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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