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reflections on the video ‘Why I am no longer a Christian’ – part 2

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ah am the greatest

ah am the greatest

 

According to our video’s author – and his account derives, via Karen Armstrong, from a plethora of Biblical, historical and anthropological scholars – the monotheistic god worshipped by Jews, Christians and Moslems came into being around 2,600 years ago.

Going back to the Enuma Elish, as described in the previous post, a text dating back some 3750 years, the creation myth described there involved Marduk, a powerful warrior-god (and ‘patron god’ of Babylon at the time of Hammurabi) who defeats Tiamat, a sea-dragon goddess, representative of chaos, and then leads the other gods in creating the world. The general form of that creation was edited into the book of Genesis when the Israelites found themselves exiles in Babylon more than a millennium later. There are other references, such as Isaiah 51:9 ‘Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon?’ (ESV), and Job 26:12 ‘By his power he stilled the sea; by his understanding he shattered Rahab’. Note also Psalm 74:13 ‘You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the sea monsters on the waters’, and Psalm 89:10 ‘You crushed Rahab like a carcass; you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm’. Fascinating glimpses into the earlier ‘life’ of the Biblical god. Yahweh appears to owe much to Marduk. Rahab may here refer to Tiamat, but there are other examples, from the neighbourhood, of creator gods first battling with sea monsters. In Egypt, Atum fought with Nehebkau, and in Canaan, Baal fought with Yam. Another, more famous sea monster, at least to us moderns, oft-mentioned in the Bible, is Leviathan:

On that day, the Lord will take a great sword, harsh and mighty, and will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the writhing serpent, and will kill the dragon that is in the sea. (Isaiah 27:1)

It isn’t known from where this monster derives. Anyway, on to the Canaanite influences. The ancient Canaanite port city of Ugarit, which reached its height between 1450 and 1200 BCE, has been excavated, and clay tablets found there reveal that the principal god of the region at that time was El or Il, the father of humanity, and husband of the goddess Ashirah. Baal was their son. In fact El is first mentioned a millennium before this on clay tablets from Ebla, a site near modern Aleppo. El Shaddai, mentioned in the Bible in association with Abraham, seems to be a Hebrew derivation of this god, also known as El Elyon. It’s all very complicated. Shaddai may mean mountain, but it’s also clearly connected to the Bronze age Amorite city of Shaddai, in northern Syria, on the Euphrates. This god of Abraham, linked to Mesopotamian mythology, connects forward to the Islamic god Allah, one of whose prophets is Ibrahim, a patriarch of the religion.

The name El Elyon regularly occurs early in the Torah in association with Abraham and later Jacob. Jacob ‘chooses’ this god as his ‘Elohim’, another Canaanite term meaning his primary god. At this time there doesn’t seem to be any suggestion of monotheism. In so-called ‘pagan’ religions it was common to worship a locally popular ‘patron’ god above others.

In Exodus, Yahweh replaces El Elyon as the god of the hour.. All of this raises questions as to he. ow early the earliest writers of the Bible were. With all the reworkings that appear to have taken place, those earliest authors may be forever lost to us. In fact most scholars are agreed that the majority of the Old Testament as we know it today was written as late as the 4th century BCE, with fragments dating back as far as the 8th century BCE, and other fragments more recently. I don’t intend to spend a lifetime untangling it all. As for the Torah in particular, the retreat of the so-called documentary hypothesis in recent years has left something of a vacuum in terms of coherent hypotheses of authorship, and the field seems to have become a highly erudite and arcane free-for-all.

Yahweh is first associated with the rescue of the Israelites from captivity in Egypt – a mythical tale. He is hailed as a warrior-god and becomes the hero and patron-god of the Israelites, much like Genghis Khan was to the Mongols, or Kim Il-sung to the North Koreans. Clearly, though, he was first among many, not yet the only possible god of monotheism. This helps to explain the vengefulness of Yahweh once the Israelites have taken over and tamed the so-called ‘promised land’. After this, they no longer have such need of a warrior god, and other gods, such as Baal and  Ashirah, tempt them. According to our video author, in reaction to this slackening of devotion to Yahweh, a cult of ardent devotees, the Yahwists, sprang up, spurred on by the ‘troubles’ of the eighth century, when a divided Israelite kingdom (though in fact archaeological evidence suggests that Israel was a sparsely populated tribal region at this time, hardly a kingdom) was under threat from the Neo-Assyrian empire. Three of these Yahwist ‘prophets’, Isaiah, Amos and Hosea, railed to their fellow-Israelites about the importance of loyalty to Yahweh, displaying a fervour amounting almost to monotheism. Of course, this didn’t stop the Assyrian takeover, but their writings were preserved, and almost a century later, a Yahwist ‘king’, Josiah, presided over the discovery of the book of Deuteronomy during renovations of the temple. This book’s authenticity as a ‘discovery’ is questioned and it’s generally dated to Josiah’s reign. It’s in this book that the strict covenant to Yahweh is made – and the laws binding the Israelites to their god are established. Another step towards monotheism. It’s also argued (and I know too little of this to make an evaluation) that during this period, the early books of the Torah were rewritten, strengthening Yahweh’s role, and emphasising his violent opposition to other gods. Still, the ‘no other gods before me’ commandment indicates that we’re yet a way from monotheism. Scholars have used the term ‘monolatry’, a recognition of many gods but a preference for one, to represent this intermediate stage between polytheism and monotheism. Shortly after Josiah’s time, Jerusalem came under threat once more, this time from the Babylonians. Another Yahwist thunderer, Jeremiah, predicted the fall of Jerusalem and blamed Israelite complacency and lack of ardour for the patron god. The Babylonians sacked Jerusalem and the Israelites (actually only a minority of them) were sent into exile in Mesopotamia. It was out of this crushing defeat that a new, apparently comforting idea arose with ‘second Isaiah’, who wrote:

I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god (Isaiah 44:6).

And so monotheism was born at last.

So, is that about how it went, historically? Qui sait? I’m not a sceptic for nothing.

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Written by stewart henderson

February 26, 2013 at 11:41 pm

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