God’s Life Story (ii)

A previous post noted that the first Israelites were Canaanites, and so their chief god was called El or Elohim (as in the name Isra-el). How many other gods and goddesses did they follow? The answer is, lots! Unsurprisingly, the Hebrew Bible doesn’t go into details, but frequently denounces Israelites who followed the weather/fertility god Baal and his consort Astarte. 2 Kings 23 likewise condemns their worship of Chemosh and Milcom, and acknowledges the existence of the valley near Jerusalem where Israelites sacrificed their children to the god Moloch, burning them in his fire.

Like surrounding peoples, Canaanites had many deities because of their vulnerability to potentially harmful forces of nature, as well as unpredictable attacks from plundering neighbours. If rainfall, fertility, droughts, famines, plagues, locust swarms, and victory over attackers were all controlled by specific deities, it made sense to worship and placate all of them. This was their version of ‘comprehensive insurance cover’, the one way to safeguard against all possible eventualities. That’s how things would’ve been when these descendants of Israel re-settled from the Canaanite coastal ‘city-states’ into the hill-country.

Around 1250 BCE, however, during the reign of Ramses II, a gang of forced labourers escaped from Egypt, headed north and eventually, being Semites, were accepted as fellow re-settlers. They brought their tale of daring escape, and of recapture narrowly averted. This story began to catch the imagination of others, just as that of the Mayflower Pilgrims did in the USA. They also brought their belief in Yahweh, and a new god was always welcome to make his particular contribution to the large family of potentially supportive and protective deities.

In the Hebrew Bible, Yahweh is indeed said to emerge northwards from the Sinai desert via Midian (cf. Moses’ “burning bush”) and Edom. Deuteronomy 33:2 says, “Yahweh came from Sinai”. Judges 5:4 says he, “advanced from the country of Edom” and “the earth trembled”. Originating in a volcanic region, Yahweh was a fire-and-smoke mountain deity. He appeared “by day in a pillar of cloud, and by night in a pillar of fire” (Exodus 13:21) and his presence on Mount Sinai was accompanied by roaring thunder, lightning flashes and earthquakes. He’s later pictured as the bringer of fertilising rain, but also of ferocious storms, as befits a god ‘strong and mighty in battle’. 

Around 1250 BCE then, while most Israelites worshipped El, Baal and company, a newly arrived group began to ‘fly a flag’ for Yahweh. As their exodus story increasingly caught the general imagination, so did a growing interest in what this Yahweh had to offer. So unless we choose to dismiss 200 years of historical, textual and archeological scholarship, we have to let go of any idealised picture of Yahweh being Israel’s god from the beginning. One Hebrew Bible source claims he was, but another source acknowledges that Yahweh was unknown to Israel’s ancestors. His place was not fully, finally and exclusively secured until the 7th century BCE.

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