Several weeks ago, a woman very near and dear to me asked why God created gentiles and Jews. My response was that God never created Jew. Jews created themselves. God merely created people. When people formed themselves into states and nations, they became "gentiles", the most common English translation of the Hebrew word GOYIM. But GOYIM's most accurate translation is "nations".
My dear woman then asked me to back up my statement with scripture as though "scripture" would be the final arbiter of the truth of my statement. But be that as it may, the following essays will be my humble [and perhaps feeble] attempt at scriptural "proof" of my assertion.
So here goes.
In the SEDER Hagadah which we recently read, it says:
In the beginning, our ancestors were worshipers of other gods but now HASHEM has drawn us close to His service, as it is stated: "So God, the Lord of Israel, says: 'Your ancestors had always lived beyond the River; Terach, the father of Abraham and Nachor, and they served other gods.
And I took your ancestor, Abraham, from beyond the River and led him through the land of Canaan. I multiplied his descendants and I gave him Isaac.'"
The River which the ancestors lived beyond is the Euphrates, in a place which scripture calls KASDIM, Chaldea, or sometimes the Land of Shinar. It is Sumer, located in present day Southwestern Iraq. Sumer was the first real civilization to arise, long before Egypt left its Neolithic stage.
The ancestors engaged in AVODAH ZARAH [strange worship], a fact that identifies them as nonJews, or gentiles.
Genesis 12:1, without any preamble, simply informs us that "HASHEM had said to Abram, 'Leave your country, your people and your father's household and go to the land I will show you.'"
The abrupt introduction of Abraham into the Genesis narrative reminds me of the abrupt introduction of James into the Acts of the Apostles narrative. Both men are so well known to the members of their respective religious communities as to need no introduction.
But the scripture IMPLIES that God and Abraham had already had an ongoing relationship which finally resulted in Abraham leaving Sumer and moving to another place. Jewish tradition says that Abraham had acknowledged God when he was a child, which tradition is so well known to most Jews, but unfortunately I do not have the time to investigate the scriptural origin of this tradition - which is really not that vital to this essay anyway.
From my very limited knowledge of Sumerian religion, I know that it consisted of a dualistic theology. On the one hand, Sumerians believed in the gods of the State. These gods, or their spirits, resided within stone or wooden statues which we commonly call "idols".
Modern man, including modern Jews, has a very inaccurate understanding of what ancient idolatry was. The ancients were not stupid or illogical as we suppose them to have been. The average Sumerian [as well as others] did not look at the statue and believe it to be his god. No, the statue, or idol, was a kind of little temple for the deity, and as such it was a holy object such as the Ark of the Covenant which Israelites believed to be the residence of the SHECHINAH on earth, But it, the idol, only housed the deity spirit; it was not the deity.
On the other hand, Sumerians believed that each individual had his or her own personal god, an invisible being with whom he or she had a personal relationship. This personal deity was often the personal deity of the individual's family as well. At some point, some critical thinking Sumerians may have come up with the bright idea that all of these invisible personal gods were in reality, the same god which was the Supreme god and at that point, that the gods became God. There is also a reflection of this in the Hebrew term for God [ELOHIM] which is really a plural noun and is also used in the Bible to mean "gods". Then it's possible that Abraham was one gentile among many who believed in God and developed a special relationship with him.
The idea that some gentiles acknowledged the God whom Jews consider God is not alien to Jews. The gentiles in the Hebrew Bible who are worshippers of God play an important part in teaching us something. They include Jethro, the father-in-law of Moses, Job, and the people of Nineveh preached to by Jonah. And of course there are the people who "fear God" mentioned in Psalm 115:11,13 and in Isaiah 59:19, and elsewhere.
Around 2150 BCE, a barbarian horde called the Guti descended upon Sumer, destroying many of its chief cities and decimating much of the Sumerian population.. It is probable that many Sumerians wondered why the gods of the state did not prevent this disaster and it is possible that this was a time when many in the defeated population believed that their civilization was coming to an end and that without the protection of the gods, Sumer was no longer a vital place to live. It is also possible that the Guti "encouraged" the upper classes, to which Abraham belonged, to go into exile.
Then according to God's instructions, Abraham and his entourage, consisting of his immediate family and that of his brother Nachor, leave Sumer and journey west until they come to the city of Haran in Aram [Syria]. Nachor and his family decide to remain in Aram while Abraham and his entourage continue on down to the land of Canaan which will later become the Land of Israel.
When they enter the Land, the Canaanites call them "Hebrews". The Hebrew word, IVRIM, means "crossovers". It refers to people who have crossed over the Euphrates to come into the land. It is not a particularly complimentary term. It carries the emotional significance of German 'auslander' or English 'foreigner'. During that time, many peoples comprising a mixed multitude [Sumerians, Akkadians, Elamites, Horites, Hittites, and others] came into the Land and were called Hebrews. It is possible that some of these peoples joined with Abraham's entourage, especially after Abraham gained status due to his exploits to be described below. At this point, HEBREW was merely a less than complimentary geographic designation which later on would take on a completely different, positive meaning.
At this point Abraham is still a gentile in communication with God but there is not as yet any firm foundation for a strong relationship with God on his part save that God has promised him that his descendants will inherit the Land and that the gentile nations of the world will be blessed through him [Genesis 12:1-3]. But there is as yet really no strong definition of a relationship between God and Abraham. Hebrew scripture only tells us that Abraham traveled all over Canaan, setting up altars and sacrificing to God. This takes place at Bethel in northwest Canaan, Ai in northeast Canaan, and "the south", possibly the Negev. These acts serve two purposes, establishing an early primitive, unadorned way of worshipping God, and linking and using these shrines to mark Abraham's possession of the Land [Genesis 12:6-9].
There is here a narrative break and a story of a famine in the Land causing Abraham and his entourage to go down to Egypt till the famine passes. Most Jews I know interpret the story as a prefiguring of Israel also winding up in Egypt due to a famine. But the story has a more immediate implication for what I am discussing. Upon their return to the Land, Abraham and his nephew Lot have a falling out over comfortable living space. Abraham magnanimously offers Lot a choice of where to live, saying that he, Abraham, will take the place which Lot rejects. Interestingly Lot looks toward the great eastward Plain of Jordan which reminds him of the Land of Egypt [Genesis 13:10]. It is in the land of Egypt that Lot saw Pharaoh take Sarah away to his harem, displaying a careless disregard for a man's feelings just to satisfy his own libido. Likewise Lot chooses to dwell in a place "like Egypt" where the residents of those cities put their own sexual desires over the well being of strangers. In effect, Lot has denied to himself and to his descendents the opportunity to become the People of God. Paradoxically it is from Lot's descendants that the messiah will be born, and eventually, by duress, his descendants will also become Jews in the first pre-Christian century.
Two stories follow which serve to demonstrate the power of Abraham and the acknowledgement of the people of the Land that he is now securely a resident of the Land [Genesis 14]. The first of these stories tells of an attack on Sodom by a confederation of kings of the north, Sumer and Elam, during which Lot and his family are taken captive. Abraham forms his own alliance with certain tribes of the Land and he succeeds in driving off the northern invaders and rescuing Lot and his family. The second story concerns a certain Canaanite priest-king from (Jeru-)Salem, named Melchizedek ["righteous king"] who fetes Abraham after his victory, and to whom Abraham gives tithes. It is interesting that this gentile king of the City which is to become THE Holy Place of the Jewish People is also a believer in "God the Most High" [Gen 14:18].
It is only when we come to chapter 15 of Genesis that we read of Abraham and God entering into a deeper, more serious relationship. Now that Abraham has firmly established himself in the Land promised to him by divine word, that God once again renews His promise that Abraham shall have many descendants and that they shall inherit the Land. Abraham, being old and childless, asks God to show him some sign of evidence that these promises will come true.
And God says:
"Take me an heifer of three years old, and a she goat of three years old, and a ram of three years old, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon. And he took unto him all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid each piece one against another: but the birds divided he not. And when the fowls came down upon the carcases, Abram drove them away. And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Abram; and, lo, an horror of great darkness fell upon him .... And it came to pass, that, when the sun went down, and it was dark, behold a smoking furnace, and a burning lamp that passed between those pieces. IN THE SAME DAY THE LORD MADE A COVENANT WITH ABRAM, saying, Unto thy seed have I given this land, from the river of Egypt unto the great river, the river Euphrates: The Kenites, and the Kenizzites, and the Kadmonites, And the Hittites, and the Perizzites, and the Rephaims, And the Amorites, and the Canaanites, and the Girgashites, and the Jebusites."
This is the important first change in the status of Abraham and in his relationship to God. It is a COVENANT between them conferring upon Abraham a special status, still a gentile but a very special one. It is the beginning of the transformation of the term HEBREW into more than just a geographic designation into one of spiritual significance.
In fact the rabbis say that Abraham and his followers were indeed "crossovers" in that they had "crossed over" from being the same as the rest of humanity to being the people of God.
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