Review: Father Abraham’s Many Children - Word&Way

Review: Father Abraham’s Many Children

FATHER ABRAHAM’S MANY CHILDREN: The Bible in a World of Religious Difference. By Tyler D. Mayfield. Foreword by Eboo Patel. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2022. Xii + 133 pages.

There is a camp song that is a favorite for many people. Perhaps you sang it as a youth. It goes like this: “Father Abraham had many sons, many sons had Father Abraham.” I will confess I never liked the song when I first encountered it when I was in college. Nevertheless, looking back I think I may have missed something. Over time I became actively involved in interfaith work, and if we interpret the song in a certain way, it speaks a word of truth. Abraham has many children. After all, we speak of the three Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. All three claim descent from Abraham (though from different mothers). Now the interfaith world involves more than these three Abrahamic religions, but it is a starting point for engaging in fruitful conversations and overcoming centuries of animosity. The question is, what does the Bible have to say about religious diversity and difference? Could it offer a word of clarity concerning religious pluralism for our time? The answer is yes! At least that’s the argument made by Tyler Mayfield.

Robert D. Cornwall

Tyler D. Mayfield is a professor of Old Testament at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and director of the seminary’s Grawemeyer Award in Religion. He is also the author of several books including one I’ve read and reviewed: Unto Us a Child Is Born: Isaiah, Advent, and Our Jewish Neighbors. Having read that book, which speaks to Christians about how we engage with Judaism as we work with the Book of Isaiah during Advent, when I saw the title of Father Abraham’s Many Children, I was intrigued. My intrigue was repaid handsomely. This is a really good book and one that should prove helpful to all who seek to engage other faith traditions with respect and integrity, while also remaining true to the biblical that defines our identity as Christians.

In this book, Tyler Mayfield invites us to read Genesis from the perspective of religious pluralism. He does so by focusing on the stories of three sets of brothers — Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, and Jacob and Esau. Each of these three stories involves sibling rivalry and animosity. The first story, of course, involves fratricide. In traditional readings of these texts, the younger brother always comes out on top, while the older brother is often ignored or vilified (as an elder brother, that is not a reading I appreciate). What Mayfield does in this book is reverse things a bit by asking what would happen if we paid more attention to the older brothers in these stories. What might learn about chosenness and covenants? Could it be that God’s idea of covenant is broader than we’ve been led to believe? Could chosenness include more people than we’ve allowed in? Mayfield ponders these questions as a Christian interpreter of the Old Testament. He writes, one would assume, first to Christians, inviting us to rethink the way we understand our relationships with the broader religious world. This has profound implications for our relationships with our religious neighbors.

I come to Father Abraham’s Many Children as a Christian pastor/theologian who has been actively involved in interfaith work for more than two decades. Over the years I’ve developed deep and abiding friendships with people whose religious commitments are different from my own. These friendships have been a blessing to me. Hopefully, this is true for my friends as well. Because of these friendships, I resonated with the message of the book. I appreciated what Mayfield has done to uncover a way forward in our interfaith relationships that are rooted in the way in which we read our sacred literature. He invites us to join him on a pathway that involves “reading anew our sacred literature” Indeed, he writes that “instead of viewing religious diversity as a problem to be solved, we must build on the assumption that religious diversity is a promise to be engaged. To engage faithfully, we Christians will need fresh interpretations of key biblical texts” (p, 21). Indeed!

This is not a lengthy book. It can probably be read in a few hours (it’s just around 125 pages in length). Nevertheless, Mayfield’s exploration of the stories of these three brothers from the perspective of religious pluralism opens up entirely new horizons of understanding. Even if we don’t know the full story of these three sets of brothers, most readers will have at least a sense of who they are and why they are important to the larger biblical story. What Mayfield does is ask us to pay attention to details that are easily missed or not emphasized in our traditional telling of the biblical story. That is especially true of Ishmael and Esau.

While Cain and Abel are ancestors rather than children of Abraham, when we read the book, we understand why they are chosen to be included. Most readers of this review will know that Cain, the oldest son of Adam and Eve, killed his brother, Abel, making it the first act of violence in the biblical story. This act of violence is rooted in God’s unexplained preference for Abel’s offering. For some reason, Cain gets upset when God rejects his offering and takes his anger out on his brother (by killing him). This leads to God’s question for Cain: Where is your brother? Cain answers with a question of his own: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer is, of course, yes. Mayfield notes that Cain seems to have a problem with difference and diversity. He can’t accept that his brother’s gift might be better received and so he gets angry. We do that sometimes, don’t we? What is interesting here, according to Mayfield, is the grace that God extends to Cain in the end. Even though Cain shows little concern for his brother, God takes note of Cain’s concern for himself and offers him grace. Thus, as Mayfield points out, “God transforms Cain despite Cain’s inability to engage diversity. Cain may not be able to get beyond the differences he sees in his sibling, but he is given divine grace to continue his life” (p. 62). As for the question that Cain asked God about being his brother’s keeper, Mayfield reinforces the divine message that as children of God we are responsible for our siblings, all of them!

Ishmael is Abraham’s oldest son, but for Jews and Christians, he is not a figure that gets a lot of respect in our communities. In fact, he is often ignored or mischaracterized. He’s the one God rejects in favor of Isaac. My Muslim friends have a different take on this story. For them, Ishmael rather than Isaac is the fount of Abrahamic blessing. It is Ishmael who plays a leading role in Arab and Muslim self-identity. That is because Ishmael, not Isaac, is Abraham’s heir. For Christians, spending time with Ishmael can be eye-opening. Here in Genesis, Isaac is the promised one, but God doesn’t forget Ishmael. God makes a covenant with Ishmael and his descendants, promising to make him a great nation. He is also circumcised, which means he received the sign of the covenant. Mayfield notes that sometimes it’s translations that cloud the issue and marginalize voices like Ishmael. But, by attending to his story and that of his mother Hagar, we discover that God doesn’t draw the boundary lines as sharply as we often do. Unfortunately, in our traditional readings of Genesis, “we ignore Ishmael because he has had little relevance in Christianity (and Judaism).” So, we erase him from our narrative. However, he’s not ignored by the writers of Genesis (p. 91). Thus, we need to pay attention to his story and the stories of others we may see as outsiders. His story suggests that God may not be so quick to set aside people we deem irrelevant.

Finally, we come to the story of Esau and Jacob. Yes, the twins wrestle in the womb and beyond. It’s the story of two brothers, one of whom is beloved of his father and the other of his mother. Esau is often understood to be cursed because he sells his birthright for a pot of stew, but is this true? Because of the way we read this part of the story, we tend to honor Jacob and view Esau as being less honorable than Jacob. That is interesting in light of Jacob’s own trickster lifestyle. For some reason, we tend to identify with Jacob when he receives the blessing of his father, even though he gains the blessing through deceit. The question Mayfield raises here concerns whether there is only one blessing. What if that’s not true? In fact, Mayfield helpfully demonstrates that Esau ultimately receives a blessing from his father. Later in the story, when his brother returns from his sojourn, enriched with wives, children, and other treasures, Esau warmly greets his brother even though Jacob fears the wrath of Esau. Mayfield points out that often we Christians see ourselves as purveyors of grace to others, but the story of Esau reminds us that we are often recipients of grace from those who embrace religious traditions other than our own. I know this to be true in my own life. The story reminds us that God just may have more than one blessing to share! So, shouldn’t we?

Mayfield’s Father Abraham’s Many Children is a wonderful book. I loved reading it. It’s accessible to the general reader but rooted in deep scholarship. It looks back at ancient stories and yet in Mayfield’s handling of them, they become relevant to this very moment. Indeed, at a time when Christian nationalism is rampant, along with anti-immigrant sentiment, this is a book that needs to be read widely. That is, this is not just a book for people like me to read. I’m already committed to the conversation. However, this book can be a wonderful conversation starter that can lead to the transformation of how we see the other. After all, they may be Abraham’s children. So, I highly recommend it. Since each chapter includes a set of discussion questions, the book will make for a very useful book for a church study group. So, take and read and discover new stories that can enrich our faith lives and enable us to build relationships outside our normal circles!


This review originally appeared on

Robert D. Cornwall is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Now retired from his ministry at Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, Michigan, he serves as Minister-at-Large in Troy. He holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and is the author of numerous books including his latest books: Called to Bless: Finding Hope by Reclaiming Our Spiritual Roots (Cascade Books, 2021) and Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, 2nd Edition, (Energion Publications, 2021). His blog Ponderings on a Faith Journey can be found at