Four thousand years ago, almost everyone everywhere in the world believed that there were many gods and goddesses. The belief in more than one god or goddess is called polytheism, a word which comes from the Greek words poly, meaning “many,” and theoi, which means “gods.” The people of both Egypt and Mesopotamia were polytheists. Almost all the gods and goddesses they worshipped were either forces of nature like thunder and fire or certain objects in nature like rivers and seas.
The people knew they depended on nature for their survival. If rain did not come to water their crops, they would die. If too much rain came and caused a flood, it might destroy their crops and their homes and perhaps even take their lives. Even small changes in weather, a summer that was just a little hotter or a winter that was just a little colder than usual, could cause major problems. To keep the forces of nature on their side, the people of the ancient world offered worship and sacrifices to them.
The people of Mesopotamia built their cities around temples dedicated to certain gods and developed elaborate rituals to worship these gods. They told myths about the things the gods had done. One of those myths, the Enuma Elish, tells the story of the creation of humans by the gods. According to that myth, the god Marduk created human beings to be the slaves of the gods. The gods were tired of doing all of the hard work of planting crops, taking care of them, and harvesting them. So they created people to do all of the work instead of them. This myth tells us a lot about what the Mesopotamians thought of themselves and their gods. They saw human life as very difficult and filled with hard work. Unlike the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians did not believe in immortality, so even after death there was no happiness. The Mesopotamians saw their gods as slave-masters. The gods took care of humans only if humans kept making the gods happy. If humans did not serve the gods or if they annoyed the gods, the gods might destroy them.
In about 1750 BC, however, a man named Abraham was born. Abraham was the first person to believe in a very different set of ideas about God and about humans. Abraham was a monotheist. This means he believed in only one God. According to Genesis, the first book of the Bible, Abraham was born in Ur, a city-state in Mesopotamia. From there, his family moved to Haran, a village in the northern part of Mesopotamia. It was at Haran that Abraham’s God appeared to him and told him to take his family and everything he owned and leave Mesopotamia.
Abraham’s God made a covenant, or special agreement, with him. If Abraham would move away from Mesopotamia and go to another place, called Canaan, God would give Abraham many children and grandchildren. His God told him that he would give Abraham as many grandchildren as there are stars in the sky or grains of sand in the desert. He would have so many grandchildren he would not be able to count all of them! Abraham was very happy about this. He was old and had no children. This was a problem because he was also very rich. If he died without children, his servants would be the ones to inherit all the things he owned. So, Abraham took his whole family, his servants, his animals, and all of the things he owned and moved to Canaan, a place very far away from his home.
Later, Abraham’s God rewarded Abraham by giving him a son. Abraham named his son Isaac. Isaac had a son named Jacob and Jacob later had 12 sons. These sons would later have many children of their own. Eventually, the descendants of Abraham numbered in the millions. Today, there are still millions of people who are the descendants of Abraham. He is considered the patriarch, or founder and father, of the Jewish people. His ideas and his special relationship with God are also important to Christians and Muslims. In total, about half of the people in the world belong to a religion that comes from Abraham and his ideas.
The way that Abraham thought about God, about the world, and about humans was unique for his time and had a major effect on the way we think about these things today. One of Abraham’s original ideas has already been mentioned. This is the idea of monotheism, the belief that there is only one God. Whereas other ancient people believed that there were many gods who represented different forces in nature, Abraham believed that there was only one God who had created all of nature.
This different view of God also made Abraham and his descendants view the world in a different way. Because other ancient people believed the world was filled with many different gods, they saw nature as chaotic. They believed, for example, that the sky god might fight against the earth god and cause thunder and lightning to strike the earth or not allow rain to fall to the ground. Maybe the fire god would go to war with the tree gods and burn them all down. If there is only one God who created all of nature and who controls it, however, then nature can be seen as good and orderly. If there is a flood or a forest fire, it is not because the gods are at war with each other but because the one God allowed it to happen for a good reason.
In addition to these different views of God and nature Abraham and his descendants also had a unique view of human beings. You have already read that the Mesopotamians believed that humans had been made by the gods to be slaves. Abraham, on the other hand, believed that God had made human beings to be his children. According to the first book of the Bible, Genesis, God created humans “in his image” (Genesis 1:27). This means that all humans, no matter if they are rich or poor, men or women, strong or weak, were created to be like God – to think, to love, and to be creative. The result of this idea is that Abraham and his descendants believed all human beings were special and that each human being is valuable. As we will see later, in the Bible there is a lot of focus on taking care of people that are poor and weak and on the idea that all human beings deserve to be treated well no matter who they are.
Abraham’s unique ideas were shocking at the time. Most ancient people would have laughed at the idea that there is only one God or the idea that this God cares about a poor person as much as he cares about a rich person. The ideas about God, nature, and human beings that began with Abraham took some time to become popular, but when they did they forever changed the world.
1. Where was Abraham from originally?
2. Where did God tell Abraham to move?
3. Why do you think God told Abraham to move away from the place where he was born and go somewhere else? Explain in a paragraph. (Hint: Think about how different Abraham’s beliefs were from other people at his time.)
Covenant – a special agreement between two people in which each person promises to do something for the other
Monotheism – the belief that there is only one God
Patriarch – founder and father of a group
Polytheism – the belief that there is more than one god; from the Greek poly (many) and theoi (gods)
Neither the created nature nor the uncreated freedom belittle the creature. What belittles it is the evil that springs from freedom; but that evil is not a constituent part of its nature for it has not been created by God. The slavery of the creature is connected with a monarchic conception of God characteristic of the lower and non-Christian forms of theism. It is the conception of an autocratic master. This is an aspect of God which precedes the Christian revelation. Christianity is not a monotheistic religion like Mahometanism, it is a trinitary religion. The trinitary conception of God rules out slavery and justifies the freedom and dignity of man. Atheism has often been simply a form of anti-theism and a protest against abstract monotheism and monarchism. The Christianity Trinitary God, the God of love and sacrifice, leaves no room for atheism. The moral consciousness cannot rise against Him in the name “the good” as it does against the abstract monotheistic God who humiliates His creatures, and endows them with freedom in order to make them responsible for the misuse of it and to punish them cruelly.
Nikolai Berdyaev, The Destiny of Man, p. 27