A few days ago one of the visitors to the combox said something like, “Why should I believe in the Yahweh of the Old Testament? He’s no different from Ganesh the Hindu elephant god or Baal or Molech or any of the other mythical divine beings.”
I had stated that one of the disappointing things about so many of the atheists who come trolling through the blog is that they are often very ignorant of the very subject they are pronouncing on. Here’s a case in point: “Is Yahweh the same as Ganesh or Baal or any other pagan god?” The fact of the matter is that Yahweh is very different from any other god who ever appeared anywhere in the history of religion.
First of all, he claims to be the one God and the only God. The gods of the pagan pantheon don’t make that claim. They are demi-gods with various powers and expectations. While there are some pagan gods who the myths say are above the other gods, there are none who claim to be the only god. Monotheism is therefore a uniquely Hebrew development in the history of religion, (indeed it is the foundational tenet of Judaism) and Yahweh is the only divinity who claims such total allegiance.
Secondly, the very name of Yahweh reveals him to be a divinity of a very different order than the others. The tetragrammaton is the four-letter Hebrew name for God YHWH are the consonants used to write the name, but for Jews the name Yahweh is too sacred for human lips to utter. The name was revealed to Moses at the burning bush, and the name Yahweh means “I AM What I AM” or “He Who IS” or “He who is existence” or “He who causes existence.” This extraordinary name for what is otherwise a tribal or local deity is unique within ancient religions.
The Hebrew God is therefore unique not only because he is the only God of the Hebrews–and pure montheism is in itself an innovation in the development of religion in the ancient near East–but it is also unique because it is a highly philosophical and metaphysical concept for the divinity. The other pagan god developed from certain earth powers which were personalized or from certain astral or supernatural beings who controlled certain forces of nature. The Hebrew God, on the other hand, is ‘He Who IS” or “He who is existence.”
This is an important distinction to make therefore when discussing the existence of God. Theists often refer to God as ‘the Supreme Being’. This is incorrect from a Judeo-Christian point of view. God is not the Supreme Being–as if he were the biggest person of all, or even the one who was before all and caused all. Any idea therefore that God is some sort of super magical being in the sky is in fact a straw man in the sky because Christians, Jews and Muslims don’t believe in God in that way. Instead he is what St Thomas Aquinas calls the ipsum esse subsistens. (Subsistent Act of Existing Itself) God, according to the scholastics, is not only existence itself, but the ground and source of all existence. That this definition is first revealed to the Hebrews within the divine tetragrammaton elevates Yahweh of the Hebrews into a new and unique dimension of divinity.
Furthermore, it is God’s being ipsum esse subsistens that explains the seeming contradiction of God’s transcendence and immanence. Aquinas argues that God is most transcendent from, and most immanent in creation for the very same reason–that he is that existence that is beyond all existing things and yet the cause in and through all created things–being therefore transcendent and immanent at the same time.
That this ipsum esse is also a personal being follows because that which is existence itself must also be rational, and if rational then it must have mind and will and if mind and well, then it must be self knowing, and if self knowing then personal.
This does not mean that one must believe in this god. It’s just to make the point that this is not really the sort of talk we hear about Ganesh the elephant god.