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Analysis: Story of Abraham and His Relevance to Islam, Judaism and Christianity

'Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths'



NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

In Bruce Feiler's new book, he calls Abraham `the shared father of Jews, Christians and Muslims, the patriarch of the Hebrew Bible, the spiritual forefather of the New Testament and the architect of the Koran.' Despite that revered position in three major monotheistic religions of the world, Feiler also says Abraham is largely unknown. He set out to write this book after the 11th of September, with some goals in mind: to come to know Abraham, to understand his legacy and his appeal, and to learn, he writes, `how Abraham managed to serve as the common origin for his myriad of descendants, even as they were busy shoving each other aside and claiming him as their own.'

Could this common thread of three faiths serve as a unifying symbol in difficult times? Bruce Feiler's new book is titled "Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths." And Bruce Feiler joins us now from the studios of member station WBUR in Boston, and good to have you on TALK OF THE NATION again.

Mr. BRUCE FEILER (Author, "Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths"): It's always my pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: Of course, we want to hear from you listeners as well. Do you know the story of Abraham? What does he mean to you? What questions do you have about his life or the role he plays in Islam, Judaism and Christianity? Did your beliefs or faith change after September the 11th, and can Abraham be a unifying force amongst the three diverse faiths? And can he help us to understand each other's faith?

Call us with your questions and comments. Our number here in Washington, (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Bruce Feiler, when you started to research Abraham, what did you find out about who he is, how he's portrayed in these three different faiths?

Mr. FEILER: I think the reason Abraham is important is because he stands at the center of the relationship between humans and God. So if you want to understand God, you have to understand Abraham. And in many ways, if you want to understand humans ourselves, you have to understand Abraham. If you go back to the beginning of the story, God creates the world. And from the very beginning, he's looking for a human partner to spread his blessing to the world. He tries Adam, but as we all know, Adam prefers Eve to God, so God banishes them. Ten generations pass. God is frustrated. Then he taps Noah. Noah saves the animals, but then Noah turns to liquor, and God once again gets frustrated and withdraws.

Ten more generations pass and God is looking for a different kind of person, someone who needs him. God, in effect, needs Abraham. And the reason Abraham needs God is because Abraham doesn't have a child. He's old, 75 when we first meet him in Genesis 11. His wife is barren. He can't have a child. I mean, if you think about it, most heroes--even most heroes in the Bible--they're babies: Jesus, Moses or young boys like David. Abraham is an old man. He's human. He's much more identifiable. He needs God because he wants a son. And they form this incredible partnership, God and Abraham.

CONAN: Now you've taken us through the first 75 years of Abraham's life when not much has happened until, whammo, God starts talking to him.

Mr. FEILER: Right.

CONAN: Then the story gets pretty complicated and interesting.

Mr. FEILER: Well, what happens is God says to Abraham, `Go forth.' Abraham goes down into the promised land. Decades passed; still no child. So Sarah, his wife, takes her handmaiden Hagar, gives him to Abraham, and Hagar gives birth to Ishmael. Da-dum! Abraham has his child, finally. But as soon as Ishmael is born, Sarah gets pregnant and gives birth to Isaac. So now we've got two children, rivals for the same land, rivals for Abraham's legacy. And as you, as everybody recalls, Sarah forces Abraham to kick Ishmael out into the desert, and that right there is the split. Muslims consider themselves descended from Ishmael, who was Spanish. Jews and Christians consider themselves descended from Isaac. So at the heart of everything going on today is this family feud.

CONAN: There are also two divergent stories, one that appears in the Bible, with which most of us are familiar, and the other in the Koran, which is a little less familiar to us.

Mr. FEILER: Well, I think what's interesting--you raised it at the top of the hour, Neal--is that Abraham is a man of unity, I think, and universal dispensing of God's blessing. At the same time, he's also a man of violence in a lot of ways. He kicks Ishmael out into the desert which is, in effect, tantamount to killing him. And then later, he attempts to kill his son. And Jews and Christians think that Abraham attempts to kill Isaac, as is described in Genesis, and he does so in Jerusalem. Muslims believe now that Abraham tried to kill Ishmael and did it in Mecca out in Arabia. So you see what happens is the story has this sort of universal message, but over time, the religions sort of wrestled with one another, tried to claim Abraham as their own, and as a result, they can't even agree on even many of the basic facts anymore.

CONAN: Now you write in the book that, `For Christians and Jews, Abraham is a largely literary figure, somebody we read about in the Bible.' That's not the truth; that's not the same for Muslims.

Mr. FEILER: Well, what happens is, according to the story--and actually, Jews, Christians and Muslims believe that when Ishmael went out into the desert, Abraham went to visit him. And for Muslims, the Koran says that Abraham, while he was visiting Ishmael in the desert, built this black stone called the Kaaba, which is now in the center of the grand Holy Mosque in Mecca, called all Muslims to make the pilgrimage. It was Abraham's idea.

So every Muslim is called on to make, at least once in his or her life, the trip to Mecca. And when they go, they walk around this stone, just as Abraham did, and they feel this incredible intimacy. I went to visit, at one point, Sheik Yusef Abu Sneina, who is the imam of Al-Aqsa Mosque, the third holiest in Islam, and he talked about that feeling when you walk around, how close you feel from Abraham. And I said, `Well, what do you want from Abraham at that moment?' And he said, `Well, you don't want anything from Abraham. You want something from God.' And I said, `Well, what happens to you? Do you cry?' And he said, `Some people cry loudly because they're in pain. Some people cry quietly.' And I asked this man, who's the third holiest imam in Islam, `Did you cry?' And he said, `Many times.' And I said, `What kind of tears?' He said, `Tears of worship.' That is a direct intimate connection between these people, Abraham and God. It's physical, almost, to Muslims, not literary or abstract.

CONAN: Our telephone number again is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address, totn@npr.org. We're talking with Bruce Feiler, the author most recently of "Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths."

And our first caller is Mimi(ph), who joins us on the line from Van Nuys, California.

MIMI (Caller): Yes. Good morning...

CONAN: Good morning.

MIMI: ...here. I do think that Abraham unifies all three religions and in a very timely way in that he thought that God demanded the sacrifice of his son in order for him to prove his love and loyalty to God above all else. And he did not have to sacrifice his son, and I think that we should remember all three religions need to outgrow this idea that they need to shed blood and sacrifice their sons and daughters in order to prove their loyalty to their god, the god that they imagine is asking this.

CONAN: Hmm.

Mr. FEILER: What's interesting about this is this story of the sacrifice, which everybody remembers from when they were a child--you think that the story would be so barbaric that it would have died out over time. Instead, this story is read in the holiest week of the Jewish year, at Rosh Hashana. It's read in the holiest week of the Christian year, at Easter. It's read in the holiest week--the same story--the holiest week in the Muslim year, at the end of the pilgrimage. And I think it is because it's that question that, you know, cuts closest to our veins and poses the question we hope never to ask: Would I kill for God? And as we all...

MIMI: And the answer should be no. I think Sarah, the mother, might have had a different answer. And a wonderful psychologist named Alice Miller wrote in a book that in looking for a painting to put on the cover of the book about child abuse, she could not find one in which Abraham was looking at his child. He was always looking up to sacrifice and kill. And she said, `If he looked in the eyes of his child, he would have seen the answer, "Why are you doing this? Please don't kill me."'

Mr. FEILER: It's interesting. As you may know, Abraham is on the cover of Time magazine this week because of this topical issue we're discussing. And they lay out all of these portraits of Abraham over the generations, and by far and away, the action from Abraham's life that is most frequently depicted in the history of art is this sacrifice.

MIMI: Well, let us look to our children's eyes for God from now on, instead of to the skies where we imagine he is. And that's my comment. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks for the call, Mimi.

Mr. FEILER: Thank you.

CONAN: Now let's go to Jonathan, who's on the line with us from Washington.

JONATHAN (Caller): Hello there. Thanks for taking my call. I'd like to take a slight exception to the course of the exchange there and suggest that, as admirable as the attempt to merge the three faiths into perhaps a new fourth religion at our time, Abraham is not really a common ancestor. And the commonalties in the Koran and the Jewish and Christian Scriptures are largely artificial and superficial in the sense that, A, the Koran or Islamic theology has never accepted the validity of anything in the Jewish and Christian Scriptures; that though the names are common often of prophets and ancestors and some of the tales are common, generally speaking, we are talking about characters that may resemble each other but stand for things that are entirely different.

The notion of Abrahamic common roots came up only in the last few decades as a result of the thoughts of one particular French theologian and philosopher, mostly in the 1950s and 1960s, and has then been adopted by Islamic activists in this country as a way, legitimately of course, of advancing Islam politically as a minority religion and doing away with the notion that this country is based on Judeo-Christian roots, rather shifting to Abrahamic roots and so on. But all in all, I think that Islam has never accepted the validity of a Christian or Jewish Abraham or, for that matter, the validity of any Jewish and Christian prophet.

Mr. FEILER: I appreciate your comment, though I will take exception to the premise of your comment. In no way am I suggesting that the objective or the desire here is to merge the three religions into some fourth sort of Esperanto mumbo jumbo in which people cannot express themselves. I'll tell you what I hold onto. In Genesis 25, Abraham at age 175 dies, and his children, Ishmael and Isaac, rivals since before they were born, leaders of opposing nations, estranged since childhood, come, stand side by side, and bury their father. And that, to me--Abraham achieves in death what he could never achieve in life, this moment of reconciliation between his two sons. And that, to me, is the image. It doesn't say that they hugged and they moved in with each other, they merged their families, and each of their great nations became one. It says that they stood side by side. The destination here is not one unified religion. It is a situation where the religions stand side by side, respect one another's differences and understand their common origins here. We have two choices. It's all-out war among the religions or it's coexistence. I think this decision is quite stark.

CONAN: Well, let me follow up on that. I mean, how do you research Abraham? I mean, what other texts do we have?

Mr. FEILER: Well, the answer is--you played that clip at the top of the hour. The story is detailed most explicitly in Genesis, and in the New Testament, it refers back to Genesis, and in the Koran, it also refers back to Genesis. The facts are we have no historical evidence that Abraham ever existed. There's no presidential library where we can go and check the facts. You would think this would be a problem, but it actually helped the religions in a sort of somewhat perverse way in that each of the religions sort of chucked out the original story and, over time, began to reinterpret and almost reinvent Abraham.

So this was the big challenge, and most of my waking hours and many of my sleeping ones over the last year were spent trying to untangle this knot, that you have the Abraham as he appears in the original story, and then each generation, every 50 years for a hundred years, for 2,000 years, has made up its own Abraham. So it turns out I wasn't looking for one Abraham. I was looking for 240. And that is the big challenge that we face, is trying to accept the fact that there are all these rival interpretations, rival characters, rival heroes out there, which--and we have to understand the base story, but then again, I think, accept that we can create our own Abraham, who is an Abraham for today.

CONAN: We're talking with Bruce Feiler about his new book on Abraham, and we're going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll take more of your calls, (800) 989-TALK. That's (800) 989-8255. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.org. What questions do you have about the patriarch's life and the role he plays in Islam, Judaism and Christianity? Can he be a figure to unify three faiths or are the different versions of the stories of Abraham pushing each religion apart and even towards fanaticism?

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking with Bruce Feiler about his new book, "Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths." You're invited to join our discussion. Do you remember learning the story of Abraham? What was it that had resonance in your life? Give us a call at (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

And, Bruce Feiler, you learned the story of Abraham well, that passage that you were talking about, `Go forth.' That was your portion when you were bar mitzvahed.

Mr. FEILER: It was a cold brisk October morning in 1977, and I stepped, never shaven, to the pulpit of Mickve Israel Synagogue in Savannah, Georgia, carried the Torah from the open arc to the front of the pulpit, removed the pointer and the breastplate and the mantle, and everything was done a little bit too meticulously, and it took slightly longer than it should have. I was really nervous. And I clasped the pointer and I read the opening passages of Genesis, Chapter 12, `(Hebrew spoken).' I was 13 years old. Those were the portions in which God says to Abraham, `Go forth from your father's house to the promised land.' It's the same one my brother read at his bar mitzvah. My mother's maiden name is Abeshouse, House of Abraham.

But to me, actually, the most memorable part of that weekend occurred later that night. My parents invited some friends over to our house, and halfway through this party they were having, my father called me to the bar, ordered a gin and tonic and said, `Son, you're a man now. You're responsible for your own actions.' And it really wasn't until much later that I realized the meaning of those words or the meaning of that act in my life; that part of the legacy of Abraham is coming from a cozy place, but being prepared to leave that place. In some ways, it's the decision that all of us face at one time or another, to looking back at our comfortable past and looking ahead to our uncertain future and wondering, `Do I have the courage to make the leap?' And fortunately, my parents understood it before I did. It was my father himself who said to me, `Go forth.'

CONAN: How did you return to this story after the 11th of September, a day on which--well, I think you've told the story on this program before. You saw the towers fall.

Mr. FEILER: I watched the towers fall from my home in Manhattan that morning. And like everybody else, I was mute as we began to hear these questions, `Who are they? Why do they hate us? Can the religions get along?' And we had been told, Neal, as you know, that the big question facing the world in the new century was going to be the struggle between the Islamic world and the Judeo-Christian world. Was this that moment? And if you listen closely, one name echoed behind those conversations. One man was at the heart of the religion that suddenly seemed to be at war: Abraham, Abraham, Abraham. As you said, he's in the Old Testament. He's in the Gospels. He is in the Koran. He's the shared ancestor. That means he is the father, the biological father, of 12 million Jews, two billion Christians and one billion Muslims around the world. And yet--that's half the humans alive today. And yet, he's virtually unknown.

And I wanted to know him. I mean, was he just a source of war or could he be a source of reconciliation? And so two weeks after that date, I got up off my sofa and I went on a search. I went back to the Middle East in the middle of the war and back to the text and, as we just were discussing, in some ways, deep inside myself, as I tried to ask the question that countless generations have asked before: Can Abraham heal the world?

CONAN: Our next caller is Joe, who's on the line with us from Minneapolis.

JOE (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon. My question is this. Does your guest believe that this is all factually true or rather that these are stories intended at the time to make groups of people distinct from each other, such as not eating pork or fish on Fridays or having different sabbathes--sabbaths, excuse me? I mean, back when this supposedly happened, we had an area of the desert where people were fighting over, and it was advantageous for one group to differentiate themselves from other groups by saying, `Look, we're closer to God, we're better people, we have this justification in order to live here.' I mean, doesn't that make more sense rather than this is all factually correct? It seems very hard to believe that, in fact, these things did happen.

Mr. FEILER: I actually think it's neither, and I think that's something of a false choice. We don't have any historical evidence, so therefore, we do not know if it's factually correct. There is this other idea, as you suggest, that the stories were made up 1,500 years later. I actually think that what was more likely to have happened is that the story has deep oral roots that go back to the beginning of the second millennium BCE, when Abraham would have lived, that these stories were passed down from generation to generation. Maybe an anachronism crept in here or there, but that the stories are deeply true, even if they are not factual.

And I guess the point I would make to illustrate that briefly is the story of Abraham, as it appears in Genesis, is not a story of division. It's actually a story of broad universal blessing passed on my God. The Bible does not treat losers well. Abel is murdered. Lot's wife turns into a pillar of salt. Ishmael goes into the desert, but he never leaves the realm of Abraham's love and paternity, and he never leaves the realm of God's blessing. The point is that God blesses Abraham and both of its children. And the fact that this story, so old, suggests that Abraham is the father of both the people who get the land and the people who don't get the land suggests that the universal nature of Abraham goes deep into history.

CONAN: Yet, to follow on Joe's point, I mean, there's a question that that story has been used to justify one people occupying the land and one not.

Mr. FEILER: Well, that's exactly what's interesting about it, is that the story is so universal, but then each of the religions, for its own purposes, elbowed the others aside and said, `No, Abraham is ours.' So Jews made him into a Jew. Christians made him into a Christian. I mean, in the Jewish commentaries, they have Abraham being the reason for Passover, which occurred a thousand years after he died. They have him keeping kosher, which wasn't invented until 1,500 years after he died. They got him going to synagogue and falling asleep during the sermon, which, you know, didn't even happen until 3,000 years later.

And it's the same thing. Christians have suggested that God didn't call Abraham to go forth; Jesus called Abraham to go forth. Muslims have suggested that Abraham actually preferred Ishmael and not Isaac. Each of the religions, for its own purposes, has reinterpreted the story, said, `He's ours,' and I think the reason is they know that they can't take Abraham out of the equation. He is that joint. God chose Abraham. Abraham chose God. That is eternal, and everybody wants control over that moment.

CONAN: Joe, thanks very much. Let's go now to Suliman(ph), who joins us on the line from Philadelphia. Hello, Suliman? I guess he's not there. Thanks very much. And let's go instead to David, who's on the line from St. Louis.

DAVID (Caller): Hi. Good afternoon. Thank you for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

Mr. FEILER: Good afternoon.

DAVID: I am always interested in the story of Abraham because in Jewish tradition, we don't refer to that story as the sacrifice of Isaac, because, in fact, he was not sacrificed, but rather it is known as the akedah, the binding of Isaac. And I've always looked at this story symbolically. Number one, where God instructs Abraham to take Isaac and a servant and to gather wood, etc., and to go to the mountain, he says, `Take your son, your only son whom you love.' We have echoes of what is to come later in Christianity with Jesus, OK?

Number two, when they actually get to the place, Isaac says, `Father, where is the ram for the sacrifice?' Abraham says, `God will provide the ram, my son.' OK? So it gives an inkling of Abraham really not being prepared to go through with this command from God.

Number three, and the most interesting thing, I believe, is that when Abram raises the knife, it is not the voice of God that calls out to him, but rather the voice of an angel. It says, `Stop, do not hurt the child.' What causes Abram to listen to God and obey the command to sacrifice Isaac, whereas he takes it on a lesser authority, that of an angel, to actually refrain from harming him? What I believe is happening here is not a literal story, but rather a development of conscience. And I'd like to hear Mr. Feiler's commentary on that. And I should tell you also, I've heard this story from both Jewish and Christian perspectives for many years because I'm organist at both a synagogue and for a church. So...

Mr. FEILER: Well, what's interesting, I mean, just briefly, to comment on this, is the answer is, you know, we don't know. I mean, this works as Scripture because of the lack of detail. It would fail as history, but it works because you can give any interpretation. I happen to like and would suggest to you maybe God isn't testing Abraham; maybe Abraham is testing God. And God, after all, promised Abraham a son. Ishmael's been banished already, so if Abraham kills Isaac at this point, then he won't have a son, and God becomes a liar. Maybe, in fact, we've been looking at the story wrong for all these years.

But the other thing that I'll say briefly is what's interesting is that, as you say, the Jews called this the binding, and for much of Jewish history interpreted the story to say that Abraham was not going to kill Isaac. After Christianity came along at the time of Christ, and the early Christians said that Abraham sacrificed Isaac and stopped short but God did not stop short when he sacrificed his son, Jesus, Jewish commentaries added an element of the Jewish interpretation of the story that said that Isaac actually did die, because the angel has to call out twice to Abraham. So they said Isaac died, went away for three days, then came back. In fact, Jews in the Middle Ages even put ashes on their forehead to commemorate the death of Isaac.

It shows--as later we know what happened with Islam with the story, it shows that the religions have been wrestling over Abraham, and which interpretations sort of have currency at the moment depend on who's up, who's down, who's feeling besieged and who's feeling confident.

CONAN: Hmm.

DAVID: OK.

CONAN: Thanks very much, David.

DAVID: Thank you.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go now to Hassib(ph), who's on the line from Gainesville, Florida.

HASSIB (Caller): Yeah. How are you all doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

Mr. FEILER: Thank you for calling.

HASSIB: OK. Yeah. I'm calling, actually as a Muslim, and I'm an American. I'm an American Muslim. And it just--I've grown up here all my life, and one thing that really bothers me is that my friends, my Jewish and Christian friends, are not in touch with the Muslim perspective. So I have a few points. I'm going to try to go over them as quickly as possible and get some comments from you all. First of all, in response to one of the callers who was trying to allude that Muslims tried to make Abraham a part of the faith in order to kind of unify all the three religions, I beg to differ. The fact remains that there is a sura or a chapter in the Koran that's named after Abraham, the Koran being at least 1,400 years old.

Second, being that Muslims in the manner that they pray have again, for 1,400 years, been invoking a prayer to God that God bless Mohammed and his family as he's blessed Abraham and Abraham's family. That brings me to the point that, in Islam, we do not see Isaac as a rival to Ishmael, rather as a partner in preaching the Word of God. So there was never a rivalry between the two, and there was likewise not a rivalry between Sarah or Hagar, but actually was a commandment to God that Abraham send his child to Mecca--Ishmael, that is--to preach the word in the Meccan area.

Thirdly is the hajj that we have, the pilgrimage, which, again, has been going on for at least 1,400 years. It is a perfect example of how the Abrahamic tradition is really deep in the Islamic tradition--the fact that there is a house that was built by Abraham, as the speaker mentioned--the speaker actually mentioned that it was a stone, but it's actually a house, the first house of worship that was actually initially built by Adam and then rebuilt on the same foundations where Adam built it by Abraham.

So the Abrahamic traditions in Islam are deep and they have evidence through the Koran. A lot of what we read in the Koran also does not necessarily revolve only around Abraham's elderly years, but also around his youth when he was arguing with his father, the idol maker, and at the cost of a punishment that the people were trying to burn him--people tried to burn him, but God through his mercy made the fire into a cold ease for Abraham, that--it was also a miracle that was given to him. So there's a lot of focus, also, on the youth of Abraham, not just on his elderly years. Thank you, and sorry for taking up so much of your time.

CONAN: That's quite all right, Hassib.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And, Bruce, if you wanted to respond to some of his points.

Mr. FEILER: Well, first of all, I thought they were wonderfully made points, and I think it does point out what, again, we've been saying all along, which is that Abraham is incredibly important to all three religions, arguably more important to Islam than he is to Christianity or even to Judaism. But I think that if you go back in history, what's interesting is how the three religions shared legends. He mentioned the story about Abraham and the idol makers. That does not appear in the Bible, but it does appear in Jewish commentaries and it actually appears in the Koran, suggesting either that it's true or that the stories went from Jewish midrash into the Koran.

And it also went the other way. The Koran tells a story that Abraham actually visited Ishmael out into the desert. Ishmael was out visiting, working in the fields, and Abraham didn't like Ishmael's wife; sent a message to Ishmael. He got rid of the first wife and remarried. Abraham came back and approved of the new wife. That story, after appearing in Islamic tradition, went the other way and started appearing in Jewish midrash, indicating that before we were in the rivalry that we're in now, there was a sort of almost an osmosis among the three religions, who, of course, were all in this same area of the world, and the stories were going back and forth from one tradition to the other.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail question from Miranda in Duluth: `If Abraham was testing God, rather than the other way around--the Bible suggests that God needs us as much as we need him--perhaps this story is a way of suggesting the bonds go both ways.'

Mr. FEILER: That is exactly the point. If you go back to the beginning of the story, God needs Abraham because he needs a human partner, and Abraham needs God because he needs a divine partner. They both--this is a story about creation. That's what the Bible is all about. That's what the Koran, in many ways, is all about. It's a creation story, and neither can do it without the other. God chooses Abraham; Abraham chooses God. It's one of the defining moments in humankind, and all three religions share awe for that moment. At the heart of everything going on today is a message that everybody agrees on.

CONAN: Another e-mail question, and this is a challenge that John the Baptist, recognized as a prophet by Islam as well as by the Jewish and Christian faiths--`John challenged the importance of Abraham in a famous sermon recorded in the Gospel of Matthew,' this an e-mail from Dan Bahmus(ph). `"And think not to say within yourselves we have Abraham to our father, for I say unto you that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham." Obviously your guest believes that the legend of Abraham is still relevant. I'd like to hear his response to John's challenge.'

Mr. FEILER: Well, I believe that the lesson of Abraham is certainly still relevant, and I believe that the challenge--and in this story we're saying that neither side can do it without the other, that God and Abraham, that God and humans, need each other. And we still need God, and we cannot get there without getting there through Abraham.

CONAN: And, Bruce Feiler, one last thought, and that is a point that you make about this story, and again going back to the sacrifice of the son, whether it be Isaac or Ishmael, depending on which book you're reading, and that comes at the end of it when God talks not to Abraham, but to the son.

Mr. FEILER: Well, what happens is, over time, all three religions share this basic idea, that the son looks up to Abraham and looks up to God and says, you know, `If I'm going to be sacrificed, if I'm going to suffer here, I hope that when all of my descendants come into heaven, that you will allow them to enter.' And that the son, at that moment, can look at the father and can look at God and can find hope, then I believe we can, too. And the invitation that I offer here is if you want to understand what is going on in all these wars we're fighting now, or your neighbor--and I think that's the spirit of these calls we've had today--or even your own relationship with God, come on this journey with me and I think that you'll be surprised by a lot of the rivalry, but ultimately uplifted, because at the heart of it, it's a family feud and it all comes back to one man.

CONAN: Bruce Feiler's book is called "Abraham: A Journey to the Heart of Three Faiths." Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. FEILER: It's my pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: Earlier today, Britain's prime minister, Tony Blair, presented a dossier of evidence to Parliament to support action against Iraq.

Prime Minister TONY BLAIR (Britain): The policy of containment is not working. The weapons of mass destruction program is not shut down. It is up and running now.

CONAN: When we come back from a short break, we'll bring you news from London about how members of Parliament and the British public are reacting to Blair's speech.

I'm Neal Conan. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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