My last post in this series looked at the idea that Yahweh, as the parochial Jewish God of a particular section of the Middle East in time, bears no resemblance to the God that Christians believe in, and is supposedly that exact same God. The Janus-styled god who appears to flip personality, characteristics and general existence at the turn of the New Testament, is fundamentally different from the present-day Christian God. We are all atheists on this god, except Christians don’t seem to realise it. They will mentally contort (see Paul Copan etc.) and wriggle, deny and obfuscate in order to admit it, but that’s psychology for you.
The idea of this post is to look at why Yahweh is so disconnected from present conceptions of God. In appealing to Jako Gericke’s great chapter “Can God exist if Yahweh doesn’t?” in John Loftus’s superb anthology The End of Christianity, I mentioned:
The thesis states that there are many aspects of this God which root it within the contemporary culture and which are no longer adhered to:
- Historically who Yahweh was
- His body
- His mind
- His world
Let’s look, then, at who Yahweh was in his historical context. And yes, I do mean his.
The problem starts when there are multiple terms for ‘god’ in the Old Testament such that god and God confuse matters with a deal of equivocation. Indeed Yahweh was initially one of many gods before the title of God evolved to determine Yahweh in particular.
In Deut 32:7-9 we have evidence that Yahweh was one of many gods.
“Remember the days of old,
Consider the years of all generations.
(O)Ask your father, and he will inform you,
Your elders, and they will tell you.
8“(P)When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance,
When He separated the sons of man,
He set the boundaries of the peoples
(Q)According to the number of the sons of Israel.
9“(R)For the LORD’S portion is His people;
Jacob is the allotment of His inheritance.
The problem is that in English, you can never see this, but in the original language, it is evident. This is because any word for anything that resembles a god becomes God or Lord or similar, with monotheistic inferences. However, in this passage ‘Most High’ is actually El Elyon, and ‘Lord’ is Yahweh. The god most high gives the 70 nations (as they believed) to his divine sons, or council, of which Yahweh is a member. Yahweh is given Israel to have dominion over. This is very explicit in the passage above. Eventually, the pantheon was streamlined to fewer gods, and combined El Elyon and Yahweh.
In Daniel 7 (particularly 13-14) you have Yahweh, after defeating the monsters of the deep and dragons and so on, and he (One like the Son of Man) assumes a position in heaven next to El Elyon (Ancient of Days). Eventually, these two gods get combined, and Yahweh ‘consumes’ El Elyon’. This is reflected in Genesis 14 when the blessings indicate a double God blessing showing the streamlining. This is further shown in Psalm 82 when God topples the other gods from their thrones and condemns them to Sheol where their stumbling causes earthquakes.
And then there is the Divine Council and so on. Really, the Jewish and Christian religions are so incredibly obviously ‘anthropogenically’ evolved that it is amazing that anyone believes that they are true history. Or believe that they can harmonise all the totally contradictory passages like the ones above to fit in with a monotheistic outlook.
It was clear that there was a monolatry where Yahweh was not the main god which then evolved into a bi-theism that then evolved into a monotheism.
As Gericke states in p. 133:
I am not denying monotheistic beliefs in the Old Testament, but the beliefs of one biblical author on this matter often contradicted those of another. The translations obscure this, and I offer a literal rendering of the Hebrew:
“…On all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am Yahweh.” (Exod 12:12)
“When Elyon gave to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of men, he fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the sons of El. But Yahweh’s portion ishis people; Jacob his measured out inheritance.” (Deut 32:8-9, about which see Hector Avalos’s chapter)
“Will you not possess what Chemosh your god gives you to possess? And all that Yahweh our god has dispossessed before us, we will possess” (Judg 11:24)
“God stands up in the council of the gods, he judges in the midst of the gods; I have said myself, you are all gods, and you are sons of the most high (god)” (Psalm 82:6)
“For who is like Yahweh among the sons of the gods” (Ps 89:7)
“For Yahweh is a great god and a great king over all the gods.” (Ps 95:3)
“All the gods bow down before him “(Ps 97:7)
“Then he will act, with the aid of a foreign god” (Dan 11:39)
These texts only make sense on the assumption that they (in contrast to other texts) assume there are other gods. It is no credit to Yahweh if he is fighting against, king of, jealous of, judging or greater than entities that do not exist. Of course many reinterpretations of these passages are available in apologetic literature but these are motivated by dogma more than the need to accept the Bible on its own terms.
As Gericke goes on to say, even other divine messengers get called god in the OT: it seems every demon, counsellor and king was in on the action (! Sam 28, Deut 32, Ps 45 etc.).
You see, “Yahweh” gets recast as “God” which means the term “The Lord your God” seems fine, but when it is translated “Yahweh your God” the meaning is utterly changed, as now we are faced with the claim that Yahweh is your god, as opposed to Ba’al or some such other local rival. As Vorjack over at Unreasonable Faith states:
The early Israelites likely had a popular religion that maintained a lot of the old religions from Canaan and the surrounding regions.
This folk religion seemed to have a place for the gods Baal and El. Baal was the Canaanite god of thunder, lightning and rain. El was the supreme Canaanite deity. But gods are fluid things. Over time, the distinctions between gods can fade. It looks like Baal may have supplanted El, and then YHWH supplanted Baal, as depicted in Judges and Isaiah.
During this process YHWH picked up the characteristics of his two rivals. The word Baal became a title, meaning “lord” or “master.” El became a generic word for God, which shows up even in the name of the nation: Isra-El. YHWH became the supreme deity, and as part of the spoils he gained a consort: Asherah, the wife of the supreme deity.
And now it is time for Yahweh’s missus: Asherah, the divine consort.
“As for the word which you have spoken to us in the name of the LORD, we will not listen to you. But we will do everything that we have vowed, burn incense to the queen of heaven and pour out libations to her, as we did, both we and our fathers, our kings and our princes, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for then we had plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no evil. But since we left off burning incense to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by the sword and by famine.” (Jer. 44:16-18)
In fact, Jeremiah 7:18 has Asherah receiving offerings of cake. Mmm. As wiki states:
Between the 10th century BC and the beginning of their exile in 586 polytheism was normal throughout Israel; it was only after the exile that worship of Yahweh alone became established, and possibly only as late as the time of the Maccabees (2nd century BC) that monotheism became universal among Jews. Some biblical scholars believe that Asherah at one time was worshiped as the consort of Yahweh, the national God of Israel. There are references to the worship of numerous gods throughout Kings, Solomon builds temples to many gods and Josiah is reported as cutting down the statues of Asherah in the temple Solomon built for Yahweh. Josiah’s grandfather Manasseh had erected this statue. (2 Kings 21:7) Further evidence includes, for example, an 8th-century combination of iconography and inscriptions discovered at Kuntillet Ajrud in the northern Sinai desert where a storage jar shows three anthropomorphic figures and an inscription that refers to “Yahweh … and his Asherah”. The inscriptions found invoke not only Yahweh but El and Baal, and two include the phrases “Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah” and “Yahweh of Teman and his Asherah.” There is general agreement that Yahweh is being invoked in connection with Samaria (capital of the kingdom of Israel) and Teman (in Edom); this suggests that Yahweh had a temple in Samaria, and raises a question over the relationship between Yahweh and Kaus, the national god of Edom. The “Asherah” is most likely a cultic object, although the relationship of this object (a stylised tree perhaps) to Yahweh and to the goddess Asherah, consort of El, is unclear. It has been suggested that the Israelites might consider Asherah as a consort of Baal due to the anti-Asherah ideology which was influenced by the Deuteronomistic History at the later period of Monarchy.
Further evidence includes the many female figurines unearthed in ancient Israel, supporting the view that Asherah functioned as a goddess and consort of Yahweh and was worshiped as theQueen of Heaven.
Asherah poles, which were sacred trees or poles, are mentioned many times in the Bible
Vorjack sees the demise of Asherah in these terms:
One thing does seem clear: the fall of Northern Israel to the Assyrians in the 8th century put the fear of some God into the rulers of the comparatively small kingdom of Judah. Seeing your larger, more successful sibling get wiped out will do that to you. In the late 7th century, King Josiah decided that he’d had enough of the polytheism stuff and engages in drastic reforms:
“And he brought out the Ashe’rah from the house of the LORD, outside Jerusalem, to the brook Kidron, and burned it at the brook Kidron, and beat it to dust and cast the dust of it upon the graves of the common people.” (2 Kings 23:6)
Josiah cleared out the temple, kicked out the temple prostitutes, destroyed the mountaintop alters outside of Jerusalem, and “rediscovered” the book of monotheistic law that became Deuteronomy. Having finally made Israel right with God, he promptly gets executed by the Egyptians. A generation after his reforms, Judah falls to the Babylonians…
Not an auspicious start to biblical relationships. Asherah didn’t completely disappear, however. When Moses is instructed by God to make a menorah to light the temple, it is described as a stylized almond tree (Exodus 25.31-39). The biblical historianMargaret Barker suspects that this sacred tree figure was one of the symbols of Asherah. So the menorah may be one last lingering trace of the bible’s first couple.
The point seems to be clear. That whilst these facts and claims seem to point to an obvious evolution of the Yahwistic notion of God, it doesn’t invalidate it per se. However, concerning probabilities, what scenario better explains this evolution: atheism or Christianity? I would wager atheism. Not only that, but, as posited, the Christian notion of God on a day-to-day basis is so far removed from this tribal god as to show that Christians no longer really believe this side of God, no longer believe in Yahweh as HE was.
The gender-neutral idea of the philosophical God of, say, Aquinas, or more more theologian-philosophers is a far cry from this emergent deity, once part of a pantheon, once courting a ladyfriend. So on this point, we’re all atheists together…