I am thoroughly enjoying Jared Diamond‘s The World Until Yesterday: What We Can Learn from Traditional Societies?, as I enjoyed Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse. On page 229, in the context of a discussion of why young people allow the elderly to exercise power in the form of control of property, Abraham ﷺ is described as a Hebrew patriarch.
The specific passage is:
Hence the patriarch enjoys a commanding position to persuade his children to let him stay in the family house and to take care of him. For example, the Old Testament describes Abraham and other Hebrew patriarchs as owning many livestock in their old age. Old Chukchi men own reindeer; old Mongol men own horses; old Navajo own horses, sheep, cattle, and goats; and old Kazakhs own those same four livestock species plus camels.
As an Arab Muslim, I found it odd to describe Abraham as a Hebrew. In my limited knowledge of Arabic, Hebrew is typically used as a linguistic term (اللغة العبرية). I know in English, it was often used as a synonym for Jew, although I think that usage is now considered incorrect and it is currently only used linguistically and ethnically/ethnographically.
Like every other learned blogger, I eschewed the arduous process of reading scholarly material on the subject and Googled “Who are the Hebrews”. The Jewish Virtual Library, of whose authority and quality I am ignorant, starts its article with:
According to biblical tradition, the Hebrews are peoples descended from Shem, one of Noah’s sons, through Eber, the eponymous ancestor, and Abraham. … From Shem, through Arpachshad and Shelah came Eber, the eponymous ancestor of the Hebrews, and from his descendants through Peleg, Reu, Sereg and Nahor came Terah, the father of Abram and his brothers Nahor and Haran. It becomes clear that if “Hebrews” are descendants of Eber, then others besides those of Abraham’s line would be included (see Gen. 10:25-27).
The article mentions repeatedly Abraham’s origins along the upper Euphrates and his being culturally Hurrian (from Haran, Harran in modern Turkey).
The article also discusses etymological analyses of the term Hebrew based on archaeological and textual evidence.
Regardless of its origins, to me the most interesting thing about accepting Abraham as Hebrew is the subsequent exclusion of most of his descendants. Every child born outside of the line of Jacob (Israel) ﷺ is excluded. So regardless of the term’s origin, to assert it today to describe Jacob’s forefathers is an ideological act, albeit almost certainly unconscious in the case of Dr. Diamond above.
What if we started calling Abraham a Mesopotamian patriarch or a Semetic patriarch or a Levantian patriarch? Wouldn’t that be more accurate? Would the USA be so willing to invade and bomb the modern countries of Syria and Iraq and Iran (maybe one day Turkey) if the beloved figure of Abraham was associated with these countries?
Probably. After all, being associated with Abraham didn’t spare Jews centuries of lower status, mob violence, legal restrictions and, eventually, genocide. I’m merely wondering if, the next time Dr. Diamond mentions Abraham in a book and uses one of the terms I’m suggesting, will his editor object.
P.S. If anybody doubts the Muslim attachment to the Messenger Ibrahim (Abraham) (عليه السلام), read this blog entry I wrote about Muslims’ supposed obligation to kill a certain kind of gecko lizard because it attacked him.
P.P.S. I also wrote something about how Dr. Diamond decided that heaven populated by beautiful virgins was the Muslim belief he chose to highlight.
Updated 2015-February 5. Not really relevant, but too funny not to include: