The Abrahamic revolution

Taking a look at the religious legacy of the patriarch's revelation.

311_Abraham meets Melchizedek (photo credit: Loggia di Raffaello)
311_Abraham meets Melchizedek
(photo credit: Loggia di Raffaello)
THE ABRAHAMIC revolution was that man may love and cherish his Maker, be guided and no longer afraid. How did this come about? What was the essence of the Abrahamic Revolution? What was the true meaning of Abraham’s escape from Haran and his arrival in Canaan, that gave birth to the Jewish people and the three great religions? Was Abraham’s saga as told in the Masoretic Bible, and even more extensively in the Qumranic Sectarian Torah, a true experience, or a literary interpretation of ancient legends? According to the apocryphal Book of Jubilees (a part of the sectarian Torah found in Qumran), it was on Shavuot that the Lord sealed both covenants, one with Noah and the second with Abraham.
Abraham offered the world a new revelation, but other nations continued to serve their mythical pantheons. They had long traditions of cultivating mute gods at the altars of huge temples. They prayed and offered sacrifices to the gods of sun, stars, wind and fire. They had their own sacred literature, believed in miracles, built sanctuaries and enjoyed themselves at the annual festivals and mighty processions. Why did Abram refuse to follow this well-established tradition, accepted for generations, and risk his life in search of the truth?
The ancient archives of Mali (modern Tel Harari) on the Euphrates, close to the Syrian-Iraqi border, the clay tables of Nuzi, near Kirkuk, city of the Hurrians (the Horites of the Bible), part of the kingdom of Mittani, and the archives of Ebla (modern Tel Mardith) in Northern Syria span the time of the patriarchs from the 19th to 15th century BCE. They refer to people with names like Abram, Jacob, Leah, Laban and Ishmael.
They also refer to many administrative practices like marriage, divorce, inheritance and birthright found in Genesis. Abram’s plan to make one of his retainers his heir, for lack of his own, reflects the Nuzi practices. So does his treatment of Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael.
Abram was born in Ur and brought to Haran by his father Terach, a loyalcitizen who sacrificed to local gods. This was compulsory. The ancientgods were jealous, and so were their priests. If gods were mute, thepriests were not. They jealously guarded their flock. If something wentwrong, it was up to them to disclose and punish the sinners.
The priests wielded an enormous power. They knew how to write, taughtpupils, cured the sick, attended births and marriages, buried the dead,and arranged festivals. They demanded complete obedience. The king, asthe high priest, wielded absolute power. The ancient world knew nothingabout individual freedom.
Archeological research tells us there were strict citizenship rules andborders were tightly closed, except for short periods of chaos.Nationals or slaves who fled were extradited, as they were theirrulers’/owners’ exclusive property. Dissenters were tortured and  oftenexecuted.
THE BIBLE tells us: “The Lord said unto Abram: Get thee out of thycountry, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto theland I will show thee…” Thus Abram was ordered by the Almighty to breakwith his past, abandon his town, family traditions and the local paganreligious duties. He had to break the rules, and as a matter of fact henever went back, because to do so would have been dangerous.
Josephus understood this, and wrote that Abram had to escape from Haranfor maintaining that had the stars really been gods, they would moveseparately, according to their own will. The fact that they were allbound together proved there was only one power, one Creator ruling theuniverse. Josephus concludes that Abram’s ideas “created a tumult.”
Philo claims that the command: “Depart from them” meant more than justto be separated, it meant to be alienated. According to Philo, Abramwas too overwhelmed with the love of incorporeal and imperishableobjects and concepts to stay any longer among people who revered“mortal objects of their outward senses.” His love of the incorporealis still shared by the Jewish people.
The Midrash, or Jewish legends, claims that young Abram threw theman-made family gods into fire. It seems, however, that it was thetraditional Akkadian myths and ceremonies that aroused his scorn. Thegods he was asked to obey were monsters: Selfish, irresponsible, alwaysquarreling, fighting each other, scratching each other’s eyes out,seeking and forever enjoying trouble. They were always hungry forsacrifices. Their sole ambition was to dominate and enslave each otherand frighten their unfortunate believers.
In short, the behavior of the ancients’ venerated gods was identical tothat of their earthly rulers: They were ambitious and greedy, like thelegendary King Kereth, always intent on conquest, robbery, the captureof slaves, the murder of innocents, and the spilling of blood for theirown glory.
Thus Abram’s escape meant that man was no longer at the mercy ofunknown, ugly powers, but enjoyed personal freedom under the protectionof his Maker. His faith was no longer based on fear, but on the hopewhich was realized in the wonderful birth of Isaac. Gone was theperception of the world as a continuous battleground in which thestrong prevailed over the weak. This was replaced by personal, moral,communicative, demanding, stern but just, heavenly care.
And that personal covenant was later spread to all mankind by thepromise: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you andmake your name great, and you will be a blessing.”
The change of name from Abram to Abraham came after a progressiverecognition of the bond between man and his Maker. A true covenant,largely similar to the legal agreements current at that time, whilesatisfying religious demands, had been established between the onlytrue God, the man and his land.
Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Isaac was another symbol of thechange, which eventually became an integral part of the Jewishreligious experience. This was a test of his love and fear of God.According to the Book of Jubilees, a seven-day festival of joy wasinstituted following Abraham’s return to his camp.
Abraham was not the only one to revolt against oppressive polytheism.In Egypt, Pharaoh Amen-hotep IV broke with the established religion(1380-1362 BCE) and instituted the worship of a single god Aton, thesun disc, as the source of life and protector of all mankind. He closedall temples and changed his name to Akh-en-Aton in an attempt to changethe established customs. He moved his capital from Thebes to Tellel-Amarna, and wrote a hymn similar in spirit and wording to Psalm 104.But his “Amarna Revolution” barely survived his reign, and hisson-in-law Tut-ankh-Amon restored “the temples of the gods andgoddesses from Elephantine down to the marshes of the Delta which hadgone to pieces” (Stela 34183 in the Egyptian Museum).
THE MEETING of Abraham with Melchizedek, (King of Justice in Hebrew, orKing of Peace, according to Albright), is deeply moving, as both sharea belief in El, the Supreme Being. This was widelycommented on by our sages, beginning with Rabbi Eleazar, who saidMelchizedek’s school was one of the three places where the Holy Spiritmanifested itself, and others who claimed that Melchizedek instructedAbram in Torah before handing Adam’s robes to him. The order ofMelchizedek priests is mentioned in Psalm 110.
Abraham’s travel across the Promised Land, where he set up altars andinstituted his faith and order, dropping an anchor – the possession ofa piece of land, the Cave of Machpela in Hebron, which he purchased asa grave for Sarah and future generations. He was no longer a wanderer.
The continued raw power of Abraham’s revolution was best expressed byBen-Sira, who in about 180 BCE wrote about him: “Abraham! The Father ofa multitude of nations, tarnished not his glory, who kept thecommandments of the Most High and entered into covenant with him, andin a trial he was found faithful. Therefore with an oath He promisedhim to bless the nations with his seed, and to exalt his seed as stars,to cause them to inherit from sea to sea, and from the river to  theend of earth.”
All those who settle in the Land of Israel share the fruits of the Abrahamic revolution.   

This article appeared in the May Christian edition of The Jerusalem Post
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