The evolution of God
Most people can't think, most of the remainder won't think, the small fraction who do think
mostly can't do it very well. The extremely tiny fraction who think regularly, accurately,
creatively, and without self-delusion- in the long run, these are the only people who count.
- Robert Heinlein
Does God exist? Believers take a great degree of comfort that their claims for the existence of God cannot be disproved. They might be ignorant of scientific reason or be making a bluff defense knowing that scientific reasoning is based on observation. Science cannot directly "disprove" the existence of God, simply because there is no physical evidence upon which to base a "disproof."
Rather than take that approach, scientific reasoning drives out erroneous ideas when stronger evidence points to better explanations. While Christians impugn the word "theory" as if it represents a great deal of doubt, in the science lexicon, it is a way of expressing science's open-endedness. In comparison, while religionists are certain of their faith, the word epitomizes belief without evidence despite the many evidential contradictions that make faith problematical.
We will leave aside the argument against the existence of god in the generic sense. A generic god cannot be defined. The word could mean almost anything within the limits of human imagination. Even the currently faddish explanation, Intelligent Design, tells us nothing of the attributes of this so-called form of intelligence. The hope among proponents is that believers will translate the idea to their favorite personal God.
Scientific reasoning avoids that trap by binding itself to observable evidence. With regards to cosmology, it can't be known if the universe had a beginning. The famous Big Bang Theory only suggests a cosmic explosion 10-20 billion years ago. Even NASA modestly admits:
Although the Big Bang Theory is widely accepted, it probably will never be proved; consequentially, leaving a number of tough, unanswered questions.
Suppose there is an infinite universe. By definition it can't be seen. The Big Bang, if it is true, may only have been an explosion within a universe with no beginning and no end. Or to say it another way, existence always existed. Science does not rise or fall on whether existence had a beginning or not. Mainstream religion's credibility cannot tolerate this ambiguity.
For that, we will turn our attention to the beginning of "God," the proper noun; when did god become God? Mainstream religions place no credibility in heathen religions, yet their very foundation rests on them. If "God" had a beginning, archeological and historical evidence points to the polytheistic religions that preceded and paralleled the rise of Judaism and early Christianity. Religionists could argue that belief in a single God was a refinement of all the other ideas. The problem with that assertion is that without something concrete to guide the direction of their logic, there are as many explanations for the existence of a God or god(s) as human minds can imagine.
Fortunately, we have two concrete sources from which to trace the evolution of God: archeology and the Bible. By that route, this report will show that Israelite religion branched off from the Canaanite religions. The Israelites were not monotheists; they were henotheists, which mean that their culture was defined by their worship of Yahweh as their only god, but they did not deny the existence of other gods. During their earliest history they also worshipped El, from which their namesake derived, and Baal and Asherah. The idea of a single exclusive God didn't enter Hebrew culture until the Babylonian exile. By extension, this is the false foundation on which Christianity and Islam rest.
The ancient Israelites did not live in a cultural vacuum. From prehistoric times, Canaan was linked to Egypt and Mesopotamia. Those two powerful nations dominated Canaan and Israel from the mid-third to the first millennium BCE. The first mention of Israel comes from an inscribed monument of the pharaoh Mernaptah. This stele dates to the fifth year of the pharaoh's reign (ca. 1208) and mentions both Israel and Canaan.
The princes are prostrate, saying: "Mercy!"
No one raises his head among the Nine Bows.
Desolation is for 'Tehenu; Hatis is pacified;
Plundered is the Canaan with every evil;
Carried off is Ashelon; seized upon is Gezer;
Yanoam is made as that which does not exist;
Israel is laid waste, his seed is not;
Hurru is become a widow for Egypt;
All lands together, they are pacified;
Everyone who is restless, he has been bound.
Surely, the Israelites were late comers to the history of religion. Says Smith, "The word 'Canaan' is written with a special linguistic feature called a determinative, denoting land. 'Israel' is written with the determinative for people." In other words, there was an ethnic group call Israel, before it became a kingdom or city-state
El and Baal
The study of Canaanite deities in connection with Yahweh was made possible by the discovery of ancient texts, especially from the ancient city of Ugarit in 1929. Now called Ras Shamra, it is located on the coast of Syria.
The Ugaritic mythological texts feature the deities El, the aged and kindly patriarch of the pantheon. Asherah was his consort and queen mother of the divine family. Baal was the young storm-god and divine warrior. His sister was Anat, likewise a martial deity. They also mention a solar deity.
El was the creator of all things and was believed to be the father of all things. Over time, El's name became the generic Semitic term for any god. El was the oldest of the gods. He was head of the divine council, and he was well respected for his wisdom and judgment. El's home was in the mountains, far to the north, believed to be the source of the waters of the cosmos. El lived far away where the waters originated, up in the mountains. When the other gods want to consult with El, they must go to where El is.
The most significant epithet given to El was "the Bull El." The mainstream interpretation is that the name symbolized strength, but I think it had more to do astrological Age of Taurus when the god was popular. His consort was his sister, the mother of the god Ashura or Elat. El's other sister, Astarte, was also his mistress, and so was his daughter Anat, who is also the wife of his son, Baal. The divine relationships show plenty of incest and a lot of fertility.
El also appears as a divine warrior, but only in the context of gaining supremacy over the other gods. Once he becomes dominant among equals, he retires from warfare and the work of divine warrior falls to Baal. Baal also sits at El's right hand in the council of gods. Baal was initially a god of the storm who made the earth fertile by providing rain. The name of Baal means "Lord or master." And like El, the name of Baal became a generic identification for gods. Sometime in the murkiness of Israelite history, the Israelite cult of Yahweh arose as belief in El faded.
Hebrew origins of yahweh
To hear the monotheists (Christian, Jewish; Islam) tell it, there was one god who created the universe -theirs. The way the Bible tells it, there were many gods responsible for the origins of the universe. We learn this by translating to Hebrew. "El" is the singular for god and "elohim" is its plural form. Thus in the first creation story:
26"Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth." (Gen. 1:26)
The name "Yahweh" first appears in the second creation story, but as Yahweh elohim, meaning "Yahweh of the gods." If this is to be interpreted as a continuation of the first creation, then it is about one of the gods, Yahweh, who created a particular place, Eden, within the greater universe.
5 (Gen. 2:4-5)
The story of Noah's Ark has two different writers, scholars call "J" and "E."
Genesis 15:11 asks "Who is like you among the gods."
And of course there are the famous words of the First Commandment, "You shall have no other gods before me."
Christian apologists try to have it both ways by saying that the plural refers to the Holy Trinity. To do that they would have to ignore the pluralisms, alien gods, and pantheon of lesser gods mentioned throughout the Bible. Clearly, the early Hebrews were henotheists who recognized the existence of many gods.
From El to Yahweh
As suggestive by the "El" in the name "Israel," the original god of Israel was El. "Israel" means El rules. Why this is likely is because there are no polemics against El. There is no distinct cult identified with El except when identified as Yahweh. As the Bible tells us "Semite" comes from Shem, Noah's oldest son (Gen. 5:32) and "Hebrew" is derived from Eber, a descendant of Shem (Gen. 10:21). Incidentally, Babylonia comes from bili, meaning "gate of God."
Most times, "El" and "Elohim" are used as a general term for god. But there are a few passages where "El" and "Elohim" are used as proper names.
El is presented separately from Yahweh. El Shaddai means "El of the mountain," not El Almighty as the revisionists translate in the Bible. Similar to El, Yahweh was thought to live on a mountaintop. It brings to mind, Moses' visit to Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments.
24 (Gen. 49:18, 24-25)
Yahweh is cast as one of the sons of El, called elyon here. He has portioned the land allotted to Jacob. At first Yahweh co-existed with the Canaanite gods, but later competed as a warrior god. There is a kind of a parallel in several Bible stories where brothers become rivals and the namesakes of competing geographies.
9 (Deut. 32:8-9)
El has taken his place in the divine council as the one who holds judgment.
Isaiah refers to the stars of El.
El and Yahweh are distinguished as two different gods, with El as the superior. El Elohim means El of the gods, not mighty God-the translators mislead.
The Bible rarely distinguishes between El and Yahweh. The development of El into a generic noun meaning "god" was compatible with the loss of El's distinct character in Israelite religion.
22(Joshua 22:22 KJV)
12(Psalm 10:12 KJV)
When Yahweh introduces himself to Moses, he reveals the fact that he was unknown to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Instead, they worshipped El Shaddai, El of the mountain.
3 (Ex. 6:2-3)
Joshua remarks that the father of Abraham served other gods. It only stands to reason that Abraham did too.
Ezekiel tells us that the Yahwistic god was inherited from the Canaanites.
Compare this sampling of biblical and Ugarit text. The tent and holy hill refer to the sky-the stars rise and fall in an arc pattern. The circle above the earth refers to the Zodiac.
Yahweh dwells in a tent.
El lives in a tent
She opened El's tent and entered
the shrine of the King, the Father of Time.
Baal and Yahweh
We're going to compare more biblical text with similar Ugarit text. These are the early years of the Israelite religion when Yahweh was a local god. The point is to show how early Judaism imitated Canaanite religion.
Yahweh was thought as a storm god. He brings rain, wind and lightening.
18(1 Sam. 12:18)
27 (Job 38:25-27)
9 (Psalm 29:3-9)
Baal controls the weather.
Now Baal will begin the rainy season,
the season of the wadis in flood;
and he will sound his voice in the clouds,
flash his lightening to the earth.
Yahweh the divine warrior rides on the clouds.
3 (Psalms 50:1-3)
Baal was portrayed as a conqueror who rides on the clouds.
Hail, Baal the Conqueror!
Hail, Rider on the Clouds!
For Prince of the Sea is our Captive,
Judge River is our captive.
Yahweh makes the clouds his chariot.
4 (Psalm 104:3-4)
If the clouds are Yahweh's chariot, it is the sun which rides on the clouds. This is similar to pagan imagery where the sun is thought of as riding on a chariot. This verse refers to the chariots of the sun.
11(2 Kings 23:11)
Ancients thought of the sun as a wheel turning through the heavens. This gives meaning to Elijah's ascent into heaven.
11(2 Kings 11)
In another imagery, the sun is thought here of as Yahweh's shield and face.
During later times Ezekiel was critical of the Israelites who continued to worship the sun. The legacy of sun worship can be found in the place names with Shemesh attached, the name of the Babylonian sun god (Josh. 15:7, 10, 18:17, 19:41 & 21:16).
In Ugarit text, the sun is depicted as the gods' torch.
And the Virgin Anat
"Wherever you go Sun,
wherever you go, may El protect you.
Sun, the gods' torch, burns
the heavens shimmer under the sway of El's darling,
Yahweh has a sanctuary in Sinai.
Baal had a home on Mount Zaphon.
Baal's mountain, father, we weep for you,
Zaphon, the holy stronghold,
the holy stronghold will lament,
the stronghold wide and strong.
Watch the imagery in Exodus 19 when Moses enters the holy mountain of Sinai, to receive the Ten Commandments.
18 (Ex. 19:16-18)
The Baal imagery is similar
Then Baal opened a slit in the clouds,
Baal sounded his holy voice,
Baal thundered from his lips .
the earth's high places shook.
Abraham, the Hebrew patriarch, comes to our knowledge as a nomadic Chaldean Semite from Ur (map below). The first documented reference to "Chaldea" is found in the annals of Ashurnasirpal II, king of Assyria form 884 to 859 BCE. As we shall see, there was no Chaldea at the time Abraham.
Abraham's (Abram) father had intended to take his family to Canaan but stopped at Haran.
Yahweh told Abraham to continue the journey to Canaan.
1"Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. (Gen. 12:1)
At face value alone, Abraham would have had to have spoken the Babylonian language and initially worshipped the same pagan gods. Joshua makes that point.
To regress, some background history will give a sense of the influences felt in Israel. "Mesopotamia" in Greek means "Between the Rivers." In the ancient world, northern Upper Mesopotamia referred to Assyria. The southern Lower Mesopotamia included Babylon itself and the cities of the earliest kingdoms of Akkad and Sumer. Ur is located at the junction of the Tigress-Euphrates where they flow into the Persian Gulf.
The people of the city of Sumer, the Sumerians became dominant around 3100 BCE; they were followed about two centuries later by the Amorites who settled to the north of the Sumerians in what is now Baghdad. The first kings were Akkadian, descendents of the Semitic Amorites. The first great king of Mesopotamia was Sargon the Great who ruled from 2334 BCE to 2279 BCE. At the end of his time, Akkad sank into obscurity with the return of the Sumerians into supremacy.
Their supremacy was established by a king named Ur-Nammu around 2111 BCE. Known as the third dynasty of Ur, it lasted about one century until the city of Ur was devastated by a group from the east called the Elamites in 2004 BCE. It is my personal guess that this is where Ur got its name. Kings don't take their name from cities, they name cities after themselves.
Babylon, the next city-state to rise to dominance, was formally Akkadian. Its first great king, Hammurabi dated from 1792 to 1750 BCE. Hammurabi is best remembered for his law code which was written on a stele topped by a depiction of Hammurabi himself before the sun god, Shamash. But he was not the first to write a law code-that was Ur-Nammu. Contrary to biblical myth, the Ten Commandments were not the first law code. Rather, the Hebrews copied their neighbors.
In the centuries that followed, Mesopotamia was invaded by non-Semitics from the west, Hittites, Hurians and Kassites. From the upper Tigris valley, another Semitic people, the Assyrians came to prominence over Mesopotamia under Tukulti-Ninurta I, who sacked the city of Babylon in 1235 BCE-thereby asserting his sovereignty over the south. The Bible calls him Nimrod (Gen. 10:8-10).
The first reference to Chaldea is found in the annals of Ashurnasirpal II, king of Assyria from 884 to 859 BCE. The last great king of Assyria was Assurbanipal, whose dates are 669 to 627 BCE. The Assyrians were dismantled by the Medians to the northeast and by the Kaldians (Chaldeans) or neo-Babylonians. Their first great king (604-562 BCE) was none other then Nebuchadnezzar of Jewish exile fame. Early Chaldea referred to southern Babylon. In later times, Chaldea became synonymous with the Babylonian Empire. The Chaldean dynasty held sway until the Persian invasion of 539 BCE.
9 (Dan. 3:8-9)
The link between Ur and Chaldea gives away when the story of Abraham was written. While Ur was certainly an ancient city, Chaldea did not come become prominent until the seventh century under Nebuchadnezzar. By biblical accounts, Abraham existed from 2046-2100 BCE and the Chaldeans didn't exist until the 600s. Why? Ur was renowned as a place of learning during Chaldean times, especially to astrology. It would have enhanced Abraham's prestige to come from such a place.
This is a list of most other anachronisms.
Abraham is said to have contact with Philistines, but they did not enter the Palestine area before 12 BCE. According to Finkelstein, the mention of Gerar had a special significance. It was an insignificant village until the late eighth and seventh century BCE when it became a heavily fortified Assyrian stronghold and an obvious landmark.
Arameans are mentioned, but they did not appear as a distinct group before 1100 BCE.
20 (Gen. 25:19-20)
The story of Jacob and Esau describes the fathers of Israel and Edom, but there was no state of Edom before the eighth century BCE.
30 (Gen. 25:23, 30)
There are many mentions of domesticated camels, but as far as anyone can tell, camels were not domesticated much before the first millennium BCE, about the time when the kingdom of Israel was founded.
12 (Gen. 24:11-12)
The story of Joseph mentions camel caravan trade with the Ishmaelites (Arabians). Trade on that level flourished during the Assyrian empire in the eighth-seventh centuries BCE.
Hebron was a principal city of Judah, so the writer has Abraham build an altar in Hebron
This passage describes the nation's boundaries under King David, written with hindsight.
Jacob saw God face to face at Peniel, a city built by King Jeroboam in Israel.
For these reasons and more, Finkelstein places writing of the patriarch narratives in the eighth and seventh centuries BCE. This is not one man's opinion. There are probably some religious archeologists who refuse to concede, but the sources I've found are in general agreement. Friedman tells us that scholars have given these writers alphabet names: "J" for Yahweh and "E for Elohim. There were others, but these two are the ones we are concerned with. Friedman dates them between 1200-722 BCE when there were two kingdoms. Even as generous as Friedman is, that still leaves a thousand year difference between when Abraham supposedly lived and when Genesis was written. I could go through the same exercise with Moses and the Exodus. Instead, I'll pass on the words of Michael Dever:
After a century of exhaustive investigation, all respectable archaeologists have given up hope of recovering any context that would make Abraham, Isaac, or Jacob credible "historical figures." And, as we have seen, archaeological investigation of Moses and the Exodus has similarly been discarded as a fruitless pursuit.
The development of Israelite monotheism
In the second stage, the condemnation of foreign gods brings with it the implication that Yahweh has power over them. The trend starts with 1 Kings 18, which tells the story of Elijah who challenged the Baal priests to a contest to see which god could make wet wood burn. When Elijah won he had the priests killed.
These next three passages suggest Yahweh has power over other nations.
26 (Isa. 14:24-26)
The concept of a supernatural heaven was developed sometime after the Bible was written. Ancients perceived the gods living in physical heaven.
8 (Psalm 115:2-8)
Several verses are critical of the emptiness of idol worship.
20 (Isa. 40:18-20)
19 (Isa. 2:18)
11 (Isa. 44:9-11)
It wasn't until the exile or shortly beforehand when Judaism turned monotheistic, i.e. Yahweh was the only deity in the universe. This is dramatically stressed in second Isaiah and Jeremiah.
7 (Isa. 45:5-7)
10 (Isa. 46:8-10)
15 (Jer. 10:10-15)
That's the general outline of the offshoot of the Biblical god from the Canaanite gods, from a local god to the most powerful god to the only God. This is the foundation of the development of the Christian God and the Islamic God.
These references provide an abundance of detail for those with a deeper interest. The first two are my main sources.
Stories from Ancient Canaan by Michael David Coogan
The Early History of God by Mark S. Smith
Smith page 26
The Bible Unearthed By Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman
Finkelstein, page 38
What Did the Biblical Writers Know; When Did They Know it? By William G. Dever
Dever, page 98
Who Were the Early Israelites and Where Did They Come From? By William G. Dever
Who Wrote the Bible by Richard Elliott Friedman
Religion in the Ancient Mediterranean World by Glenn S. Holland, transcript part 2, lecture 13 provided the historical background.