In the Beginning
We have all heard of Abraham. That was his whole name Abraham for in his time people did not have two names as we have today.
This is his story. We have no pictures of him, but we like to imagine Abraham as a tall, handsome man. He wore a beard as did all men of that day. And he wore the long robe of a desert chieftain to protect him from the sun.
Abraham was the first Jew. So in a way, he is related to all Jews. He was our ancestor, which means that we can trace our family back to him. Let's think of our grandfather, and our grandfather's grandfather, and then his grandfather. If we traced back far enough thousands of years we would come to Abraham.
Remember, it was a long, long time ago, when everything was different.
Abraham was born in a city called Ur. That is a strange name for a city, isn't it? We pronounce the name as we would the word poor.
Ur was not like our cities of today. It had a brick wall around it, and all the houses inside were made of mud bricks, and they were very small. Only the palace of the King was large.
Some people believe that Ur was the oldest city in the whole world. The land where the city of Ur stood is called Iraq today. But when Abraham lived there more than three thousand years ago, it was called Chaldea.
The Chaldeans spoke a language which was like Hebrew. They had invented the war chariot which made them feared by their neighbors.
Ur was a colorful city when Abraham lived there. It was full of noise and excitement and motion. It was considered the most wonderful city in the world.
But Abraham was not happy in Ur, for there he saw people sold as slaves, beaten and abused. His father whose name was Terah, had taught his children to value justice and freedom.
Abraham must have been an unusual boy. He was grave and thoughtful and wondered about many things.
In the city of Ur the people did not believe in God. They prayed to many idols. Idols are objects carved from wood and stone, and in the olden times people believed they had magical powers.
Abraham did not believe there was any magic or anything good in the idols. The story is told that once he smashed an idol to see what would happen to him. Of course nothing happened to him.
One day Abraham's father, Terah, decided that he would live no more in Ur. He took his whole family and went into the desert. He bought goats and sheep and he bought donkeys to carry the tents, the food, and the cooking pots and dishes of the family. Now they lived as nomads.
What are nomads? The word means people who move from place to place and never settle down. People who live in the desert are called nomads because they must always move from place to place.
That is because they live on the milk and cheese produced by their flocks of goats and the meat and wool of their sheep. There never is enough grass in one place for them to stay very long. When the grass is all eaten up, they must move on.
In the desert things change very slowly. So if we could have seen the nomads of Abraham's time, we would not have thought they were very different from the nomads of today.
The nomads of today ride on camels, but Abraham had no camels. When he was tired he rode on a donkey. His family had a great many donkeys. At night the men would put up tents for shelter. These tents were made of goatskin and could be carried from place to place. The front of the tent was open, with a flap held up by poles. In the evening the old men of the family sat there and talked. Young Abraham listened to them to their stories, their words of wisdom.
Abraham's father died and he became the head of the nomad family. It was a big family. Now Abraham was a man. His family was much larger than any family of today.
If we think of our grandparents and all of our aunts and uncles and cousins and second cousins and third cousins, all living together with our mother and father and sister and brothers, we will have an idea of how big Abraham's family was.
It will be easier to understand the position Abraham held now if we think of him as a chief.
In the family were Abraham and his wife, Sarah. There were Abraham's brothers and sisters, his aunts, uncles and cousins. There were also servants and herdsmen who stayed with the family because it meant they had food to eat and a place to sleep.
Abraham was a wise and just chieftain and all the family came to love and trust him. And because of his wisdom and just dealing, his family prospered and grew.
The world was very small then, and the great laws we have today were not known. There was no one to protect Abraham's family except the members of the family themselves. They were not only a family; they were an army as well.
Once a wicked king took Abraham's brother, Lot, prisoner. Abraham armed seven hundred of the men of his family, and with them he defeated the king's army in a battle.
So we see how large Abraham's family had become. They had thousands of sheep and goats in their herds. They were big enough and strong enough to be called a tribe now.
This family or tribe became the Jewish people. This is how we began.
But this did not happen all at once. Abraham was the chieftain of the tribe or family for many, many years. During that time, as he grew old he also grew wiser.
During the many desert nights he would look at the sky with its countless stars. He would wonder who made all this. He wondered if there was a God who was everywhere.
In those days, every city and every country had its own god. People believed there were hundreds of gods. They believed these gods were only a little more powerful than men.
When they went to another city, they prayed to the god or idol of that city. Because Abraham had become a nomad, a desert wanderer, he began to think of God as being everywhere. Wherever they camped, he felt God was near him. He began to believe there was only one God.
The people of Abraham were the first to believe in one God. Abraham had no fear of idols, for we remember he had smashed idols with no bad result.
He taught his family to pray to one great God. He taught them there was no other God but this one God. The Jews, the people of Abraham, were the first to believe in one God. Today, people all over the world have accepted the Jewish belief in one God.
One day Abraham led his family out of the desert and into a beautiful land. It was a land of many mountains and deep green valleys. In these valleys the grass grew tall and strong.
Abraham was tired of wandering in the desert. He decided to stay in this fruitful land. This green and lovely place was called the Land of Canaan. There were other tribes living there already, but there was plenty of room for Abraham and his family.
They still were nomads. They still moved from place to place so that their flocks could have fresh grass. But they did not go back to the desert.
The Land of Canaan became their home. Today we call this land Israel, and today the great Jewish Republic is in this land.
The people who live in Israel still honor Abraham as their father.
Try to think how long ago Abraham lived. The first white man came to America four hundred and fifty years ago, but the Jews are older than that.
It was more than three thousand years ago that Abraham entered the Land of Canaan. We Jews are an old people, and it is a wonderful thing that we can look back to Abraham, our ancestor, as the first Jew. Just as Abraham's children learned the story of his life from him, so does each generation of Jewish children learn it from their parents.
When we understand how we began, we are better able to live good lives of our own.