God

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The history of Yahweh’s evolution as a deity is actually really fascinating when you dig into it. See, in the early days of the Israelite religion, the concept of monotheism didn’t exist yet – so Yahweh wasn’t considered to be “the one and only God;” the Israelites acknowledged the existence of rival gods as well (like Baal, Chemosh, Moloch, etc.). They still worshiped Yahweh alone, of course; but it wasn’t because they considered him to be the only god that existed – rather, it was because he was the patron deity of their particular tribe and they considered him to be superior to other tribes’ gods. This system of “belief in the existence of many gods but with the consistent worship of only one deity” is known as monolatrism (not to be confused with regular polytheism), and evidence of it can be found throughout the Old Testament. Psalm 86:8, for instance, says, “Among the gods there is none like unto thee, O Lord.” Psalm 135:5 says, “Our Lord is above all gods.” Exodus 15:11 and Deuteronomy 3:24 ask, “Who is like unto thee, O LORD, among the gods? […] What God is there in heaven or in earth, that can do according to thy works?” And Exodus 18:11 says, “Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods.” Other verses say that the Old Testament God is the “God of gods” (Psalm 136:2; Daniel 11:36), “a great King above all gods” (Psalm 95:3), and that the other gods worship him: “Worship him, all ye gods” (Psalm 97:7), “for the LORD your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords” (Deuteronomy 10:17). And Psalm 82:1 adds that God is so powerful that he can come into the divine assembly and pass judgment on the other gods: “God standeth in the congregation of the mighty, he judgeth among the gods.” Exodus 12:12 says the same thing, with Yahweh passing judgment on the gods of Egypt: “Against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment.” And Numbers 33:4 describes this judgment as well: “Upon their gods also the LORD executed judgments.” Zephaniah 2:11 even goes so far as to say that God “will famish all the gods of the earth,” with Jeremiah 10:11 adding that in the end, all the other gods will die and Yahweh will be the last one standing: “The gods that have not made the heavens and the earth, even they shall perish from the earth, and from under these heavens.” In Psalm 82:6-7, Yahweh addresses his rival deities in the divine assembly directly: “I have said, Ye are gods […] But ye shall die like men.”

In one strangely conciliatory verse, Exodus 22:28 instructs the Israelites not to harbor any ill will toward these rival gods: “Thou shalt not revile the gods.” Nevertheless, the rest of the Old Testament vehemently forbids Yahweh’s people from even thinking about worshiping them: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me […] Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:3-5; Deuteronomy 5:7); “Thou shalt worship no other god: for the LORD, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God” (Exodus 34:14); “Ye shall not go after other gods, of the gods of the people which are round about you; (For the LORD thy God is a jealous God among you)” (Deuteronomy 6:14-15, 28:14). Yahweh spends chapter after chapter admonishing his followers not to make sacrifices to other gods (Exodus 22:20), make covenants with them (Exodus 23:32), burn incense in their names (Jeremiah 1:16), or even mention their names at all (Exodus 23:13). He stipulates that if anyone actually does serve any god other than him, they “shall be utterly destroyed” (Exodus 22:20). And in Exodus 32:26-28, if you’ll recall, he actually follows through on this threat, killing thousands of his own people after they start worshiping a golden calf.

Why would he have felt so insecure about his people worshiping other gods? And for that matter, why would they have actually done so – especially considering that they’d personally interacted with Yahweh beforehand and knew for a fact that he existed? These passages wouldn’t make very much sense if Yahweh really was the only game in town and everyone knew that he was the only god in existence. But in a monolatrist context, it makes perfect sense; the reason why people followed other gods, and the reason why Yahweh had to deter them from doing so, is that in the biblical narrative, those other gods were just as real as Yahweh was. This is shown in Exodus itself: When Yahweh has Moses perform miracles in front of Pharaoh in Exodus 7 (turning his rod into a snake, turning water into blood, etc.), Pharaoh’s priests are able to match him step for step and perform those same miracles themselves, indicating that some force other than Yahweh was responsible for their sorcery. But it’s also shown even more directly in other passages. In 2 Kings 3:24-27, for instance, the Israelites are overpowering the Moabites, and the Moabite king sacrifices his son as a burnt offering to his god Chemosh, so that Chemosh might save them – and it actually works: “There came a great wrath against Israel. And they withdrew from him and returned to their own land.” (This event is also recorded by the Moabites themselves on the Mesha Stele, an inscribed tablet from ~840 BC that “tells how Chemosh, the god of Moab, had been angry with his people and had allowed them to be subjugated to Israel, but at length, Chemosh returned and assisted Mesha to throw off the yoke of Israel and restore the lands of Moab.”) Additionally, Judges 11:24 acknowledges that Chemosh sometimes granted his followers land and other blessings, using this as an argument that Yahweh could do the same thing: “Wilt not thou possess that which Chemosh thy god giveth thee to possess? So whomsoever the LORD our God shall drive out from before us, them will we possess.”

The evidence for multiple gods existing in the Bible even goes back as far as the creation story itself. In Genesis 1:26, when God is creating humans, he says, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (note the plural). A couple chapters later, after Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit, God laments, “Behold, then man is become as one of us, to know good and evil” (Genesis 3:22). Later still, after seeing the Tower of Babel, God says, “Let us go down, and there confound their language” (Genesis 11:7). You could reasonably argue, of course, that in this last verse God is just using the phrase “let us” in the same figurative sense that someone might use it in a sentence like “Let’s see what’s on TV,” even if they were alone at the time. But even if you give God the benefit of the doubt there, it’s harder to explain his use of the phrase “man is become as one of us” using the same logic; that particular wording certainly seems to indicate that there’s more than one of him up there.

And this is where it’s helpful to go back to the history of the Israelite religion again – because in its original form, God most definitely wasn’t the only one up there. He had other gods all around him, contending with him for earthly influence – and he even had a wife, known as Asherah. There was a whole assembly of gods, with a cosmic creator god named El at the top of the hierarchy and an assembly of gods beneath him (including Yahweh, Baal, Chemosh, etc.) known as the “Elohim” or the “Sons of God,” each of whom ruled over a particular nation. Eventually, of course, Yahweh – who’d started off as a kind of warrior god for the Israelite nation – would be merged with the supreme god El and elevated to the status of “God most high” (a title which had originally been used to distinguish El from the lower gods beneath him), and the scriptures would be edited to give the impression that it had been that way the whole time. (Exodus 6:2-3, for instance, attempts to retcon the narrative by having God tell Moses that he used to be called El back in the days of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, but his real name all along was actually Yahweh; he just never told them that.) But before all these theological changes occurred, Yahweh and the other gods of the Elohim “were more or less equal, reflecting the fact that kingdoms themselves were more or less equal” – and in that regard, they really did bear a striking resemblance to the gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon (Poseidon, Athena, Dionysus, etc.). They were subject to all same kinds of earthly drama as those deities – competing for followers, waging war against each other, and so on. And they even occasionally had sex with mortal women, just as the Greco-Roman gods did; as Genesis 6:1-4 describes it, they would impregnate these mortal women and cause them to give birth to literal giants:

It came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, That the Sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose. […] There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the Sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.

The whole history of the Israelite religion is well worth digging into if you’re interested in how these kinds of legends can evolve – but to make a long story short, the basic gist (per Wikipedia) is:

In the oldest biblical literature, Yahweh is a warrior deity who leads the heavenly army against Israel’s enemies; he later became the main god of the Kingdom of Israel (Samaria) and of Judah, and over time the royal court and Temple in Jerusalem promoted Yahweh as the god of the entire cosmos, possessing all the positive qualities previously attributed to the other gods and goddesses. By the end of the Babylonian captivity (6th century BCE), the very existence of foreign gods was denied, and Yahweh was proclaimed as the creator of the cosmos and the one true God of all the world.

And here’s how that happened:

Israel emerges into the historical record in the last decades of the 13th century BCE, at the very end of the Late Bronze Age when the Canaanite city-state system was ending. The milieu from which Israelite religion emerged was accordingly Canaanite. El, “the kind, the compassionate”, “the creator of creatures”, was the chief of the Canaanite gods, and he, not Yahweh, was the original “God of Israel” – the word “Israel” is based on the name El rather than Yahweh [its probable meaning is “may El rule” or some other sentence-form involving the name of El]. He lived in a tent on a mountain from whose base originated all the fresh waters of the world, with the goddess Asherah as his consort. This pair made up the top tier of the Canaanite pantheon; the second tier was made up of their children, the “seventy sons of Athirat” (a variant of the name Asherah). Prominent in this group was Baal, who had his home on Mount Zaphon; over time Baal became the dominant Canaanite deity, so that El became the executive power and Baal the military power in the cosmos. Baal’s sphere was the thunderstorm with its life-giving rains, so that he was also a fertility god, although not quite the fertility god. Below the seventy second-tier gods was a third tier made up of comparatively minor craftsman and trader deities, with a fourth and final tier of divine messengers and the like. El and his sons made up the Assembly of the Gods, each member of which had a human nation under his care, and a textual variant of Deuteronomy 32:8-9 describes El dividing the nations of the world among his sons, with Yahweh receiving Israel:

When the Most High (’elyôn) gave to the nations their inheritance,
when he separated humanity,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples
according to the number of divine beings.
For Yahweh’s portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted heritage.

The Israelites initially worshipped Yahweh alongside a variety of Canaanite gods and goddesses, including El, Asherah and Baal. [But then,] in the period of the Judges and the first half of the monarchy, El and Yahweh became conflated in a process of religious syncretism. As a result, ’el (Hebrew: אל) became a generic term meaning “god”, as opposed to the name of a worshipped deity, and epithets such as El Shaddai [God Almighty] came to be applied to Yahweh alone, diminishing the worship of El and strengthening the position of Yahweh.

[…]

Asherah, formerly the wife of El, [came to be] worshipped as Yahweh’s consort or mother; potsherds discovered at Khirbet el-Kôm and Kuntillet Ajrûd make reference to “Yahweh and his Asherah”, and various biblical passages indicate that her statues were kept in his temples in Jerusalem, Bethel, and Samaria. Yahweh may also have appropriated Anat, the wife of Baal, as his consort, as Anat-Yahu (“Anat of Yahu”, i.e., Yahweh) is mentioned in 5th century BCE records from the Jewish colony at Elephantine in Egypt. A goddess called the Queen of Heaven was also worshipped, probably a fusion of Astarte and the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar, possibly a title of Asherah. Worship of Baal and Yahweh coexisted in the early period of Israel’s history, but they were considered irreconcilable after the 9th century BCE, following the efforts of King Ahab and his queen Jezebel to elevate Baal to the status of national god, although the cult of Baal did continue for some time.

The worship of Yahweh alone began at the earliest with Elijah in the 9th century BCE, but more likely with the prophet Hosea in the 8th; even then it remained the concern of a small party before gaining ascendancy in the exilic and early post-exilic period. The early supporters of this faction are widely regarded as being monolatrists rather than true monotheists; they did not believe that Yahweh was the only god in existence, but instead believed that he was the only god the people of Israel should worship. Finally, in the national crisis of the exile, the followers of Yahweh went a step further and outright denied that the other deities aside from Yahweh even existed, thus marking the transition from monolatrism to true monotheism.

[…]

Features of Baal, El, and Asherah were [subequently] absorbed into the Yahweh religion, Asherah possibly becoming embodied in the feminine aspects of the Shekinah or divine presence, and Baal’s nature as a storm and weather god becoming assimilated into Yahweh’s own identification with the storm.

One of the best summaries of this history that I’ve seen is Evid3nc3’s video clip below; if nothing else, you should at least give that a watch, because it really is eye-opening (at least it was for me):

The bottom line here, then, is that the God of the Bible – just like his son Jesus – was never the kind of grand cosmic deity you might imagine existing from the beginning of time and spanning the whole universe. He was a local god – just one among many – and his origins were as provincial as the origins of every other god that has existed throughout history. That doesn’t necessarily mean, of course, that a more universal God might not actually exist in reality; but what does seem clear is that the biblical God just doesn’t meet that profile. Like Jesus, Yahweh was fundamentally a product of his historical environment.

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