Saturday, April 5, 2008

As Above, So Below: The Rise of Yahweh

I'd like to take some time to explore what I think are parallels between the emergence and evolution of monotheism from the pre-Mosaic period through the destruction of the second temple and the rise and consolidation of monarchy in medieval Europe. The changes are separated by a good couple thousand years, with that whole Roman period in the middle, but there is a similar shape that has struck me as significant.

E Pluribus Unum Let's take a page from our Christian friends and start off with the Book of Genesis. The first words of the Bible in Hebrew are breshit bara elohim. That word, elohim, is an ancient one and has had plenty of time to accrete irregularities. On the surface, it looks like a plural derived from its root, eloah, meaning "god." So, you might jump ahead and say that elohim means "gods" and not be completely wrong. The verb bara, however, is singular. A superficially plural word being used as a singular sounds to me like a remnant of an older tradition poking its head through, and in fact most Biblical scholars (actual scholars, not religious zealots) think the same. The late Bronze Age texts of Canaanite Ugarit use the word to denote the entire pantheon of the father god, El.

What did that burning bush say again? Next little clue. When Yahweh delivers his commandments to Moses, he orders that the children of Israel shall have "no other gods before me." In Hebrew, the word elohim is used in that sentence for "gods." Hmmm. Pretty clear indication to me that Yahweh is recognizing that people have other gods while asserting his supremacy.

You're All Fired! In a fresh, bold translation of the Book of Psalms by Robert Alter (see link below), we are shown a mythological, poetic vision of the moment at which Yahweh succeeds in vanquishing all the other gods of his pantheon:

God takes his stand in the divine assembly
in the midst of the gods he renders judgement
"How long will you judge dishonestly
and show favor to the wicked?
Do justice to the poor and the orphan.
Vindicate the lowly and the wretched.
Free the poor and the needy
from the hand of the wicked; save them!
They do not know and do not grasp,
in darkness they walk about.
All the Earth's foundations totter.
As for me, I had thought you were gods,
and the sons of the Most High were you all.
Yet indeed like humans you shall die,
and like one of the princes, fall.

More Information

Whoa! Did Yahweh just have a total Donald Trump moment, strip all the other gods of their divinity and make them mortal? Harsh!

In the next segment, I'll go into the ways that feudal Europe paralleled this change in its concept of what a king is.


Hippy Goodwife said...

Here's an interesting tidbit. The LDS church believes that some people will go on the become gods after their deaths, only those best prepared by an earthly temple. Does this make Mormons more or less Christian? does Yahweh make a distinction between these new gods and the ones he fired?

Seumas Gagne said...

Good point. I would probably hesitate to lump the LDS into the general category of Abrahamic religions. There is so much in their cosmology that would absolutely horrify 90% of the world's Abrahamic religionists that they're sort of in a class by themselves.

I think also that the LDS has a very strict definition of the kind of 'god' that they are eligible to become. Probably couldn't go create their own universe, for example.