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Friday, March 4, 2011

The origin of Jewish monotheism.

 How many gods?

Those of us who grow up in English-speaking countries where Judaism or Christianity is the principal religion learn very early in life that the Bible opens with the phrase: “In the beginning, God created heaven and earth”.

Believers accept that statement as truth. Others assume that it reflects unchanging doctrine. And most are unaware that this opening line is a translation of words written thousands of years ago - words that may be inaccurately translated.

What happens when we compare the translation with the original text? (Don't forget to read the Hebrew from right to left.)
בְּ רֵאשִׁית , בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים , אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם , וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ
Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim
ve'et ha'arets
Hebrew, like Arabic, was originally written without vowels. That allows some words to be interpreted differently depending on which vowels are inserted. However, there is little dispute over this opening verse.

Look at the third word, Elohim. The -imending means that it is plural, like cherubimand seraphimElohim means "gods", not "god". That means an accurate translation would read:

“In the beginning, the gods created heaven and earth.”

Gods? Judaism and its offshoot Christianity are monotheistic religions. Is this a clerical error? What does the rest of the Bible say? Verse two: “Elohim” again. The verse should be “The spirit of the gods moved upon the waters.” Verse three: “The gods said ‘Let there be light’.” Verse four: "The gods saw the light". Verse five: "The gods named the light". And so on and so on.

How often does the word “Elohim”, in the plural, appear in the Old Testament? About 2,500 times. What's going on here? Was there more than one god at the Creation? How many gods were there in Eden and at the Flood?

1.5b Grammar or history?

Chapter One: Defining God 

Does God exist? Before we try to answer that question we need to have a clear idea of who or what God is. How do we describe God? What versions of God are on offer?

1.1: God, faith and religion
Do they need each other? 

1.2: What is God?
God comes in several styles and models 

1.3: Perception and reality
Is what we see what we get? 

1.4: The evolving God
From prehistory to today 

1.5: El, Yahweh et al
The Old Testament family of gods 

1.6: Three's company
The Christian Trinity 

1.7: Allah
Over to Islam 

1.8: Majors and minors

1.9: The unknowable God
Is he there? 

1.10: Your god or mine?
Made in our image 

1.11: Summary 

Finished this chapter? Move on to 

Chapter Two 
Problems with God 

The real God – if such a thing exists – may be very different from the god portrayed by Jewish, Christian or Muslim scripture.

But whichever picture of God we look at - from the Bible and Koran to the images presented by other faiths and believers - we are confronted by problems. When examined closely, God's nature is so contradictory that it is unlikely, if not impossible, for him to exist. 

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Let's start with the official explanation. Jews and Christians who are aware of the original text claim that there has only ever been one God and the plural, Elohim, is used as a mark of respect.

That's not unreasonable. Many languages use the plural this way, particularly for kings and lords who represent not only themselves but the people they govern. In the past, English made a difference between "you" for those above us on the social scale and "thou" for friends and family. French has "vous", Russian "vi", German "Sie", Spanish "Usted" and so on for formal use when talking to one person.

Besides, believers point out, the idea that Elohim refers to only one being is reinforced by the verb bara (created), which has a singular, not plural (baru) ending. There was only one God - and grammar supports that position.

It's a good point, and on its own it might be conclusive, but it ignores other, stronger evidence, both internal (from the Bible itself) and external (from history and archaeology).

The first problem is that the word used to refer to God changes as the Bible progresses. By the middle of the Old Testament Elohim has almost disappeared, to be replaced by Yahweh (Jehovah), which is used almost 7,000 times. Other names - El ("God") and Adonai ("Lords") - are also used occasionally. Why this shift in vocabulary?

Take a step back to look at the historical background. The Jewish faith emerged out of Canaanite beliefs, which both predate and are contemporary with the Bible. The Canaanites, whose primary city was Ugarit (now Ras Sharma in modern Syria), had many deities. First came El, the Most High and the father of the gods; his many children included YahwehAsherah (also known as Athiratl, the fertility goddess) and Baal

1.5c Family feuds

As in any pantheon (group of gods), there were rivalries and alliances, as each deity sought worshippers and demanded their own methods of worship. Some of these events are described in the Bible, others come from other records - and these records shed interesting light on the Biblical narrative.

Asherah was commonly represented by large phallic symbols or "poles" - a word that was mistranslated as "trees" or "groves" in early versions of the Bible. Baal was represented by a golden calf. Both these gods and their symbols of worship are described in the Old Testament. What is omitted is the suggestion put forward by some historians that in
pic of Asherah from Ugarit, now in Louvre13th century BC relief of Asherah from Ugarit
Canaanite mythology Yahweh and Asherah were married.

Yahweh, therefore, was originally only one of several gods. To prevent them squabbling, El divided the different tribes that inhabited the land we now know as Israel / Palestine among his children. Yahweh was awarded the Israelites, and in Deuteronomy 32.8 - 32.9 he confirms that he is a junior god, telling his people: "When the Most High [El] gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided all mankind, he set up boundaries for the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel. For the LORD's [Yahweh's] portion is his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance." (New International Version)

1.5d From some to one

The Israelites soon learn that Yahweh is a demanding deity who insists that his people repudiate all other gods. He demands that the Asherah poles be destroyed. His anger explodes when his orders are ignored - as when the Jews worship Baal's golden calf while Moses is absent receiving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 32). As time passes, the Jews abandon the idea of Elohim - many gods - and refer only to Yahweh who, in their eyes and perhaps in reality, has become all-powerful while his parents and siblings disappear from history.

This interpretation is not some atheist conspiracy. It is the word of the Bible itself, supported by evidence from non-Biblical sources. At the core of Jewish, and Christian, belief, is the idea that there were several gods at Creation. These gods persisted through many generations, including the Flood and flight from Egypt and only when Yahweh, the self-described jealous god, becomes pre-eminent, are theElohim, the many gods, replaced by one single god. Polytheism has become monotheism.

1.5e The triumph of reason

It is good to remind ourselves of the process of reasoning that brought us to this understanding. Firstly, our minds were open, not closed: we started with the question, not an answer (the question "what does the Bible tells us?", not the answer "the Bible tells us there is one god"). Secondly, we gathered all the evidence, not just the evidence that agreed with our theory (we looked at history and archaeology as well as the Bible).

Should we accept this new interpretation or tell ourselves that no, there was only ever one God in the Bible? No, because we must also apply the Occam's Razortest, which tells us that the simplest solution to a problem is always more preferable to the more complicated one. If the word says "gods", it means "gods", not "god"; if Yahweh tells us that there are other gods, we should believe him rather than try to interpret his words differently.

Where are we now? Our reasoning has led us to the following possible conclusions:

a. If the Bible is literally true, there were originally many gods. Only one of these, Yahweh, appears to have survived; the Bible does not record what happened to the other gods. They may have been forgotten, but do they still exist?

b. If the truth is that there has only ever been one God, then passages in the Bible which point to several gods are false. That should lead us to suspect that other passages in the Bible may also be false.

c. The Bible tells a story which may or may not contain truth. In itself, it neither proves nor disproves the existence of one or more gods.

This section has not brought us to the point where we can confirm whether all, part or none of the Bible is true. However, it has allowed us to confirm that in the Jewish-Christian Bible there are several gods - and Yahweh was not always the most powerful

 "Stephen F. Roberts: 'When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.'"

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