Prophet Abraham The Hebrew’s Importance In Three Different Religions – OpEd


When Jews celebrate the beginning of the Jewish New Year of 5784 on September 16 and 17 of 2023, we will read from the Torah about two of the two most challenging tests God set for Prophet Abraham: the test of risking his son’s  life and the test of expelling his wife Hagar with her son Ishmael. 

Just as Prophet Muhammad is known in the Qur’an as the Last of the Abrahamic monotheistic Prophets; so too is Prophet Abraham known, in all three of the Abrahamic monotheistic religions, as a Friend of God. 

Prophet Abraham, the Hebrew (Genesis 14:13) was the first, and only prophet, to successfully establish, through the descendants of his two sons, three ongoing monotheistic religions that have lasted into the 21st century: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Thus helping immigrants is a core value of Jewish identity because the Torah states more than once that we need to welcome strangers into our promised land because we (our ancestors) were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Prophet Abraham was the first person to be called a “Hebrew” in the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 14:13). The term Hebrew comes from the verb to go over a boundary, like the Euphrates or Jordan river, or to be an immigrant. The first thing God told Prophet Abraham was: “The LORD said to Abram, “Leave your country, your kindred, and your father’s household, and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing….” (Genesis 12:1-2)

And Prophet Joseph uses the name as both a geographical and an socio-ethnic term: “I was kidnapped from the land of the ivrim” (Genesis 40:15), and “The Egyptians could not eat with the ivrim, since that would be an abomination” (Gen. 43:32)

So Prophet Abraham was the first Islamic Hebrew as the Qur’an 3:67 states: “”He (Abraham) was not Yahuudiyyan, “a Jew”, nor Nasraaniyyan, “a Christian”, but rather a Haniifan i.e. “a monotheistic Hebrew believer submitting (Islam) to the one imageless God who created all space and time; and who made Prophet Abraham the Hebrew’s descendants through Prophets Isaac and Jacob (Israel), into a great multitude of monotheists called the People of Israel-Banu Israel.

“And who is better in religion than one who submits himself to Allah while being a doer of good and follows the religion of Abraham, inclining toward truth? And Allah took Abraham as an intimate friend.” (4:125)

In addition to the test of offering up his two sons, Abraham is unique in the numerous prophets God chose from among his descendants, whose names are recorded in the Bible and the Qur’an. With the exception of the non-Jewish prophet Balaam (and Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18), all 55 Biblical prophets (48 male and 7 female) and most of the 25 prophets named in the Qur’an, are descendants of Abraham. “We did grant the Family of Abraham the Book, the Wisdom and a mighty (spiritual) kingdom.” (Qur’an 57:26)

Prophet Isaiah said: “Listen to me, you who pursue righteousness, you who seek the Lord: look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug. Look to Abraham your father and to Sarah who bore you; for he [Abraham] was only one when I called him, that I might bless him and multiply him. (Isaiah 51:1-2) and the Qur’an states: “You have an excellent example to follow in Abraham.” (60:4) and “Follow the way of Abraham as people of pure (monotheistic) faith.” (3:95) 

The Hebrew nation did not acquire the better known name; the Children (Descendants) of Israel (in Hebrew B’nai Israel, in Arabic Banu Israel) until several centuries after Prophet Abraham the Hebrew, when they were oppressed in Egypt. Exodus chapter 1 introduces how the Hebrews became the Children of Israel: 

“Then a new king, to whom Joseph meant nothing, came to power in Egypt. “Look,” he said to his people (the Egyptian nobility), “the Israelites have become far too numerous for us. Come, we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.” So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labor, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread; so the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites and worked them ruthlessly. They made their lives bitter with harsh labor in brick and mortar and with all kinds of work in the fields; in all their harsh labor the Egyptians worked them ruthlessly.

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, whose names were Shiphrah and Puah, “When you are helping the Hebrew women during childbirth on the delivery stool, if you see that the baby is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, let her live.” The midwives, however, feared God and did not do what the king of Egypt had told them to do; they let the boys live. Then the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and asked them, “Why have you done this? Why have you let the boys live? The midwives answered Pharaoh, “Hebrew women are not like Egyptian women; they are vigorous and give birth before the midwives arrive.” (Exodus 1:8-19)

In chapter 2 when Pharaoh’s daughter (and her mother) see baby Moses floating on the Nile in a basket they both felt sorry for him. “This is one of the Hebrew babies,” she said. Then his sister (Miriam) asked Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get one of the Hebrew women to nurse the baby for you?” (6-7)

Over the next few chapters of Exodus, the usage of the religious ethnic term “The Children of Israel” becomes more and more frequent until after the plagues “The Children of Israel” name becomes the norm. But  the ethnic national name Hebrews was still in use centuries later, especially in contrast to non-Jews, as when Prophet Jonah identified himself to some non-Jewish sailors as “a Hebrew” (Jonah 1:9).

A more religious Torah name for the Children of Israel is the term Congregation or Community of Israel, which is similar to the Arabic word Ummah used to describe the Muslim religious community. This term was frequently used by the Rabbis and Sages in post Biblical times.

So where did the name Jew come from? The Hebrew version is יְהוּדִי for a male and יְהוּדִיָּה for a female. But if you’d read the Hebrew Bible – in Hebrew or in English, you will see the words יהודי and יהודייה are strikingly… absent because יהודי and יהודייה come from the name יְהוּדָה – one of the sons of Jacob, but also the part of the Land of Israel named after that son. In English, that piece of land is called Judea.

The term Yehudi (יְהוּדִי) occurs 74 times in the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible. The plural, Yehudim (הַיְּהוּדִים) first appears in 2 Kings 16:6 where it refers to a defeat for the Yehudi army or nation, and in 2 Chronicles 32:18, where it refers to the language of the Yehudim (יְהוּדִית). 

Jeremiah 34:9 has the earliest singular usage of the word Yehudi. In Esther 2:5–6, the name “Yehudi” (יְהוּדִי) has a generic aspect, in this case referring to a man from the tribe of Benjamin: “A Jewish man (a man from Judea) was in Shushan the capital, and his name was Mordecai, who was exiled from Jerusalem… (Book of Esther 2:5-6)

It is hard for many Muslims to understand the intertwined nature of the religion of Judaism and the ongoing nature of the ethnic Jewish People because although Judaism and Islam are very close in most ways they differ greatly from each other in their origins. Muslims needed only one Prophet and one book. Jews needed dozens of Prophets and many Sacred Scriptures. 

While Christians, Jews and Muslims should make no disrespectful distinction between any of their prophets or their sacred scriptures, we cannot help but notice that the circumstances and style of the Hebrew Bible and the Qur’an as written revelations; are very distinct. 

The Hebrew Sacred Scriptures are a vast collection (305,358 Hebrew words) of Divinely inspired books written over a period of almost a thousand years, by 48 male prophets and 7 female prophetesses (Talmud Megillah 14a); plus many more anonymous inspired Historians, Poets, and Philosophers. 

The Greek New Testament is much shorter (a total of 138,162 Greek words); and was written over a period of less than 70 years, by four biographers plus maybe a half dozen other writers who all wrote in a language (Greek) that Prophet Jesus and Prophet John never spoke.

The Arabic Qur’an is even much shorter (a total of 77,934 Arabic words) recited only by Prophet Muhammad during a period of less than two dozen years and written down by his own disciples.

Most people in the world have learned of Prophet Abraham, not by reading a book of Jewish history or religion, but by listening to and reading from the Christian Bible or the Muslim Qur’an. This unique and amazing situation is a reflection of a promise made to Prophet Abraham the Hebrew more than 36 centuries ago, and recorded in both the Torah and the Qur’an.

“I swear (says God) because you did this – not withholding your son, your favorite one, I will bestow My blessing on you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore; and your descendants shall seize the gates of their foes.  All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by your descendants, because you have obeyed My command.” (Genesis 22:16-18) and “Indeed, We chose him (Abraham) as one pure and most distinguished in the world, and he is surely among the righteous in the Hereafter”. (Qur’an 2:130)

Prophet Isaiah said: But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, are the offspring of Abraham, my friend;”  (Isaiah 41:8) So the biological offspring of Prophet Abraham the Hebrew  (the Banu Israel) became the first ongoing monotheistic community when God rescued them from Egyptian oppression; and made an ongoing covenant with them at Mount Sinai. Prophet Abraham the Hebrew was not born a Jew, but his descendants from his grandson Jacob/Israel became the Banu Israel—Jewish People.

For 1200 + years after Prophet Moses, the Banu Israel was the only ongoing abiding monotheistic community in the world. “Similarly, no Messenger came to the People before them, but they said (of him)  “A sorcerer, or one possessed'”! (51:52) Unlike the other monotheistic communities that rose and fell during those centuries; most, but not all, of Banu Israel remained loyal to the covenant God made with them at Mount Sinai. Thus, most people in the world have learned of Prophet Abraham, not by reading a book of Jewish history or religion, but by listening to and reading from the Christian Bible or the Muslim Qur’an.

I believe that Prophet Jesus, who said: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” (Matthew 15:24); unintentionally became a Jewish Prophet for the non-Jewish world. And Prophet Muhammad. the unlettered prophet, was the one intentional non-Jewish Prophet for the non-Jewish world.

As the Qur’an states: “Those who follow the Messenger, the unlettered prophet, whom they find written in what they have of the Torah and the Gospel, who enjoins upon them what is right and forbids them what is wrong, and makes lawful for them the good things and prohibits for them the evil (things), and relieves them of their burden and the shackles which were upon them. So they who have believed in him, honored him, supported him and followed the light which was sent down with him (even if they did not convert to Islam)  – it is those who will be successful.” (7:157)

“Indeed, the believers, Jews, Christians, and Sabians—whoever truly believes in God and the Last Day and does good will have their reward with their Lord. And there will be no fear for them, nor will they grieve.” (Quran 2:62)

So God’s promise to Prophet Abraham, that the other families of humankind will ultimately bless themselves, and one another, thus aspiring to be like Abraham’s Jewish descendants (Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 22:18; 26:4; 28:14), has been fulfilled in the three Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

Rabbi Allen S. Maller

Allen Maller retired in 2006 after 39 years as Rabbi of Temple Akiba in Culver City, Calif. He is the author of an introduction to Jewish mysticism. God. Sex and Kabbalah and editor of the Tikun series of High Holy Day prayerbooks.

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