Alice C. Linsley
The short answer to that question is NO.
Abraham was known by the Hittites as a "prince of God among us" (Gen. 23:6). He is a pivotal figure of biblical history. He is the ancestor of many peoples and he is a descendant of Nilo-Saharan peoples who dispersed across the ancient world. His ancestors were known by various names: Habiru (Hebrew); Horim (Horite); Shasu of Yahweh, Anu or Hanu (Ainu), and the Tera-neter (priest of God). Tera-neter refers to a ruler-priest of the Anu, a pre-dynastic people of the Upper Nile. Abraham’s father has the title Tera, which means priest. The Ainu spread abroad, taking their religious beliefs and practices with them. They migrated to Northern Japan and into Eastern Canada. In the Japanese language "tera" means priest.
This essay responds to the comment made by Fr. Robert Hart at The Continuum that Abraham was a pagan who converted to monotheism. Fr. Hart, who I respect very much, believes that Abraham was a idol worshiper. He writes: “Abram was a pagan, a worshiper of idols, until God revealed Himself to him, and revealed His purpose through him. The text is clear that he had, until then, worshiped his father's gods.”
First, it is incorrect to apply the term “pagan” to Abraham since the term comes from ancient Rome. Pagan refers to adherence to the old gods after the Christianization of Roman towns. (I've written about the contribution of Biblical Anthropology in the determination of anachronisms here.)
Second, the Online Etymological Dictionary explains that "pagan," from classical Latin means "villager, rustic, civilian," from pagus "rural district," originally "district limited by markers," related to pangere "to fix, fasten." Pagan, like villain, boor, rustic, expresses a class hierarchy from a time when common country folk were regarded by the urban elite as being of low birth, having rude manners, and lacking urbanity and sophistication. This doesn't apply to Abraham who maintained an army of at least 300 trained warriors, controlled a substantial holding between Hebron and Beersheba, negotiated water treaties with rulers, and maintained two wives and two concubines in separate households.
The verse to which the Fr. Hart is referring is Joshua 24:2: In olden times, your forefathers – Terah, father of Abraham and father of Nahor – lived beyond the Euphrates and worshiped other gods.
The short answer to the question: "Was Abraham an idol worshiper?" is no! Fr. Hart has been reading commentaries influenced by the Talmud and midrash. Matthew Henry perpetuates the notion that Abraham worshiped idols in his commentary on Genesis. He writes, "God made choice of Abram, and singled him out from among his fellow-idolaters..."
We should exercise suspicion about such claims. Scripture does not designate Abraham as an idol worshiper. Other than the Joshua 24 statement, which has another explanation, there is not a shred of evidence that Abraham or his father were idolaters.
Abraham's calling does not constitute a turning away from the tradition of his Horite forefathers (Horim). Abraham's people did not worship idols. They were priests of the Proto-Gospel and recognized as unique and especially pure in their worship and religious practices.
This peculiar verse: “In olden times, your forefathers – Terah, father of Abraham and father of Nahor – lived beyond the Euphrates and worshiped other gods” must be understood in the context of the Deuteronomist account, which begins in Deuteronomy and ends in II Kings. These books share a common concern with idolatry and recognize that on that side of the Euphrates, people worshiped the moon as equal to the sun. This is historically accurate. The moon god was honored in Ur and Haran, but never among the Horites, and Terah was a Horite.
The implication is that Terah fell into worshiping contrary to Horite tradition while living “beyond the Euphrates.” This represents the Bible's criticism of Asian dualism in which the sun and moon were regarded as equals.
In the binary worldview of the Horites the sun was regarded as superior to the moon. This was not an arbitrary preference, but an observed reality since the sun gives light whereas the moon's light is reflective or refulgent. Horite recognition of the sun's superiority is expressed in Genesis 1:16: "God made the two great lights: the greater to rule the day, the lesser light to rule the night."
Further, in ancient Horite symbolism, Ra's right eye is represented by the sun and the left eye is represented by the moon. Together they are the eyes of Horus, but the moon eye is weaker than the sun eye. It is idolatry to regard the weaker as worthy of equal honor. This explains why Abraham's father was accused of idol worship in Joshua 24.
Many words that pertain to boundaries and measurements are derived from Horus: hour, horoscope, horologion, horotely and horizon. The association of Horus with the horizon is evident in Har-ma-khet, meaning "Horus of the Horizon." His being was one with his father Ra.
Both Teran and his father Nahor were of the Horite ruler-priest caste which is the foundation of the priesthood of Israel. They were servants of Elohiym, which is the plural form for God and a term associated with the divine council of Horites.
Nothing is said in Genesis about Abraham worshiping other gods. This verse represents a criticism of Terah's association with Asiatic dualism. The implication is that Terah fell into worshiping contrary to tradition of his Horite ancestors. Even this is no substantiated by the text since Terah means "priest" and he was clearly of the Horite ruler-priest caste.
The criticism apparently is based upon Joshua 24:2, a later assessment of the differences between the binary worldview of the Horites and the dualistic worldview that developed in regions to the east where the Horite priests migrated. In the Nilotic tradition of the Horites the Sun and the Moon were viewed as a binary set, the Sun being the greater of the two lights.
In a dualistic view, the Sun and the Moon are equals so both are worthy of veneration. In a binary view, one of the entities of the binary set is always superior and to venerate the lesser entity is a form of idol worship. This is what stands behind the Joshua 24 criticism of Terah's residing in Mesopotamia. Note is is not a criticism of Abraham.
There is no other verse in the Bible to support the view that Terah, a Horite ruler-priest, worshiped the Moon god contrary to the practice of his Kushite ancestors who regarded the Sun as the emblem of the Creator. Abraham's Horite ancestors didn't worship the moon was done in Ur and Haran, and later in Mecca. The Horite ruler-priests were devotees of Horus whose emblem was the Sun. Sometimes their God is named "Na-Pir" which means May the God of the Ha-piru/ Hebrew be exalted.
Genesis is about Abraham's Horite caste and the promise that the Creator made to their ancestors in Eden (Gen. 3:15) that a woman of their people would bring forth the Seed of God.
Related reading: Who Was Abraham?; The Calling of Abraham; The Sun and the Moon in Genesis; The Christ in Nilotic Mythology; Who Were the Horites?; The Tower of Babel; Peleg: Time of Division; The Joktanites Tribes; Binary Sets in the Ancient World