No God Before You?
Voltaire once said “If there were no God, it would have been necessary to invent him.” From the beginning of human existence, we have worshiped unknown powers beyond the scope of our understanding. Science, philosophers and theologians can hypothesize and probe the reasons for this instinctive need to worship a divine being but all agree that every level of society, each branch of human culture and every age of human history found a need to worship a godly spirit.
Is there an intrinsic need by humans to “invent” a god and bring order to our societies? Or is it recognition of a divine power in the universe and the quixotic quest to discover and know the nature and will of God? These questions underline the development of monotheism as the principal theology in today’s world. Thus when Israel emerged from the polytheistic soup of deities to proclaim one and only one God, it shaped the social, political and cultural destiny of human civilization.
The Old Testament does not attempt to explain where God came from. It simple states, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth…” We might suppose that monotheism was the dominant and prevailing belief in the earliest doctrines of our Judeo-Christian faith. In truth multiple gods persisted throughout the Fertile Crescent and their existence was not initially disputed. Theologian Walter Brueggemann in his book “Reverberations of Faith”, acknowledges that “Israel did not, until very late, deny or nullify the existence of other gods.”1 The first commandment did not declare YHWH’s uniqueness, but rather the Lord’s sovereignty over the people of Israel. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.”2
This commandment was not a decree that there was only one god, but rather that Israel should worship only a single god. Indeed many of the cultures of the region gave sovereignty to a single dominate god while still accepting and believing in lesser deities. So Israel’s covenant with a single god was not unique. This theology, which is known as henotheism, may have been the bridge between polytheism and monotheism. Moses, being raised in the polytheistic culture of Egypt was likely a henotheist rather than a believer in a solitary deity. Brueggemann states, “Certain trends in Egyptian religion of the second millennium B.C. tended to universalize one single deity and theoretically these could have influenced Moses;”3 However, the devolvement of monotheism in Israel’s history goes back much further than Egypt. “From the earliest relevant times there were Israelite groups for whom it was natural or axiomatic that a people had one deity who was their special god.”4
The origin of Israel’s patriarch Abram from Mesopotamia would suggest that much of the pre-abrahamic history in Genesis originated in the Tigris-Euphrates region and not in Canaan. If this is true, the seed of monotheism began in what today is modern Iraq, not Israel. With so many civilizations rising and falling in Mesopotamia the religious traditions may have reflected a diverse influence of spiritual disciplines. The entire narrative of the Jewish Bible is predicated on the assertion that the descendants of Adam and Eve worship only one God and no other, leaving the impression that the founders of Israel were always committed to monotheism. However, Brueggemann asserts that “A rough scholarly consensus now exists that YHWH appears in the memory of Israel among many other gods, in rich world of lively polytheism, a world of gods under presiding governance of El (El Elyon), the High God.”5
The city of Ur was a major trading center and a melting pot of people. So it could well have had citizens devoted to either polytheism or monotheism as well as henotheism beliefs. It was from this city that Abram’s family, “… went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan…”6 However, it was in Haran, another busy trading center that the Bible seems to indicate Abram received God’s word to go to Canaan.
When they arrived at Canaan they discovered a people who worshiped numerous gods. Canaan may be a Semitic name which was the language of the Akkadians who founded the first civilization in Mesopotamia during the third millennium.7 According to Brueggemann the “Canaanites most likely did not form an ethically distinct group, although the inhabitants of the land, as distinct from Philistine, were surely Semites. Most scholars believe that in every aspect of racial, ethic, linguistic and cultural development, the Canaanites and early Israelites were indistinguishable.”8
The name of Canaan’s chief god was El9 which was of Semitic origin and used in the OT to indicate the Israeli God or an association with God (e.g. Eliab, Elijah, Elohim).10 El “is the common Semitic name for deity in ancient Near Eastern culture…”11 Thus early Israeli culture either borrowed from or had a common language link with the Canaanites.
While the seed of monotheism sprouted along with polytheistic saplings in Mesopotamia, Egypt and Canaan, it may have been henotheism which was the theology in Israeli culture during the periods of Abraham and the Exodus. It eventually gave way to monotheism during the Babylonian exile and the time of the prophets.
Still there is no clear delineation when Israel utterly rejected polytheism/henotheism and embraced monotheism. Numerous scriptures in the OT refer to the “lesser gods” and proclaim Israel’s God as the “Most High”. In Deuteronomy we’re told, “When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods;” And, “the Lord’s own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.”12 This indicates Israel’s concession to the existence of other gods and seems to allow the limit of God’s sovereignty. God ruled over the people of Jacob and conceded that other gods could reign over other nations. Does this indicate that they believed their god is one of many gods and the people of Jacob call him “Most High” because their god rules over them? Deuteronomy states that God “apportioned the nations” and “fixed the boundaries…according to the number of gods.” We can interpret this to mean that Israel believed their God to be the ruling deity and that the gods of other nations are lesser beings who were assigned their boundaries by the “Most High” god of Israel.
From a historical perspective, the God of Israel had won a victory against the Egyptian idols. The people of Jacob were now wandering around the desert and surviving only by God’s gift of manna and water.13 God defeated the Amalek14 and had promised Israel a country of their own, a country already filled with well established tribes which might contest the entrance of new people into their land. “I declare that I will bring you up out of the misery of Egypt, to the land of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, a land flowing with milk and honey.”15
Though there was grumbling among God’s “stiff- necked people”16 and some chose to worship a golden calf, the bond between God and the Israelites was growing. The 40-year journey in the wilderness may have served to strengthen and prepare the people for the conquest of Canaan. It isolated them from other religions and may have solidified the idea of a single and sovereign god. At Mount Sinai, God offered a covenant, “Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”1
With this covenant and along with the first five commandments, the people were not only fortifying God’s status in the world, but beginning to deny and ridicule the powers of the other gods. Brueggemann states, “While insisting upon the legitimacy of its exclusive claim of YHWH, Israel was also preoccupied with making the negative claim that the other gods were powerless, could not deliver on their promise and therefore did not deserve any attention or devotion.”18 In chapter 33 of Deuteronomy, Moses addressed the people and declared, “He subdues the ancient gods, shatters the forces of old; He drove out the enemy before you, and said, “Destroy!”19 With this mindset, the people of Israel entered into Canaan believing that their Lord was the mightier deity and no other idol could stand before the God of Jacob.
The Book of Joshua narrates how the heir of Moses led his people to conquer the land of Canaan by obeying and trusting in God’s commands. At the end of his life in chapter 24, Joshua passionately extols his people to choose which god they will follow and holds them to remain faithful to the covenant God made with them at Sinai. He then declares his own allegiance in verse 15, “Now if you are unwilling to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served in the region beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”20 Joshua’s question may have been asked rhetorically and the people’s response might have been spontaneous. The Book of Judges would demonstrate that the belief in a single sovereign god, the God of Abraham, was subject to human failings.
While Joshua 11:16, 23 claim that the Israelites captured all the land, in truth they only seized control of a limited area of Canaan. “The military accounts focus primarily on the limited areas of central Palestine.”21 Neither did the Israelites eliminate all of the existing tribes in the land which resulted in social, political and economic interaction between the tribes. Israel was no longer isolated in the wilderness, but now had to co-exist with other polytheist cultures. The need for commerce as well as political and military alliance led to a tolerance of other beliefs and to marriage among other people.
At this time Baal had overthrown the god El in Canaanite mythology and was prevalent in the Syro-Palestinian culture. As a weather god, Baal provided much needed rain for the crops. Thus he became known as a god of fertility and so his persona took on that of a lover as well as a provider of abundance. “But Baal was a god of sexual congress whose cult sported erotic acts that offended Israelite sensitivities.”22 Despite their “sensitivities” many Israelites were drawn toward the erotic nature of Baal and came to worship him.
Throughout the Book of Judges, “…the Israelites did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and worshipped the Baals;”23 Though the Bible speaks against the immoral acts that people commit, it is the act of disobedience which was and is the greatest sin. This is pointed out numerous times in the Book of Judges.24 And throughout both Testaments of the Bible prophets, disciples and Jesus may have attacked the specific acts of leaders and nations. But it is this one fundamental sin of disobedience which tears at the heart of monotheism, Brueggemann says, “Israel’s sin that evokes YWHW’s wrath is the compromise of that oath of singular allegiance reflected in the First Commandment of Exodus 20: 2-3:25
Thus the narrative of the Bible began to attack Baal, his manifestations and other deities of the region. 26 Thederision and ridicule of other gods became more authoritative throughout the later books of the OT. Jeremiah scorns them. “Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk. Do not be afraid of them, for they cannot do evil, nor is it in them to do good.”27 Eventually their existence is dismissed altogether. While there is no clear watermark of when Israel utterly rejected the existence of all other gods, it likely occurred during the exile in Babylon.
A desire to be a separate and intact people caused Abram to first leave Mesopotamia and take his god with him. Jacob then followed YWHW into the prosperity of Egypt and eventually enslavement. In winning their freedom Moses showed that the God of Jacob was greater and more powerful than the Egyptian deities. This same god brought them through the wilderness into a land the Lord promised them, and through Joshua won victory after victory over the people of Canaan.
By the Judges God raised up from among the people, the Lord sustained them through the long years when they were drawn toward other gods. The prophets belittled and ignored other gods. Then during Israel’s darkest days of captivity and exile, these gods were dismissed completely. During the sixth century BCE prophets such as Isaiah, Daniel and Hosea gave allegiance and devotion to one god only. “You are my witnesses, says the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor there any after me. I, I am the Lord, and besides me there is no savior. I declared and saved and proclaimed, when there was no strange god among you; and you are my witnesses, says the Lord.”2‘
We began by asking, “Is there an intrinsic need by humans to “invent” a god to worship and bring order to our societies? Or is it recognition of a divine power in the universe and the quixotic quest to discover and know the nature and will of God?” Our journey which began in the confusion of polytheism took us down the bewildering and rambling path of henotheism. That Judaism, Christianity and Islam have arrived at the awareness of a single God and that there is no other, then the first question is moot and we may have answered the second.
1 Reverberations of Faith, Walter Brueggemann, pg 138
2 Exodus 20: 2
3 The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, pg 701
4 The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, pg 701
5Reverberations of Faith, Walter Brueggemann, pg 137
6 Genesis 11: 31
7 The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, pg 677
8 Reverberations of Faith, Walter Brueggemann, pg 23
9 The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, pg 275 & Reverberations of Faith, Walter Brueggemann, pg 23 10 The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, pg 275
11 The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, pg 737
12 NRSV Bible; Deuteronomy 32: 8
13 NRSV Bible; Exodus 15 &16
14 NRSV Bible; Exodus 17:8-15
15 NRSV Bible; Exodus 3:17
16 NRSV Bible; Exodus 32:9
17 NRSV Bible; Exodus 19:5-6
18 Reverberations of Faith, Walter Brueggemann, pg 138
19 NRSV Bible; Deuteronomy 33:27
20 NRSV Bible; Joshua 24:15
21 HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, pg 547
22 HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, pg 95
23 NRSV, Judges 2: 11
24 NRSV; Judges 2:2, 2:11, 3:7, 12, 4:1, 6:1.
25 Reverberations of Faith, Walter Brueggemann, pg138
26 NRSV, 1 Sam 5: 1-5, 1 Kings 18: 26-29, Isaiah 46: 1-2, Psalms 115: 4-8, 135: 15-18
27 NRSV, Jeremiah 10:5
28 NRSV, Isaiah 40:10-13