Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Maybe the first monotheist

Lech Lecha should be an easy parashah to teach. Its opening subject, the Call of Abraham, suggests a variety of ways to engage students. Depending on the composition of the class, it might be a springboard for discussing the upheaval of moving from another region or country, or the challenges of living among neighbors whose religion is different from ours.

But the Call of Abraham is not the entirety of Lech Lecha. The greater part of this portion is the life story of Abram and Sarai. It includes one of the episodes in which Abram passes Sarai off as his sister; the peculiar story of the war of four kings against five; a dramatic covenant; Abram’s fathering a child with Hagar, at Sarai’s insistence; the prophecy of the birth of Isaac; the changing of Abram’s and Sarai’s names to Abraham and Sarah; and the introduction of the covenant of circumcision.

Some of these episodes are rather discreditable, and yet, with the possible exception of the story of the four vs. the five kings, they demand to be taught. Omitting the birth of Ishmael or the covenant of circumcision is almost unthinkable, the change of names certainly needs to be noted, and the episode in which Abram and Sarai flee to Egypt during a famine is important because it prefigures Israel’s longer sojourn in Egypt that is described in the book of Exodus.

Furthermore, we often teach elements of the story that an ordinary reading of the Torah doesn’t reveal. Almost every child knows that Terah, Abram’s father, was an idol merchant, and how Abram smashed the idols and blamed it on the largest of them. But this story comes from midrash, and while midrash is typically an expansion on a hint in the Biblical text, the connection is faint.

In fact, although some school textbooks present Abraham as the first monotheist, it is hard to attribute exclusive monotheism to Abraham. The Torah provides essentially no evidence on this point. While his relationship to YHVH appears to be exclusive, nothing more can be said except that Abraham, unlike the major Hebrew prophets of a later age, does not inveigh against the worship of any other gods.

A detail at the end of the often-overlooked episode of the War of the Four Against the Five is suggestive. During the fighting, Abram’s nephew, Lot, is taken captive, and Abram rescues him and the other captives. On their return, they are greeted by “Melchizedek, king of Salem” [Salem is Jerusalem, then a Canaanite city]:
And Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine; he was a priest of God Most High. He blessed him, saying, ‘Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth, Who has delivered your foes into your hand. And [Abram] gave him a tenth of everything. (14:18–20)

This tithe indicates that Abram accepts Melchizedek’s priesthood. It is not clear whether “God Most High” (El Elyon) refers to the very God (YHVH) of Abram’s covenant, or whether Abram recognizes the validity of another god.
If it is the former, it is hard to claim that Abram “invented” or “discovered” monotheism.

Later traditions considered Melchizedek a monotheist—in Jewish tradition, a righteous gentile, but in Christian tradition a precursor of Jesus. Regardless of these traditions, it suggests the existence of a cult in Canaan that was already centered on the God of Abraham’s call from Haran.

If it is the latter, Abram is not yet a monotheist. He is not even quite a monolatrist (a person who believes in the existence of multiple gods but serves only one). Some modern scholars believe that the exclusive worship of one God did not figure in Israelite religion earlier than Moses, and that the worship of false gods in Israel against which the prophets spoke reflected not foreign influence but rather the persistence of pre-monotheistic beliefs.

In any case, other gods play no role here. Abraham isn’t called to oppose other gods, nor does the Torah state anything about his prior belief. It’s his relationship with what Judaism came to recognize as the one God that matters here.

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