Saturday, January 15, 2011

God and Abraham Part I

God and Abraham
Part I

This is the first in a series of blogs that attempts to describe Abraham’s relationship with God within Abraham’s own cultural setting.  This blog will focus specifically on Abraham’s monotheism in contrast to the polytheism of the ethnic groups that surrounded him.  Future blogs will deal with issues such as his relationship to Hagar, his use of the Hittite covenant in Genesis 15, the implications of God’s promises to him in his own time, and the sacrifice of Isaac on Mount Moriah, etc.  Each blog will draw some lessons that can be learned in our daily lives in the 21st century.

Abraham was born and raised in Ur of the Chaldees, which was located in the Tigris-Euphrates valley, between what is now the modern city of Baghdad and the head of the Persian Gulf (, accessed January 4, 2011). It was the most developed and sophisticated city of ancient Mesopotamia. Ur was also a pagan city where many deities were worshiped.  The ruins of the main altar, known as a ziggurat, still stand today.  One writer, citing the Jewish Talmud, says that Terah, Abraham’s father, worshiped at least twelve gods, which is consistent with Joshua 24:2 (, accessed January 4, 2011).

How and when Abraham became aware of the one, true God, and worshiped only him, is not recorded in the Genesis account.  What is clear is that Abraham’s monotheism was in stark contrast with the polytheism and animistic practices of his day.              

When he arrived in Canaan, Abraham found a number of tribes or ethnic groups living there, each with their own gods or goddesses.  Some practiced a form of polytheism known as henotheism, the belief the one god was the supreme ruler of all the lesser gods and goddesses.  Not many specifics are known about the Canaanite religious practices in the time of Abraham, but the practices of Baalism and worship of the Asherahs in period of the monarchies give some strong hints.

Generally speaking, Canaanite religions gave allegiance to the gods who were believed to control the land, rain, crops, and human fertility.  Religious rituals involving fertility rites were heavily sensual, involving both prostitution and homosexuality, giving an early indication that there is a connection between idolatry and sexual immorality.  Sacrifices were offered to appease the gods, not worship them in biblical sense of the term.  The guiding philosophy behind the sacrifices was to get the gods to do what humans wanted them to do, bless the crops and the fruit of the womb, keep disaster and disease at bay, curse one’s enemies, and keep the universe in balance.  In other words, the practices were done for the benefit of people, not for the glory of the gods.

As at Ur and Haran, Abraham’s relationship to the one true God, who allowed no image of him to be made and who required no rituals to be performed, was unique.  The focus was also radically different.  Everywhere he went Abraham built an altar to the Lord except in Beersheba, where he planted a tree in God’s honor—a common practice of the time.  While we are not told what his altars looked like, it is reasonable to assume that the altars may have been ziggurats, such as he would have known in Ur, or they may have resembled the altars of the Canaanites, minus the images.  What is significant is that it was dedicated to the Lord, the true Creator of heaven and earth.  Abraham’s focus on worshiping one God, whom he believed to be the creator and controller of everything, rather than on the local gods who were held to be territorial deities, was part of what set him apart from his neighbors.  While his neighbors worshiped the gods because of what they could get from him, Abraham worshiped the Lord in order to honor and glorify him. 

On at least one point, however, Abraham reflects at least some commonality with the Canaanites.  The rite of circumcision, which God gave to Abraham in Genesis 17:10-14, was a well known practice in the ancient Near East, although the Philistines were an exception.  The origins and intent of the practice among Abraham’s neighbors is not certain, but marking the body was often a part of their religious rituals.  Therefore, it is safe to assume that circumcision had religious connotations even for pagans.  What separated Abraham from his neighbors was God’s intent.  The Genesis passage is clear that God intended it as a sign of his covenant relationship with Abraham and his posterity.  From then on, Abraham was a marked man!

What lessons might be drawn from Abraham’s life?  First, in order to follow the Lord, Abraham had to reject the false ideas about God.  Namely, God is one, not many.  Also, he requires no images and, at least in Abraham’s day, required no rituals.  To follow him was to be counter cultural.  How might this apply to us?  False ideas about God abound in today’s world.  The New Age Movement and the teachings of moral relativism are but a couple of glaring examples.  Some are subtle and some are blatant.  All are deceptive.  In addition to false religious ideologies, the gods of money, sex, and power vie for our patronage on a daily basis.    Abraham’s response to the temptations of his day was to built altars and worship the Lord, focusing on the beauty and glory of God, and following only him.  We would do well to follow his example, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith (Hebrews 12:2)—knowing his will for our lives and, like Abraham leaving Ur and Haran, following Christ with reckless abandon.    

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