Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Evolution of God: The Middle Years—from god to God

If you wanted to postulate that the entity that Jews, Christians and Muslims call God was merely the last “god” left standing as humanity transitioned from a simplistic polytheism to more advanced conceptions, where would you go for support? To the Bible of course! That is the approach Robert Wright has taken in his book The Evolution of God.

Wright describes the evolution of religion as an aspect of the evolution of society. Humans have a need to try and understand why things happen, and they have an understandable desire to be able to control what happens. The earliest societies were totally dependent on nature for sustenance. It is natural that they would try to understand why a tree might bear more or less fruit by assigning a capricious spirit to that tree. They might consider providing gifts or offerings to the spirit in hope that it will behave. As humans learned more about nature and the behavior of trees, there was less need for a spirit to explain behavior. The next step might be to assign a spirit, or god, to control the entire forest, and maybe one for rivers and another for the sky. As cultures became more complicated a hierarchical social structure would evolve. The gods would need a leader, just as people would need a leader. There was a tendency to have a dominant god with a slew of underlings, who would often be considered members of a council. Interactions between societies became intertwined with interactions between gods. Just as two societies or tribes might cement a relationship by exchanging brides, they might accomplish the same thing by asserting loyalty to each other’s gods.

Wright claims that this is the religious evolution followed by most ancient peoples. They were tending towards monolatry (the worship of only one god among many), the last step before monotheism. The Judean wing of the Israelites eventually evolved from polytheism, to monolatry, to the monotheism that evolved into the major religions of today. This transition need not be explained by a sudden revelation, and, in fact, cannot be explained by a unique point of transition. On the other hand, this evolution can be correlated with the societal and historical transformations that occurred. As the author might say, events ascribed to the heavens were dependent on events on the ground.

The author pleads his case by referring to the Bible for evidence.

Some Biblical background is in order. Scholars tell us that the Torah, the collection of books that form the description of the Judaic religion and is the core of the Christian Old Testament, was actually composed in its final form around the seventh century BCE, long after many of the events described were supposed to have taken place. Only small modifications were added in later years. These books were written around the time of King Josiah of the Judeans. He was a fervent believer in a Yahweh-only religion and he wanted to unite Judea and the northern kingdom of Israel under his leadership. There is considerable evidence that the construction of the Torah was intended to further the Yahweh-only cult and Josiah’s ambitions. The authors constructed a storyline that provided Judea with a long and heroic history and a special relationship with Yahweh. Unfortunately, most of the exquisitely detailed history presented was either an invention or a wild embellishment. The Israelites had no history in Egypt, there was no exodus, no conquering of the Canaanites, no empire of David and no grandeur of Solomon. They couldn’t conquer the Canaanites because they were Canaanites themselves. It was mainly religious and political propaganda. Yahweh was one of many gods worshiped in the region, and a minor one at that.

Wright begins his tale by pointing out a few of the numerous places in the Bible where Yahweh is described as one god among others.
“Though much of the scripture assumes the existence of only one God, some parts strike a different tone. The book of Genesis recalls a time when a bunch of male deities came down and had sex with attractive human females.”

“Psalm 82 says: ‘God had taken his place in the divine council: in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.’ And God himself, addressing the other council members a few verses later, says, ‘you are gods’.”
The word “el” means god in Hebrew. It can also mean God. However, since Hebrew did not have the convention of capitalization, one could only try to derive the meaning from context. There are many instances in the Bible where Yahweh and El appear in the same section. Translators, assuming one God, translate accordingly. However, there are instances where the translation makes more sense in the context of two gods.
“The many Biblical references to the existence of multiple gods are in a sense amazing. For, though the bible was composed over many centuries, the later parts of it passed through the hands of later editors who decided which books and verses to keep and which to discard—and who seem to have had a bias against polytheism. So these hints of Israelite polytheism that remain in the Bible are probably....’only the tip of the iceberg’.”
If Yahweh began as a minor god, he had to grow and acquire stature. His competition was El, the god of the Canaanites and probably also that of the northern kingdom of Israel. El was viewed as the chief god with a “divine council.” The tradition for replacing a god with another in ancient times was to incorporate the two as the same deity.
“...in the sixth chapter of Exodus, during one of Moses’ conversations with God. God says, ‘I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them.’ Even Yahweh himself says that he started out life with the name El.!’"
A second component of god replacement was to acquire the attributes and capabilities of the god to be replaced. The writers of the Bible went to great lengths to put Yahweh in situations where he performed deeds that were duplicates of actions presumed to have been accomplished by other gods.

There are many reasons why a nation would devolve to a single god and monotheism. Consider the poor ruler who must contend with multiple prophets claiming competing utterances from different gods. That is no way to run a ship. A king with a single god and a single prophet who he can control is a happy man. One of the more clever actions of Josiah was to centralize the worship of Yahweh in the temple of Jerusalem.
“Archeologists have found written references from the eighth century BCE not just to ‘Yahweh’ but to ‘Yahweh of Samaria’ and ‘Yahweh of Teman.’ In a theocracy, this sort of divine fragmentation threatens national unity. Josiah, by confining the legitimate worship of Yahweh to the temple in Jerusalem, was asserting control over Yahweh’s identity and thus over Judah’s.”
Judean history introduced a strong distrust of international entanglements. As a small, weak country, the best they could hope for was vassal status relative to stronger neighbors. There was no advantage, nor any desire to honor anyone else’s god. The path to monotheism required the Judeans to rid themselves of their own alternate gods. This was a transformation attempted by Josiah, but it would take many years after his abrupt death to complete.

Wright provides an alternate description of the evolution of the Jewish religious tradition. Those who wish to be compelled will find it compelling. But Wright’s goal is not to change anyone’s beliefs; rather he wants to point out that if god was created in man’s image, then god is changing as man and his needs change. He is even an optimist who believes that man and his god are both improving with age. He points out that if you read the Biblical scriptures in the order in which they were presumed to be written, not in the order contained in the Bible, you see a softer, more considerate Yahweh developing.

This report covers a smattering of the history and scholarship contained in a small part of a much larger volume. Wright has written an important and an impressive book. Check it out.

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