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The Levantines had a pantheon that included the father god, El (who the Greeks associated with Cronus); the favored son of the father god, Ba’al (which means “lord” and is a euphemism for his sacred name, Hadad, which only his priests were allowed to say—a tradition later taken up by the Jewish people concerning their deity); and the god of chaos, destruction, and the stormy sea, YHW/Yaw/Yam (who was closest to the devil character that came about in Christian mythology but more so Thor in Norse mythology). It is thought that the proto-Israelites were henotheistic, and some have suggested that they believed Yhw had been assigned as their protector god by El. Ba’al was resented by Yhw(h) because Ba’al was the favored son, and this rivalry lead to Ba’al becoming a god particularly opposed by Yahweh in Jewish mythology. Over time El and Yahweh seem to have been fused in the Jewish pantheon. In the first story of creation in Genesis, Elohim (the plural of El) is said to have created the world. In the second, Elohim Yahweh is said to have created the world. El’s consort was Athirat, a mother goddess who, like Yaw, was also associated with the sea. Interestingly enough, Athirat was also referred to as Elat, the feminine of El, and Elohim, being plural, may refer to “El and Elat,” who created humanity male and female in their own image (Genesis 1:26-27).

Painted inscriptions from the 8th century BCE refer to “Yahweh of Samaria / the guardian and his Asherah”—and Asherah is generally taken to be the same figure as Athirat. This would seem to indicate that the figure once associated as El’s wife and Yaw’s mother had become Yahweh’s wife (the Yahweh mentioned hear is specifically tied to Yaw based on the depictions that accompany the inscription). Judaism (as a larger entity, that would include both the descendants of the Atenists and the tribes of Canaan) did not establish itself as monotheistic and Yahweh did not become their sole god until at least King Josiah, who reigned as king of Judah from around 639 BCE-608 BCE.

The biblical accounts seem to suggest that the people and god of “Moses” (said to be from Egypt) and the people and god of “Abraham” (associated with the Levantine region in general) were initially different and only later came to be regarded as one. Karen Armstrong, in her epic book A History of God, gives us insight into this matter:

“The Genesis account of Abraham and his immediate descendants may indicate that there were three main waves of early Hebrew settlement in Canaan, the modern Israel…The third wave of Hebrew settlement occurred in about 1200 BCE when tribes who claimed to be descendants of Abraham arrived in Canaan from Egypt. They said that they had been enslaved by the Egyptians but had been liberated by a deity called Yahweh, who was the god of their leader, Moses. After they had forced their way into Canaan, they allied themselves with the Hebrews there and became known as the people of Israel…The biblical account was written down centuries later, however, in about the eighth century BCE, though it certainly drew on earlier narrative sources” (11-12).

“Did Abraham worship the same God as Moses or did he know him by a different name?…It is highly likely that Abraham’s God was El, the High God of Canaan. The deity introduces himself to Abraham as El Shaddai (El of the Mountain), which was one of El’s traditional titles” (14).

“The Israelites called Yahweh 'the God of our fathers,' yet it seems that he may have been quite a different deity from El, the Canaanite High God worshiped by the patriarchs…In all his early appearances to Moses, Yahweh insists repeatedly and at some length that he is indeed the God of Abraham, even though he had originally been called El Shaddai. This insistence may preserve the distant echoes of a very early debate about the identity of the God of Moses…In pagan antiquity, gods were often merged and amalgamated, or the gods of one locality accepted as identical with the god of another people” (20-21).

Combined with our previous discussion of the Exodus, all this seems to suggest that the Jewish god and people are a result of the adherents of Atenism having come to Canaan and married with the cultures therein (though the actual events would be somewhat different from Armstrong's biblically inspired account). For whatever reason, the Atenists seem to have at some point come to associate their god with Yaw—given that Yahweh is the name the Hebrew god seems to be most associated with. Though over time, the figure of their one god seems to have absorbed characteristics of all four gods mentioned (Yaw, El, Asherah, and Ba'al Hadad) as well as any number of other deities.

This discussion of the possible origin and evolution of the Jewish god is very tentative. We don't as of yet have good enough information on this issue to say anything too specific with any great deal of certainty. But from all of this, one thing would seem fairly clear: the concept of the Jewish god didn't fall out of heaven, but rather was fashioned here on earth.

Do a Google book search for Did God Have a Wife? by Syro-Palestinian archaeologist and biblical scholar Dr. William G. Dever. Specifically, check out the discussion of painted inscriptions from pages 162-168.

If you identify with the message of this article, please email it to people, tell your friends, even print out copies to pass around. Together we can raise awareness. Thank you.
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Ben Dench graduated valedictorian of his class from The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey in the Spring Semester of 2007 with a B.A. in philosophy (his graduation speech, which received high praise, is available on YouTube). He is currently (more...)
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