Eating the Apple

Eve did it. Adam did it. Now it's my turn to take a bite. Why not? Hey! It's delicious.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Abraham and His Gods

It is an article of faith among many Jews, Christians, and Muslims that Father Abraham (also named Abram) initiated the Hebrew/Jewish tradition of monotheism. And some, especially Muslims, believe that he was the world's first monotheist. The Koran insists that Abraham was never a polytheist.

A rabbinical tale from the second temple period that says that little Abram became the world's first iconoclast by smashing his father's idols. According to this story, his father, Terah, was an idol merchant in the Chaldean city of Ur. Little Abram came to believe that there was only one god, namely El. After Abram smashed his father's idols, Terah took him to King Nimrod (the mighty hunter) for judgement. Abram was thrown into a fiery furnace, but survived. His brother Haran, whose faith was not as strong, perished in that furnace.

Yet after reading the story of Abraham many times, nothing in the Scriptures tells me that Abraham was a monotheist. On the contrary, I find several reasons for believing that Abraham worshipped many gods.

This charming tale seems to be simply a piece of historical fiction that was composed almost two thousand years after the time of Abraham. The author of this piece was undoubtably trying to project onto a hero of the past his own theological ideology.

I shall rely primarily on the Book of Genesis and assume that the Abraham story is somewhat similar to epic poems of Homer. By this I mean that both stories were based on actual events, but dressed up with the appearances of gods.

Abram and his family lived in a time of polytheism. He was exposed to at least three different religious systems. Either in the southern city of Ur or in the northern city of Haran, Abram learned of the great Sumerian gods. He could have attended a public reading of the Enuma Elish, the seven tablets of creation. We know of the the Enuma Elish from a Babylonian copy. It tells of the coming of the Sumerian gods from the planet Nibiru and how they created from the primates that they found on earth.

The second great religious system was the polytheistic forerunner of the Israelite/Jewish monotheistic faith. The biblical Elohim is derived from the Canaanite god El. Worship of the god El probably originated near the sources of the Tigris and the Euphrates, but spread widely through the mideast. We know much about the god El from excavations of the city of Ugarit which was located on the Mediterrean of present day Syria. The people of Ugarit spoke a language closely related to ancient Hebrew. The god El was their supreme god. He and his consort Asherah were the parents of gods such as Ba'al, Dagon, and Anat. 'Bull El', as he was called, was worshipped as the father of mankind. The biblical priests and prophets worshipped El/Yahweh, but despised his wife and children.

When Abraham entered Canaan, he was only a short distance from Ugarit. It would have been very appropriate for him to visit this major cult center of his god. Yet there is no hint of such a visit in the Scriptures. Imagine a devout Catholic going to Italy, but not visiting Rome. If Abraham did visit Ugarit, he would have likely worshipped in many of the temples of the city. That would have been too embarassing for the biblical writers to mention.

The third great system was the Egyptian system. In the time of Abraham, Egypt was the superpower of the neart east. Even if the people of Mesopotamia did not worship the gods of Egypt, they must have been known about the major gods, such as Ra, Osiris, Isis, and Horus. In any case, when Abraham went to Egypt, he would have learned about these gods.

Genesis tells of three covenants between Abram and the god El/Yahweh. (A covenant is a sacred promise or contact) In Genesis 12, El instructs Abram to leave his father's house and go to Canaan. In return, Abram will become a great nation.

In Genesis 15 El promises that the childless Abram will have many descendents and they will have possession of the land of Canaan.

In Genesis 17 were that El (here called Yahweh) makes similar promises but requires Abram (now renamed Abraham) to circumcise himself and every male in his household as a sign of fidelity to the covenant.

These covenants signify a very special relationship between Abraham and El. But nothing in these covenants explicitly requires exclusive worship of El. The covenants simply establish El as Abraham's patron god. The idea of a patron god was common throughout the ancient world. Athena became the patron goddess of Athens when she gave the gift of the olive tree. Many cities had patron god. In the Egyptian city of Heliopolis, the patron god was the sun god Ra. Ra was also the patron god of the royal family. Osiris was the patron god of farmers, Ptah of craftsmen, and Bast of the home. A patron god offered special benefits, but required special devotion and worship. But exclusive worship was not required.

For example, Ra or Amun-Ra was the patron god of many Egyptian pharaohs. But pharaoh could not afford to worship one god exclusively. As high priest of the nation, his duty was to appease all of the gods. If any calamity or disaster happened, blame could be attached to Pharaoh for offending the gods in some way. Akenaten, the one pharaoh who worshipped one god exclusively, became so hated that his successors tried to blot out the memory of Akenaten from under heaven.

When Abram returns from defeating the kings of the east in Genesis 14, he is greeted by the king of Sodom and by Melchizedek, the priest/king of Salem. Melchizedek blesses Abram, saying:

Blessed be Abram of El Elyon,
creator of heaven and earth:
And blessed be El Elyon,
who has delivered your enemies into your hand.

The Hebrew phrase 'El Elyon' is usually translated as 'God Most High'. Grammatically speaking, this phrase acknowledges the existence of other gods. One god can't be the highest god unless there are lesser gods. According to the Jewish Study Bible, "The term God Most High is known from Ugaritic texts of the Late Bronze Age (Ugarit was a Canaanite city along the coast of what is now Syria.) There it is equated with the God El, with whom the LORD is often equated with in the Tanakh." (Tanakh = Old Testament)

The city of Ugarit fourished for about 3000 years before it was destroyed by the Philistines about the time of Moses. Excavations carried out in the late 1920's showed that the people of Ugarit spoke a language closely related to ancient Hebrew. Ugarit was a major cult center for the god El. He was worshipped as the creator of heaven and earth, the father of the gods and the father of mankind. He headed a pantheon that included his consort Asherah and sons and daughters including Ba'al, Anat, and Dagon. The Old Testament prophets and priests worshipped El but despised ther rest of his family. Some family values!

Since Melchizedek uses the epithat El Elyon, it seems obvious that he was aligned, culturally and theologically, with the polytheistic cult center of Ugarit. But was he a monotheist or was he a polytheist? There is very little information about Melchizedek in the Old Testament. Psalm 110, attributed to King David, is the only other place in the OT that mentions this enigmatic priest:

1 The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy footstool.
2 The LORD shall send the rod of thy strength out of Zion: rule thou in the midst of thine enemies.
3 Thy people shall be willing in the day of thy power, in the beauties of holiness from the womb of the morning: thou hast the dew of thy youth.
4 The LORD hath sworn, and will not repent, Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek. (KJV)

I don't think that this psalm was written by King David. Who could be David's Lord who sat at the right hand of God? Rather this seems to a psalm about King David, written to illustrate some aspect of King David's great stature. The psalmist would not have put King David in Melchizedek's priesthood unless he believed that Melchizedek was a very important religious figure -- and a monotheist. One curious thing about this psalm is that it says that the priesthood of Melchizedek was a legitimate and more ancient priesthood than the official priesthood based upon Aaron. This would seem to denigrate the Aaronite priesthood.

The early Christians picked up on this psalm. The New Testament book of Hebrews claims that Jesus Christ was (and is forever) a priest in the order of Melchizedek. The Christians could have hardly connected Jesus and Melchizedek in this was unless they believed that Melchizedek was a monotheist.

Now I shall go against this convential wisdom. I accept the conclusion that Melchizedek's primary god was the Ugaritic El. But I do not conclude that Melchizedek was a monotheist. In addition to being a priest, Melchizedek was the king of a city called Salem. (Nobody knows where that city was located. But it is commonly thought to be Jerusalem.) As king he had a duty to appease all of the gods of Salem. Suppose Melchizedek were to say that he would no longer worship any god but El. Then the followers of all of the other gods would feel insulted. They would say that Melchizedek was inviting retribution in the form of droughts, epidemics, bad storms, or invasions. One thing you sure of, in the ancient world, droughts, epidemics, bad storms, or invasions were regular occurances. The next time one of these disasters happened, Melchizedek would be blamed. The likely result would be that Melchizedek would be assassinated or overthrown. There was fierce opposition to the imposition of monotheism in the ancient world.

Genesis 12 tells of Abram's trip to Egypt at a time of famine:

10 And there was a famine in the land (of Canaan): and Abram went down into Egypt to sojourn there; for the famine was grievous in the land.
11 And it came to pass, when he was come near to enter into Egypt, that he said unto Sarai his wife, Behold now, I know that thou art a fair woman to look upon:
12 Therefore it shall come to pass, when the Egyptians shall see thee, that they shall say, This is his wife: and they will kill me, but they will save thee alive.
13 Say, I pray thee, thou art my sister: that it may be well with me for thy sake; and my soul shall live because of thee.
14 And it came to pass, that, when Abram was come into Egypt, the Egyptians beheld the woman that she was very fair.
15 The princes also of Pharaoh saw her, and commended her before Pharaoh: and the woman was taken into Pharaoh's house.
16 And he entreated Abram well for her sake: and he had sheep, and oxen, and he asses, and menservants, and maidservants, and she asses, and camels.
17 And the LORD plagued Pharaoh and his house with great plagues because of Sarai Abram's wife.
18 And Pharaoh called Abram, and said, What is this that thou hast done unto me? why didst thou not tell me that she was thy wife?
19 Why saidst thou, She is my sister? so I might have taken her to me to wife: now therefore behold thy wife, take her, and go thy way.
20 And Pharaoh commanded his men concerning him: and they sent him away, and his wife, and all that he had. (KJV)

It is not clear whether the pharaoh was an Egyptian pharaoh or a Hyksos pharaoh from Canaan. I favor the latter since Abram and Pharaoh remain on speaking terms even after this deception. An Egyptian pharaoh might have executed Abram. Before this blow-up occurred, it is likely that Pharaoh or some of his courtiers would have invited Abram to worship with them. A Canaanite Pharaoh would have worshipped Ba'al, Asherah, and Dagon in addition to El. An Egyptian would have invited Abram to worship such gods as Ra, Osiris, Horus, and Isis. How could have Abram refused? Suppose Abram said "I will not worship your, I shall worship only the 'one true god'." Had Abram said that, his gracious hosts would have felt insulted and scandalized. They would have felt that Abram was blaspheming their gods. They would have thought that Abram was endangering the kingdom by inviting retribution from the gods. This would turn into an ugly incident with Abram in danger of losing his life. Had such an incident occurred in Egypt, had such an incident occurred with the other kings that Abram dealt with, the priests and prophets of ancient Israel would have seized upon this incident. The idea of Father Abraham risking his life for the 'one true god' would have given powerful support to their ideology of monotheism. Since there is no such incident reported in the Old Testament, one concludes that such an incident never occurred. Either Abraham was a polytheist, or he carefully concealed his true religious beliefs.

But how could have Abraham concealed a monotheistic belief? He was the head of a travelling household that numbered in the thousands. If Abraham was a monotheist, everyone in his household would have known. Some of Abraham's servants would have resented their master's devotion to only one god. When they went to visit a city, someone in Abrham's household would have spilled the beans. That would be a sensational story that would travel around like wildfire.

Genesis 20 tells a similar story with King Abimelech of Gerar. The result is similar. Abraham had cordial relations with the king of Sodom. That relationship

The Old Testament authors had many opportunities to tell a story that would prove that Abraham was a monotheist. But they never did. Such a story would have appealed to their obsessive hatred of the pagan gods. I can only conclude that no such scandalous story existed at the time that the biblical books were written. In all likelihood, Abraham was a man of his time. It would have been extraordinary for anyone in that time to become a monotheist. And extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. No such evidence can be found in the pages of Genesis. The most reasonable conclusion is that Abraham worshipped the Canaanite gods, Asherah, Ba'al, Dagon, etc., and worshipped El as his patron god.

I conclude that the tradition about Abraham being a monotheist was a historical fiction invented almost two thousand years after he lived and died.

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