The Origins of Judaism and the Abrahamic Religions
The Abrahamic religions are the religions that originated with the Patriarch Abraham. They are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and they have had a profound effect on world history. From the Jewish Resistance and Diaspora to a large chunk of European history, from the Caliphates of the Middle East and North Africa to the European colonial Empires, these religions have played a major role in shaping global history and just about everything else in our lives, whether we are a member of the religions or not.
The religions trace nearly 4,000 years of history, with the first 2,000 being exclusively for Judaism, so there is a LOT of information to learn. This series, the History of Christianity, will be set over several articles and weeks, because four thousand years of history on something as influential as the Abrahamic Religions cannot be put down in a single article. In fact, libraries could probably be written about this topic, as it is so broad and encompassing. But today let’s start with, well, where it all started.
Abraham and the Patriarchy
Through all three religions, Abraham is considered the father of the Jews and the beginning of the religions themselves. While Christianity does not view Abraham as a central player (that would be Jesus), he is seen in Judaism as the founder of their religion and thus highly revered; in Islam, he is considered the first in a line of prophets and is thus also well respected. Christians certainly do not belittle his position, it is just that the Messiah has been identified in Christianity and thus He is the most important figure.
It is believed that Abraham lived between 2000 and 1800 BCE, having left his homeland to travel to Canaan to follow Yahweh, a god different than that of his father. He formed the Covenant between God and the Jewish people, which in turn saw Jews named as the Chosen People. Abraham saw the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, where it was confirmed that they were living completely in sin and not even ten righteous citizens existed.
Abraham also had a son with Sarah (who was previously thought to have been unable to bear a child, but God corrected that issue). This son is important because he should be the next in line to continue Abraham’s lineage and create the great peoples descended from Abraham. At one point, God asks Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, and Abraham agrees. At the last minute, God stops him, but Abraham’s commitment to God is a major reason he is so revered in the three religions: he was so dedicated to God and faithful that he was willing to sacrifice the most important thing in his life. Hence he is an example of how all people should be in their relationship with God.
Abraham, his son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob (or sometimes referred to as Israel, as he is the father of the Nation of Israel) are all important for their role in Abrahamic history. Isaac is considered a saint in both Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity, and he is the only Patriarch not to have concubines. He also never left Canaan. His son, Jacob, was one of a set of twins from Rebecca, and his history includes the story with Esau. The latter was to be blessed by Isaac, but Jacob and his mother deceived Isaac so that Jacob could receive the blessings. He is also considered a saint by the Catholic Church.
It is unknown whether the three Patriarchs are actually real people or simply amalgamations of several people. Either way, they are viewed as the founders of Judaism and the Jewish Nation, which eventually would come to influence Christianity and Islam.
The time from the life of Abraham to the end of Jacob’s life is considered the Patriarchal Age, and using accounts from the Bible, the dates are placed between 1800 BCE and 1500 BCE. For healthy individuals, this gives 100 years for each life on average, so the reality of it may not be that far off. During this time, there were several events in the area to influence them. In contrast to the many surrounding cultures, though, the worshippers of Yahweh stood out as monotheistic adherents. This monotheistic tendency gave rise to many conflicts between the children and nations of Abraham and the cultures with which they came into contact. Until Christianity was adopted by the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 300s CE, this was a major point of contention.
Alphabetic writing emerged around the time of Abraham’s birth, which may be a reason he specifically is credited with starting the religions. Written tradition better preserves names and events than oral tradition. Cities had grown to tens of thousands of people and specialization and urbanization were further developing. The city of Ur (Abraham’s birthplace) and others could seem like wicked places to those who often lived off the land as nomads. Egypt was also in its Middle and New Kingdom periods, and as such, the region was largely affected by Egyptian belief and society. Egypt’s huge economy and military allowed it to influence the Canaanites, including the Patriarchs. In fact, the Patriarchs had frequent contact and traded with the Egyptians (as did everyone else at the time in the area).
The Egyptians also enslaved the Israelites during the Patriarchal Age, and there will be another article on that subject as it is vast enough to warrant its own. For now, you know a little more about the origins of Judaism and the people who started that religion, which eventually influenced Christianity and Islam as well.