To research your book, you willingly put yourself in many dangerous situations and in the middle of war zones. It seems you think this book is important now--that it couldn't be put off for a couple years when things might be a little more calm in the Mideast. Why is it so important that this book come out now?
After "Walking the Bible" came out, I was very happily working on another biblical trek last summer. Then, at home in New York on September 11, I received a phone call from my brother, saying, "Look outside your window." I watched the towers fall from the home of neighbors I hardly knew. I was mute, like everybody else, for several weeks. Then we began to hear these questions: Why did they hit us? Can the religions get along? We had been told for about a decade that the biggest question facing the world was going to be the battle between Islam and the Judeo-Christian world. Was this that moment? Was this the start of the end of the world?
If you listened closely, one name echoed behind that conversation, and one man stands at the nexus of the three religions that suddenly seem to be at war: Abraham.
So it was 10 days after September 11 that I hit on this idea, that I wanted to understand Abraham. He is largely unknown. I wanted go looking for Abraham, and I wanted to get him into the national conversation as soon as possible.
Had you thought much about Abraham before September 11?
About a third of "Walking the Bible" is about the early years of Genesis, so I had written a lot about Abraham. In all those years of traveling in the Middle East, in Turkey, Israel, Palestinian territories, Egypt, Jordan, and elsewhere, I had talked to countless Jews, Christians, and Muslims about politics, geography, and faith. One thing I learned in traveling there is that the past is never really that far away. It's always lying just under the sand.
How did your journey to discover Abraham differ from the journey in "Walking the Bible"?
"Walking the Bible" is largely a journey of place. The idea was to go to the places and then read the biblical stories in the places. Very early on with "Abraham," I realized that this was going to be a journey of place and time. On the one hand, I went back to the Middle East, and I wanted to see how the conversation about Abraham differed in the middle of the war zone as opposed to 10,000 miles away. But I also quickly realized that the story was not just the story of Abraham as he appears in Genesis. The story is how each of the religions reinterpreted Abraham over time. There has been an ongoing retelling of the story of Abraham for four millennia. That is something that is entirely new and different from "Walking the Bible."
"Walking the Bible" was an attempt to reenter the time of the biblical stories. With "Abraham," I had to reenter the story of Abraham in every generation for the last 4,000 years.
So is that what you mean by there being 240 different Abrahams?
When I started this journey, I expected there was one Abraham. I thought I could go back to the Middle East and find some oasis somewhere in the desert and say, "Look, here's the center of Abrahamic ideals!"
I very quickly realized that was not true. The great innovation of the monotheistic religions was not just the great stories of the past but finding a way to make the stories of the past relevant to today. So that first Jews, then Christians, then Muslims, every week, retell the stories of the past and make them current. Sometimes in doing that, they find different things in the stories. And sometimes when the religions have been at war with each other, as they have been for much of the past, they say, "Abraham is mine. You don't have rights to Abraham."
There wasn't just one Abraham; there was one Abraham every 50 years for each of the religions over thousands of years. That's how I came up with the number 240. The Abraham of the Middle Ages for Christianity turns out to be different from the Abraham of the 19th century for Islam, which is different from the Abraham of the Second Temple period for Judaism. And these Abrahams are often in conflict with one another. Originally that was the thing that filled me with the most despair, but ultimately I realized it was an incredible opening, because it meant we can create Abraham Number 241 right now. We can create our own Abraham--the Abraham that we need right now at this moment in the history of religion, after 9/11, when religions seem to be about to explode.