ ‘The Kisses of His Mouth’: Intimacy and Intermediacy as
Performative Aspects of a Midrash Commentary,” in P. Ochs and N. Levene, eds., Textual
Reasonings: Jewish Philosophy and Text Study at the End of the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids:
Eerdmans, 2002), 52–56.



Communal Identity and the Other

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Introduction: The Other Within and
the Other Without
Wi l l i am Stac y Joh n s on

Recent critiques of monotheism have alleged that maintaining allegiance to the one God can become an obsession that leads to problems;
specifically it can lead—so the argument goes—to the desire to enforce
conformity and eliminate all diversity. More specifically, the charge is
that monotheism leads to the subjugation of the “other.” Yet what if the
God to whom one is bound in monotheistic faith turns out to be the
champion of the stranger, the alien, and the sojourner? Isn’t it the case
that allegiance to this God would require one to live a life of hospitality
and welcome?
The six essays in Part I show that the relationship of the Abrahamic
religions to each other is quite complex. The first two, by Kendall
Soulen and Steven Kepnes, concentrate on ways of viewing the other
outside of one’s own tradition. In “The Sign of Jonah: A Christian
Perspective on the Relation of the Abrahamic Faiths,” Kendall Soulen
rereads the story of Jonah in a way that makes it an invitation to adopt
caring relations as an ethical norm among all three Abrahamic faiths.
Soulen begins with the shrewd observation that the particularities of
the Abrahamic faiths call into question any monolithic approach to
their subject matter. Instead, what must emerge is “a Jewish theology
of Judaism in relation to Christianity and Islam, a Christian theology of
Christianity in relation to Judaism and Islam, a Muslim theology of
Islam in relation to Judaism and Christianity.” This complex and ongoing trialogue, he insists, resists any premature conclusions about the
meaning of Abrahamic monotheism—either by the Abrahamic religions themselves or their critics. Soulen then offers a Christian account


William Stacy Johnson

of the three sibling faiths through a typological exploration of the prophetic book of Jonah. Three sets of characters (the sailors, the Ninevites,
and Jonah himself ) provide three different ways of being converted to
the God of Israel, and these three ways correspond typologically to
Christianity, Islam, and Judaism.
Continuing this focus on the other without, Steven Kepnes in his
essay, “Hagar and Esau: From Others to Sisters and Brothers,” rereads
the biblical stories of Hagar and Esau. In postbiblical traditions, Hagar
and her son Ishmael have long been identified with Islam. Kepnes points
out that through the special status in Hebrew scripture of Hagar and
Ishmael, Islam already has a place within the narrative of Judaism. In
addition, Kepnes sees the story figure of Esau as emblematic of Israel’s
own sense of exclusion from the centers how all three traditions must
deal with one another and with the specter of worldly power. In this
way, he reads the story of Israel as interwoven with the stories of Islam
and Christianity and vise versa.
Mehdi Aminrazavi tackles the broad question of the “other without”
in the Qur’an (“Qur’an and the Image of the ‘Other’: The Good, the
Bad, the Ugly”). Unapologetically, Aminrazavi examines those particular verses in the Qu’ran that exclude the two People of the Book and
other verses that welcome them; in between, he discerns paths of tolerance and paths of conversation.
Michael Signer tackles his own tradition’s tendency to treat the
“other within” as a stranger in her own community. He examines
one conspicuous way in which the practice of scriptural commentary
may overcome a tradition’s rigidity. In “ ‘These Are the Generations’:
Reasoning with Rabbi Samuel ben Meier,” Signer examines the plain
sense commentaries of the medieval scholar Rashi and his grandson,
the Rashbam. The grandson both continues and criticizes his grandfather’s approach to commentary. The grandfather acquiesces, and Signer
sees in that acquiescence a model for how two potentially antagonistic
generations can treat each other with loving respect. The net result is
a view of scriptural interpretation in which new meanings are being
born everyday.
William Stacy Johnson reexamines the Genesis account of the binding of Isaac (“Three Voices, One Response: Here I Am”). He interprets
the text as an unfolding drama in which the “test” of Abraham is not so
much a test of his own human faithfulness but a test of Abraham’s—and
the reader’s—portrait of God. In his view, the pivotal thing about this
text is not that Abraham was willing to kill but that God prevented him
from doing so. Throughout the story, God and human beings appear to

Part I: Introduction


one another as maximally other or strange. As Johnson rereads it, however, the narrative of Abraham discloses a model for overcoming this
distance and turning back to fellowship with the other, both human
and divine.
A common denominator in all of these essays is that taking seriously
the integrity of the other is a vital component of one’s own religious
integrity. The question that Cain raised concerning his brother, Abel—
“Am I my brother’s keeper?”—is answered with a resounding “yes.”

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The Sign of Jonah: A Christian Perspective on
the Relation of the Abrahamic Faiths
R . Ke ndal l S oule n

This essay got its start during a long coffee break, when several of us—Jews,
Christians, and Muslims—got into a lively discussion about the relation of historical
events and theological truth. Mehdi was expressing his puzzlement that Christians
could not agree with him that the most important thing about any religion was its
message, not the messenger who conveyed it. Kevin and I, the Christians in the
group, were fumbling to respond. After a few false starts, I said something to the
effect that the message of love must be embodied, or it is not credible. Mehdi was
clearly unconvinced. “We Muslims know about love, too,” he said.
By the time our conversation ended an hour or so later, we still did not agree
about the relation of history and religious truth. But I remember feeling I understood the differences between Christianity and Islam better than I ever had
before. The idea of using the book of Jonah came to me then. Previously, it had
occurred to me to read it as a kind of allegory of the relationship of Judaism and
Christianity. But the idea that the stories could be extended to include Islam
was new to me. Mehdi helped me see the story’s depiction of the Ninevites in
a completely new light. The Ninevites convert because of the message, not the
messenger. In this respect, the Ninevites conversion is very “Muslim,” and very
different from that of the sailors, for whom dramatic events play a decisive role.
As I drafted and redrafted my essay, it was very important to me that my
Jewish and Muslim colleagues recognize themselves in my portraits of their traditions. Every time I presented the paper, I tried to improve the portraits a little bit
using the feedback I received. Still, I knew that Jews and Muslims would not be
able to endorse everything I said. For example, Maria objected to my suggestion


R. Kendall Soulen

that the king of Nineveh was dependent on Jonah, at least insofar as this implied
Mohammed’s dependence on prior biblical tradition for receiving and communicating the Qur’an. I was grateful to Maria for her objection, because it helped to
clarify where Muslim self-understanding could no longer assent to my parable. In
the end, however, I decided to leave this detail unchanged. Doing so, it seemed
to me, was truer to Jonah. Just as important, it helped preserved the essay’s character as an exercise in Christian theology. Undoubtedly, the experience of doing
Christian theology, while learning from Jews and Muslims doing theology in
their own traditions, was one of the most precious gifts of the three-year project.
The Abrahamic Religions?
Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are frequently spoken of as “Abrahamic religions.” This is certainly justified insofar as each tradition traces its origins back
to Abraham, in one fashion or another. Yet it would be a mistake to think that
Abraham therefore represents a simple common denominator among the three
traditions, a ready point of convergence and common ground, as it were. Each tradition conceives of Abraham in its own image, making the patriarch it remembers
and honors as irreducibly particular as the traditions themselves.1
The distinctiveness of the traditions asserts itself once again when one
considers how each tradition conceives of its relationship to the other
two “Abrahamic” faiths. Recently it has been proposed that the three
religions are all instances of a common type of elective monotheism,
with the consequence that the three religions all employ the same basic
pattern to understand religions other than themselves.2 According to
this view, it would seem that the relation of the three faiths could be
plotted as a sequence of successive supersessions: Judaism purports to
supersede paganism and idolatry, Christianity to supersede Judaism,
and Islam to supersede both Christianity and Judaism. Yet even this
picture remains too simple. For it suggests that the meaning of supersessionism is the same in each instance. It fails to reckon with the fact
that “superseding” may take very different shapes in each instance, and
may not in every instance represent an equally imperative feature of the
tradition’s self-understanding.
In reality, each of the three religions conceives of its relationship to
the other two faiths in ways that are distinctive to it its own character
and scriptural sources. For this reason, there cannot be “An Abrahamic
theology of the Abrahamic faiths,” but only a more complicated reality: a Jewish theology of Judaism in relation to Christianity and Islam,
a Christian theology of Christianity in relation to Judaism and Islam,
a Muslim theology of Islam in relation to Judaism and Christianity.

The Sign of Jonah


In the case of our common enterprise, what unites these three is not a
common perspective, but a common practice of scriptural reasoning.
Nevertheless, it seems safe to bet that a trialogue of this sort is also destined to be a trialogue that will test each tradition’s capacity to make
scriptural and theological sense of the others.
Christianity in Relation to Judaism and Islam
In my essay I would like to sketch a Christian understanding of Christianity’s
relationship to Judaism and Islam. (In the next two essays in this volume, the
relationship of the three traditions will be examined from a Jewish and a Muslim
perspective as well.) Immediately, however, I am faced with a fact that makes this
task especially difficult for a Christian theologian: Christianity relates to the two
other Abrahamic faiths in profoundly asymmetrical ways. The root of this asymmetry is not hard to see. Christianity shares with Judaism a body of sacred scripture; it does not do so with Islam.3 Christian self-understanding is inwardly—if
also to be sure complexly and at times even torturously—linked to Judaism in
a way that has no counterpart in its relationship to Islam. Christians are forced
to reckon with how the Jewish people figure in God’s purposes (cf. Rom. 9–11,
Rev.) in a way that they are not forced to reckon with Islam.
To this first difficulty it is necessary to add another. While Christianity
has developed over time a variety of categories for understanding competing religious movements, Islam does not seem to fit neatly into any
of them. Here are a few such categories and why Islam does not seem
to fit any of them.
Paganism. Islam came into being as a proclamation of the one God
against polytheism, hence it can hardly be classified as an instance of the
kind of religion against which, for example, Isaiah and Paul polemicize.
Heresy. John of Damascus classified Islam along with the rival forms
of Christianity, which Christians considered to be heresies. Eventually,
however, they concluded that Islam was something other than a
heretical distortion of its own teaching.
Preparatio evangelica (Preparation for the gospel). Christians have
sometimes used this concept to accord some religious ideas a limited if
subordinate and passing validity with the economy of salvation. Yet
Islam emerged too late in history and too near Christian heartland to
be grouped with archaic religions that may have been at least partially
adequate in the pre-Christian era.


R. Kendall Soulen

Non-Christian Religion. Vatican II employed this category as the major
heading for its discussion of Christianity in relation to the world faiths,
including Islam. Yet in fact the council’s decision to locate Judaism
under this heading is problematic, since it takes no account of the
uniquely intimate nature of the relation between Christianity and
Judaism. Similarly, there is an important sense in which Islam is not a
“non-Christian” religion in the same way as, for example, Hinduism,
Buddhism. Unlike other non-Christian religions, Islam venerates Jesus
of Nazareth, and indeed accords to him a unique prophetic dignity that
in some respects seems to exceed even that of Mohammed himself.
One might examine other categories, but I suspect the result would be
much the same.
Perhaps, however, this negative result provides a clue for the distinctive shape of a Christian theology of Judaism and Islam. Both Judaism
and Islam exact from Christianity a recognition of their uniqueness
and irreducibility, although in very different ways. Judaism does so by
virtue of being in some sense an integral dimension of Christian faith,
in a way that differentiates it from all other religions, including Islam.
Islam does so as a religion that in its distinctive mix of the familiar and
strange resists interpretation within ready categories of Christian comprehension, whether positive or negative.
Speaking in Parables
So far in my essay I have tried to explain why I find it difficult to think
scripturally about the relationship of Christianity to Judaism and Islam.
Now, I want to propose one way in which I think it may be possible for Christians to do just this: by adopting a typological approach
to the interpretation of scripture. Typology refers to the interpretation of persons, events, and relationships—including those that are
not explicitly mentioned in scripture—in light of their resemblance or
correspondence to persons, events, and relationships that are explicitly
mentioned in scripture. The Christian canon does not address the issue
of the church’s relationship to Judaism and Islam, at least not explicitly.
Nevertheless, it may be possible for a typological approach to scriptural interpretation to illuminate this relationship by exploring how it
resembles or corresponds to other, biblically attested relationships.
For the purposes of this experiment (for that is all I wish to claim for
this essay), I propose turning to the book of Jonah. Jonah is a natural
and instructive choice for several reasons.

The Sign of Jonah


In the scriptures of Judaism, the book of Jonah is found among the
prophets, a location fully warranted by many features of the book,
most notably perhaps its opening line, “Now the word of the LORD
came to Jonah son of Amittai, saying, “Go at once to Nineveh . . . ”
(1:1). In literary terms, however, the book is perhaps the canon’s purest
example of an extended parable. The story invites the reader to understand it not only as the account of one wayward prophet’s misadventures but as a riddle/satire/commentary on Israel’s vocation as God’s
people in the midst of the nations. The simple but enigmatic plot raises
themes of enduring relevance, such as the relation of divine judgment
and mercy, of insiders and outsiders, of repentance and obedience, and
more. Yet to tap that relevance the story must be unriddled time and
again and connected to new circumstances and problems. Typological
interpretation is not the only way to do this, but it is, I believe, one
legitimate way.
In the New Testament, the Gospels record that Jesus used typological interpretation to apply the story of Jonah to himself and his ministry. Some of the priests and Pharisees, we read, demanded that Jesus
perform a miracle in order to prove that he was acting with divine
authority. In response to their demand, Jesus replied to them:
An evil and adulterous generation asks for a sign, but no sign will
be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as
Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so for three days and three nights the Son of Man will be
in the heart of the earth. The people of Nineveh will rise up at
the judgment with this generation and condemn it, because they
repented at the proclamation of Jonah, and see, something greater
than Jonah is here! (Matt. 12:39–42, NRSV)
The saying illustrates a general feature of typological interpretation. A
correspondence is drawn between selected details of the scriptural story
( Jonah, the whale, and the repentance of the Ninevites) and contemporary reality ( Jesus, his death and resurrection, and “this generation”),
with the result that the two sets of affairs are now understood in light of
each other. At the same time, the saying illustrates something distinctive about Christian typological interpretation. In this example, Jesus
does not treat the ancient canonical story as the “greater” or weightier
pole of the interpretive relationship, as one might expect, but rather
the reverse. Jesus presents himself, in all his novelty and immediacy, as
the greater thing the story of Jonah foreshadows. In this Jesus sets the


R. Kendall Soulen

pattern for all subsequent Christian interpretation. In time, of course,
Christians come to regard this story and other early witnesses to Jesus as
sacred writings on par with the Hebrew Bible, which thereby becomes
the church’s Old Testament in relation to the New. Once this has happened, however, Christians do not then repeat the process by turning
to contemporary events to discover still greater realities in relationship
to which Jesus Christ becomes one more type alongside Jonah and
the rest. Rather, they continue to ascribe to Jesus Christ a unique and
unsurpassable role as the center of all typological interpretation. Jesus
is for Christians not only King of Kings, but Clue of Clues. He is the
bearer of signification whose inconceivable density allows every other
state of affairs to come alive as types that bear intelligible witness to
On this Christological foundation, Christians cultivated the art of
typological interpretation up until the modern era, not least with reference to the figure of Jonah. A first example comes from St. Irenaeus
(c. 120–200).
[God] patiently suffered Jonah to be swallowed by the whale, not
that he should be swallowed up and perish altogether, but that,
having been cast out again, he might be the more subject to God,
and might glorify Him the more who had conferred upon him
such an unhoped-for deliverance. . . . [S]o also, from the beginning, did God permit man to be swallowed up by the great whale,
who was the author of transgression, not that he should perish
altogether when so engulphed; but, arranging and preparing the
plan of salvation, which was accomplished by the Word, through
the sign of Jonah, . . . [so] that man, receiving an unhoped-for salvation from God, might rise from the dead, and glorify God, and
repeat that word which was uttered in prophecy by Jonah: “I cried
by reason of mine aff liction to the Lord my God, and He heard
me out of the belly of hell.”4
With simple bold strokes, Irenaeus draws a correspondence between
God’s conduct toward Jonah and God’s conduct toward all humankind
from creation to consummation. Just as God permitted Jonah’s woes
in order to bring him by way of “unhoped-for deliverance” to the glorification of God, so also God has permitted humankind’s. The consummate mastery of Irenaeus’s art is visible in how he combines literary
invention (e.g., Jonah = humankind) with fidelity to both the details
and the deep patterns of scripture.

The Sign of Jonah


A second example comes from St. Augustine of Hippo.
As to Jonah’s building for himself a booth, and sitting down over
against Nineveh, waiting to see what would befall the city, the
prophet was here in his own person the symbol of another fact.
He prefigured the carnal people of Israel. For he also was grieved
at the salvation of the Ninevites, that is, at the redemption and
deliverance of the Gentiles, from among whom Christ came to
call, not righteous men, but sinners to repentance.5
Augustine goes on to offer a detailed interpretation of the vine that
grows up to shelter Jonah, only to be stricken by worm and die. The
vine represents the earthly privileges that God gave to the Jewish nation
during the Old Testament dispensation. The worm that devours the
vine is Christ. With his mouth Christ openly proclaims the gospel that
was formerly foreshadowed by Israel’s earthly benefits, but by doing so
he causes these benefits to lose their significance and wither away. The
Jewish nation is deprived of its former glories and cast into dispersion
and captivity, so that she, like Jonah, has nothing to shelter it from the
“grievous heat of tribulation.” Augustine concludes with a final typological gloss on the last verses of the book. “Nevertheless, the salvation
of the Gentiles and of the penitent is of more importance in the sight
of God than this sorrow of Israel and the ‘shadow’ of which the Jewish
nation was so glad.”
Augustine’s interpretation is brilliant and troubling. He proves
beyond a doubt that typological interpretation, harnessed to the book
of Jonah, provides Christians with an uncommonly powerful tool for
making Christian sense of religious outsiders, in this case, Jews. But he
also illustrates the dangers that come with that power. A book written
to teach Jews that God is merciful to Gentiles becomes by the power
of typology a book that teaches Gentiles that God has abandoned the
Jews! A Christian theologian writing today may well wish to learn
from Augustine’s skill as a typologist without accepting his belief that
Christ’s coming makes God’s covenant with the Jews obsolete and
God’s faithfulness toward them as a people null and void. He or she
may take comfort from the fact that Augustine, with typical modesty,
does not insist upon his own interpretation. He goes on to write:
Any one is at liberty to open up with a different interpretation all
the other particulars which are hidden in the symbolical history of
the prophet Jonah, if only it be in harmony with the rule of faith.6


R. Kendall Soulen

To that task I now turn.
Jonah and Three Vectors of Conversion to
the God of Abraham
Despite its brevity, the book of Jonah is a marvel of literary and theological intricacy. Like other prophetic texts, the book is concerned with
the meaning of conversion to the God of Abraham. But Jonah may be
distinctive by setting forth at least three different models of what such
conversion means. They are:

The sailors’ conversion (chap. 1)
The Ninevites’ conversion (chap. 3)
Jonah’s conversion (chaps. 2 and 4)

A careful reading of Jonah reveals that these three vectors of conversion differ significantly from one another. While they all entail a given
character (or group of characters) undergoing transformation toward
greater knowledge of and obedience toward God, the transformations
are notably different in each case. One way the text signals these differences is by its careful use of different names for God, depending
upon the theological perspective of the character in question. Jonah,
for example, is closely associated with the name YHWH, the personal
proper name of Israel’s God. The Ninevites, in contrast, are closely
associated with the appellative name Elohim (“God”), while the sailors are associated with a plurality of deities (“gods”). As we shall see,
the text signals what each character’s conversion entails (and does not
entail) by the way each character learns (or does not learn) to combine
these names.
My typological experiment consists in exploring a simple set of
correspondences. I propose that the sailors’ conversion corresponds
principally to Christianity, the Ninevites’ principally to Islam, and
Jonah’s principally to Judaism (although, as we shall see, secondarily to
Christianity and perhaps also to Islam as well). Last but not least, the
interconnection of the three conversions in a single plot corresponds
to the interconnection of the three religions within the saving economy of God. Throughout the experiment, I am particularly interested
in suggesting that the book of Jonah’s sophisticated “name theology”
provides Christians with a fruitful way of thinking about Christianity’s
relation to the other two Abrahamic faiths. But I happily admit that I

The Sign of Jonah


am intrigued by how far the typological resemblances can be pushed in
other respects as well.
The Sailor’s Conversion: A Type of Christianity
The first thing to note about the sailors’ conversion is that it results
from their being caught up in somebody else’s drama. The story’s principals are YHWH and his servant Jonah. YHWH commissions Jonah
to go to a distant city to prophesy its imminent destruction, but Jonah
boards a ship and f lees in the opposite direction. Intent on getting
Jonah to obey, YHWH engulfs Jonah’s ship in a violent storm, hapless
sailors and all.
Up to this point in the story, the deity has been exclusively identified by the name YHWH, the personal name revealed to the Israelites
through Moses at the time of the Exodus (Exod. 3:15). This corresponds to the fact that the central actors in the story so far—YHWH
and Jonah—are both privy to YHWH’s intimate covenantal bond with
Israel. As soon as the sailors start to act as characters in their own right,
however, a new term appears. “All the sailors were afraid and each
cried out to his own god (elohayw)” (1:5).7 The root word in question,
elohim, is a common noun that refers to the general class of deities. It
is also used commonly in the Bible as a name or title for God, the one
true deity. In this respect, Elohim is similar to the English word “god,”
which may also be used as a name for the deity (God), or to refer to the
class of purported deities (the gods). In the case of the sailors’ cries for
divine help, it is this second usage that comes into play. The mariners,
we are given to understand, are a typically international lot, each cultivating the worship of their own native deity. When their pleas prove
useless, however, they awaken the sleeping Jonah and demand to know
who he is. Jonah answers, “I am a Hebrew, and I worship YHWH, the
God (elohe, also cognate to Elohim) of heaven, who made the sea and
the land” (1:9, NIV). Jonah’s reply marks the first time in the book that
the personal name YHWH is linked to the more general designation
Elohim. This signals one of the book’s major concerns: YHWH is also
Elohim, God of the whole earth. As we shall see a bit later, Jonah’s conversion consists in large part in learning to accept the full dimensions
of the second half of this equation. As for the sailors, however, their
discovery runs in the other direction. Having called fruitlessly upon
their gods, they now come to the frightening realization that their fate
is in the hands of a hitherto unknown deity, YHWH. After exhausting
all other recourse, the sailors offer a moving appeal for understanding


R. Kendall Soulen

and (with Jonah’s consent) throw him overboard. The raging seas grow
calm. “At this the men greatly feared YHWH, and they offered a sacrifice to YHWH and made vows to him” (1:16).
This story, I suggest, may be understood as a type of the distinctively
Christian form of conversion to the God of Abraham. More exactly,
it corresponds to a distinctively Gentile Christian form of conversion.
Gentile Christians encounter the God of Israel in media res, after the
plot of salvation history has been set into motion. The plot pivots on
YHWH’s election of Israel for the sake of the blessing of the nations
(Gen. 12:1–5). This plot comes to its climax in a dramatic act of divine
deliverance, in which YHWH’s rescue of the Gentiles coincides with
the obedient suffering of one Israelite, Jonah/Jesus, whom YHWH
also vindicates by rescuing him from doom. Swept up into this drama
of salvation, Gentile Christians learn to call upon God in a new way.
They cease to call upon their native gods, even as they learn to call
upon YHWH, the god of Israel, as the one God of heaven and earth.
With only a slightly greater exercise of typological imagination, I
think, the story may also be understood to foreshadow a danger-spot
intrinsic to the character of Gentile Christianity that has continuously
proven to be the occasion of its theological lapses. While the book
of Jonah makes clear that the mariners learned to fear and worship
YHWH as a great god of storm and sea, it gives no indication that
they gave up the worship of their native deities. When Jonah said, “I
worship YHWH, the God (Elohim) of heaven, who made the sea and
the land,” it is quite possible that he meant one thing while the sailors
heard another. Jonah was proclaiming YHWH to be the one God and
creator of all things (Gen. 1:1), but the sailors, we may infer, simply
ranged YHWH among the other gods they knew and worshipped as
occasion required. The danger foreshadowed is clear. Christianity is a
cosmopolitan faith, composed of many nations and united by no common tongue or culture, other than its experience of salvation through
YHWH and his servant Jesus (whose name means YHWH saves). But
precisely so, Gentile Christians from various lands have often sought to
merge their faith in YHWH with that of their national deity, contrary
to the clear testimony of the prophets and apostles. The results have
proven disastrous more than once.
The Ninevites’ Conversion: A Type of Islam
In Nineveh at last, Jonah prophesized the city’s imminent destruction,
just as he was commissioned. But the city repents and God spares it

The Sign of Jonah


after all. Thus we have a second model of conversion to the God of
Abraham. It differs from the first in several ways.
Most strikingly, the object of the Ninevites’ belief and repentance
is not identified by the personal name YHWH, but rather consistently
by the appellative name Elohim. This is evident not in the reported
content of Jonah’s preaching (which does not mention the deity at all,
cf. “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown”), but in the
following verses:
The Ninevites believed God (Elohim). They declared a fast, and all
of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. (3:5)
Then [the King] issued a proclamation in Nineveh: “Let everyone
call urgently on God (Elohim). . . . Who knows? God (Elohim) may
yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that
we will not perish.” (3:7–9)
The name YHWH, it seems, does not figure in the Ninevites’ conversion at all. As if to underscore this surprising point, the narrator concludes the chapter very differently than he had begun it. The chapter
began in classical prophetic fashion, “Then the word of YHWH came
to Jonah a second time: ‘Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim
to it the message I give you’ ” (3:1–2). The narrator thereby invites
his audience to share in Jonah’s privileged knowledge that everything
that will follow comes at the behest of YHWH, the God of Israel.
But the narrator forces his readers to share in Jonah’s surprise by
ending the chapter with the words, “When God (Elohim!) saw what
they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened”
(3:10). For the first time since the beginning of the book, the narrator
designates the deity as Elohim, not as YHWH! The narrator thereby
instructs his audience that the deity is just as surely the second as he
is the first.
This story, I suggest, may be understood as a type of the distinctively
Islamic form of conversion to the God of Abraham. The most basic
Muslim creed, known as the Shahadah (the Confession), declares “There
is no ‘god’ (la illaha) except God (ill-allah).” This, together with the profession that Muhammad is the envoy of Allah, is often said to form
the core of the Muslim religion. In this creed, YHWH, the personal
name of the God of Abraham, plays no role, nor indeed am I aware
that the Tetragrammaton plays any role in Muslim faith whatsoever.
For Muslims, Allah is the name that functions in piety and liturgy as


R. Kendall Soulen

the deity’s personal name. Linguistically, however, the name is related
to the Hebrew El (God) and Elohim.8 Of all the attributes commonly
ascribed by Muslims to Allah, none are more common and central
than, “the merciful, the compassionate,” and no duties are regarded as
more binding on the Muslim than the practice of piety (“They declared
a fast, and . . . put on sackcloth”) and the turning away from wickedness
(cf. the king’s decree: “Let them give up their evil ways and their violence” [3:7]).
Another point of typological correspondence: Soon after Jonah
arrives in Nineveh, his role and his message are overshadowed by the
religious initiative taken by the Ninevites themselves, and above all,
by the king, who issues a binding religious proclamation of his own.
Although occasioned by Jonah’s message, the theological content of the
king’s proclamation is clearly different from Jonah’s, and even contradictory to it, at least at a surface level. Jonah had foretold doom, but
the king reasons, “Who knows? God may yet relent.” Even though the
reader understands that the king is not a prophet in the same fashion as
Jonah himself, the story rates the value of the royal proclamation very
high. For in the event, it is the king’s message rather than Jonah’s that
is fulfilled according to the letter. Jonah is thereby exposed to the fate
of being regarded as a false prophet, exactly the outcome, he later protests, that caused him to f lee to Tarshish in the first place. In a deeper
sense, however, the word given to him by YHWH has had the effect
that YHWH intended. YHWH’s aim was not to authenticate Jonah’s
prophetic credentials but to call a great city from wickedness and save
it from destruction. This point is key to the whole story and we will
return to it later.
Muslims regard the Qur’an as the clearest, most reliable, and most
comprehensive revelation of God, which supersedes its predecessors, and
they regard Muhammad as God’s final prophet. Christians cannot share
these beliefs; if they did they would cease to be Christians and would
become Muslims instead. But if Christians understand the details I’ve
noted as types, they will nevertheless guard themselves against thinking
meanly of the place of Muhammad and the Qur’an in God’s economy
of salvation. The king responds to Jonah’s message by interposing himself—or more exactly, his proclamation—between the Hebrew prophet
and the Ninevites. Similarly, Muhammad responded to the biblical traditions known to him by interposing himself—or more exactly, the
Qur’an—between those same traditions and his audience. The result
was a massive transposition of the biblical message into a new and markedly different key. But—if Christians can be guided by the story of Jonah
and the typology I suggest—the sacred writing that results possesses a

The Sign of Jonah


truth and validity of its own, a truth and validity that Christians will
recognize above all in the way in which it names God, the honor that it
accords not only to Muhammad but to Jesus and the prophets, and the
fruits of piety to which it gives rise. Furthermore, Christians must guard
against the assumption that when the Qur’an differs explicitly from the
letter of biblical revelation, it is therefore false, for it may be congruent
with the compassionate purpose of the author of scripture in a way that
the letter of biblical condemnation is not.
Finally, Christians may find it possible to interpret certain details
of this story in a way that foreshadows what Christians may regard as
a danger-spot intrinsic to the character of Islam that may prove to be
the occasion of theological lapses. However true and fruitful the king’s
proclamation may be, the king could not have issued it had not God
persisted in calling Jonah as his prophet, and had not Jonah ultimately
obeyed God. Yet it is only too much in the character of kings to minimize or even forget and deny such indebtedness. Perhaps Islam, too, is
at times prone to overestimate its self-sufficiency and to minimize what
it owes to biblical revelation generally and to Judaism in particular.
Such a diagnosis, I must repeat, emerges from a distinctively Christian
reading of the story. Its primary purpose is to illuminate the limits or
boundaries that even a sympathetic Christian theology of Islam must
recognize, lest it forfeit its character as Christian. Nevertheless, it may
be that this “outsider’s” perspective is not wholly without value even
for Muslims. It may provide an occasion for Muslims to explore the
extent to which Muslim self-understanding allows for the Qur’an to
be interpreted with reference to and in light of biblical revelation as
contained in the Old and New Testaments.
Jonah’s Conversion: A Type of Judaism
Jonah’s conversion is the book’s main theme in relation to which the
other two are episodes. The book begins by YHWH adopting a personal intimacy toward Jonah that outstrips anything that the sailors or
the Ninevites ever enjoy, an intimacy that has only been intensified
by the book’s end. The intimacy is reciprocated from Jonah’s side. At
the beginning of the book Jonah can truthfully say that he worships
“YHWH, the God (Elohim) of heaven, who made the sea and the
land” (1:9). At the end of the book, he can truthfully say that “I knew
that you are a gracious and compassionate God (Elohim), slow to anger
and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (4:2;
cf. Exod. 34:6–8). Where then is there room for Jonah to undergo any
experience of conversion, of transformation toward God?


R. Kendall Soulen

There is room with respect to Jonah’s obedience. Along this vector, Jonah’s conversion is complete by the end of the book. At first
Jonah is unwilling to accept YHWH’s commission, but by the book’s
end he has not only accepted but fulfilled it. But there is room for
Jonah to experience transformation toward God in another way as
well. And that is with respect to Jonah’s capacity to understand and
to internalize—rather than merely to profess—what it means that
YHWH is the God of heaven and earth, not only with respect to its
implications for his own reputation, but with respect to its implications for the well-being of others. This vector of conversion is still
open at the book’s end, at least so far as Jonah himself is concerned.
But the author of the book finds a subtle way to invite his audience to absorb the point that Jonah finds so hard to swallow, once
again through the sophisticated use of divine names. Throughout
the book, as we have seen, the narrator has referred to the deity
either as YHWH or as Elohim, depending on context. Occasionally,
the two names are placed in apposition, as in Jonah’s cry from the
whale, “you brought my life up from the pit, O YHWH my God
(Elohim)” (2:6). But toward the close of the book, the author brings
these two names into an even more intimate connection, for the first
and only time in the story.
Then YHWH God provided a vine and made it grow up over
Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah
was very happy about the vine. (4:6)
The odd double-barreled name YHWH God (YHWH Elohim) is
something of a rarity in the Bible. In fact, there is only one extended
passage where it is used consistently as the deity’s primary designation,
and that is in the Bible’s first two chapters, which tell of God’s dealings
with humankind in the garden of Eden (Gen 2–3). There, for example,
we find the following verse:
Now YHWH God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and
there he put the man he had formed. (Gen. 2:8)
The name YHWH God, with its evocation of God’s bountiful care for
the whole human family, contains everything that Jonah has yet to learn
in order to complete his conversion. As I noted, the end of the book
portrays Jonah’s conversion toward “YHWH God” as incomplete, if
not stalled. Yet I do not think we are therefore entitled to assume that

The Sign of Jonah


the story means to imply Jonah’s ultimate incorrigibility. After all, Jonah
“came around” once before. Rather, I believe we should interpret the
ending of the story as a sign that YHWH God’s history with Jonah is
not yet finished.
This story, I suggest, may be understood as a type of the distinctively Jewish form of conversion to the God of Abraham. Of the
three Abraham faiths, Judaism stands in a uniquely intimate relationship with YHWH God. But it is has been called to this position not
for its own sake but to serve YHWH God’s love and care for the whole
world. This is not an especially easy role to accept and to play, certainly not in all of its dimensions. Perhaps this very difficulty is part
of what the book signals by leaving Jonah’s conversion still open at the
end of the book.
But while I propose that Jonah’s conversion is primarily a type
of Judaism, I think Christians can and should apply it to themselves
too, especially as a guide for thinking about their relationship to the
other two religions. There is an obvious danger in finding oneself
typologically represented in the book of Jonah by everyone except
Jonah himself (Augustine’s typology illustrates that danger). Jonah
is neither a coward nor a cad. The lesson he has to learn is in many
ways the most difficult lesson of all, theologically and existentially.
God does not call his prophets for the purpose of authenticating their
prophetic credentials (even when they are authentic), but rather to
save others from destruction, if need be at great cost to the persons
and to the credentials of the prophets themselves. With that in mind,
in place of a conclusion I cite again the one whom Christians confess to be Clue of Clues: “An evil and adulterous generation asks for
a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet
Jonah” (Matt. 12:39).
1. On this point, see Jon Levenson, “The Conversion of Abraham to Judaism, Christianity, and
Islam,” in Hindi Najman and Judith H. Newman, eds., The Idea of Biblical Interpretation: Essays
in Honor of James L. Kugel (Leiden: Brill, 2004), 3–40.
2. See Martin S. Jaffee, “One God, One Revelation,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion
69:4 (December 2001), 753–775.
3. Although the Qur’an explicitly speaks of the Torah and the Gospel as divine revelations,
Muslims generally do not consider the Old and New Testaments in their current form as
sacred writings.
4. Irenaeus, Against Heresies Bk. III c.20, in Philip Schaff, The Ante-Nicene Fathers, vol. 1, 449.
5. Augustine, Letters 102.37, in Philip Schaff, The Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 1, vol. 1, 425.


R. Kendall Soulen

6. Translation altered slightly for clarity.
7. Quotations come from the New International Version, unless otherwise indicated. I have
substituted YHWH in place of LORD to make Jonah’s name theology more evident.
8. The Arabic word for a “god” is ilah, and is related to the Hebrew el, from which Elohim is
also derived. The name Allah is probably the word ilah combined with the definite article,
meaning “the God,” that is, “the one and only God.”



Hagar and Esau: From Others to Sisters
and Brothers
Steve n Ke p ne s

When I wrote the first draft of this essay I wanted to find a biblical basis for
Jewish-Islamic dialogue. I was struck by the complex nature of the portraits of
Hagar and Ishmael in the Torah. The fact that Hagar was wife to Abraham
and Ishmael his first son provided a common ancestry to the people of the Bible
and the people of the Qur’an. Given that God spoke directly to Hagar—and
even allowed her to provide him with a name—made her much more than just a
handmaid to Sarah. And the fact that Ishmael returned with his brother to bury
Abraham revealed not only Ishmael’s filial piety but also his sense of continuing brotherhood with Isaac. But when I presented my paper in our Scriptural
Reasoning session at the Center of Theological Institute (CTI) in Princeton, the
obvious question from my Christian colleagues was: Is there no equal warrant in
the Torah for Jewish dialogue with Christians? Like another somewhat outcast
bother, the Christians asked, “Is there no blessing for me?” (Gen.27:36). Of
course the brother that asked that question was Esau, after Jacob stole the blessing
of the firstborn from him. And it was to Esau that my Jewish colleagues in the
CTI sessions asked me to look for a warrant for Christian-Jewish dialogue.
At first I hesitated in looking to Esau for a warrant for Christian-Jewish
dialogue. I hesitated because I knew just how much Esau was demonized in
rabbinic commentaries. This set me off on a journey to other resources in Jewish
texts and tradition to justify Jewish-Christian dialogue on Jewish terms. The
first place I looked was to the very fact that Christians share the Tanakh as their
holy scriptures. That Christians regard the Torah as revelation is certainly the
major warrant for why Christians want and need to be in dialogue with Jews.


Steven Kepnes

However, from a Jewish perspective, there is an obvious imbalance in the relation. For where Christians see the Jews and their scriptures as holy, Jews do not
see Christians as the rightful heir to the promises of the Torah nor do they see
the New Testament as holy scriptures or revelatory for them.
Thus, at the urging of my scriptural reasoning colleagues, I returned again to
Esau and, to my surprise, I found that I could work with this figure as a warrant for Jewish Christian dialogue. Despite the negatives the rabbinic tradition
assigns to Esau, he represents material strength and power that Jacob-Israel lacks
and needs. As Jacob’s twin brother, it is easy to see the two as opposite sides of
one more complex personality. And the struggle that Jacob has with his brother,
his father, and with the angels and God, represents a struggle to incorporate the
strength and power of his brother Esau within him so that Jacob becomes worthy
of the name, “Israel” and is able to take on the mission of spiritual leadership
of the people Israel.
Islam, as the third monotheistic religion, shares a dual identity as both
other and same to Judaism, to Christianity and to Western civilization.
This ambiguous position calls forth the ambiguous emotions of sibling
rivalry but also promises the possibility of brotherly and sisterly love.
From the point of view of scripture, which I will take as my starting
point, Islam shares with Judaism and Christianity not only a devotion
to the one God, to the goodness of creation, and the dream of a future
time of judgment and peace, but also the very basic principle that revelation is given in scripture. Jews, Christians, and Muslims are all people of the book in this sense and though their books are different, they
share common narratives, common prophets, and common hermeneutical principles to guide them in the interpretation of scripture. And
this gives them, despite all differences, a common starting ground for
discussion of the issues that both divide and unite them. In this essay I
will argue that, in the figures of Hagar and Ishmael that lie in the Torah
of the Jews and the Old Testament of Christians, we find a scriptural
warrant for dialogue between Jews, Christians, and Muslims. I also
argue that in the double figure of Jacob/Esau there is a biblical warrant
for Jewish and Christian dialogue. I try to read Ishmael and Esau then
as both others to be feared and brothers to be loved. And in love, I try
to ground Jewish, Christian, and Muslim dialogue.
Hagar and Ishmael as Other and Same
For my ref lections on the simultaneous otherness and sameness of Islam
to Judaism and Christianity, I have chosen to take you through an
exercise in scriptural exegesis or what I call scriptural reasoning on the

Hagar and Esau


figures of Hagar and Ishmael. I choose these figures because they both
appear as important figures in Hebrew and Muslim sacred texts. Hagar
is the second wife of the patriarch Abraham and mother of Abraham’s
first son, Ishmael. According to The Tales of the Prophets, the first part
of the biography of Muhammad, Ishmael is the father of the Arab and
larger Ummah of the Muslim people. Hagar is also a central figure in
the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, as pilgrims walk back and forth in
an effort to retrace Hagar’s steps when she was forced by Sarah into the
I must admit that I began my scriptural reasoning on Hagar and
Ishmael with a worry that it may not be the appropriate place to start,
since the Jewish tradition is fairly negative about these figures. Yet as
I reread the stories I recalled a point made by the modern Jewish philosopher, Martin Buber, which I take to be most instructive in doing
scriptural reasoning. Buber argues that the Hebrew scriptures should
be viewed, not as an objective history of world creation and redemption, but as a story of the relation of God to Israel that is told primarily
from the perspective of the people of Israel.1 Hebrew scripture certainly moves out from Israel to attempt to embrace the entire world,
but its starting point is a small family that wanders from somewhere in
ancient Mesopotamia to the land of Canaan and comes to see itself as
bearing a world historic message. This means that the Hebrew scriptures or Torah is at once a particularistic and universal document. I
could put this somewhat differently and say that the Torah is both an
ethnocentric and theocentric document. From the ethnocentric perspective of Israel, Hagar may be a mere slave girl and Ishmael a wild ass
of a man and thorn in the side of Israel; but from the perspective of the
larger narrative of the Bible and from the perspective of God, Hagar
and Ishmael have a unique role in God’s design. Also, although some
might be put off by Hagar’s status as a lowly slave girl in the Hebrew
scriptures, this fact actually unites her to Jewish and Christian origins.
For the children of Israel trace their origins to their status as Egyptian
slaves who were freed by God, and Christians find their origins in
the death of a lowly carpenter who suffered the criminal’s death of
Yet in addition to these rough analogies to overarching concepts, the
use of scripture, and lowly origins, the stronger point I wish to make is
that the presence of the figures of Hagar and Ishmael in scripture embeds
the Muslim people in the Torah of the Jews and the Old Testament of
the Christians. Hagar is at once the “other” who comes from Egypt,
the land of exile and slavery, and the wife of the patriarch Abraham
through whom all the peoples of the world are blessed. Hagar is at once the


Steven Kepnes

surrogate womb for Sarah to exploit and the second wife of Abraham
and mother of his first son. The most obvious implication of this is that
although Islam is often presented as the other to Judaism and Christianity
and to the strange fiction called the “Judeo-Christian tradition,” Hagar
and Ishmael’s presence in the scriptures of that tradition provides a scriptural warrant for Jews and Christians to take Islam seriously, not only as
the third monotheism, but also as a tradition that is rooted in Genesis and
whose origin and destiny is intertwined with Israel.
With this as an introduction I will move now to scripture:
7 The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. 8 And he said, “Hagar,
slave-girl of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you
going?” She said, “I am running away from my mistress Sarai.”
9 The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress, and
submit to her.”10 The angel of the Lord also said to her, “I will
so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for
multitude.”11 And the angel of the Lord said to her, “Now you
have conceived and shall bear a son; you shall call him Ishmael,
for the Lord has given heed to your aff liction. 12 He shall be a
wild ass of a man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him; and he shall live at odds with all his kin.”
13 So she named the Lord who spoke to her, “You are El-roi”;
for she said, “Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?”14 Therefore the well was called Beer-lahai-roi; it lies
between Kadesh and Bered.2
The first thing to note in these verses is that we have the first appearance of an angel in biblical literature and the first time that God speaks
to a woman. Thus, though a slave girl, Hagar merits particular interest on the part of God. God sends a messenger to her, the messenger
finds her in the middle of a journey back to Egypt (as Shur is close to
Egypt [Gen. 25:13]), and he finds her by a well. Well-scenes are replete
throughout the Genesis narrative and I would remind you of the visits
of Abraham, Isaac, Rebecca, and even Joseph to wells at crucial points
in their lives. The angel asks a highly loaded question, “Where have you
come from and where are you going?” Clearly the angel knows where
Hagar comes from. So this question must be asked more for Hagar’s
sake then for the angel’s. This is the type of question that is only asked

Hagar and Esau


of biblical characters of significance, Adam, Cain, Abraham, Elijah,
Jonah. It is an existential question that seeks out a person’s integrity and
ability to respond and to take responsibility. It is a kind of trick question
or question of testing that biblical figures often fail.
Hagar’s answer however, is straight forward, honest, unequivocal:
“I am running away from my mistress Sarai.” Apparently, Hagar passes
the test, but this leads to a seemingly cruel command that she return
and submit, or literally “place herself under her mistress’s hand.” Given
that biblical law demands that one help a runaway slave escape, this
is, indeed, a strange command. We can either view it as an expression of the cruelty of slavery, of abusive patriarchy and divine tyranny,
or search in it for another level of meaning. If, indeed, I am correct,
that the first question, “where have you come from . . . ” is a test, then
the command that follows may be interpreted as a deeper more difficult test. Hagar must return to Sarah and submit to her. Although
the Hebrew, hitani, appears to have no relation to the Arabic word to
submit, am I stretching too far to find an intimation to the command
all Muslims, indeed all Jews and Christians, have to submit to the will
of God? The supposition however, that God wishes Hagar no ill and,
indeed, has a special mission for her, is born out in the next lines. “I
will so greatly multiply your offspring that they cannot be counted for
multitude.” Nahum Sarna notes that the messenger uses a rhetorical
form that signifies “the birth and destiny of one who is given a special
role in God’s design of history (cf. Gen. 25:23 and Judg. 13:3).”3 It is
easy to see connections between Hagar and the first woman, Eve. The
Hebrew harbah arbeh (“I will greatly multiply . . . ”) is the same phrase
that God uses in the curse of Eve, in greatly multiplying Eve’s pain in
childbirth. Yet, the consequence of Hagar’s suffering is that she will
be abundantly rewarded with multitudes of descendents. Thus, unlike
Eve, Hagar is blessed and not cursed. Since Hagar f lees Sarah’s home
in Canaan, heads for Egypt and then returns to Canaan, her journey
reminds us of Abraham’s journeys. Like Abraham, Hagar is a wanderer
who comes to hear the word of call and fulfill a divine mission.
The feminist Bible scholar, Tikvah Frymer–Kensky, reminds us that
the verses that describe Hagar f leeing the home of Sarah and traveling
toward Egypt occur right after God has told Abraham in 15:13 that his
offspring will be enslaved in Egypt.4
Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be strangers [ger yiyeh
zarakha] in a land that is not theirs and they shall be slaves there,
and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years, but I will bring


Steven Kepnes

judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall
come out with great possessions.
It is startling when we realize that the word used to describe Israel in
Egypt is Ger. Ger yiyeh zarakha, “strangers shall your offspring be.”
Thus, God tells Abraham in chapter 15, that his offspring will literally be Gerim. And in the next chapter we meet Hagar, Ha-Ger, the
Egyptian stranger. Frymer-Kensky makes the point obvious, Hagar
the stranger, Hagar the servant, Hagar, wife of Abraham and mother
of Ishmael is Israel! She presages, she prefigures, Israel’s suffering in
Egypt. And in her deep connection to God, and in the fact that God
sees and listens to her suffering and rewards her with a multitude of offspring, Hagar also prefigures Israel’s ultimate redemption!
But now we must pause to ref lect on Ishmael and who he is. First,
we have his wonderful name, which means “God hears.” Our verses
connect the hearing to God’s attending to Hagar’s suffering, “for the
Lord has given heed to your aff liction.” But later in verse 21:17, a connection is made to God’s hearing the voice of Ishmael. “And God heard
the voice of the boy; and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven,
and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God
has heard the voice of the boy where he is’ (21:17).”
In 16:15, Abraham gives Hagar’s son the name Ishmael, fulfilling the
divine directive and also legitimizing Ishmael as his son.5 Ishmael clearly
has a name that suggests that God hears and will attend to his voice; and
thus the Torah seems to recognize and underscore that Ishmael and his
offspring will maintain a special relationship to God and that God will
continue to hear the voice of Ishmael wherever he is!
In this context, it is somewhat difficult to understand the second part
of the description of Ishmael in verse 12. “He shall be a wild ass of a
man, with his hand against everyone, and everyone’s hand against him;
and he shall live at odds with all his kin.” It is easy to describe this as the
view of Ishmael from the perspective of Israel, which highlights the tension between the descendents of Ishmael and the descendents of Isaac.
It is noteworthy, however, that the recent Jewish Publication Society
version of the last part of verse “al penai khal echav ishkan” translates it
not as “he shall live at odds with” but, “he shall dwell alongside all his
kinsmen.” This stresses the intricate relationship between the descendents of Ishmael and the descendents of Isaac without the eternal state
of conf lict. It is further interesting that the description of Ishmael in
the later chapter 21 describes him in less contentious terms. “God was
with the boy, and he grew up; he lived in the wilderness, and became

Hagar and Esau


an expert with the bow. He lived in the wilderness of Paran; and his
mother got a wife for him from the land of Egypt (21:20–21).6
If we leave Ishmael and return to the fascinating figure of Hagar,
we have to comment on the facts that she names God and, furthermore, is the only figure, male or female, in the Bible to do this!
“So she named the Lord who spoke to her, ‘You are El-roi’; for she
said, ‘Have I really seen God and remained alive after seeing him?’ ”
(16:13). This expression seems to give witness not only to God’s seeing into the very soul of Hagar and her passing this test, but also to
Hagar’s own ability to see God! It is remarkable that after God names
Ishmael, Hagar names God, and the Hebrew expression used in both
these occasions are similar. Thus “korat shmo yishmael,” “you shall
call him Ishmael” is followed by “v’tikrah shem adonai,” “And she
called God. . . . ” The Hebrew expression v’tikrah shem Adonai also calls
to mind a different use of the phrase by Abraham in Gen. 13:13.
Here we also have v-yikrah bshem adonai. This is generally rendered
in English “and Abraham called on or called out the name of God.”
However, the Talmud interprets this to mean that Abraham was fulfilling his prophetic role and publicizing the revelation of the oneness
of God throughout the world.
Aside from her presence as archetype of God’s messenger, Hagar
lives on in the Hebrew scriptures through her name. Thus, we see
countless references to Ha-ger, to “the stranger,” and how Israel is to
treat the stranger. The notion of the ger occurs no less than 36 times
in the Torah and is connected with the commandment to treat the
stranger as one of Israel. The nineteenth-century German Jewish philosopher, Hermann Cohen, argues that the development of the notion
of the ger in the Torah represents one of the most significant events in
the history of all Western thought. Cohen tells us that the ger is a “great
step with which humanitarianism begins.” 7 The power of this notion
can be clearly seen in two texts of the Torah. “One law shall be unto
him that is home-born and unto the Ger, the stranger that lives among
you” (Exod. 12:49; cf. Num. 15:15, Lev, 24:22, Deut. 1:16). “Thou
shall love the ger, the stranger, as yourself ” (Lev. 19:33). In the holiness
code of Leviticus, the principle of the ger as fellowman is intensified
to the commandment of love. “You shall love him as yourself; for you
were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:33).
One of the wonders of scripture is that scripture is not beholden
to modern secular standards of narrative, historical and philosophic
coherence. These standards might demand that Hagar and Ishmael, as
minor figures in the story of Israel, be painted in wholly negative terms


Steven Kepnes

or be excised from the narrative after they have filled their functions
as foils to Sarah and Isaac. Yet, we see that after these figures are introduced in Gen. 16 and 21, they are not erased, but they appear again.
Thus, seemingly out of the blue, Ishmael appears in chapter 25:9 to
bury his father Abraham alongside Isaac.
We may say that this treatment of the other as both different and
same, foe and friend, is unique to the Hebrew scriptures. But if we
move to the New Testament, we see an equally ambivalent portrait
of the most clear and obvious other to the Christian, the Jew. On
the one hand, we have the portrait of the Jews as hypocrites, Christ
killers, stubborn sinners doomed to Hell, and on the other hand the
Jews carry the law that Christ fulfills without abrogating. The Jews
represent the trunk of the tree onto which Christians are grafted. And
most importantly, the scriptures of the Jews, despite many attempts
to sever their connection to Christianity, are tenaciously maintained,
preserved, and even revered as part of Christian scriptures, as the Old
Holding on to the Jewish scriptures as Christian scripture simply
put, is not easy. Certainly, from the standpoint of narrative and logical coherence it doesn’t really work. To pull it off, Christianity must
develop a complex, self-contradictory hermeneutic which says at once
that Jewish scripture is revealed and wrong. Its way of Torah, its way of
the law, is both necessary and superseded. Its promise to the children of
Abraham both nullified and fulfilled.
Muslims may look over the shoulders at Christians and see this as
strange, but they must admit that they have a similar ambivalence
about their older monotheistic brothers and sisters. On the one hand,
Muhammad is the final seal, the last prophet, the one who corrects what
was wrong in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. On the other hand,
the Qur’an, in its infinite mercy and openness, recognizes Abraham,
Moses, David, Jesus, and many others as prophets. And the Qur’an
preserves many of the narratives of the Jewish and Christian scripture
and it praises the people of the book as righteous children of Abraham.
There is no question that there are highly negative statements about
the Jews and the Christians in the Qur’an, but if we remember Buber’s
insight that scripture is at least partially written from the perspective
of one people in an attempt to understand their unique relation to
God, we can understand why non-Muslims are presented, at times,
in a negative light. However, if I may return to my original point
about scripture, one of its truly wondrous aspects is that it neither thoroughly demonizes the other nor does it leave her narratives out. On the

Hagar and Esau


contrary, it preserves the memories and stories of the others and says,
in fundamental ways, that these others are related to us. These others,
indeed, are us! Thus we read in the Qur’an Surah 2:62:
The believers, the Jews, the Christians, and the Sabians—whoever
believes in Allah and the last day and does what is good shall
receive their reward from their Lord. They shall have nothing to
fear and they shall not grieve.
And in Surah 2:135–136:
We follow the religion of Abraham who was no polytheist.
We believe in Allah, in what has been revealed to us, what
was revealed to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob and the Tribes,
and in what was imparted to Moses, Jesus, making no distinction
between any of them.
The Jewish philosopher Peter Ochs likes to say that if we look at
the logical pattern of modern Western philosophy and the modern
culture that it ref lects, we are offered a way of thinking that follows a logic of dichotomies. On the one hand we have secularists, on
the other religious fundamentalists, and then we have the progressive West and the other, backward Islam. Light/dark, spirit/matter,
male/female, same/other, us/them, yes/no, 0/1, these are the binaries
that define our thinking and our world. However, in the face of this
logic, scripture offers us another way of thinking. Ochs calls it, following Charles Sanders Peirce, a logic of relations. In this logic the
binary pairs are placed in dialogue. Scripture offers us concepts of
connectedness: creation, revelation, covenant, redemption. It offers
us figures of mediation, Adam, Abraham, Hagar, Jesus, Muhammad.
These figures are given to fill the gap between us and them, between
God and human and between human and human. This is not to say
that scripture is innocent and pure, divorced from dichotomies of
spirit and matter, saved and damned, us and them. But, the point is
that scripture cannot be adequately and fully defined by these dichotomies. Because of the fundamental vagueness of scripture, the reader
is called upon, indeed, required to interpret the text. Unlike a mathematical formula, or a simple sign like a traffic light, scripture does
not yield clear, distinct, univocal meanings. Scripture, instead, is an
opaque semiotic system whose meaning is fulfilled in its interpretation by us.


Steven Kepnes
Esau = Rome

“The voice is the voice of Jacob, the hands are the hands of Esau”
(Gen. 27:22)[refers to the people of Israel and Rome], for Jacob
rules only through his voice, but Esau [Rome] rules only through
his hands. (Genesis Rabba 65:19)
Although there is no exact parallel to the Hagar-Israel, Ishmael-Isaac
doubles, the rabbinic tradition sees in the figure of Isaac’s son, Esau,
the progenitor of the people of Edom and then Rome and Christianity.
Despite the fact that Esau is the son of Isaac and Rebecca and the twin
brother of Jacob, the tradition stresses the negatives in the character of
Esau and uses these to project a kind of anti-Jacob or anti-Israel that
plagues Israel in the attacks of the people of Edom and in the persecutions of Hadrian and the subsequent periods of Roman Imperial
and then medieval Christianity.8 If Hagar is seen as the weak enslaved
“other,” Esau represents the crude, brutal, and strong “other” who
dominates Israel with his strength. Yet I would argue that in the same
way that Hagar presages Israel’s slavery and eventual liberation in the
Exodus, Esau represents material strength and power that Jacob-Israel
lacks and needs to forge and solidify its identity as a people charged
with a mission to proclaim the truths of monotheism. As Jacob’s twin
brother, it is easy to see the two as opposite sides of one more complex
personality. And the struggle that Jacob has with his brother, his father,
and with the angels and God, represents a struggle to incorporate the
strength and power of his brother, Esau.
Yet, if the Jewish tradition sees Esau as the crude and physical one,
what is fascinating is that Christianity sees Jews and Judaism in the
same way. It seeks to supplant Jacob and present itself as the rightful heir to Abraham and Isaac. In Christian scripture, theology, and
iconography, Jacob prefigures Jesus9 and the Jew becomes the crude,
excessively material and unspiritual Esau! Thus, neither Judaism nor
Christianity are content to wear the clothes of Esau; and perhaps the
tension between them can be mediated only when they both resolve to
embrace Esau as their repressed half and forgotten brother.
The Man of the Field versus the Man of Tents
As Gen. 25 makes clear, Jacob is the quiet man of the tents and Esau
the ruddy hunter and man of the field. The Torah uses four verbs of
action to describe Esau when he “disdains” his birthright: “And he ate

Hagar and Esau


and drank and got up and went” (25:34). This suggests the impetuous,
active, and physical nature of the man, Esau. Yet if Esau is a man of
action and physicality, Jacob is passive, excessively pensive, and even
self-doubting. After all, it is not his idea to trick Isaac into giving him
the blessing of the firstborn, it is his mother’s. And Jacob only does
it after being assured that Rebecca will take the responsibility for his
trickery (27:13). Rather than facing his brother after the theft of the
blessing, he f lees to Haran. On the way, God appears to him in a dream
or night-vision to assure him “I am with you, and I will watch over you
everywhere that you go” (28:15). But Jacob’s response is tepid, hesitant,
conditional, almost insulting to the Lord, God of the universe. “If God
will be with me and watch over me in this way I am going, and give
me bread to eat and clothing to wear and I come back in peace to my
father’s house, then YHWH will become my God . . . and everything
that you will give me I will tithe to you” (28:21–22). In contrast to
Esau, who took his meal from Jacob and unthinkingly ate and drank
and got up and went, Jacob hesitates and thinks and barters with God,
suggesting that he will only give God his allegiance and tithe after God
fulfills all his promises.
When, after 20 years, Jacob returns to meet his brother, the Torah suggests that he is only now able to “face up” to all that Esau represents. It is
significant that Jacob initiates this meeting and that he starts with neither
a request nor a condition but with a gift. In the gift-bestowing instructions Jacob gives to his servants (32:21), the root of the word “face,”
panim appears four times. Everett Fox attempts to preserve the Hebrew
root in his translation. “I will wipe the anger from his face with the gift
that goes ahead of my face; afterward, when I see his face, perhaps he will
lift up my face.”10 Richard Elliott Friedman interprets the verse:
The repetition conveys the force of this juncture in Jacob’s life. He
must face his past.
He must face his brother, whom he wronged. And in the middle
of the account of his facing his brother will come the account of
his most immediate contact with God in his life, his struggle after
which he will say, “I have seen God face-to-face” (32:31). . . . And
these two encounters . . . will then be brought together as he says to
Esau, “I’ve seen your face—like seeing God’s face.” (33:10)11
Friedman makes our point clear. It is Esau, the physical and clumsy
other, that holds the key to Jacob/Israel’s spiritual search to meet God.
Jacob’s long night wrestling match with the “man” before he meets his


Steven Kepnes

brother may easily be seen as a struggle between Jacob and a figure with
Esau’s physical attributes. The fact that Jacob wins the battle suggests
that he has finally gained the strength and confidence of Esau that he
needs to face his brother, his self, his God, and his divine mission in the
world. Therefore, Jacob emerges from the encounter with a new name.
Again, I use the Fox translation. “Not as \yaakov, ‘Heel-Sneak’ shall
your name be henceforth uttered, but rather as yisrael, ‘God-Fighter’,
for you have fought with God and men and have prevailed” (32:29).
Despite the portrait of Esau as a crude man, a hunter and a killer
that is stressed in rabbinic literature, the plain sense of the Hebrew
text shows Esau to be a forgiving and kind man. “Esau ran to him and
embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him. And they wept”
(33:4). After the brother’s exchange greetings, Esau says, “Let’s travel
and let’s go and let me go alongside you” (33:12). Jacob (and the text
still uses his old name despite the new one he received) demurs. He still
does not fully trust his brother to keep peace between them, but perhaps this is Jacob and not Esau’s fault. However, despite the parting of
the ways, these brothers, like Isaac and Ishmael, get back together again
at their father’s death. “And Isaac expired and was gathered to his people, old and full of days. And Esau and Jacob buried him” (35:29).
From Edom to Christian Rome
In the biblical geography, the people of Edom and the land of Seir lie
to the East of the Salt or Dead Sea. Yet despite this location, Edom
seems to follow Israel wherever she goes. In the wanderings after the
Exodus, the people of Edom make the trip to Canaan more difficult
by not allowing the Israelites to pass through their country (Num.
20:18). Once established in the land, Edom continues to plague Israel.
Although David manages to destroy the Edomites in battle, they never
go away, and the prophets seem to have a special place for Edom among
the other enemy pagan nations like Ammon and Moab.12 All of this
may simply go back to God’s prophetic words to Rebecca when the
twins, Jacob and Esau, were born.
Two Nations in your womb,
Two peoples from your loins shall issue
People over People shall prevail,
The elder, the younger’s slave.
(Gen. 25:23 Alter Trans.)13

Hagar and Esau


This wonderful translation of Gen. 25:23 by Robert Alter provides
us with a good sense of the ambiguity of the Hebrew, l’om mi’l’om
y’ematz, v’rav y’avod tza’ir. Given Hebrew syntax (in which the subject can precede or follow the verb) the last sentence could either be
translated as the elder will serve the younger or (as Elliott Friedman
has it), “the older, the younger will serve.” Friedman suggests that
we take God’s words, like a Delphic oracle, to have two opposite
meanings, “And thus the person who receives it—Rebecca—[today’s
reader] can hear whatever she wants.”14 “People over people will
prevail” suggests that the struggle between Jacob and Esau is a long
lasting one. Certainly the rabbis saw it this way. The Talmud interprets the phrase, l’um mi’l’om y’emotz: “The two of them will never
be strong at the same time; when one fails the other will succeed
[BT Megillah 6a].” By interpreting the Hebrew in this way, the rabbis could say what becomes obvious, that although Jacob appeared to
win the first battle—for he as the younger and weaker son, came to
prevail over Esau—Jacob as Israel came to be ruled by his elder son
in the form of Rome and Christendom. Of course, the rabbis also
sought to see the Esau/Jacob Israel/Rome/Christendom relationship
in more extended temporal and even messianic terms. Thus, Jacob
would finally triumph over Esau with the coming of the Messiah at
the end of time.15
The issue of which people, which religion, Judaism or Christianity
is the more physical and which is more spiritual has a significant place
in the New Testament and in Christian theology from early to modern times. Christian interpreters tried to see in Jacob, the quiet man
of tents, the prefiguation of Jesus, the humble servant of God, and the
Jews then became the earthly, worldly, crude, and stubborn Esau. Jesus,
himself, associated the Jews with the guilt of Cain and all those who
killed the righteous prophets (Matt. 23:33–37). Paul polemically associated the Jews with the f lesh that was weak and opposed this to the spirit
that was eternal (Rom.: 5–7). In his City of God, Augustine further
elaborates the connection of the Jews to the material world. For him,
the synagogue represents the corrupt temporal and earthly city and
the church becomes the heavenly city of God, spirit, heaven, and eternity. Therefore, where the rabbis paint Christianity in the guise of the
powerful and materially strong and crude Esau, in the Christian imagination, a switch occurs, where Israel becomes the excessively physical
Esau figure who squanders his birthright and Christianity becomes the
second younger son, the rightful heir to Jacob and then David, and the
messianic prophecies.


Steven Kepnes
The Esau-Jacob Dichotomy: From Modern
Theology to 9/11

I have focused so far on biblical and early rabbinic and Christian thought,
but the Esau-Jacob dichotomy has had surprising staying power as a
simple cipher to define Jewish-Christian relations. In modern Jewish
theology, the German Jewish theologian, Franz Rosenzweig labored
to once again switch the poles and make the Jews into the “eternal
people” that eschews material power and a place in time and history.
For Rosenzweig, as for the rabbis, the Church is the rel