Was Abraham an idol worshipper before he met God? The evidence seems to say yes.
Before Joshua led the Israelites to conquer Canaan about 800 years after Abraham lived, he said the following:
“Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: Long ago your ancestors – Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor – lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. Then I took your father Abraham from beyond the River and led him through the land of Canaan.”
– Joshua 2:2-3
The name of Abraham’s Father, Terah, is etymologically related to the word “moon.”1 Since the moon god was the chief deity of Ur, it would not be unusual that someone like Terah would be named after the moon god, in essence signifying that he and his family were under the protection of that god. Abraham’s wife Sarai was named after the wife of the moon god.2 According to Joshua, the entire family, including Abraham, were idolaters.
Moon god worship had a very long run in Haran. In Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, he states that when the Roman emperor Julian the Apostate invaded Persia in 263 AD, he stopped briefly at Haran. And as he put it, “The temple of the Moon attracted the devotion of Julian.”3 This was over 2200 years after Abraham lived!
Terah was the eighth generation from Noah’s son Shem. Noah knew God, but something happened in the generations that followed to where his descendent Terah and his family were idol worshippers. Why does this happen?
This happens because the older generations fail to pass on their beliefs to their children. Consider this quote from the book of Judges in the Old Testament:
“And all that generation also were gathered to their fathers; and there arose another generation after them, who did not know the LORD or the work which he had done for Israel.”
This is what happened shortly after Joshua died. At face value, it seems that the fault lay with the the new generation that did not know God. But really, the blame with the parents. The very generation who saw the great works of God neglected to pass this knowledge down to their children. In the religious world, we call the process of passing this knowledge to our children “catechesis.” They failed to catechize the next generation and so the chain was broken.
The same thing happens in civil society where a generation arises that is ignorant of their nation’s history. When this happens, they are open to manipulation by malevolent forces like we are seeing today in the United States and Europe.
Most likely, the same thing happened to Shem’s descendants. There were seven generations between Shem and Abraham and somewhere along the line, the chain was broken. One generation failed to teach their children about the one true God, Yahweh. The entropy within families, institutions, and nations is always away from the truth and toward error unless an effort is made to counter that. One reason why this happens is simply laziness. It takes a lot of work and a concerted effort to catechize children. It is much easier to not do that and instead be seduced by the surrounding culture.
Another reason why this happens is prosperity. When people are prosperous, they don’t see a need to depend on God. Ur was very prosperous and maybe somewhere along the line, Abraham’s ancestors became complacent. The time period when the Catholic Church stopped effectively catechizing also coincided with unprecedented prosperity in the West. Is this merely a coincidence? Maybe.
This paragraph that I am now writing on May 31, 2021, is an addendum to this post. I just finished reading an interesting book by Austin Ruse called Under Siege, No Finer Time to be a Catholic.4 In it, he talks about the dismal state of the Catholic Church and Society in the West. At the end of the book he gives some very encouraging answers, and probably more important, a positive perspective.
At one point in the book, he muses over possible causes that led to the near collapse of the Catholic Church in the West in the 1960s. He states possibilities such as the Second Vatican Council and the Sexual Revolution. He states that we are too close to the council historically to have a clear perspective on it. He then posits the idea of poor catechesis and gives a poignant illustration from his own life:
“When I began to consider conversion to the Catholic Church in the late 1980s, I approached young people I knew to be Catholic and asked them what I should read. Not one of them could make any recommendations. Not one. This was the first great uncatechized generation in the Church (italics mine) But we must assume that their parents, who came of age in the great 1950s, were not catechizing their own children. We must conclude that priests were of mature age in the 1950s were not catechizing these kids either.”5Austin Ruse
And as far as the sexual revolution question, it is really a chicken and egg question. I lean toward the side that says that corruption in the Church leads to corruption in society since the Church, like ancient Israel, is supposed to be the beacon of truth and light in the world. If the light of truth fades in the Church, then it will also fade in the world. Of course, influence always runs both ways, but as the saying goes – as the Church goes, so goes the world.
Look, for example, at Ivy League universities like Harvard and Yale that were originally founded to train Protestant ministers.6 Consider also Catholic universities like Georgetown and Notre Dame. They all started out theologically orthodox and have all abandoned their faith to embrace the secular spirit of the age.7 Examples today include Christian churches personifying the earth as a goddess and the acceptance of the idea that there are multiple paths to heaven. This is the normal outcome for people who weren’t catechized well. Like Abraham’s generation, our generation finds itself steeped in idolatry.
This is why, in the Old Testament, the number one admonishment that God had for His people throughout their history was to stay faithful to Him and to not pursue other gods. The ancient Israelites did not listen. They eventually abandoned God, leading to the destruction of their nation by the Assyrians and the Babylonians.
The Promises of God
But there was hope for Abraham because God had made promises to his ancestor Shem. After the Flood, Noah said that the line of Shem would be blessed. When God makes a promise, it is irrevocable. Even though the line of Shem fell into idolatry, God did not abandon them. This is why God appeared to Abraham and met with him personally. He sought to restore the line of Shem back to the true worship of Yahweh.
In my last post, I talked about God appearing to Abraham. During this encounter, Abraham probably didn’t just learn about the promises that God made to him, but he probably learned something about the nature of God Himself. He learned that God is one and not many and that Yahweh is the one true God.
He learned that Yahweh is above nature and not a part of it. In paganism, the forces of nature are personified as gods and there are many of them. There is the god of the moon, the god of the wind, the god of the sun, etc. Not only is Yahweh above these forces of nature, but He created them and rules over them. They are not gods; only He is.
Abraham also learned that God desired not to leave the nations in darkness, but to redeem the nations from idolatry and that He was going to use Abraham’s descendants to accomplish this. His descendants would be chosen as God’s people in order that all of the nations would be blessed. Abraham held this special position because he was of the line of Shem that received this blessing from God through Noah. God taught Abraham about his special heritage – that he was a part of a people who were blessed by God.
We, like Abraham’s generation, are steeped in idolatry. American has been de-Christianized and secularized, but there is hope.8 I’m sure when God revealed Himself to Abraham, there was some familiarity there. Even though his family had fallen into idolatry, there was most likely some echoes of the one true God that had come down from the past. These were faint echoes, but nevertheless, the knowledge of God was not completely extinguished. Just like today, we have faint echoes reverberating within our culture of a once great Christian civilization.
For those of us who are Catholic, we should not despair over the state of the Church. For just like God made promises about Abraham’s line through Shem, He has made precious promises about the invincibility of his Church through St. Peter. Just like He visited Abraham and rescued him out of his idolatry, we would ask Him to do the same with us today.
“Blessed by the Lord my God be Shem.”
“And Jesus answered him, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.”
Who is more at fault – parents for church leaders, for the failure to pass down the faith in modern times? Please leave comments below. Thank you!
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopedia. “Sin”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 22 Apr. 2009, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Sin-Mesopotamian-god.
- Foster, Nicole, Terah: “The Father of Abraham and The Protector of the Moon, Joshua 24:2” The Doctrinal Dissertation of Nicole Foster, The New Exodus, A Virtual Congregation, https://thenewexodus.wordpress.com/2017/11/09/terah-the-father-of-abraham-and-the-protector-of-the-moon-joshua-242/#:~:text=Terah%20name%20is%20associated%20with,brother%20(or%20protector%2C%20Heb.
- Gibbon, Edward, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. 1, p. 919, Penguin Group, New York, 2005
- Ruse, Austin, No Finer Time to Be a Catholic, p. 144, Crisis Publication, Manchester, N.H., 2021
- New World Encyclopedia, “Ivy League,” https://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Ivy_League
- “Not God’s Country Anymore,” Real Clear Politics, https://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2009/04/17/rendering_unto_caesar_96034.html, April 17, 2009
Bibliography and Sources:
Crawford, Harriet, author and Harrison, Thomas, series editor, Ur: The City of the Moon God, Archaeological History Series, Bloomsbury Academic, New York, 2015
De Mieroop, Van, A History of the Ancient Near East, ca. 3000-323 BC, 3rd Edition (Blackwell History of the Ancient World), Wiley-Blackwell, Hoboken, N.J., 2015
Hahn, Ph.D., Scott, Kinship by Covenant: A Canonical Approach to the Fulfillment of God’s Saving Promises, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT., 2009
Kramer, Samuel Noah, The Sumerians: Their History, Culture, and Character Revised ed. Edition, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1971
Ruse, Austin, No Finer Time to Be a Catholic, Crisis Publication, Manchester, N.H., 2021
Time-Life Books, editor, Sumer: Cities of Eden, Lost Civilization Series, Time Life Education, 1993
Voegelin, Eric, Order and History, Vol. 1: Israel and Revelation, classic reprint hardcover, Forgotten Books Publishers, London, 2018
Zainab, Bahrani, Mesopotamia: Ancient Art and Architecture, Thomas Hudson publisher, High Holborn, U.K., 2017
For an interesting article on the current state of catechesis in the Catholic Church, please click the following link. This article contains links to other interesting articles on the same topic. https://catholicstand.com/consequences-50-years-poor-catechesis-1/