Abraham: A Vessel for Reconciliation?

How one man from far in the past help us understand our future.

Excerpted with permission from "Abraham" by Bruce Feiler (William Morrow, September 2002)

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I had been coming to Jerusalem often in recent years. My visits were part of a larger experience of trying to understand the roots of my identity by reentering the landscape of the Bible. I did most of my traveling during a rare bubble of peace, when going from one place to another was relatively easy. Now that bubble had burst, and the world that seemed joined together by the navel was suddenly unraveling around the very same hub: East and west; Arabs and Israelis; Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Words like apocalypse, clash of civilization, crusade, jihad resounded in the headlines. "We are in a world war," Abdul, the Arab shopkeeper, had said, "a religious war, and it's based just outside my front door."

My experience in the region persuaded me that it's possible--maybe even necessary--to gain insight into a contemporary situation by turning away from the present and looking back to its historical source. Especially in matters of faith, even the most modern act is informed by centuries of intermingled belief, blood, and misunderstanding.

And in that conflagration, as it has for four millennia, one name echoes behind every conversation. One figure stands at the dawn of every subsequent endeavor. One individual holds the breadth of the past--and perhaps the dimensions of the future--in his life story.

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Abraham.

The great patriarch of the Hebrew Bible is also the spiritual forefather of the New Testament and the grand holy architect of the Koran. Abraham is the shared ancestor of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. He is the linchpin of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He is the centerpiece of the battle between the West and Islamic extremists. He is the father--in many cases, the purported

biological

father--of 12 million Jews, 2 billion Christians, and 1 billion Muslims around the world. He is history's first monotheist.

And he is largely unknown.

I wanted to know him. I wanted to understand his legacy--and his appeal. I wanted to discover how he managed to serve as the common origin for his myriad of descendants, even as they were busy shoving one another aside and claiming him as their own. I wanted to figure out whether he was a hopeless fount of war or a possible vessel for reconciliation.

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