The Torah’s opening chapters deal with generic issues of humanity through the stories of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah and his family and generation. These characters interact with God long before the first proto-Jews, Abraham and Sarah, appear in the 12th chapter of Genesis.
Because all the biblical characters up until Abram (Abraham) are “pre-Israelite,” they stand in for the generic question of the nature of the relationship of the one universal God with the rest of humanity, outside God’s specific covenant with the Jewish people. Put differently, Jews have 613 commandments that comprise their covenant with God. What are the obligations that exist between the rest of humanity and God?
Judaism makes the audacious claim that the one universal God of all creation also happens to be the particular deity of a small ancient Semitic tribe known as Israel. Jewish religion does not hold that non-Jews need to become Jews to achieve “salvation.” The Mishna teaches that “the righteous of all peoples have a share in the world to come.” So what difference should it make whether and how God has any relationship with humanity at large?
The difference depends on when in Jewish history one asks the question. In the biblical period, the relationship of Israelites to non-Israelites is primarily a question of who can marry whom, and what a non-Israelite living in Israel has to comply with regarding the Israelite religion.
In the rabbinic period, which arises alongside the ascent of Christianity with its claim to universal salvation, it became more urgent for rabbinic leaders to have teachings that could respond to the Christian claim that God (potentially) has a relationship with everyone, not just with Jews.
In the medieval period, the theological questions of idolatry arose, with rabbinic leaders having to parse the question of whether Islam and Christianity were “monotheistic,” even if not “Jewish,” or “polytheistic” or “pagan.” The majority of medieval Jewish opinion leans toward both Islam and Christianity being monotheistic; their adherents, while of “lower spiritual status” than Jews, were nonetheless not idol-worshipers.
By the modern period, with the formation of national clusters predicated on secular grounds of common ancestry, language, and culture, the relationship of God to non-Jews became more of a sociological and social question of the relationship of Jews and non-Jews. Jews were now in the minority, seeking admittance to civil society by eliminating as necessary religious differences between Jews and non-Jews.
And curiously, early modern Judaism reached back to an ancient rabbinic insight, namely, that after the Flood, God gave Noah seven commandments binding on all non-Jews throughout time. In other words, modern Judaism found in the model of Noah and his seven commandments a theological way to close the social gap between Jews and non-Jews. All non-Jews had to do was be ethical monotheists in compliance with the seven laws of Noah and they stood in the same close relationship with God as did the Jewish people.
In a time when religious fundamentalism is ascendant in all faith traditions, the concept of a pluralistic perspective on relationships with God is perhaps even more important than in the days of Noah.