Jews, Christians, and Muslims: Do They Worship the Same God?

A common refrain on message boards and in comment sections on the Internet is that Jews, Christians and most especially Muslims do not worship the same God. Is there any merit to this statement? All three religions are part of the Abrahamic tradition and find their roots in the ancient Hebrew faith. Modern Judaism developed after the fall of the Second Temple in 72 CE. Christianity as we know it today probably began with Paul’s teachings and solidified with the Council of Nicea in 325 CE, though it began as a Jewish movement around 30 CE. Islam, the newest (or oldest, depending on your religious perspective) of the three religions dates its beginning to approximately 610 CE and both draws and builds on Jewish and Christian religious traditions. All three religions share stories and in some cases texts. All three claim to be worshipping the God of the Patriarchs. All three also clearly conceive of God in different ways. Do we judge whether they worship the same God based on their own claims, or on their understandings of the nature of God?

A related video on the topic from YouTube:

In “The Perspective of at-Tawhid” (1983), Muhammad ‘Abdul Haq argues that there is a distinct difference between the monotheisms practiced by Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Writing from an Islamic perspective, the foundation of ‘Abdul Haq’s argument is the differing conceptions that Jews, Christians, and Muslims have about the unity (at-Tawhid) of God. He is critical of both Jews and Christians and believes that, because of their diverging religious traditions, they have an imperfect understanding of monotheism.

‘Abdul Haq argues that, while Islam places ultimate importance on the concept of the divine unity of God, both Judaism and Christianity are based on divine manifestation in history. He links the idea of monotheism in Judaism with the concept of ‘chosenness’ and the pact made at Mount Sinai. Because of this, he feels that it is impossible to disassociate the God of Judaism from the Jewish people as an ethnic group, making the conception of the Jewish God contingent on a historical event. Regarding Christianity, ‘Abdul Haq points out that everything revolves around the person of Jesus Christ and the events of his life, which also roots Christianity firmly into history.

The author believes Judaism and Christianity’s entrance into history is important because it differentiates them from Islam, which he claims has an absolute truth versus the formers’ relative truth. In other words, Islam sees God as being utterly transcendent and beyond our conception while both Judaism and Christianity place God in history, thereby restricting his essence. One could also argue that God sending Gabriel to reveal the Quran to Muhammad was an intervention in history. However, the difference is that in Judaism and Christianity, God Himself appears in history, while in Islam He works through an intermediary, Gabriel. The result is the same: an intervention in history, but the method is what sets Islam apart. Muslims see God as being beyond history, because entering history would necessarily restrict or limit his essence.[1]

He also states that Judaism monopolizes and nationalizes monotheism and prophecy.[2] This is not actually, true, however. While it was perhaps not always the case, modern Judaism does have a conception of God as being universal. This is not a new development, either. The Noahide Laws in Genesis, which are seven rules that apply to non-Jews, provide redemption for those who follow them. Essentially, it is a path to participation in monotheism without being Jewish. There is, of course, still a difference between inclusion in the covenant community and being a part of the Noahide community, but this still contradicts ‘Abdul Haq’s point.

Christanity, like Islam, has a universal message, but the author is still critical of the concept of the Trinity, which he bluntly states is not monotheism, regardless of how the explanation is framed.[3] Returning to the idea of God’s essence, he writes that “Judaism and Christianity have failed to evaluate the true worth of Divine Unity, the incommensurable nature of which signifies that there is no common measure between the finite and the Infinite.”[4] Breaking God down into parts is counter to Islam’s idea of God’s unity, which cannot be subdivided or contained.

Another way to look at the similarities and differences between the Abrahamic religions’ conceptions of God is by comparing their revelatory and mission structures. Martin Jaffee does this well in his article, “One God, One Revelation, One People: On the Symbolic Structure of Elective Monotheism” (2001). Jaffee engages with the symbolic structures of the Abrahamic religions to show that they are constructed in a way that brings them into almost inevitable conflict. He believes that their structural similarities, along with the decline in polytheism as a viable competing model of piety, explains what Jaffee calls their obsessive self-definition “over against” each other.[5]

Essentially, Jaffee looks at how the Abrahamic communities see themselves in relation to God and how they see their mission in history. For Israel, the “divine self-disclosure” comes in the form of human language via the Torah, a scriptural set of commandments passed down to man.[6] In Christianity, the divine self-disclosure comes in the form of Jesus’ historical life. This is distinct from Judaism, because it is not revelation transmitted in the form of human language. In Islam, the form of divine self-disclosure is textual, like it was in Judaism. The position that Islam takes on the previous two divine self-disclosures is that people altered the original texts and changed their meanings, which is what necessitated the third divine self-disclosure. Islam sees the Quran as a corrective that is meant to reestablish monotheism as universal and inviolable. This does not imply that Islam sees the Jewish and Christian views of God as the same or valid, however.

Writing in response to Jaffee, Yehezkel Landau attempts to bridge that gap in “God as Multiple Covenanter: Toward a Jewish Theology of Abrahamic Partnerships” (2015), an article that presents Christianity and Islam as legitimate, additional covenants between man and God. Landau asks, “[C]an monotheism be pluralistic, …that is, if God is One, how can different understandings of that Oneness be valid?”[7] Landau is attempting to present the God of the Torah as the same God worshipped in Christianity and Islam. He does this by finding a precedent in the Torah and then explains how Christianity and Islam fit into that existing pattern.

When people think of God’s covenant with Israel, the first thing that comes to mind is probably the covenant with Abram / Abraham that includes circumcision and a promise to make Abraham’s descendants plentiful. Landau argues instead that there are many covenants in the Torah that apply not only to Jews, but to all nations, starting with the covenant of the Sabbath. He notes that in Isaiah 56:1-7, Sabbath observance also applies to any stranger or foreigner that chooses to “join himself to the Eternal.”[8] The next covenant Landau reviews is the Noahide Covenant, which binds God, all human beings, and other living things on Earth. Lastly, Landau discusses the significance of the Abrahamic Covenant and Abraham’s role as the progenitor of both Israel and the Arabs, linking God’s covenant to Islam. The idea is, perhaps, to imply that part of God’s promise to Abraham is being carried out through the descendants of his son, Ishmael, as well as through Jacob / Israel.[9]

Landau casually dismisses non-Orthodox positions on religious pluralism, which is disappointing in a paper written to supposedly present a Jewish viewpoint. He simply states that they are more likely to be open to religious pluralism since they don’t follow halakha as strictly. It would have been more interesting and informative to see what the major Jewish denominational positions are, rather than having them dismissed out of hand, especially since most Jews are not Orthodox. In Landau’s defense, it is possible he believes his primary audience will be those who are not yet convinced and by his reasoning those people would tend to be Orthodox.

Another problem in Landau’s article is that he draws on the work of an Orthodox Rabbi named Irving Greenburg to tie Christianity into his argument of multiple covenants. Greenburg argues that covenant develops in stages. He specifically points out the change in Jewish practice after the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple as an example of an unfolding covenant. Greenburg sees Christianity as a natural outgrowth of the Hebrew faith and as a part of God’s design.[10] This argument does not make sense. If Christianity is part of God’s plan, and Christianity’s goal is to convert everyone to Christianity, then Greenburg is essentially arguing that Judaism should disappear. Landau quotes Greenburg at length. In one of the quotes, Greenburg attempts to position Christians as part of the house of Israel with the common goal of defending a unified religious tradition and the state of Israel against Islam.[11] While Landau criticizes Greenburg for taking this stance, he fails to realize that this undermines Greenburg’s entire argument, which comes across as a veiled appeal to Christian Zionists to begin or maintain support for the state of Israel.

‘Abdul Haq, Jaffee and Landau each take up the issue of whether the three Abrahamic religions are worshipping the same God from different perspectives and each comes up with different answers. While ‘Abdul Haq never states outright whether he thinks the God of Judaism and Christianity are the same deity being worshipped in Islam, it seems likely that he would say they are not. He pointedly criticizes the Christian concept of the Trinity, which he feels is certainly not monotheism. He also contends that Jews are worshipping a restricted sense of God in the form of a tribal rather than universal deity, though this is not actually the case. Jaffee points out that while each group believes they have received a divine self-disclosure, that disclosure came in different forms. Judaism and Islam received textual revelations, while Christianity believes God revealed himself in the form of a human being. This points to a difference in each religion’s understanding of God based on their belief in how He disclosed Himself. Landau makes a strong attempt to reconcile these differences by arguing for an ongoing covenantal system in which God forms many, rather than one covenant, but his solution only approaches the problem from a Jewish theological perspective, ignoring the fact that reconciliation will require a combined approach. His argument regarding the inclusion of Christians in an extended covenant is also flawed because it is based on a questionable source.

Do these three faiths have the same God? That is debatable. All three traditions clearly stem from the same source, but is that the only qualifier for having the same deity? I would argue that there is more to be said for how a person conceives of God. Jews, Christians, and Muslims do not think of the same God when they imagine Him/It. On the other hand, how can Man conceive of the inconceivable? For Christians, this gap is bridged through God’s revelation as Jesus, but in Christian theology that is a manifestation or aspect of the Infinite rather than the Infinite itself. It would be just as reasonable to say that each religion understands and worships God in slightly different ways because Man can never totally comprehend God.


[1] Muhammad ‘Abdul Haq, “The Perspective of at-Tawhid,” Islamic Studies 22.3 (1983): 3, accessed November 21, 2016, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20847235.

[2] Ibid., 1-2.

[3] Ibid., 3.

[4] Ibid., 4.

[5] Martin S. Jaffee, “One God, One Revelation, One People: On the Symbolic Structure of Elective Monotheism,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 69.4 (2001): 756, accessed November 21, 2016, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1466340.

[6] Ibid., 766.

[7] Yehezkel Landau, “God as Multiple Covenanter: Toward a Jewish Theology of Abrahamic Partnerships,” Crosscurrents (2015): 57, accessed November 21, 2016.

[8] Ibid., 60-61.

[9] Ibid., 64.

[10] Ibid., 69.

[11] Ibid., 71.


References

 

‘Abdul Haq, Muhammad. 1983. “The Perspective of at-Tawhid.” Islamic Studies (Islamic Research Institute, International Islamic University, Islamabad) 22 (3): 1-19. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20847235.

Jaffee, Martin S. 2001. “One God, One Revelation, One People: On the Symbolic Structure of Elective Monotheism.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion (Oxford University Press) 69 (4): 753-775. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1466340.

Landau, Yehezkel. 2015. “God as Multiple Covenanter: Toward a Jewish Theology of Abrahamic Partnerships.” Crosscurrents 57-79.

 

Response: Book of Jonah

The story of Jonah centers around repentance and God’s mercy. Jonah is given a task by God to travel to Nineveh in order to announce its imminent destruction. Jonah tries to avoid doing this by fleeing to Tarshish, but after spending three days in the belly of a whale, he repents and travels to Nineveh. Once he arrives, he announces that the city will be overthrown in three days. The King of Nineveh mandates repentance in the hopes that it will cause God to change his mind and spare the city. God does indeed spare the city, which causes Jonah to become angry.

The story of Jonah contains parallels to the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis. In both stories, God is anthropomorphized. He speaks, he reasons, and he can potentially change his mind as a result of man’s actions. In Genesis, Abraham argues with God in an attempt to convince God to spare Sodom for the sake of the righteous people who may be living there. Jonah, on the other hand, attempts to flee. It is not clearly stated why, but after the Ninevites do repent, Jonah becomes resentful and angry. He tells God he knew this was going to happen and that is why he attempted to flee in the first place. Jonah sets up a lean-to outside the city, where he sits and waits, as if to tell God that he won’t leave until God does what he said he was going to do.

This story raises a question about the way that people perceived God when the book of Jonah was written. Was this story written at a point when God was being refashioned from a tribal deity into an unchanging entity? Other interesting points in the story are the recognition of other gods, the implication that God controls other nations as well as Israel, and that anyone can repent and turn back to God.

Image: By Unknown – Metropolitan Museum of Art, online collection: entry 453683, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32908844

Bible in Pop Culture Week 5: Jonah’s Curse Black Spiced Rum

While there’s no indication that Jonah did any drinking while he was sitting in the belly of a whale for three days, the Biblical story has become tied up with the popular idea of swarthy sea dogs tipping back bottles of alcohol between rounds of pillaging and looting booty. Rum and pirates go together like Forrest and Jenny, so it isn’t surprising to find a brand of rum named “Jonah’s Curse.” In the Biblical story, Jonah wasn’t exactly cursed; he was punished by God for trying to flee to Tarshish instead of warning the Ninevites of their imminent destruction as he was commanded. That punishment involved sitting in the belly of a whale for three days until he repented.

The label of the bottle depicts a very large whale rising out of the water and towering over a ship with three masts. The whale could nearly swallow the ship in one gulp, which is a nod to the Biblical story. A whale would have to be very large for a person to live inside it for three days, after all. The rum is 47% alcohol per volume, so it is not for the faint-hearted, much like the task of walking into a major, populous city and announcing that God is going to smite them.

According to “Total Wine,” a sales website, the rum is “a rich, caramelized Caribbean run blended with 12 traditional spices. Vanilla, cinnamon and oaky notes on the nose – roasted pineapple, mangos and bananas on the palate.” The user “nezumitoo” on Instagram (also where I snagged the cropped portion of the above image) noted that Jonah’s Curse goes down smoother than The Kraken Black Spiced Rum and would be his first choice for any future purchases. The next time I pass by a liquor store, I will be stopping in to see if I can pick up a bottle myself.

Accountability and Free Will: Did Pharaoh Have a Chance?

In the book of Exodus, the stories surrounding the Hebrews’ captivity in Egypt and their subsequent release after the Egyptians are afflicted by ten plagues from God creates problems theologically and philosophically. The stories raise questions about man’s free will and why man is held accountable for actions that he has no control over. In other words, if God makes a person commit a specific act, is that person responsible for that act, either good or bad? These questions have been addressed by many Jewish theologians and philosophers who, while not being able to definitively solve the perceived problem, have presented some possible solutions.

The way most philosophers seem to approach this topic is by focusing on whether or not Pharaoh had a choice when choosing to let the Israelites leave his territory. The phrase used in the text of Exodus says that at various times, God “hardens” Pharaoh’s heart after he suffers from a plague. While under the influence of that hardened heart, he considers Moses’ demand to let the Israelites go free and, of course, denies him (Frank, et al. 46-48). Having a “hardened heart” implies that Pharaoh’s free will was affected and he was not able to make a choice about whether or not to let the Israelites leave. Instead, the choice was made for him by God. Can Pharaoh be held accountable for his actions if he was not given a choice?

Maimonides looks at the broader story of the Hebrews becoming oppressed and enslaved by Egypt in order to understand why God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. He understands the question to be one of predeterminism and addresses whether or not Pharaoh had the free will to make a choice based on Abraham’s earlier conversation with God, in which God tells Abraham that Egypt will oppress Israel. Maimonides argues that man retains free will and that God does not preordain or compel disobedience (49). He clarifies this position by looking at proscriptions and punishments in the Torah. Just because a law and a punishment are listed does not mean that God has compelled a person who breaks the law to commit the sin. Instead, the man who breaks a law has free will, but God saw fit to inform us in advance of what the punishment would be for breaking a particular law.

Maimonides’ argument makes sense, but not for the situation he is trying to address. He is arguing that just because something is in the Torah, that does not mean it was directed specifically at any particular person, thereby compelling that particular person to act. However, the situation in question is indeed specific. God specifically stated that Egypt would oppress and enslave Israel. If one is to understand that God cannot contradict himself, then Egypt had no choice but to oppress Israel. It was preordained specifically by God (48-49). One could argue that the specific Egyptians who did the oppressing were not named and no specific date was given, but that is merely sidestepping the fact that at some point Egyptians would have to oppress Israel in order for God’s word to not be false. In other words, even if it had been another Pharaoh that chose to oppress Israel (if we’re assuming Pharaoh was able to make the choice), then it would be that Pharaoh in the story rather than the one currently being discussed. In order for God’s word to not be false, it would not be a question of whether something happened, but when it happened. Regardless of when Egypt oppressed Israel, we can reasonably believe that God would have followed through with the rest of the scenario he had already set in motion during that conversation with Abraham.

Another argument that Maimonides presents to justify God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart is to claim that Pharaoh essentially earned that punishment by deciding beforehand to “deal shrewdly” with Israel. God prevented Pharaoh from repenting in order to punish him for past wrongdoing (49). Is this really an argument that we want to want to make about God’s nature? Maimonides is essentially arguing that God will prevent a person from repenting if it suits his interests. That idea lacks the sense of justice that we attribute to God and that Maimonides himself recognized when he wrote that “…all of His ways are just” (50). It also denies man the free will to choose between good and evil that was, supposedly, obtained after consuming the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil in Genesis 3 (9-10).

Another philosopher, David Shatz, acknowledges that in order for someone to be held accountable for an action, the action has to be performed when not impaired by an outside force. Shatz argues that free will is something that is valued in Judaism given the fact that the argument surrounding Pharaoh is brought up in the first place (51-52). Shatz states that even if we assume that free will is not as important an idea in Judaism as we would like to think, we are still left with three problems: responsibility, repentance-prevention, and the causation problem. Maimonides would say that Pharaoh was responsible because Pharaoh always had free will in the situation. Arguing that Pharaoh had free will would also solve the repentance-prevention problem, but Maimonides’ arguments on these points are unconvincing and ignore the problem of the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. If Pharaoh was unable to choose, then why would he be responsible for his actions? If God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, then how can we know if Pharaoh would have changed his mind? Why would God prevent someone from repenting when Judaism teaches that God wants sinners to turn to him and repent?

The final problem, the causation problem, is one that Shatz does not address, but which is also the most interesting. The causation problem is the problem of God committing evil through Pharaoh. Can God commit evil? Shatz does not seem to think this question is relevant to his topic, but that is debatable because it addresses the question of responsibility that Shatz raises in his first problem. If Pharaoh is not responsible for the evil he commits, then who is? If God is in control, then does that not leave blame for the deaths caused by the plagues with God? Pharaoh was not the only one to suffer from having his heart hardened. The Egyptian people as a whole bore the brunt of God’s plagues. It is hard to believe that every Egyptian bore personal guilt or responsibility for Pharaoh’s actions.

The story seems to be framed in a way that assumes a people or tribe is one conceptual unit and bears collective responsibility for actions committed against other tribes or peoples. This could well be the case, considering the fact that later Arab tribes held this view, executing a blood debt on any member of the offending tribe, but this brings us back to the point of responsibility and accountability. If, in Jewish theology, people are responsible for repenting for their own sins, then why did God punish or kill Egyptians who were not directly responsible for Pharaoh’s choices? In addition to preventing Pharaoh from repenting and taking responsibility for his actions, God creates an evil act through Pharaoh and causes the deaths and suffering of many innocent people. So, even if one believes that a person has the free will to choose to do good, one is left with the impression that we might be left to suffer or die just so God can prove a point, and perhaps not even a point about a situation in which we are directly involved. Because our neighbor needs to learn a lesson, God may destroy us as well. Is that justice?

Shatz presents a few solutions that were proposed by Jewish philosophers in an attempt to overcome some of these obstacles. He states that some people have attempted to argue for a redefinition of “hardening.” Instead, one should understand the term to mean keeping someone alive or providing respite. Shatz notes that this tactic is rejected by most interpreters. The “modest” solution argues that even if God had not hardened Pharaoh’s heart, the plagues alone were coercive enough that had Pharaoh released Israel, it would not have been of his own volition so God did not change the outcome. Another claim is that by hardening Pharaoh’s heart, God actually made him immune to the coercion of the plagues, thereby allowing him to make a choice freely, based on his character. Yet another theory is that the hardening itself was a punishment, meaning that the loss of free will and Pharaoh’s inability to repent was his punishment for not repenting previously. The naturalistic approach supposes that when it is stated that God hardens Pharaoh’s heart, what is meant is that Pharaoh’s heart is reacting naturally due to his habitually bad choices.

In the solutions proposed above, there are still problems. If God’s influence in Egypt had no impact on the outcome, then why is God a part of the story at all? If God made Pharaoh impervious to the suffering of the plagues, what was the purpose of the plagues in the first place? If Pharaoh was unable to repent, again, what was the purpose of the plagues? And finally, if Pharaoh’s heart was hardened through a natural process and God knew Pharaoh would reject setting the Israelites free, why create a situation that knowingly leads to destruction? There must be a motive of some sort to follow through with this scenario. In the text of the story in Exodus, God says he is hardening Pharaoh’s heart in order to demonstrate his power before the Egyptians (46). Is that reasonable? Even if we assume that Pharaoh somehow deserved what happened, the plagues created devastation throughout Egypt, harming people that had nothing to do with Pharaoh’s decisions. Additionally, God’s stated motive implies that he seeks fame and is willing to both suspend free will and kill the innocent to obtain it. Besides anthropomorphizing God, the reason for the plagues stated in the Torah would mean that God victimized Pharaoh and the Egyptian people simply to show that he is the most powerful god in the region.

It is difficult to harmonize the idea that God would nearly destroy a whole people just to prove a point with our modern conception of what God is. However, this opens up the possibility of another solution to the problem of Pharaoh, free will, and accountability. Stories in the Bible often have some sort of moral or lesson to teach. Perhaps the story of Pharaoh was not about free will at all, but rather about God’s glory and power and his position as Israel’s protector. The use of Pharaoh as a framework for demonstrating that power may just be a literary device and, when the story of the Exodus was first told, it made perfect sense that the personal deity of a tribe would restrict or alter an enemy ruler’s ability to reason without that having implications for the Israelites because one’s enemies were not subject to the same deity. There is some indication that God’s actions were based on a tribal rather than universal scale in the sense that the Egyptians are seen as collectively responsible for the actions of their leader.

This does not, of course, solve the question of free will raised by the philosophers who have analyzed the story. In terms of whether man has free will or not, that is hard to say. I am inclined to say that if God takes any active role in history then man does not have free will, because, from the moment God influences events, later events have become predetermined as a result of those actions. Choices man might otherwise have made are influenced, or those choices never materialize and man is left with one course where there might have been two or more. Shatz argues that a man is not responsible for his actions if his free will has been affected. If that is the case, then I am inclined to say that there is no room for God to intervene in human affairs while still positioning man as responsible for his own actions.

 

Works Cited

Frank, Daniel H, Oliver Leaman and Charles H Manekin, The Jewish Philosophy Reader. New York: Routledge, 2004. Book.