3. Abraham through Moses
Ask the Hebrew people and their primary ancestor is Abraham, so we’ll start there.
We know he first appears as a resident of Ur. His ethnic identity is unknown, but we do know something about his cultural background. The one thing we can say for sure is that he was in the noble class, and that means a hefty education. Given where he lived and when, that means an education in the proud Mesopotamian academic traditions. Consistent across several different civilizations that arose and dominated Mesopotamia at different times is a vast library of myths from every known religion. They were experts in the human instinct for religion, and kept a catalog of various deities, where and by whom they were worshiped, and what was typical of that worship. Abraham would have been steeped in that tradition.
We know that Abraham perceived a divine call from a deity he would have called “El.” Sometime shortly after, his father moved the entire clan to the opposite end of the Mesopotamian Valley, up to Haran. From there Abraham eventually set out for the Promised Land. As part of his divine call, he was forced to give up the urbane existence he had in Mesopotamia and become a tent-dwelling nomad, something generally despised by his people. The Book of Genesis follows his adventures through is lineage down to Jacob, whose name is changed to Israel by that same God who led them to that land. We are given the marvelous take of Joseph and the move of the entire household down to the Nile Delta in Egypt.
Not much history of the area is recounted in the Bible until we get to Moses. Moses was adopted by the imperial household there in Egypt. That means he got a very strong education in Egypt’s traditions. Then he spent another forty years under the tutelage of Jethro, who was a priestly chief of Midian. Who were the Midianites? Another tribal nation descendant from Abraham. What this did was restore the ancient Mesopotamian education Moses missed growing up in Pharaoh’s court. So now Moses has encountered the full range of traditions for the entire Ancient Near East.
Eventually he leads Israel in the Exodus. During that trek, he spends forty days on top of a mountain in the Presence of God. During that forty days, God helps Moses sort through this massive educational background and pick out from all that mythology and lore what it was God considered important.
Looking back across this whole process from Abraham to Moses, we see that God didn’t simply pick from what was available, though it did include that. Rather, the Bible reveals a process by which God steered things so that Moses stood before Him on that mountain bearing the proper combination of things God wanted in place as the context for revelation. The Nation of Israel was His chosen vessel, built up from selected elements — language, culture and intellectual traditions — that was appropriate for telling the world what He wanted humans to know about Him.
Our modern Western tendency to view Moses as an ignorant savage with a poor understanding of God is the height of blasphemous arrogance. God, by His own hand, built the Hebrew culture and language as the best way to make Himself known. If you really want to know who God is as a Person, it should be obvious that the ancient Hebrew culture is the place to start.