I'm reading a fascinating book by Adin Steinsaltz called Biblical Images. Rabbi Steinsaltz provides us with quick sketches of biblical figures, allowing us insight into their characters and personalities. The book is very well-done, because it's clear, short and concise, and presumably of interest to people of all affiliations. His chapter on Abraham was particularly interesting, if only because it quite upsets my established idea of Abraham the Innovator. Steinsaltz explains:
- A rereading of the Bible text is enough to show that there is no mention of Abraham's role as a great prophet bringing to the world the belief in a single God.
Monotheism is not a higher stage of some process of growth following on a lower stage of polytheism. Monotheism is itself primary and basic; it has been the dominant mode of worship from as far back as human memory goes. All the other modes of religious faith came after it, and not before. For this truth, the scriptural text itself, though it does not say so in precisely this fashion, is the chief evidence. And like Maimonides and other Jewish stages, modern scholarship, especially in the field of anthropology, tends to question whether polytheism, even in its primitive forms such as fetishism or voodoo, is not a degeneration of primary monotheistic cults (13).
- from the unity to the multiplicity. In other words, from simple monotheism- the direct faith in something not specific or clearly oriented (which is perhaps like the faith of a child)- to a complex faith, derived from the endeavor to isolate certain things and subjects.
- Polytheism is thus a complicated and sophisticated system of worship springing from the need to establish a "rational" and direct contact with the Divine. Instead of trying to communicate with a basic supreme essence, polytheism believes in the possibility of usefulness of intermediaries, such as specific gods or a set of semidivine forces (15).
- This intellectual world of polytheistic religion- with all its sophistication and corruption- was the world in which the patriarch Abraham lived. He did not emerge from a pastoral world of wandering shepherds, uncouth and unlearned. He came from great cities, centers of culture and hubs of commerce. In these cities, there were banks and letters of credit, as in our own day, even if documents were written on bricks of clay. A world of elaborate civilization, already ancient and worldlywise in its own way: Ur of the Chaldees, Babylon, Egypt...It was a polytheistic, idolatrous urbanity, the height of an ancient culture, representing the most advanced ideas and the most refined concepts in science, art and philosophy.
- And in this world, the "modern" world of the ancient past, Abraham found himself believing in a single God. It was not a new discovery on his part; on the contrary, it was a reaffirmation of a very old truth, one that had almost been forgotten and was probably considered by his contemporaries as barbaric and primitive. Abraham was thus not an innovator but an ultraconservative, like someone belonging to a cult of ancient origin. On the other hand, Abraham did represent something very new: he was a prophet in that he called for a renewal of faith, a return (almost a repentance) to the divine Oneness. He tried to restore the faith of a distant past; but his contemporaries probably saw him as a crude and rather old-fashioned preacher (17).