Saturday, 2 July 2011

A family of Old Testament gods?

Following on from the popular series of posts about the Historicity of Jesus, a few weeks ago, this is the first of a mini-series of posts on the topic of the origins of the  god of the Old Testament.  This has been inspired by many things that I have read, heard and watched in the last year.

Biblical scholars would probably argue with everything I am going to say.  But then again, those biblical scholars would argue with everything that their co-scholars would say too.  They are professionals at it.

The more I read about the Old Testament, the more I realise how inconsistent it is, how a monster is presented as a being who deserves to be worshiped, and how it is not even very clear whether he was there on his own or part a a family of supernatural beings.

Let us start with the text of Psalm 82, taken from the 400-year-old King James Bible.

1 God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.
2 How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked? Selah.
3 Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy.
4 Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked.
5 They know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in darkness: all the foundations of the earth are out of course.
6 I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.
7 But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.
8 Arise, O God, judge the earth: for thou shalt inherit all nations.

So that makes perfect sense then?

Omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent god is one of a family of gods, albeit seemingly mortal gods? At least he appears to be the most important of them in this account of his status.  It is not clear whether his own immortality is assured though, or indeed whether he is 'the Most High' referred to in verse 6. 

The idea that the gods are all children of 'the most high' is one that appears in other texts of the period (and of course earlier). The Canaanite high god El presided over an assembly in just this way, so the psalm might be understood as a bold polemic against Canaanite religion, but it is not obvious why it is then written in this way in a book that was specifically not about El, but about Yahweh.

These points make me start to wonder a few things:
1/  Did the (many) writers of the books of the Old Testament know which god they really worshiped?  After all, use of his name was (shall we say) somewhat deprecated.
2/  Was their god Yahweh really just the Canaanite god El in another 'form'?
3/  Why did Baal have such an effective way of intervening in Israelite life from time to time?  Was he part of the 'congregation of the mighty' too?
4/  What should we make of this family in the context of the stories about Asherah?

There is one thing for sure though.  Interpretation of the texts of the time will never be easy.  The stories told in them are the myths of the bronze age, told and retold and eventually written down in some form.  The only thing that I expect to learn from this subject is that a god very much like Yahweh existed before the Israelites 'found' him.

Related posts coming over the next few days:


Anonymous said...


Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou from Exeter University did a series on the BBC last year which would seemingly agree on your thoughts of El etc. Well worth a watch! :)


Plasma Engineer said...

That was an excellent programme that I have linked from another post at some point. Thanks for adding it here too. Mea culpa,(non-religiously).