The beliefs and practices of ancient religions were just as varied as the beliefs and practices of modern-day religions. However, ancient Hebrews stood out from the crowd as one of the first monotheistic religions, sharing a covenant with one merciful God.
Monotheism, or the belief in only one deity instead of many, set ancient Hebrews apart from many other religious practices of their time. The ancient Greek religion included a large variety of major and minor deities that specialized in certain aspects of human needs. Followers would pray and participate in rituals to appeal to these gods for favors; the god they chose to ask for help varied based on the need. While many of the polytheistic gods were believed to be quite powerful, they were flawed beings, prone to pride and lust. The God of the ancient Hebrews believed their God was free from any of these particular things.
Symbols of the Covenant
The relationship between the ancient Hebrews and God was unique because it was a covenant between God and Abraham, the man considered to be the father of the Hebrews. As a symbol of the covenant, Hebrew men are circumcised on the eighth day after their birth. According to the covenant relationship, the Hebrew people must follow certain rules and practices in order to retain God's protection. To this day, rules about dietary restrictions and other actions are followed by orthodox practitioners. By following the rules laid out by God, a person's entire life is dedicated to the covenant between God and his followers. The circumcision of the male followers physically set the male followers apart from followers of other religions.
Human sacrifice was a part of life in the ancient world. The ancient Maya, for example, believed that human sacrifice was just one more way for a human to move on to the next life. However, in the Hebrew tradition, human sacrifice does not happen due to a covenant formed between Abraham and God. According to tradition, God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son, Isaac. Abraham was willing to do this, but God stopped him at the last minute. Instead, Abraham sacrificed a ram. From that point on, ancient Hebrews sacrificed animals instead of humans. According to Rabbi Joseph Hertz, this story is the basis for the lack of human sacrifice by the ancient Hebrews.
In the creation story of the ancient Hebrews, God created man and woman and placed them in a garden, giving them permission to eat from any plant in the garden except for one. According to the story, the woman was tempted by a snake to eat from the forbidden tree. She persuaded her male companion to also eat from the tree, and through this action, sin entered the world because of her disobedience. While women in the ancient world often did not enjoy the same rights as men, the ancient Hebrews believed that women would suffer the pain of childbirth and be ruled by men because a woman brought sin into the world.
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