Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Birth of Biblical Monotheism from Canaanite Polytheism, Part 2


For those who would like to listen, I’m going to tell you the second part of a long story, a story which I began in the previous post. Pour yourself another glass of pomegranate juice and read away.

The Hebrew God sends Abram (aka Abraham) a vision.
From Die Bibel in Bildern, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1860


The Israelites’ Beginning
The emerging Israelites lived in a more hostile environment than their Phoenician brothers on the northern coast. The Israelites were rural, pastoral, and often nomadic, trying to survive in an inhospitable place. And something strange happened: they became increasingly monotheistic. No one knows quite exactly when or why, and opinions depend on who you ask. According to their own narrative, Abraham had a vision that he should only worship one god, El. El is the original chief god of the Canaanite pantheon—earlier called Ilu in Ugaritic. Ilu the compassionate never harms people in the Ugaritic narratives, and generally doesn’t punish people. He has many epithets, some of which, like “Father of Years,” get used in biblical narrative.
                By Moses’s time, the understanding of that god changes—it is also arguable that the god himself changes or that they are worshipping a different god now whether or not they are aware of it. This change comes complete with a tale where their god reintroduces himself to Moses at the burning bush. He gives a new name: Yahweh. The name Yahweh is linguistically related to Yah and Yam. Yam, also Yammu, reigned as the sea god in the Canaanite pantheon. Ugaritic tales characterize him as powerful, primeval, primordial, destructive, and power-hungry, and he carries the epithet “Judge River” perhaps indicative of water ordeals. Yammu cares not at all for people, and Baʻlu Haddi (Baʻal Hadad) ends up fighting him for dominion over the earth. Baʻlu’s victory would ensure right rainfall and the wellbeing of humanity while Yammu’s victory would cause flood, chaos, and destruction.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Birth of Biblical Monotheism from Canaanite Polytheism, Part 1


For those who would like to listen, I’m going to tell you a long story, so you might as well grab a glass of pomegranate juice. Indeed this story will take place in two parts with the second part provided later.

The Polytheists
This story takes place in the sands of time, at least 3200 years ago, in a thriving metropolis called Ugarit which although huge in its time is comparable to our small towns of today. This is a time before Christianity, before Judaism, but roughly about the same time as the Egyptian heretic Akhenaton. In this city of Ugarit, scribes wrote of the deities and the heroes. We know the name of one of the scribes: Ilimilku--whose name means “the god Ilu (El) is king.” He and his fellow scribes wrote of gods and goddesses like Ilu (known later in Hebrew as El), Athiratu (known later in Hebrew as Asherah), ‘Athtartu (known later in Hebrew as “Ashtoreth”), and Baʻlu Haddi (also known as “Baʻal”), and many more—a careful reading of the Torah or the biblical Old Testament, and you will see their names sprinkled throughout. Scholars consider Ugarit as indicative of a larger Canaanite culture: the land of Canaan was never a cohesive whole nation or empire, but a collection of sometimes affiliated/sometimes unaffiliated city states that shared a common culture and similar languages.