God’s Life Story

When people give thought to the word ‘God’, they may well have sophisticated notions about its meaning, and might use such words as infinite, eternal, all-powerful and so on. But let’s step back a bit, and focus on the Jewish-Christian God. If we journey back in time, we discover that he has a ‘life history’ which began its development many centuries ago. 

The first mention of Israel occurs on a stone slab on which Pharaoh Merneptah (1213 – 1203 BCE) claimed, “Canaan has been plundered .. Israel is laid waste and his seed is not.” The Egyptian word used for ‘Israel’ doesn’t indicate a nation as such, but a collection of people sharing a common ethnic background. Recent archeology has discovered that, during the 13th century BCE, when city states on the Mediterranean coast suffered hard times, displaced people began to settle in the central hill-country of Canaan, living by subsistence farming in small villages. 

So it seems that the earliest descendants of those who became ‘Israel’ were not invading, conquering incomers, but re-settled native Canaanites who followed Canaanite religion. (Later on, they were joined by a like-minded group who’d undergone an ‘exodus’ from forced labour in Egypt, and who believed in a god called Yahweh. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves).

Following the discovery of buried tablets at Ras Shamra (an ancient port city in North Syria) we have a good understanding of Canaanite beliefs. And it’s clear from page after page in the Hebrew Bible, that it took centuries for the Israelite ‘man and woman in the street’ finally to leave these beliefs behind, despite repeated denunciatory onslaughts from scandalised prophets and priests.

The chief Canaanite god was called El and so, unsurprisingly, the name El or Elohim (a plural of majesty followed by a singular verb) was used by the Israelites. It occurs over 2,500 times in the Hebrew Bible. It’s found in the name of Isra-el itself, in place names like Beth-el; angels’ names like Rapha-el; and people’s names such as Micha-el. Quod erat demonstrandum! 

El had, as his ‘wife’, a goddess called Asherah and, in later times, after Israel’s God had begun also to be called ‘Yahweh’, an 8th century BCE inscription found in the Sinai desert, refers to “Yahweh and his Asherah”. According to 2 Kings 23:14, statues of Asherah were installed in the Jerusalem Temple. There are indeed, innumerable references to “Asherah” in the Hebrew Bible, but English Bible translations avoid using the name of the Goddess, and substitute the words ‘sacred tree’ or ‘grove’ instead. Maybe it’s time she was brought out of hiding, and given her name and place.

So then, at the beginning of the ‘biography’ of Israel’s God’, he was called El or Elohim and (whether we like it or not) had a goddess wife named Asherah. How many other gods and goddesses, then, did the early Israelites believe in, and how and when did the name Yahweh make its appearance?

[ Image : raymondusrex – WordPress.com ]

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