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On the origin of the god called God, part one – on the Judean need for a warrior god

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It has long irritated me that people ask the question ‘Do you believe in God?’ or ‘why don’t you believe in God?’, assuming that there’s only one deity, a cultural assumption that reveals a fair degree of ignorance. Obviously there are many gods, or spirits, or powers or forces, because many many cultures have developed over many thousands of years in isolation to each other. 

For example, I’ve been reading Cassandra Pybus’ book Truganini, which relates the horrors suffered by the Aboriginal inhabitants of what was then Van Diemen’s Land in the 1820s and 30s. One particular spirit – Raegewarrah – was considered mostly responsible for the disaster that had befallen them with the advent of Europeans, but there were many other gods and spirits associated with places, activities and so on. Speaking more generally, I recall one spiritually inclined friend saying that these different gods or spirits are all different interpretations of God, or the godhead or some such thing, but it doesn’t take much anthropological research to discover that so many of these creatures have different characters, powers, relationships and fields of agency. There are malevolent and benevolent gods, there are capricious, unpredictable gods, there are regional gods, seasonal gods, gods of love and gods of war, gods of the sea, gods of the forest, squabbling and/or incestuous families of gods, hierarchies of gods, and gods of the other peoples over the mountains or on faraway islands.

It’s stated on some websites that there are between 8000 and 12000 gods on record, but records require writing, and religious beliefs surely predates writing, as for example those of Aboriginal Australians. And we have as little idea of when religious belief in humans began as we do of the beginning of human language. It’s likely though, at least to me, that the origins of human language and religion are connected.

But returning to God, rather than gods, this is a reference to the Judeo-Christian god, as I live in a country colonised by Christians. He (and he’s very male) is also referred to as the Abrahamic god, who unites the three associated religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam in monotheism, or sort of. Christianity differs from the others in that there’s two gods, father and son, who sort of compete with each other for the attention of belevers, being, apparently, quite different characters. 

Anyway, this Judaic god wasn’t, strictly speaking the first monotheistic god, though he was at the foundation of the first successful monotheistic religion that we know of. We can’t of course be certain of how many monotheisms have been tried in history or ‘prehistory’ but we do know of the attempt by the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten, some 3,300 years ago – some 750 years before the rabbis of Judah got together to institute their monotheism. Akhenaten tried to compel his subjects to worship the Aten, the Sun God, but only through him, the pharaoh. It was an attempt to impose monotheism in a very hierarchical way, to consolidate the pharoah’s power, and it would’ve entailed the essential abolition of over a hundred other Egyptian gods, so it didn’t survive Akhenaten’s death – in fact, there was a fierce reaction to it afterwards.

Now of course the rabbis of Judah knew nothing about this when they began to develop their monotheism. It’s likely that the Judaic religion existed centuries before it turned monotheistic. It was one of several Canaanite polytheistic religions of the region, and the various Semitic cultures probably shared their different deities, leading to confusion at times about their identities and roles. Much of this will always be speculative as we have few written records from the time, but the name El, from which the Arabic name Allah derives, comes up in slightly different forms in Ugaritic, in Aramaic and in so-called proto-Semitic languages to describe a god who may are may not be the same god in each case. Sometimes El seems to represent a special or supreme god among gods. Other times it seems like a prefix to some particular god, such as El-Hadad. So basically, the name El, and its derivatives, comes up in so many language-forms and in so many contexts that it’s virtually impossible to characterise the god in any coherent way. If you don’t believe me, look up the comprehensive Wikipedia entry on this god, or this descriptor. 

So during the Bronze Age (about 5300 to 3200 years ago) the land of Canaan, of which Judah was a a small part, was occupied or influenced by the Egyptians, the Hittites, the Hurrian Mitanni and the Assyrians, among others. So there were all sorts of cultural and religious influences and pressures that I’m not scholared enough to sort out, but the gods that most stuck with or appealed to the Israelite tribes of Judah and surrounding regions were Yahweh, a warrior-god, the aforementioned El, the mother goddess Asherah, and Baal, who by the time of Iron Age 1 (3200-3000 years ago) had come to replace El in parts of Canaan as the master god. Baal was particularly a fertility god, associated especially with rainfall, which was crucial to the region. The scholarly term is monolatristic worship – with many gods, but one god being more prevalent or important. 

However, over time, and probably due to the regular incursions into and occupation of Israelite regions by other cultures, Yahweh became the more favoured god, a being to rouse the embattled Israelites against their various oppressors. The most serious oppression came from the Babylonians during Iron Age II (about 2600 to 2550 years ago) when the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II besieged Jerusalem and deported the most prominent Judeans, taking them captive to Babylon. Jerusalem, the city, was apparently destroyed, though much of the rest of Judah remained untouched. It was likely this trauma (much relieved a few decades later by the defeat of the Babylonians by Cyrus II of Persia, and the return from exile) that turned the Judean people inwards, and caused them to see Yahweh, their warrior-god, as their sole god, under whom they needed to unite as his chosen people. 

Which brings me to the complex writings of the Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Hebrew Bible. I feel daunted at the thought, so I’ll focus mostly on Genesis, the origin. I have very little interest in the endless abstrusities of Judaism or any other religion, but the tight hold that ‘the one true God’ still has on millions of people has fascinated and disturbed me for decades, especially considering what we’ve come to know about our universe in the past few centuries. It seems knowledge percolates slowly, even when confined to the so-called ‘WEIRD’ world. 

I don’t believe that science and religion are in any way compatible – they offer completely different programs, if you will, for understanding the world and our place in it. The science program is endless, or opened-ended, if you will – with new facts or findings leading to new questions, which, when answered lead to further questions with no end in sight, whereas the religious program (and I’m specifically focussing on Abrahamic religions) has an end, in God, He who cannot be questioned. The old Stephen Jay Gould attempt to evoke NOMA (non-overlapping majesteria), the idea that science and religion can live happily together, (about which I’ve written here), always struck me as frankly ridiculous. 

Of course I understand that religion comes wrapped in culture, which comes wrapped in religion, and all this forms a great part of the identity of many people, and I have no wish to belittle or take from people their culture. It’s a vexed issue, and I don’t have all the answers. I do think there are heavy cultures, which can be damaging, and I notice this damage especially when it comes to gender. Bonobos again. And since the god called God is so very very masculine, I cannot help but feel great discomfort about the Abrahamic religions. 

So my next post will look at the Hebrew Origin myth and the nature of the god as shaped by the writers of the earliest texts.

References

https://www.newscientist.com/letter/mg19125641-200-how-many-gods-are-there/

Truganini: journey through the apocalypse, by Cassandra Pybus, 2020

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Canaan

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_(deity)

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origins_of_Judaism

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Torah

Stephen Jay Gould, NOMA and a couple of popes

 

Written by stewart henderson

April 29, 2022 at 1:29 pm