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Maimonides Guide for the Perplexed -- fall '06

Abraham’s journey as written in the Torah begins with G-d telling him to go out from where he has been living. “G-d said Abram, “Go for yourself from your land, from your relatives and from your father’s house to the land I will show you.”” Up until this point nearly everyone worshiped idols. Abraham was one of the few who believed in only one Higher Power. G-d is testing Abraham by telling him to leave the people he has lived among for so many years. G-d is telling Abraham to leave the place of idol worship and become isolated so that he will not become influenced by the idol worshipers.

Maimonides begins Mishneh Torah, Book of Knowledge, Laws Concerning Idolatry by writing about Enosh. Enosh was the son of Seth who was the son of Adam and Eve. Idolatry was introduced in the times of Enosh. Enosh’s generation believed that because G-d created stars and other things in the sky and that He placed them so high, that they should be worshiped. Enosh’s generation “began to erect temples to the stars, offered up sacrifices to them, praised and glorified them in speech and prostrated themselves before them.” This generation not only was the first to introduce idolatry, it was also one of the last, until Abraham’s generation, to even recognize that there was a G-d behind all these things. Between Enosh and Abraham’s generations there were only a select few people who knew of G-d.

Maimonides goes on to write about a new generation. In the coming generations there were many false prophets that would tell people to worship a star or some other sort of idol. They would make no mention of G-d, but just have the people strictly worship the idol. Maimonides writes, “As time gradually passed, the honored and revered Name of G-d was forgotten by mankind, vanished from their lips and hearts and was no longer known to them. All the common people and the women and children knew only the figure of wood and stone.”

When Abraham came along G-d was brought back into the picture. Abraham was brought up by idol worshipers, but through his own thought process came to the realization that there is only one G-d behind everything. Abraham began telling other people about G-d. He would preach to everyone. He even nearly got killed over his preaching. Abraham moved around a lot to get the word out about G-d. Abraham made sure to teach his son about G-d. His son taught his son, and so on.

Genesis 12 begins with Abraham’s first of ten tests. This first test is G-d telling Abraham, who is called Abram until Genesis 17, to leave the place where they lived. One would think that this really wasn’t much of a test at all because why would someone want to live around people who completely disagree with them? But this wasn’t just a matter of leaving a certain area. Abraham and Sarah had to sever ties with everyone from their past as well. In the Torah this seems like a pretty big test. It’s not easy to start over in another city or country you are unfamiliar with, but having to sever ties with everyone from your past. That cannot be easy. But the way that Maimonides writes about Abraham’s going from city to city makes it not seem like a test at all.

Maimonides explains Abraham’s whole thought process on the existence of G-d. Abraham thought, “How is it possible that this [celestial] sphere should continuously be guiding the world and have no one to guide it and turn it around; for it cannot be that it turns round itself.” Maimonides goes on to say that Abraham began to preach about the Oneness of G-d. He broke idols and told whomever he could to worship G-d and not false idols. “He went from city to city and from kingdom to kingdom, calling and gathering together the inhabitants.” Maimonides does not make it sound as if Abraham did not enjoy spreading the word of G-d’s existence and Oneness. It seems almost as if this was no test at all for Abraham, but a privilege that he was the one who got to spread the word.

In Genesis it skips from the birth of Abraham until his first test, known in Hebrew as “lech lecha”. What Maimonides does is fill us in to what happened in between. He explains how a boy who was born into the house of idol worshipers went on to become one of the fathers on monotheism. Maimonides tells us of Abraham’s thought process and how he came to the conclusion that there really is only one G-d. Abraham is no longer seen as a guy being told what to do and what to believe by G-d. Abraham really thought everything through. His test to go out and tell the general public about G-d seems less like a test to Abraham. Once Maimonides made Abraham into a thinking human being and not just a pawn to spread the word of G-d, it added a whole new element into the story of Abraham.
All quotes are from Mishneh Torah, Book of Knowledge, Law Concerning Idolatry and the Ordinances of the Heathens, Chapter 1.
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