the gods of the Hebrew Bible
The God revealed in the Hebrew bible is an integration of several different cultural traditions in the ancient Middle East. As the tribes of Israel established themselves as a distinct culture among the peoples of Canaan, differing images of God were eventually integrated into the oral and written traditions that shaped the Old Testament.
The Hebrew texts often refer to God by the Canaanite term Elohim (el-o-HEEM). It is based on the ancient Semitic root ‘el’ (ale) meaning ‘strong one.’ This word was often used as a generic term for a god since the rise of civilization in Mesopotamia. It was also the proper name of the Canaanite high god El, the father of humanity and all creatures. He was the father of all the other gods (elohim) in the Canaanite pantheon and was the husband of Asherah, the mother goddess. In our English Bibles, both El and Elohim are translated as ‘God.’ (It is interesting to note that Jesus would have used the related Aramaic term alaha (ahl-ah-HAH) to speak of God. The Arabic Allah derives from the same Semitic root.)
As the cultures mixed in the land of Canaan, the Hebrew people overlaid the Sinai tradition of a tribal god named Yahweh onto the established tradition of El, forming a creative combination of a deity who was not only a god of deliverance from slavery but was also the creator of the universe. As the stories of the two cultures merged, the different terms for God became somewhat interchangeable and are found throughout the Hebrew Bible.
In Hebrew, the name Yahweh is spelled with consonants alone (reading from right to left) as יהוה (yod-hey-vav-hey). In English, it is rendered (from left to right) as YHWH. Because the name has only consonants in Hebrew and no vowels, the exact pronunciation is unsure. Today, it is commonly pronounced as Yahweh (YAH-way), although in prior centuries Jehovah was the more common usage because German scholars transliterated the Hebrew as JHVH. (In German, J sounds like Y and V sounds like W.) The origin and meaning of the name is disputed, but it may be associated with the Hebrew verb hayah, “to be.” Some scholars believe it is a shortened form of a word that means “he causes to be” or “he creates.”
During the Enlightenment, German scholars began to detect these two distinct traditions by separating the El/Elohim texts from the Yahweh texts in the Hebrew Bible. They referenced these traditions in shorthand as “E” (for Elohist) and “J” (for Jahwist or Yahwist). In these texts, the word El is used for God about 238 times while Elohim is used about 2,600 times. The personal name Yahweh is used far more extensively, about 6,800 times. A later writer, concerned with priestly duties and laws, was labeled “P.” He favored the term Elohim.
Most of us would not know any of this because in many English translations, the name Yahweh is eliminated and is often replaced with the term ‘the LORD’ and at other times simply with ‘God.’ This began when the Hebrew Bible was first translated into Greek about three centuries before Jesus. This translation, called the Septuagint (SEP-too-a-jint) was created by and for Hellenistic Jews who lived throughout the Greco-Roman world. In order to avoid taking God’s name in vain, the Greek word kyrios (KOO-ree-ohs), meaning ‘lord,’ was substituted for יהוה (yod-hey-vav-hey). Unfortunately, this practice has continued to this day in most English translations. It would seem that modern translators are a bit embarrassed by the fact that the God of the universe was once the local god of a few tribes who roamed the deserts south of modern Israel herding sheep and goats.
Originally, Yahweh was the name of a tribal god, perhaps first of the Midianites (or possibly of the Kenites which may have been a related clan) and later of the Hebrews. According to the story recounted in Exodus, Moses (or Moshe)—the son of Hebrew slaves—is raised in the court of Pharaoh. As a young man, he kills an Egyptian overseer who was beating a Hebrew slave and then flees to the land of Midian to avoid prosecution. The location of Midian is not known for sure, but it was most likely located near the Gulf of Aqaba, which separates the Arabian and Sinai peninsulas. There Moses meets Jethro, a man from the Kenite clan who serves as a priest in Midian. Moses settles down with the Midianites, marries Jethro’s daughter Zipporah, and has a son named Gershom.
We are never told which god Jethro served as priest, but it seems likely that the Midianite/Kenite god was the God named Yahweh who was associated with a sacred site in nearby Sinai called ‘the mountain of Elohim’ (mountain of the gods), identified also as Mount Horeb or Mount Sinai. At this point, the writer of the Exodus story tries to integrate several different traditions about God into a single cohesive unity. While herding sheep near the mountain, Moses encounters Yahweh in a burning bush. When Moses asks the god’s identity, Elohim responds in this way:
Elohim said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’ He said further, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “I AM has sent me to you.”’ (Exodus 13:14)
The Hebrew phrase translated “I am who I am” is ehyeh asher ehyeh (eh-YEH a-SHER eh-YEH). It can also be translated as “I am that I am” or “I will be what I will be.” Elohim continues:
Elohim also said to Moses, ‘Thus you shall say to the Israelites, “Yahweh, the God [Elohe] of your ancestors, the God [Elohe] of Abraham, the God [Elohe] of Isaac, and the God [Elohe] of Jacob, has sent me to you.”’ (Exodus 3:15)
In these two verses, four different names for God from four different traditions are linked: Elohim, Yahweh, ‘I AM WHO I AM,’ and the Elohe of the Mesopotamian ancestors.
Elohe is simply another variation of the root el that is usually translated as ‘God.’ Although it is unusual to find the actual Hebrew words still retained in an English translation of the Bible, the word elohe is found in the book of Genesis when Jacob buys a plot of land near the ancient Canaanite city of Shechem. He erects an altar near his tent and dedicates it to El-Elohe-Israel, translated as ‘God, the God of Israel’ or ‘the mighty God of Israel.’
The name ‘Israel’ itself is also based on the root word ‘el’ as a reference to God. We are told that just prior to settling near Shechem, Jacob wrestled with a man who he first thought might be an angel, but whom he eventually believes to be God (El). He is blessed by his divine opponent and receives the name Israel—in Hebrew Yisraʾel (yis-raw-ALE). Its meaning is disputed, but Israel may mean ‘El rules,’ ‘El struggles,’ or ‘El strives.’ However, the text itself proposes an alternate translation—that God is not the subject, but the object of the verb. Jacob is one who ‘strives with El.’ If one becomes aware of the many Hebrew names for God, one realizes the importance of the Canaanite tradition on the evolution of Hebrew religious ideas and the development of Yahweh.
Some scholars who have examined archeological sites in Israel believe that the biblical story of the exodus of twelve Hebrew tribes from Egypt is not very historical. Later Hebrew history shows a natural division among the tribes, evidenced in the split into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah after the reign of Solomon. A case has been made that the southern tribes of Benjamin and Judah may have been captive in Egypt, but that the northern tribes probably emerged from Semitic tribes already dwelling in northern Israel at the time of the exodus. These peoples gradually merged into a single culture where their religious ideas and traditions were blended. It was the northern tribes who had the El tradition, while the southern tribes had the Yahweh tradition. Throughout the centuries these traditions were merged, but not always completely or smoothly.
In the ancient history of the Israelites, Yahweh was initially viewed as a tribal war god, a deity of liberation and conquest—leading the Hebrew slaves out of captivity in Egypt and enabling them to conquer the land of Canaan. As the Israelite culture became more settled over time and a national identity was formed, Yahweh took on additional roles—envisioned as a lawgiver, ruler, and judge over the people. Eventually, Yahweh became more than a tribal or national God. Yahweh took on the role of the ‘high god,’ superior to competing gods within the land of Israel and to the gods of surrounding nations. The early monotheism of the Hebrew people did not claim that there was only one God; rather it claimed that their God was superior to all the others. In the newly acquired role of high god, Yahweh became the creator of heaven and earth, supplanting the role previously held by El, the Canaanite high god.
The Canaanite El was sometimes referred to as Toru El (the bull god), identifying him with that ancient symbol of strength, power, and virility. The worship of a sacred bull was common in many cultures throughout the ancient world. In the book of Exodus, we are told that Aaron, the brother of Moses, fashioned a golden calf as a physical representation of Yahweh, which mirrored the sacred image of El. Although the attributes of El were gradually assimilated into the traditions of the Hebrew people, the Exodus story tells of the complete rejection of any symbolic image to represent Yahweh. The first two of the Ten Commandments recognize the ongoing problem of integrating other religious traditions into the developing Hebrew story.
You shall have no other gods [Elohim] before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them. (Exodus 20:3-5)
It is interesting to note that one of the chief consorts of El was the Semitic mother goddess Asherah (sometimes called Elat, the feminine form of El). Based on archeological discovery of figurines and inscriptions on storage jars in Israel, some scholars believe that at one time Asherah may have similarly been worshiped as the consort of Yahweh and was referred to as the ‘Queen of Heaven.’ Also associated with El were lesser gods—most often his sons—known by the title Ba’al (BAH-al) or Baal which means ‘master’ or ‘lord.’ The chief among these was Ba’al Hadad (BAH-al hah-DAHD), the son of El who was lord of the sky—the god of thunder and lightning—providing rain and fertility to the land. He was also known as the primary god in an assembly of gods that gathered on Mount Zaphon. As one reads the Hebrew Bible, the worship of Asherah and Baal is a recurring problem in the enforcement of monotheism and the Yahweh cult. Meanwhile, the tradition of El becomes merged with Yahweh as the supreme God who is the lawgiver and ruler of the Hebrew people and the creator of the universe.
a God who is like us
Our basic introduction to Yahweh and El as two variants of a supernatural theistic God is found in the first pages of the Bible beginning with the stories of Genesis. There are two very different creation stories in the first three chapters of Genesis, although many Christians are unaware of the different tales. They come from two independent sources who were writing hundreds of years apart in ancient Israel.
The earliest story was written about 800 BCE by an anonymous author who biblical scholars have labeled ‘J.’ from the German spelling of Yahweh—Jahveh. J’s story does not deal with the creation of the universe; instead, it focuses on the creation of humankind. Starting in the second chapter of Genesis, J writes that Yahweh shaped a male human being from the clay of the earth and breathed life into his nostrils. (Genesis 2:4 – 3:24) The man (adam in Hebrew) is created from the earth (adamah). Yahweh plants a garden, forms animals from the earth, and creates a woman from the man’s rib. When his creation is finished, Yahweh strolls through the garden in the evening breeze. Yahweh converses with the new creatures and gives them a few rules. Later, when Yahweh, in anger at their disobedience, expels Adam and Eve from the garden, Yahweh fashions clothing for them out of animal skins. This biblical God, who walks on earth, talks to his creations, and works with his hands, is clearly a human being writ large.
Anthropomorphic gods were the norm in the ancient world. The Greek Zeus, the Roman Jupiter, and the Norse Odin were all powerful male Gods who were pictured in human form. They were full of human emotion, were easily angered, and were capable of capricious acts of violence toward human beings. For instance, J tells us later in Genesis that Yahweh, disgusted with the direction his creation had taken, destroyed most earthly creatures in a massive genocidal and speciecidal flood. (Genesis, chapters 7 and 8)
Nearly 2,600 years ago, a wandering Greek philosopher and poet, Xenophanes of Colophon (c. 570-475 BCE), suggested that we humans always imagine a God like us. He wrote that if horses and oxen had hands and could draw pictures, their gods would look remarkably like horses and oxen.
But if cattle and horses and lions had hands or could paint with their hands and create works such as men do, horses like horses and cattle like cattle also would depict the gods’ shapes and make their bodies of such a sort as the form they themselves have.
An anthropomorphic likeness is probably the first thing that most people envision when they think about God. The ‘old man in the sky’ is the picture that Michelangelo used on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Whether it is an angry old man or a kindly grandfather, this is the image of God from our childhood, and for many, it carries into adulthood as well. When Jesus taught his followers to pray to “our Father,” this solidified the visual image for most Christians.
a God who lives ‘up there’
Around 600 BCE, two hundred years after J wrote his creation narrative, another writer—known to scholars as ‘P’ or the Priestly writer—described a deity who dwells apart from the world. In P’s poem of creation, found in the first chapter of Genesis, we meet a God who operates on a cosmic scale and creates the universe with the spoken word. Instead of the name Yahweh, P refers to God by the Canaanite term Elohim. This image of an almighty God goes hand-in-hand with an equally ancient worldview of a three-tiered universe—heaven above, the earth in the middle, and the dwelling place of the dead below. In this creation story, however, God begins with a two-tiered world: the heavens in a domed layer above and the earth in a flat layer below. The dwelling place of the dead which lies under the earth, alternately known as Sheol, Hades, and Hell, evolved later in Jewish thought.
P tells us that God created heaven and earth from a pre-existent primordial watery chaos:
And Elohim said, “Let there be a dome [some texts read ‘firmament’] in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters. So Elohim made the dome and separated the waters which were under the dome from the waters which were above the dome. And it was so. Elohim called the dome Sky [some texts read ‘Heaven’].
And Elohim said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear.” And it was so. Elohim called the dry land Earth and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas. (Genesis 1:6-10)
A few verses later, God creates a variety of lights which he places in the heavenly dome—a greater light to rule the day and a lesser one to rule the night. Finally, God scatters a multitude of stars on the surface of the dome to twinkle at night.
Ancient civilizations believed that there were two primary bodies of water, one in the sky and one on the earth, and that something structural—a dome or firmament—was necessary to keep the water of the heavens (which fell as rain) separated from the waters of the earth (rivers, lakes and seas). Further, this dome was the structural support required for the movement of the sun, moon and stars above the earth. In early Mesopotamian thought, the earth was portrayed as a flat disk floating in a vast ocean. This is the same image portrayed in Genesis.
In addition to this primitive understanding of the nature of the universe, the two-tiered model was gradually identified with two aspects of reality, the natural below and the supernatural above. Parallel structures of power were seen to exist above and below the firmament. Just as an earthly king had a royal court filled with nobles, generals, priests, and servants, God was envisioned on a resplendent throne in the clouds surrounded by the supernatural creatures of a divine court—angels and archangels, seraphim and cherubim. When kings and their armies went to war, their national gods were imagined to battle each other in the sky with heavenly hosts or armies. The Hebrew Bible frequently refers to God as the Lord of Hosts (or Yahweh of Hosts) which means ‘Yahweh of the armies.’ For the ancients, the nation with the more powerful god determined the outcome of earthly affairs.
In later Jewish thought, a third tier was added below the earth. In Hebrew, it was called She’ol or Sheol—a place beneath the soil where both the bad and the good would go upon death. This is an obvious human conclusion since human bodies have been buried beneath the soil since Paleolithic times. Sheol is sometimes compared to Hades, the gloomy twilight afterlife of Greek mythology where people continued their existence as ‘shadows.’
In the Hebrew Bible, we find several instances of travel between the realms of heaven above and earth below. In a wilderness dream, the ancient patriarch Jacob envisioned a ladder connecting heaven and earth with angels climbing up and down. (Genesis 28:11-19) The story of Moses recounts that he climbed a tall mountain to approach God who had descended from the heavenly dwelling place in a cloud. (Exodus 19:1-25) And we are told the prophet Elijah ascended bodily into the skies above while still alive. (2 Kings, chapter 2)
In New Testament mythology, the travel between the three tiers of creation increases dramatically. Although the gospel of John does not actually say it, some interpreters of his writing suggest when John has Jesus refer to himself as the “bread of life,” he inferred that Jesus came down from heaven, as did manna in the desert to the early Hebrews. (John 6:31-51) Based on nothing more than this inference, this concept of Jesus’ descent from heaven was embodied in the fourth-century Nicene Creed. According to the Apostles’ Creed, after his death on a Friday, Jesus descended into Hades/Hell based on an obscure passage in the New Testament’s First Letter of Peter. (1 Peter 3:18-19) Although the four gospel accounts do not say anything about his descent from heaven at his birth or his descent into hell after his death, they do report that Jesus “rose” from his burial tomb on Sunday (which theoretically can be viewed as ascending from Sheol/Hades to earth). Later, Jesus ascended into the heavens. (Acts 1:6-12) At some point in the future, the church claims that Jesus will return by once again descending from the heavens. As Jesus comes down to the earth, the saints (both living and dead) will rise to greet him. (1 Thessalonians 4:15-17) Up and down, up and down, like an Otis elevator with three floors.
For a millennium and a half after the death of Jesus, Christians continued to believe in the literal reality of a three-tiered universe and a God ‘up there’ who is separate from us and our existence. Much of our theological language, including that of the fourth century creeds commonly used in churches today, still reflects this outmoded three-tiered flat-earth worldview.
a God who lives ‘out there’
In 1963, John Arthur Thomas Robinson (1919-1983), the Anglican bishop of Woolrich, a suburb south of London, published a small but controversial book titled Honest to God. In it, Robinson described a major theological shift which had occurred from a God ‘up there’ to a God ‘out there’ over the previous 500 years.
After the Copernican revolution in the sixteenth century, the three-tiered image of creation was gradually shattered. In 1514, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), the Polish astronomer, formulated the first explicitly heliocentric or sun-centered model of the solar system. ‘Up’ and ‘down’ no longer worked very effectively in relation to this new concept of the heavens and the earth.
Still, the advance of science has not stopped the church from continuing to use the ancient cosmology of a three-tiered universe. For many Christians, the language of the fourth-century creeds is no longer a literal reality but rather is accepted (or tolerated) as a poetic metaphor only. But this language restricts our thinking about God and makes it difficult for the church to progress beyond a pre-modern worldview in this increasingly postmodern world.
As John Robinson pointed out fifty years ago, the language of a three-tiered universe no longer works for many, even metaphorically. For instance, the idea of a Hell ‘down there’ has gradually diminished from the modern mind, because in the Copernican scheme we can no longer place it anywhere in the universe, as we understand it. Hell has no counterpart dimension for a heaven, which is now located somewhere ‘out there.’ The ancient language has begun to completely fall apart for most Christians. At least for those who give it any serious thought.