I’ve been reading a book on legends from ancient Israel, which includes a few stories on Abraham, who is sometimes considered to be the first monotheist in history. Obviously this would be difficult to prove, especially since it’s not even known whether Abraham really existed. I guess the first known monotheist is the fourteenth century BC Pharaoh Akhenaten, but that doesn’t mean he actually WAS the first, just the first supported by historical records. For that matter, even though the Bible details Abraham’s close relationship with Yahweh, we don’t know for sure that he didn’t worship other gods as well.
Besides, if you want to argue that Abraham was a monotheist because he knew the Jewish God personally, wouldn’t you have to say the same about Adam, Eve, Enoch, and Noah? Regardless, the idea developed in extra-biblical legend that Abraham was a monotheist in a polytheistic society. One Jewish legend about the patriarch that also made it into the Quran had it that he originally thought he should worship the sun and moon, but when they set, he realized that only the force behind them was worthy of worship. Mind you, it turns out that the sun is much more powerful than Abraham realized, but that’s not to say it makes sense to worship it.
Along the same lines is a story about how Abraham’s father Terah was a maker of idols, but the patriarch secretly dissuaded people from buying them, and eventually smashed them all. The old argument about how idols can’t see or hear enters into the picture, but this is essentially a straw man argument, isn’t it? The members of religions that use idols don’t actually think the idols ARE gods, but rather that they REPRESENT gods.
Of course the idols themselves don’t see or hear, and nobody expected them to. It’s not like the ancient Jews didn’t also use a physical object to represent the presence of God, because isn’t that what the Ark of the Covenant is? It was also man-made, said to have been constructed by the artisan Bezalel. I suppose the main difference here is that the Ark wasn’t supposed to look like God, as the Jews eventually developed the idea that Yahweh should not be depicted. After all, doesn’t making an image of a divine being put limits on it? Well, maybe not, since even the people who made statues of their gods didn’t think those gods ALWAYS took those forms. After all, it’s pretty universal that deities are shape-shifters. Still, I think the idea that humans shouldn’t make physical representations of God is largely what led the Jewish religious leadership to come out against idols, and the fact that having your own conduit to God would have undermined the temple cult is likely another. The books of Kings constantly criticize “high places,” which appear to have been places other than the temple at which people worshipped. The general impression given in the Deuteronomistic History is that religion is best left in the hands of the experts, and anyone could buy or make an idol.