Posts Tagged ‘Noah’


Jews, Christians and Muslims know that monotheism began with Abraham, the Hebrew patriarch whom Torah students have studied these past three weeks. But like Elvis sightings, that’s an urban legend.

Secular scholars point to monotheism’s birth in what Karl Jaspers termed the Axial Age—700 to 200 BCE. Karen Armstrong writes that as urban civilizations developed, “people ultimately began to find that the old paganism, which had served their ancestors well, no longer spoke fully to their condition.”

The biblical narrative offers a third view, as I detail in God’s Others: Non-Israelites’ Encounters With God in the Hebrew Bible. The book of Genesis plants monotheism’s roots in the sixth day of creation, presenting Adam and Eve as the original pair of monotheists long predating Abraham. They enjoy a personal relationship with God, Who instructs Adam not to eat from a specific tree and makes clothing for Adam and Eve to cover their nakedness after they do. And yes, He also expels them from Eden.

Their sons also know God. When God accepts Abel’s offering but not Cain’s, Cain sulks. God offers parental advice: “Surely if you do right, / There is uplift. / But if you do not do right / Sin couches at the door; / Its urge is toward you, / Yet you can be its master” (Gen. 4:7).

With Abel dead and Cain banished, Adam and Eve have a third son—Seth. Genesis makes no mention of Seth’s relationship with God, but there’s every reason to believe Adam and Eve informed Seth about their Creator. Why?

When the earth becomes populous, Genesis states, “It was then that men began to invoke the Lord (YHVH) by name” (Gen. 4:26). This induces Nahum Sarna to write, “This text takes monotheism to be the original religion of the human race, and the knowledge of the name YHVH to be pre-Abrahamic.”

Humanity descends into wrongdoing and idolatry. Still, Enoch, the seventh in Adam’s line and great-grandfather of Noah “walked with God 300 years” (Gen. 5:22). Noah, in the tenth generation, receives God’s instruction to build an ark.

After the Flood, people again turn away from God. The Talmud (Berachot 33b) explains, “Everything is in the hand of heaven except the fear of heaven.” Eden now consisting of only of a myth as humanity drifts into various forms of polytheism and idol worship. Monotheism, like a buried seed, lies dormant. Still, as God’s Others relates, pockets of monotheism lived on.

Twenty generations after Adam and Eve, Abraham appears. The biblical text never explains why God chooses him, but it now seems clear that Abraham rekindles monotheism rather than discovers it. Yehezkel Kaufmann writes that primeval mankind from Adam on “appears to have been monotheistic.” Gunther Plaut notes of Abraham, “The Torah does not depict him as the founder of a new religion.”

From the biblical perspective, monotheism constitutes humanity’s natural religious state. This prompts us to consider a corollary. All people contain the Divine spark. The Parent loves all His children. In a nation—indeed a world—torn by hatred and violence, we would do well to remember that to which Abraham sought to return us, however we might define God and the unity of the universe.

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At President Obama’s public inauguration last Monday, Richard Blanco read his poem, “One Today.” Blanco’s theme of unity really resonated. “One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores.” We are a single people joined together. “My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors.”

Each inauguration prompts good feelings roused by America’s tradition of peacefully passing on the presidency every four years. Regrettably, those good feelings often quickly dissolve as partisan disagreements resume. But if we focus on Blanco’s words and some earlier words that perhaps inspired them, we might hold our more negative passions in check and find ways to break through the bipartisan deadlock that so afflicts the nation.

I cite Deuteronomy 6:4: “Sh’ma Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad. Hear O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” We are instructed that God is one and indivisible. So too, Genesis 1 reveals that the created world, complex as it is, is a single entity following on from a single Creator. We see Adam and Eve as humanity’s common parents, and Noah and his unnamed wife as our post-Flood ancestors. Diverse we may be, but ultimately we are all one family.

In this regard, the Mishna (Sanhedrin 4:5) provides a quite beautiful teaching. A person can stamp out many coins with one die, and all the coins look alike, whereas God created humans from a single set of parents yet each of us is unique. We know from our own experiences that members of a family remain individuals yet are bound together.

I appreciated as well Blanco’s choice of greeting that Americans use as the morning sun rises—“hello, shalom,/buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días.” By all means, add additional favorites. All are valid, because all reflect the many ethnicities, which form and reform the complex America nationality.

So where might this take us? Let’s play off the Mishna’s coin analogy. Every coin has two sides. Yet each is a single object with a single recognized value. So, too, our public debates have two sides. Often more. Yet those debates consider the wellbeing of a single nation. More than one way exists to legitimately approach a particular problem.

At the end of the day, Blanco writes, we head home “always under one sky, our sky.” We are a diverse lot to be sure. But diversity offers us many experiences and points of view—and more opportunities for meeting our challenges. We do better to listen to each other and seek common ground than exploit differences in the certitude that we, and we alone, have the answers.

Blanco concludes that hope awaits us—“ a new constellation/waiting for us to map it,/waiting for us to name it—together.” My thoughts return to the Sh’ma then drift to the nation’s motto, E Pluribus Unum—out of many, one.

A mash-up of words strikes me. E Pluribus Echad. By meshing basic truths both religious and civic, and adding a reasonable measure of humility, we can give the American Dream more than lip service. We can give it new life.

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