Patheos answers the question:

What Are the Origins of Judaism?

jewish star

In the minds of many non-Jews, the religion of Judaism has its origins with Moses—and the law he received on Sinai, when God appeared to him (Exodus 19-20). Indeed, it has been pointed out that “the start of the Jewish people as a nation is often credited to the time following the biblical Exodus from Egypt.” However, according to Jewish teachings, Judaism began more than a thousand years prior to the Exodus and Moses’ theophany. Indeed, it started with the patriarch, Abraham. The Patheos Library explains:

“Judaism is a religious tradition with origins dating back nearly four thousand years, rooted in the ancient near eastern region of Canaan (which is now Israel and Palestinian territories). Originating as the beliefs and practices of the people known as ‘Israel,’ classical, or rabbinic, Judaism did not emerge until the 1st century C.E. Judaism traces its heritage to the covenant God made with Abraham and his lineage—that God would make them a sacred people and give them a holy land. The primary figures of Israelite culture include the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the prophet Moses.”

So, why is Abraham (or Abram, as he was called at the time) the founder of the faith? Well, according to the biblical account, after the Fall of Adam and Eve, God inspired, “walked with,” and even “spoke to” various individuals (e.g., Cain in Genesis 4:6 Enoch in Genesis 5:24; Noah in Genesis 6:9 & 13). However, Abram is the first person that God is said to have actually appeared to post-Fall (Genesis 17:1). Thus, he is set apart in the biblical account as somehow different than his predecessors and, thus, he is chosen by God.

Why did God “choose” to appear to Abraham instead of one of his predecessors, like Noah? Well, truthfully, “God only knows.” However, one source points out that “Abraham is considered to be an especially beloved figure by God, not only because he was the first to proclaim his faith, but also because he passed several extreme tests of this faith.” Thus, Abraham may have been selected to be the first Jew and “founder of the faith” because he had repeatedly shown that God could trust him, no matter what God asked of him.

As evidence of Abraham’s chosenness, and as part of the process of creating the first “revealed religion,” Judaism teaches that God made a covenant with Abram, in which He promised numerous blessings which would be fulfilled through Abram and (more particularly) through his posterity.

“Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’” (Genesis 12:1-3)

God made numerous promises to Abram in this pledge, famously called the “Abrahamic Covenant.” Among other things, Abram is told that—through keeping this covenant—he would become a “great nation” (i.e., he would have a massive posterity), he would be blessed and his name would become “great” among the peoples of the world, that he and his posterity would be a “blessing” to the world (i.e., through Abram and his posterity, “all the families of the earth” would “be blessed”). As part of this covenant, God changed Abram’s name to Abraham (meaning “father of multitudes”).

This covenant is seen as the “beginning” of Judaism and, thus, God renewed this covenant with Abraham’s son, Isaac, and his grandson, Jacob or Israel. (See Genesis 26:3–4 & 28:13–14 for examples of these promises made to Abraham being renewed with Isaac and Jacob.). In Genesis 17, God revealed to Abraham that circumcision would be the “sign” or “token” of the Abrahamic Covenant and the new-found faith.

“I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan… I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God. Then God said to Abraham, ‘As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or…those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (Genesis 17:7-14)

Jews typically hold that the covenant God made with Abraham is renewed with each of the patriarch’s descendants—specifically the Jewish people—upon a boy’s circumcision. As one source explains: “This ceremony, of great antiquity, confirms the transition of the infant from being a child of Adam, as it were, to a member of the Jewish people. Thus the boy enters the ‘covenant of Abraham’” when he is circumcised. As a consequence, every male Jew (who is born into an observant family) is circumcised on the eighth day after he is born—entering him into this same covenant, which is the foundation of Judaism, and offering him the same promises God made to Abram and renews with all who strive to faithfully live this religion.

While Moses is considered by Jews to be the most important of all of God’s holy prophets, and the oracle through which God revealed His law by which His people would live, Jews hold that God first parted the heavens and established His covenant, not with Moses, but with Abram. Thus, it is the patriarch Abraham who is held up as the “founder of the faith.”

3/7/2023 10:39:51 PM
Alonzo L. Gaskill is an author, editor, theologian, lecturer, and professor of World Religions. He holds degrees in philosophy, theology/comparative religion, and biblical studies. He has authored more than two-dozen books and numerous articles on various aspects of religion; with topics ranging from world religions and interfaith dialogue, to scriptural commentaries, texts on symbolism, sacred space, and ritual, and even devotional literature.