The Sun of God?

Jim Davila mentioned an article (behind a paywall) about the depiction of the Sun, apparently as divine, in mosaics in Israel. There are quite a number of such mosaics, and the most common connect the twelve signs of the zodiac with the twelve patriarchs, and have God as the sun in the middle. Here is an example from the Beit Alpha synagogue:

The Mandaeans identify Adunai, the God of the Jews, as Shemesh, the sun. It is an identification that is simply assumed rather than one that seems to be attempting to introduce a controversial polemical suggestion.

J. Glen Taylor wrote a monograph on the connection between Yahweh and the Sun in ancient Israel, which can be read on Scribd.

One of the most interesting pieces of possible evidence for the identification of Yahweh with the sun in ancient Israel is the Tanaach cult stand, which is on display in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. It depicts Asherah in two different ways, as a woman and as a tree, and presumably Yahweh in two different ways, invisible between cherubim and as a sun disk on the back of an animal.

Setting aside whether this was simply what Yahwism was in an earlier period, or a terrible perversion of it, what do you make of the idea that ancient Israelites may have worshipped the sun? Would it make more sense of some Biblical texts? Would it change your view of their religion, or for that matter, of the later form of it which severed, repudiated, and edited out most of the evidence for such links? Are there any piece of evidence that seem incompatible with this conclusion?

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  • admiralmattbar

    Could it possibly be linked to Egypt’s monotheistic period under Akhenaten? I know many scholars doubt the historicity of the Exodus, but supposing something like it did happen would it be possible that the Hebrews identified their God with Akhenaten’s?

    • James F. McGrath

      It is indeed something that has been suggested, and which has been somewhat neglected as the origins of later Israel have seemed to be connected more with Canaan than Egypt. But since Canaan was part of Egypt’s empire for so much of its history, the two are not at all mutually exclusive. I would love to find out more about whether Akhenaten’s revolution affected Canaan, and if so in what ways.

  • Robert

    2 Kings 23: 5 and 11 appear to be references to a solar cult in the Temple. Then what about the beast with the solar disk on it; could it be a bull? If so, there could be a link with Jeroboam’s golden calves.

    • James F. McGrath

      That is an insightful and intriguing suggestion. Even if the animal on the stand is a horse, it still suggests that bulls/calves might also have been understood to be ones on which Yahweh sat, rather than images of Yahweh.

  • GakuseiDon

    I remember reading somewhere that Gen 1:14 (the creation of the sun and moon) was written to contrast against the sun worship of the neighboring pagans. The idea is that God has created the sun and moon as objects that serve man as signs for seasons, etc. Thus the sun and moon can’t be regarded as gods. (OTOH, no doubt the Israelites were influenced by their neighbors’ beliefs, so some could have decided that the sun and moon were divinities of some sort.)

    • James F. McGrath

      That does indeed seem to be true, as far as Genesis 1 having a polemical aim. The question is whether Genesis 1 was polemicizing against the religious views of others, or against views previously or currently held by Israelites, or perhaps both.

  • Philip Bruce Heywood

    Well, Prof., you certainly are topical. It’s a strange world. As you know, “the sun of righteousness… with healing” MAL.4:2. Personally I am more interested in the covenant of healing “The Sun of Righteousness” has won for his people than in talking about it, but you might say, AIG has forced the world to examine the good old biblical types and thereby they are doing science a service. The Bible clearly makes the sun to be the father and the moon to be the mother (Joseph’s dream plus other texts) and it just so happens that after 500 mil. yrs of steady lunar retreat, the diameter of the sun and moon viewed from sea level are identical. That is where gender equality begins and ends. We both weigh the same in spiritual balances. As the New Testament affirms. The types carry through and may well have influenced Copernicus and Kepler (Christ at the centre) and although Einstein himself did not refer to the types, he did put God, the ultimate and unchanging reference point, at the centre of Everything (Relativity) and made Jesus Christ the Universal Constant (The Light of the World, who “changes not), We define the universe in terms of light speed: the universe does not define light. Light defines the universe and never changes nor tires (within reason).

    The types carry through nicely with lunar origins (the moon is the bride, therefore, the moon was introduced/”captured”) and also with the breaking out of life life (complex life) at the Cambrian. It happened as soon as the moon was captured. The moon is the mother. Magnetic component of requisite information signalling. Light played an equal role in the necessary quantum information signalling — the sun, the father.

    Climate change? The sun is the father, Earth is a figure of Man (Adam, “that red earth”) the earth is kept supplied by the father and climate is moderated or made livable through information feedback between the two (magnetic interaction).

    Wonder how many people would class the above as heathen idolatry.

    Idolatry of course is giving to Nature (“the creature”) the honour, recognition, and KUDOS which is God’s and God’s alone. Like, putting one’s trust in pondscum to be great great grandaddy and acting accordingly. Or putting one’s trust in chimney output to control the climate — when God says to look to him for the solution to such things.

  • Susan Burns

    I agree that the animal is a horse. IMO, the reason it does not have a mane is because the sun’s corona functions as the mane. Roman Sol Invictus merged with the Syrian sun god Elagabalus in the second century B.C. The priests of Elagabalus paraded a holy stone (baetylus) seated on a chariot drawn by horses during the Summer Soltice. The baetylus is a transliterated semitic word (Beit El) and is from the story of Jacob. The baetylus tradition was widespread throughout Levant so it must have been very ancient. However, the cache found with the cultic stand is decidely Israelite. A baetylus is “endowed with life” and is thought to be a meteorite. However, when the story of Jacob is analyzed, it is much more likely that this stone is an ammonite. Jacob was traveling to the place of his origin so his route would most likely take him near a Machtesh. A Machtesh is an ancient sea bed that has collapsed upon itself and is unique to the Negev. One entire canyon wall of a Machtesh is comprised of fossilized ammonites some as large as tractor wheels. They are stone but clearly were, at some point, endowed with life. Jacob used one of these stones (apparently there were many) as his pillow and had a dream. When he awoke he stood the stone up and called it House of God.
    The mane of the horse is the cord (Hebrew PSL) that turns the Holy Stone so that it moves through the sky. I think PSL is the origin of “fossil”.

    • Susan Burns

      It is easy to see how horse hair wrapped around a conical shape with a helical grove could produce heat. The groove allows the horse hair cord to remain on the cone so that greater amounts of torque can be produced. Rotational force applied to a shaft causing acceleration could mechanize a drilling function and/or produce fire. The speed would increase exponentially. Another related technology is the windlass which is a pully mechanism that lifts heavy objects. An horological fusee’ is a simple machanism that allows continuous compensation of the pull from the mainspring of a timekeeping device. The PSL of the Holy Stone was a huge technological advancement for the sun worshippers.

  • William J E Dempsey

    This is a fascinating subject, academically. Typically, Mandaean, which might be called a regional ANE variant of Judeo-Christianity, was on the (northern?) margins of Israel, and was said to be simply, “not Jewish,” or “not really Christian.” And so it is discounted as evidence of various ANE influences on Judaism and Christianity. However, it seems to have often thought of itself as Judeo-Christian; incorporating many figures from the Old Testament and the New.
    But considering all the overlap between Mandaeanism and Judeo-Christianity, what if we and/or early Jews and even Christians think of Mandaean not as entirely “different” or irrelevant, but as indeed a regional variant of Judeo-Christianity? Then we have part of Judaism, of Christianity … with many interesting influences from other ANE cultures all around it. Including Aramaic, and Persian. Including astrological influence. Which opens up a wide area for research.
    In fact, whether we regard Mandaean as a “different” religion from Judaism or Christianity, or as a regional variant of them, in either case, the overlap is so great … that it seems almost inevitable that this region’s beliefs, sometimes filtered back down into Palestine. Influencing even fairly early Christianity. Even in spite of social “boundary-keeping” prohibitions by the definitive Jerusalem temple.
    It would be fascinating to see some more solid scholarship on this subject; building on what we already know about Aramaic Mandaean influences in general (as well as influences centered around “John” and so forth?).
    Would Dr. McGrath himself or some other qualified person be interested in pursuing that topic? Showing how various ANE infuences – Persian; Aramaic; Samaritan/Sumerian, etc. – might have been funneled even into Palestinian Judaism and rather early Christianity. By way of Mandaeanism.
    Fascinating subject. Possibly quite important too.

    • James F. McGrath

      We have had conversations before about the inappropriateness of, and problems that result from, trying to formulate hypotheses about a religion and its history without being familiar with the relevant sources. I am guessing, since you think that the Mandaeans self-identified as “Judeo-Christian,” you have never actually read what Mandaean literature has been translated into English.

      It is indeed a fascinating subject. And the nature of and directions of the influences between Judaism, Christianity, and Mandaeism and other streams of “Gnosticism” is an important topic (one I will be speaking about at SBL this year). But I do not see how one can speculate meaningfully about such matters, much less find answers, in abstraction from the literature these groups produced.

      • William J E Dempsey

        I’ve looked at some of the lit; including your translation of some of it. And I know that of course to many, Mandaeism looks like an entirely “different” religion from Christianity. Still, it acknowledges Adam and Noah and so forth it seems (among others). And you yourself as I recall earlier explored part of Mandaeism … that is thought by scholars to have perhaps inputted into elements of Judeo-Christianity. So that many informed persons are finding links here. Looks like God the Father in fact in the middle of a Zodiac, above.
        What I am asking is if anyone is interested in pursing that already-hypothesized connection And looking for other similar links. As you yourself in fact seem to be hinting in this post. Apparently some scholars who knew a great deal about Mandaeism and Judeo-Christianity have proposed connections. While I am suggesting further scholarly study. Which may (or may not) find still more links.
        Max Muller, the great mythologist, had his reputation destroyed, unjustly, when after decades of amazing work, he dared to suggest that “solar myths” were the root of most mythology. yet though we might criticize Muller for his brief moment of extreme reductionism, it says much that perhaps the greatest Mythographer in the world was willing to stick his neck out, to call attention to the central importance of myths of the sun specifically.