Excerpts for History of God : The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam


Chapter One


In the Beginning ...


In the beginning, human beings created a God who was the First Cause of all things and Ruler of heaven and earth. He was not represented by images and had no temple or priests in his service. He was too exalted for an inadequate human cult. Gradually he faded from the consciousness of his people. He had become so remote that they decided that they did not want him anymore. Eventually he was said to have disappeared.

    That, at least, is one theory, popularized by Father Wilhelm Schmidt in The Origin of the Idea of God, first published in 1912. Schmidt suggested that there had been a primitive monotheism before men and women had started to worship a number of gods. Originally they had acknowledged only one Supreme Deity, who had created the world and governed human affairs from afar. Belief in such a High God (sometimes called the Sky God, since he is associated with the heavens) is still a feature of the religious life in many indigenous African tribes. They yearn toward God in prayer; believe that he is watching over them and will punish wrongdoing. Yet he is strangely absent from their daily lives: he has no special cult and is never depicted in effigy. The tribesmen say that he is inexpressible and cannot be contaminated by the world of men. Some people say that he has "gone away." Anthropologists suggest that this God has become so distant and exalted that he has in effect been replaced by lesser spirits and more accessible gods. So too, Schmidt's theory goes, in ancient times, the High God was replaced by the more attractive gods of the pagan pantheons. In the beginning, therefore, there was One God. If this is so, then monotheism was one of the earliest ideas evolved by human beings to explain the mystery and tragedy of life. It also indicates some of the problems that such a deity might have to face.

    It is impossible to prove this one way or the other. There have been many theories about the origin of religion. Yet it seems that creating gods is something that human beings have always done. When one religious idea ceases to work for them, it is simply replaced. These ideas disappear quietly, like the Sky God, with no great fanfare. In our own day, many people would say that the God worshipped for centuries by Jews, Christians and Muslims has become as remote as the Sky God. Some have actually claimed that he has died. Certainly he seems to be disappearing from the lives of an increasing number of people, especially in Western Europe. They speak of a "God-shaped hole" in their consciousness where he used to be, because, irrelevant though he may seem in certain quarters, he has played a crucial role in our history and has been one of the greatest human ideas of all time. To understand what we are losing—if, that is, he really is disappearing—we need to see what people were doing when they began to worship this God, what he meant and how he was conceived. To do that we need to go back to the ancient world of the Middle East, where the idea of our God gradually emerged about 14,000 years ago.

    One of the reasons why religion seems irrelevant today is that many of us no longer have the sense that we are surrounded by the unseen. Our scientific culture educates us to focus our attention on the physical and material world in front of us. This method of looking at the world has achieved great results. One of its consequences, however, is that we have, as it were, edited out the sense of the "spiritual" or the "holy" which pervades the lives of people in more traditional societies at every level and which was once an essential component of our human experience of the world. In the South Sea Islands, they call this mysterious force mana; others experience it as a presence or spirit; sometimes it has been felt as an impersonal power, like a form of radioactivity or electricity. It was believed to reside in the tribal chief, in plants, rocks or animals. The Latins experienced numina (spirits) in sacred groves; Arabs felt that the landscape was populated by the jinn. Naturally people wanted to get in touch with this reality and make it work for them, but they also simply wanted to admire it. When they personalized the unseen forces and made them gods, associated with the wind, sun, sea and stars but possessing human characteristics, they were expressing their sense of affinity with the unseen and with the world around them.

    Rudolf Otto, the German historian of religion who published his important book The Idea of the Holy in 1917, believed that this sense of the "numinous" was basic to religion. It preceded any desire to explain the origin of the world or find a basis for ethical behavior. The numinous power was sensed by human beings in different ways—sometimes it inspired wild, bacchanalian excitement; sometimes a deep calm; sometimes people felt dread, awe and humility in the presence of the mysterious force inherent in every aspect of life. When people began to devise their myths and worship their gods, they were not seeking a literal explanation for natural phenomena. The symbolic stories, cave paintings and carvings were an attempt to express their wonder and to link this pervasive mystery with their own lives; indeed, poets, artists and musicians are often impelled by a similar desire today. In the Palaeolithic period, for example, when agriculture was developing, the cult of the Mother Goddess expressed a sense that the fertility which was transforming human life was actually sacred. Artists carved those statues depicting her as a naked, pregnant woman which archaeologists have found all over Europe, the Middle East and India. The Great Mother remained imaginatively important for centuries. Like the old Sky God, she was absorbed into later pantheons and took her place alongside the older deities. She was usually one of the most powerful of the gods, certainly more powerful than the Sky God, who remained a rather shadowy figure. She was called Inana in ancient Sumeria, Ishtar in Babylon, Anat in Canaan, Isis in Egypt and Aphrodite in Greece, and remarkably similar stories were devised in all these cultures to express her role in the spiritual lives of the people. These myths were not intended to be taken literally, but were metaphorical attempts to describe a reality that was too complex and elusive to express in any other way. These dramatic and evocative stories of gods and goddesses helped people to articulate their sense of the powerful but unseen forces that surrounded them.

    Indeed, it seems that in the ancient world people believed that it was only by participating in this divine life that they would become truly human. Earthly life was obviously fragile and overshadowed by mortality, but if men and women imitated the actions of the gods they would share to some degree their greater power and effectiveness. Thus it was said that the gods had shown men how to build their cities and temples, which were mere copies of their own homes in the divine realm. The sacred world of the gods—as recounted in myth—was not just an ideal toward which men and women should aspire, but was the prototype of human existence; it was the original pattern or the archetype on which our life here below had been modeled. Everything on earth was thus believed to be a replica of something in the divine world, a perception that informed the mythology, ritual and social organization of most of the cultures of antiquity and continues to influence more traditional societies in our own day. In ancient Iran, for example, every single person or object in the mundane world (getik) was held to have its counterpart in the archetypal world of sacred reality (menok). This is a perspective that is difficult for us to appreciate in the modern world, since we see autonomy and independence as supreme human values. Yet the famous tag post coitum omne animal tristis est still expresses a common experience: after an intense and eagerly anticipated moment, we often feel that we have missed something greater that remains just beyond our grasp. The imitation of a god is still an important religious notion: resting on the Sabbath or washing somebody's feet on Maundy Thursday—actions that are meaningless in themselves—are now significant and sacred because people believe that they were once performed by God.

    A similar spirituality had characterized the ancient world of Mesopotamia. The Tigris-Euphrates valley, in what is now Iraq, had been inhabited as early as 4000 BCE by the people known as the Sumerians, who had established one of the first great cultures of the Oikumene (the civilized world). In their cities of Ur, Erech and Kish, the Sumerians devised their cuneiform script, built the extraordinary temple-towers called ziggurats and evolved an impressive law, literature and mythology. Not long afterward the region was invaded by the Semitic Akkadians, who had adopted the language and culture of Sumer. Later still, in about 2000 BCE, the Amorites had conquered this Sumerian-Akkadian civilization and made Babylon their capital. Finally, some 500 years later, the Assyrians had settled in nearby Ashur and eventually conquered Babylon itself during the eighth century BCE. This Babylonian tradition also affected the mythology and religion of Canaan, which would become the Promised Land of the ancient Israelites. Like other people in the ancient world, the Babylonians attributed their cultural achievements to the gods, who had revealed their own lifestyle to their mythical ancestors. Thus Babylon itself was supposed to be an image of heaven, with each of its temples a replica of a celestial palace. This link with the divine world was celebrated and perpetuated annually in the great New Year Festival, which had been firmly established by the seventeenth century BCE. Celebrated in the holy city of Babylon during the month of Nisan—our April—the Festival solemnly enthroned the king and established his reign for another year. Yet this political stability could only endure insofar as it participated in the more enduring and effective government of the gods, who had brought order out of primordial chaos when they had created the world. The eleven sacred days of the Festival thus projected the participants outside profane time into the sacred and eternal world of the gods by means of ritual gestures. A scapegoat was killed to cancel the old, dying year; the public humiliation of the king and the enthronement of a carnival king in his place reproduced the original chaos; a mock battle reenacted the struggle of the gods against the forces of destruction.

    These symbolic actions thus had a sacramental value; they enabled the people of Babylon to immerse themselves in the sacred power or mana on which their own great civilization depended. Culture was felt to be a fragile achievement, which could always fall prey to the forces of disorder and disintegration. On the afternoon of the fourth day of the Festival, priests and choristers filed into the Holy of Holies to recite the Enuma Elish, the epic poem which celebrated the victory of the gods over chaos. The story was not a factual account of the physical origins of life upon earth, but was a deliberately symbolic attempt to suggest a great mystery and to release its sacred power. A literal account of creation was impossible, since nobody had been present at these unimaginable events: myth and symbol were thus the only suitable way of describing them. A brief look at the Enuma Elish gives us some insight into the spirituality which gave birth to our own Creator God centuries later. Even though the biblical and Koranic account of creation would ultimately take a very different form, these strange myths never entirely disappeared, but would reenter the history of God at a much later date, clothed in a monotheistic idiom.

    The story begins with the creation of the gods themselves—a theme which, as we shall see, would be very important in Jewish and Muslim mysticism. In the beginning, said the Enuma Elish, the gods emerged two by two from a formless, watery waste—a substance which was itself divine. In Babylonian myth—as later in the Bible—there was no creation out of nothing, an idea that was alien to the ancient world. Before either the gods or human beings existed, this sacred raw material had existed from all eternity. When the Babylonians tried to imagine this primordial divine stuff, they thought that it must have been similar to the swampy wasteland of Mesopotamia, where floods constantly threatened to wipe out the frail works of men. In the Enuma Elish, chaos is not a fiery, seething mass, therefore, but a sloppy mess where everything lacks boundary, definition and identity:


When sweet and bitter
mingled together, no reed was plaited, no rushes
muddied the water,
the gods were nameless, natureless, futureless.


Then three gods did emerge from the primal wasteland: Apsu (identified with the sweet waters of the rivers), his wife, Tiamat (the salty sea), and Mummu, the Womb of chaos. Yet these gods were, so to speak, an early, inferior model which needed improvement. The names "Apsu" and "Tiamat" can be translated "abyss," "void" or "bottomless gulf." They share the shapeless inertia of the original formlessness and had not yet achieved a clear identity.

    Consequently, a succession of other gods emerged from them in a process known as emanation, which would become very important in the history of our own God. The new gods emerged, one from the other, in pairs, each of which had acquired a greater definition than the last as the divine evolution progressed. First came Lahmu and Lahamn (their names mean "silt": water and earth are still mixed together). Next came Ansher and Kishar, identified respectively with the horizons of sky and sea. Then Anu (the heavens) and Ea (the earth) arrived and seemed to complete the process. The divine world had sky, rivers and earth, distinct and separate from one another. But creation had only just begun: the forces of chaos and disintegration could only be held at bay by means of a painful and incessant struggle. The younger, dynamic gods rose up against their parents, but even though Ea was able to overpower Apsu and Mummu, he could make no headway against Tiamat, who produced a whole brood of misshapen monsters to fight on her behalf. Fortunately Ea had a wonderful child of his own: Marduk, the Sun God, the most perfect specimen of the divine line. At a meeting of the Great Assembly of gods, Marduk promised to fight Tiamat on condition that he became their ruler. Yet he only managed to slay Tiamat with great difficulty and after a long, dangerous battle. In this myth, creativity is a struggle, achieved laboriously against overwhelming odds.

    Eventually, however, Marduk stood over Tiamat's vast corpse and decided to create a new world: he split her body in two to form the arch of the sky and the world of men; next he devised the laws that would keep everything in its appointed place. Order must be achieved. Yet the victory was not complete. It had to be reestablished, by means of a special liturgy, year after year. Consequently the gods met at Babylon, the center of the new earth, and built a temple where the celestial rites could be performed. The result was the great ziggurat in honor of Marduk, "the earthly temple, symbol of infinite heaven." When it was completed, Marduk took his seat at the summit and the gods cried aloud: "This is Babylon, dear city of the god, your beloved home!" Then they performed the liturgy "from which the universe receives its structure, the hidden world is made plain and the gods assigned their places in the universe." These laws and rituals are binding upon everybody; even the gods must observe them to ensure the survival of creation. The myth expresses the inner meaning of civilization, as the Babylonians saw it. They knew perfectly well that their own ancestors had built the ziggurat, but the story of the Enuma Elish articulated their belief that their creative enterprise could only endure if it partook of the power of the divine. The liturgy they celebrated at the New Year had been devised before human beings had come into existence: it was written into the very nature of things, to which even the gods had to submit. The myth also expressed their conviction that Babylon was a sacred place, the center of the world and the home of the gods—a notion that was crucial in almost all the religious systems of antiquity. The idea of a holy city, where men and women felt that they were closely in touch with sacred power, the source of all being and efficacy, would be important in all three of the monotheistic religions of our own God.

    Finally, almost as an afterthought, Marduk created humanity. He seized Kingu (the oafish consort of Tiamat, created by her after the defeat of Apsu), slew him and shaped the first man by mixing the divine blood with the dust. The gods watched in astonishment and admiration. There is, however, some humor in this mythical account of the origin of humanity, which is by no means the pinnacle of creation but derives from one of the most stupid and ineffectual of the gods. But the story made another important point. The first man had been created from the substance of a god: he therefore shared the divine nature, in however limited a way. There was no gulf between human beings and the gods. The natural world, men and women and the gods themselves all shared the same nature and derived from the same divine substance. The pagan vision was holistic. The gods were not shut off from the human race in a separate, ontological sphere: divinity was not essentially different from humanity. There was thus no need for a special revelation of the gods or for a divine law to descend to earth from on high. The gods and human beings shared the same predicament, the only difference being that the gods were more powerful and were immortal.

    This holistic vision was not confined to the Middle East but was common in the ancient world. In the sixth century BCE, Pindar expressed the Greek version of this belief in his ode on the Olympic games:


Single is the race, single
Of men and gods;
From a single mother we both draw breath.
But a difference of power in everything
Keeps us apart;
For one is as nothing, but the brazen sky
Stays a fixed habituation for ever.
Yet we can in greatness of mind
Or of body be like the Immortals.


Instead of seeing his athletes as on their own, each striving to achieve his personal best, Pindar sets them against the exploits of the gods, who were the pattern for all human achievement. Men were not slavishly imitating the gods as hopelessly distant beings but living up to the potential of their own essentially divine nature.

    The myth of Marduk and Tiamat seems to have influenced the people of Canaan, who told a very similar story about Baal-Habad, the god of storm and fertility, who is often mentioned in extremely unflattering terms in the Bible. The story of Baal's battle with Yam-Nahar, the god of the seas and rivers, is told on tablets that date to the fourteenth century BCE. Baal and Yam both lived with El, the Canaanite High God. At the Council of El, Yam demands that Baal be delivered up to him. With two magic weapons, Baal defeats Yam and is about to kill him when Asherah (El's wife and mother of the gods) pleads that it is dishonorable to slay a prisoner. Baal is ashamed and spares Yam, who represents the hostile aspect of the seas and rivers which constantly threaten to flood the earth, while Baal, the Storm God, makes the earth fertile. In another version of the myth, Baal slays the seven-headed dragon Lotan, who is called Leviathan in Hebrew. In almost all cultures, the dragon symbolizes the latent, the unformed and the undifferentiated. Baal has thus halted the slide back to primal formlessness in a truly creative act and is rewarded by a beautiful palace built by the gods in his honor. In very early religion, therefore, creativity was seen as divine: we still use religious language to speak of creative "inspiration" which shapes reality anew and brings fresh meaning to the world.

    But Baal undergoes a reverse: he dies and has to descend to the world of Mot, the god of death and sterility. When he hears of his son's fate, the High God El comes down from his throne, puts on sackcloth and gashes his cheeks, but he cannot redeem his son. It is Anat, Baal's lover and sister, who leaves the divine realm and goes in search of her twin soul, "desiring him as a cow her calf or a ewe her lamb." When she finds his body, she makes a funeral feast in his honor, seizes Mot, cleaves him with her sword, winnows, burns and grinds him like corn before sowing him in the ground. Similar stories are told about the other great goddesses—Inana, Ishtar and Isis—who search for the dead god and bring new life to the soil. The victory of Anat, however, must be perpetuated year after year in ritual celebration. Later—we are not sure how, since our sources are incomplete—Baal is brought back to life and restored to Anat. This apotheosis of wholeness and harmony, symbolized by the union of the sexes, was celebrated by means of ritual sex in ancient Canaan. By imitating the gods in this way, men and women would share their struggle against sterility and ensure the creativity and fertility of the world. The death of a god, the quest of the goddess and the triumphant return to the divine sphere were constant religious themes in many cultures and would recur in the very different religion of the One God worshipped by Jews, Christians and Muslims.

    This religion is attributed in the Bible to Abraham, who left Ur and eventually settled in Canaan some time between the twentieth and nineteenth centuries BCE. We have no contemporary record of Abraham, but scholars think that he may have been one of the wandering chieftains who had led their people from Mesopotamia toward the Mediterranean at the end of the third millennium BCE. These wanderers, some of whom are called Abiru, Apiru or Habiru in Mesopotamian and Egyptian sources, spoke West Semitic languages, of which Hebrew is one. They were not regular desert nomads like the Bedouin, who migrated with their flocks according to the cycle of the seasons, but were more difficult to classify and, as such, were frequently in conflict with the conservative authorities. Their cultural status was usually superior to that of the desert folk. Some served as mercenaries, others became government employees, others worked as merchants, servants or tinkers. Some became rich and might then try to acquire land and settle down. The stories about Abraham in the Book of Genesis show him serving the King of Sodom as a mercenary and describe his frequent conflicts with the authorities of Canaan and its environs. Eventually, when his wife, Sarah, died, Abraham bought land in Hebron, now on the West Bank.

    The Genesis account of Abraham and his immediate descendants may indicate that there were three main waves of early Hebrew settlement in Canaan, the modern Israel. One was associated with Abraham and Hebron and took place in about 1850 BCE. A second wave of immigration was linked with Abraham's grandson Jacob, who was renamed Israel ("May God show his strength!"); he settled in Shechem, which is now the Arab town of Nablus on the West Bank. The Bible tells us that Jacob's sons, who became the ancestors of the twelve tribes of Israel, emigrated to Egypt during a severe famine in Canaan. The third wave of Hebrew settlement occurred in about 1200 BCE when tribes who claimed to be descendants of Abraham arrived in Canaan from Egypt. They said that they had been enslaved by the Egyptians but had been liberated by a deity called Yahweh, who was the god of their leader, Moses. After they had forced their way into Canaan, they allied themselves with the Hebrews there and became known as the people of Israel. The Bible makes it clear that the people we know as the ancient Israelites were a confederation of various ethnic groups, bound together principally by their loyalty to Yahweh, the God of Moses. The biblical account was written down centuries later, however, in about the eighth century BCE, though it certainly drew on earlier narrative sources.

    During the nineteenth century, some German biblical scholars developed a critical method which discerned four different sources in the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These were later collated into the final text of what we know as the Pentateuch during the fifth century BCE. This form of criticism has come in for a good deal of harsh treatment, but nobody has yet come up with a more satisfactory theory which explains why there are two quite different accounts of key biblical events, such as the Creation and the Flood, and why the Bible sometimes contradicts itself. The two earliest biblical authors, whose work is found in Genesis and Exodus, were probably writing during the eighth century, though some would give them an earlier date. One is known as "J" because he calls his God "Yahweh," the other "E" since he prefers to use the more formal divine title "Elohim." By the eighth century, the Israelites had divided Canaan into two separate kingdoms. J was writing in the southern Kingdom of Judah, while E came from the northern Kingdom of Israel. (See map p. viii.) We will discuss the two other sources of the Pentateuch—the Deuteronomist (D) and Priestly (P) accounts of the ancient history of Israel—in Chapter 2.

    We shall see that in many respects both J and E shared the religious perspectives of their neighbors in the Middle East, but their accounts do show that by the eighth century BCE, the Israelites were beginning to develop a distinct vision of their own. J, for example, starts his history of God with an account of the creation of the world which, compared with the Enuma Elish, is startlingly perfunctory:


At the time when Yahweh God made earth and heaven, there was as yet no wild bush on the earth nor had any wild plant yet sprung up, for Yahweh God had not sent rain on the earth nor was there any man to till the soil. However, a flood was rising from the earth and watering all the surface of the soil. Yahweh God fashioned man (adam) of dust from the soil (adamah). Then he breathed into his nostrils the breath of life and thus man became a living being.


This was an entirely new departure. Instead of concentrating on the creation of the world and on the prehistoric period like his pagan contemporaries in Mesopotamia and Canaan, J is more interested in ordinary historical time. There would be no real interest in creation in Israel until the sixth century BCE, when the author whom we call "P" wrote his majestic account in what is now the first chapter of Genesis. J is not absolutely clear that Yahweh is the sole creator of heaven and earth. Most noticeable, however, is J's perception of a certain distinction between man and the divine. Instead of being composed of the same divine stuff as his god, man (adam), as the pun indicates, belongs to the earth (adamah).

    Unlike his pagan neighbors, J does not dismiss mundane history as profane, feeble and insubstantial compared with the sacred, primordial time of the gods. He hurries through the events of prehistory until he comes to the end of the mythical period, which includes such stories as the Flood and the Tower of Babel, and arrives at the start of the history of the people of Israel. This begins abruptly in Chapter 12 when the man Abram, who will later be renamed Abraham ("Father of a Multitude"), is commanded by Yahweh to leave his family in Haran, in what is now eastern Turkey, and migrate to Canaan near the Mediterranean Sea. We have been told that his father, Terah, a pagan, had already migrated westward with his family from Ur. Now Yahweh tells Abraham that he has a special destiny: he will become the father of a mighty nation that will one day be more numerous than the stars in the sky, and one day his descendants will possess the land of Canaan as their own. J's account of the call of Abraham sets the tone for the future history of this God. In the ancient Middle East, the divine mana was experienced in ritual and myth. Marduk, Baal and Anat were not expected to involve themselves in the ordinary, profane lives of their worshippers: their actions had been performed in sacred time. The God of Israel, however, made his power effective in current events in the real world. He was experienced as an imperative in the here and now. His first revelation of himself consists of a command: Abraham is to leave his people and travel to the land of Canaan.

    But who is Yahweh? Did Abraham worship the same God as Moses or did he know him by a different name? This would be a matter of prime importance to us today, but the Bible seems curiously vague on the subject and gives conflicting answers to this question. J says that men had worshipped Yahweh ever since the time of Adam's grandson, but in the sixth century, P seems to suggest that the Israelites had never heard of Yahweh until he appeared to Moses in the Burning Bush. P makes Yahweh explain that he really was the same God as the God of Abraham, as though this were a rather controversial notion: he tells Moses that Abraham had called him "El Shaddai" and did not know the divine name Yahweh. The discrepancy does not seem to worry either the biblical writers or their editors unduly. J calls his god "Yahweh" throughout: by the time he was writing, Yahweh was the God of Israel and that was all that mattered. Israelite religion was pragmatic and less concerned with the kind of speculative detail that would worry us. Yet we should not assume that either Abraham or Moses believed in their God as we do today. We are so familiar with the Bible story and the subsequent history of Israel that we tend to project our knowledge of later Jewish religion back onto these early historical personages. Accordingly, we assume that the three patriarchs of Israel—Abraham, his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob—were monotheists, that they believed in only one God. This does not seem to have been the case. Indeed, it is probably more accurate to call these early Hebrews pagans who shared many of the religious beliefs of their neighbors in Canaan. They would certainly have believed in the existence of such deities as Marduk, Baal and Anat. They may not all have worshipped the same deity: it is possible that the God of Abraham, the "Fear" or "Kinsman" of Isaac and the "Mighty One" of Jacob were three separate gods.

Copyright © 1993 Karen Armstrong. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-345-38456-3




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