When Abraham migrates from Haran to Canaan, the narrative reports that he and his Sarah took along the “souls they had made in Haran” (Genesis 12:5). The most popular of all the medieval commentators, RaShI, explains that the unusual locution about “making” souls refers to Abraham and Sarah’s missionary activities. Abraham and Sarah won new followers to monotheism with Abraham converting the men and Sarah converting the women.
Maimonides makes it seem as if the number of converts was enormous. In his Mishneh Torah (Laws of Idolatry 1:3) Maimonides describes how Abraham “went from city to city and kingdom to kingdom” promoting monotheism among the people, speaking to them according to their individual capacities. People “flocked to him” and, ultimately “many thousands joined him, becoming members of Abraham’s household (Genesis 17:27). However, the evidence seems otherwise. When Abraham assembled his forces to rescue his nephew Lot taken captive in the Battle of the Kings, Abraham is described as emptying his house of all able-bodied men (Gen.14:14) totaling 314 in number.
Maimonides saw Abraham as a revolutionary figure; a philosopher (like himself) who captured the imagination of the world and restoring true monotheism that had become corrupted over time. As such, Abraham’s success had to be impressive. So he postulated that thousands became his followers. Abraham was a celebrity. The Biblical narrative had a different story to tell. Abraham’s efforts did not result in a mass movement. Instead, Abraham surrounded himself with a modest number of devotees. They were an elite group defined by their willingness to accept the obligations of monotheism: the pursuit of justice (Gen. 18:19), the protection of the innocent, and pressing for the inalienable rights of the wicked (Gen. 18:25) even to the point of challenging God. And these principles had to be defended up to the cost of sacrificing one’s life. This was not a popular agenda.
Historically, Judaism has recognized itself to be akin to an acquired taste – suitable only for the select. Perhaps this is a way to justify the relatively small number of Jews in the world. But perhaps it is a recognition that commitment to noble principles will forever remain a less than popular choice.