• The Problem with Yahweh #2

    My last post in this series looked at the idea that Yahweh, as the parochial Jewish God of a particular section of the Middle East in time, bears no resemblance to the God that Christians believe in, and is supposedly that exact same God. The Janus-styled god who appears to flip personality, characteristics and general existence at the turn of the New Testament, is fundamentally different from the present-day Christian God. We are all atheists on this god, except Christians don’t seem to realise it. They will mentally contort (see Paul Copan etc.) and wriggle, deny and obfuscate in order to admit it, but that’s psychology for you.

    In other words, in answer to Alvin Plantinga’s Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism, I am not sure we really do have reliable cognitive faculties…

    The idea of this post is to look at why Yahweh is so disconnected from present conceptions of God. In appealing to Jako Gericke’s great chapter “Can God exist if Yahweh doesn’t?” in John Loftus’s superb anthology The End of Christianity, I mentioned:

    The thesis states that there are many aspects of this God which root it within the contemporary culture and which are no longer adhered to:

    • Historically who Yahweh was
    • His body
    • His mind
    • His world

    Let’s look, then, at who Yahweh was in his historical context. And yes, I do mean his.

    The problem starts when there are multiple terms for ‘god’ in the Old Testament such that god and God confuse matters with a deal of equivocation. Indeed Yahweh was initially one of many gods before the title of God evolved to determine Yahweh in particular.

    In Deut 32:7-9 we have evidence that Yahweh was one of many gods.

     “Remember the days of old,
    Consider the years of all generations.
    Ask your father, and he will inform you,
    Your elders, and they will tell you.
    8(P)When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance,
    When He separated the sons of man,
    He set the boundaries of the peoples
    (Q)According to the number of the sons of Israel.
    9(R)For the LORD’S portion is His people;
    Jacob is the allotment of His inheritance.

    The problem is that in English, you can never see this, but in the original language, it is evident. This is because any word for anything that resembles a god becomes God or Lord or similar, with monotheistic inferences. However, in this passage ‘Most High’ is actually El Elyon, and ‘Lord’ is Yahweh. The god most high gives the 70 nations (as they believed) to his divine sons, or council, of which Yahweh is a member. Yahweh is given Israel to have dominion over. This is very explicit in the passage above. Eventually, the pantheon was streamlined to fewer gods, and combined El Elyon and Yahweh.

    In Daniel 7 (particularly 13-14) you have Yahweh, after defeating the monsters of the deep and dragons and so on, and he (One like the Son of Man) assumes a position in heaven next to El Elyon (Ancient of Days). Eventually, these two gods get combined, and Yahweh ‘consumes’ El Elyon’. This is reflected in Genesis 14 when the blessings indicate a double God blessing showing the streamlining. This is further shown in Psalm 82 when God topples the other gods from their thrones and condemns them to Sheol where their stumbling causes earthquakes.

    And then there is the Divine Council and so on. Really, the Jewish and Christian religions are so incredibly obviously ‘anthropogenically’ evolved that it is amazing that anyone believes that they are true history. Or believe that they can harmonise all the totally contradictory passages like the ones above to fit in with a monotheistic outlook.

    It was clear that there was a monolatry where Yahweh was not the main god which then evolved into a bi-theism that then evolved into a monotheism.

    As Gericke states in p. 133:

    I am not denying monotheistic beliefs in the Old Testament, but the beliefs of one biblical author on this matter often contradicted those of another. The translations obscure this, and I offer a literal rendering of the Hebrew:

    “…On all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am Yahweh.” (Exod 12:12)

    “When Elyon gave to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of men, he fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the sons of  El. But Yahweh’s portion ishis people; Jacob his measured out inheritance.” (Deut 32:8-9, about which see Hector Avalos’s chapter)

    “Will you not possess what Chemosh your god gives you to possess? And all that Yahweh our god has dispossessed before us, we will possess” (Judg 11:24)

    “God stands up in the council of the gods, he judges in the midst of the gods; I have said myself, you are all gods, and you are sons of the most high (god)” (Psalm 82:6)

    “For who is like Yahweh among the sons of the gods” (Ps 89:7)

    “For Yahweh is a great god and a great king over all the gods.” (Ps 95:3)

    “All the gods bow down before him “(Ps 97:7)

    “Then he will act, with the aid of a foreign god” (Dan 11:39)

    These texts only make sense on the assumption that they (in contrast to other texts) assume there are other gods. It is no credit to Yahweh if he is fighting against, king of, jealous of, judging or greater than entities that do not exist. Of course many reinterpretations of these passages are available in apologetic literature but these are motivated by dogma more than the need to accept the Bible on its own terms.

    As Gericke goes on to say, even other divine messengers get called god in the OT: it seems every demon, counsellor and king was in on the action (! Sam 28, Deut 32, Ps 45 etc.).

    You see, “Yahweh” gets recast as “God” which means the term “The Lord your God” seems fine, but when it is translated “Yahweh your God” the meaning is utterly changed, as now we are faced with the claim that Yahweh is your god, as opposed to Ba’al or some such other local rival. As Vorjack over at Unreasonable Faith states:

    The early Israelites likely had a popular religion that maintained a lot of the old religions from Canaan and the surrounding regions.

    This folk religion seemed to have a place for the gods Baal and El. Baal was the Canaanite god of thunder, lightning and rain. El was the supreme Canaanite deity. But gods are fluid things. Over time, the distinctions between gods can fade. It looks like Baal may have supplanted El, and then YHWH supplanted Baal, as depicted in Judges and Isaiah.

    During this process YHWH picked up the characteristics of his two rivals. The word Baal became a title, meaning “lord” or “master.” El became a generic word for God, which shows up even in the name of the nation: Isra-El. YHWH became the supreme deity, and as part of the spoils he gained a consort: Asherah, the wife of the supreme deity.

    And now it is time for Yahweh’s missus: Asherah, the divine consort.

    “As for the word which you have spoken to us in the name of the LORD, we will not listen to you. But we will do everything that we have vowed, burn incense to the queen of heaven and pour out libations to her, as we did, both we and our fathers, our kings and our princes, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for then we had plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no evil. But since we left off burning incense to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by the sword and by famine.” (Jer. 44:16-18)

    In fact, Jeremiah 7:18 has Asherah receiving offerings of cake. Mmm. As wiki states:

    Between the 10th century BC and the beginning of their exile in 586 polytheism was normal throughout Israel;[9] it was only after the exile that worship of Yahweh alone became established, and possibly only as late as the time of the Maccabees (2nd century BC) that monotheism became universal among Jews.[10][11] Some biblical scholars believe that Asherah at one time was worshiped as the consort of Yahweh, the national God of Israel.[10] There are references to the worship of numerous gods throughout Kings, Solomon builds temples to many gods and Josiah is reported as cutting down the statues of Asherah in the temple Solomon built for Yahweh. Josiah’s grandfather Manasseh had erected this statue. (2 Kings 21:7) Further evidence includes, for example, an 8th-century combination of iconography and inscriptions discovered at Kuntillet Ajrud in the northern Sinai desert[12] where a storage jar shows three anthropomorphic figures and an inscription that refers to “Yahweh … and his Asherah”.[13][14] The inscriptions found invoke not only Yahweh but El and Baal, and two include the phrases “Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah” and “Yahweh of Teman and his Asherah.”[15] There is general agreement that Yahweh is being invoked in connection with Samaria (capital of the kingdom of Israel) and Teman (in Edom); this suggests that Yahweh had a temple in Samaria, and raises a question over the relationship between Yahweh and Kaus, the national god of Edom.[16] The “Asherah” is most likely a cultic object, although the relationship of this object (a stylised tree perhaps) to Yahweh and to the goddess Asherah, consort of El, is unclear.[16] It has been suggested that the Israelites might consider Asherah as a consort of Baal due to the anti-Asherah ideology which was influenced by the Deuteronomistic History at the later period of Monarchy.[17]

    Further evidence includes the many female figurines unearthed in ancient Israel, supporting the view that Asherah functioned as a goddess and consort of Yahweh and was worshiped as theQueen of Heaven.[13]

    Asherah poles, which were sacred trees or poles, are mentioned many times in the Bible

    Vorjack sees the demise of Asherah in these terms:

    One thing does seem clear: the fall of Northern Israel to the Assyrians in the 8th century put the fear of some God into the rulers of the comparatively small kingdom of Judah. Seeing your larger, more successful sibling get wiped out will do that to you. In the late 7th century, King Josiah decided that he’d had enough of the polytheism stuff and engages in drastic reforms:

    “And he brought out the Ashe’rah from the house of the LORD, outside Jerusalem, to the brook Kidron, and burned it at the brook Kidron, and beat it to dust and cast the dust of it upon the graves of the common people.” (2 Kings 23:6)

    Josiah cleared out the temple, kicked out the temple prostitutes, destroyed the mountaintop alters outside of Jerusalem, and “rediscovered” the book of monotheistic law that became Deuteronomy. Having finally made Israel right with God, he promptly gets executed by the Egyptians. A generation after his reforms, Judah falls to the Babylonians…

    Not an auspicious start to biblical relationships. Asherah didn’t completely disappear, however. When Moses is instructed by God to make a menorah to light the temple, it is described as a stylized almond tree (Exodus 25.31-39). The biblical historianMargaret Barker suspects that this sacred tree figure was one of the symbols of Asherah. So the menorah may be one last lingering trace of the bible’s first couple.

    The point seems to be clear. That whilst these facts and claims seem to point to an obvious evolution of the Yahwistic notion of God, it doesn’t invalidate it per se. However, concerning probabilities, what scenario better explains this evolution: atheism or Christianity? I would wager atheism. Not only that, but, as posited, the Christian notion of God on a day-to-day basis is so far removed from this tribal god as to show that Christians no longer really believe this side of God, no longer believe in Yahweh as HE was.

    The gender-neutral idea of the philosophical God of, say, Aquinas, or more more theologian-philosophers is a far cry from this emergent deity, once part of a pantheon, once courting a ladyfriend. So on this point, we’re all atheists together…


    Category: AtheismBiblical ExegesisFeaturedGod's Characteristics


    Article by: Jonathan MS Pearce

    One Pingback/Trackback

    • Peter

      I often wondered how something like this (a shift to monolatry) might happen but it seems to have happened in other cultures as well. Seems to have something to do with Kings coming to believe that they have a unique relationship with one god and trying to reward this favouritism. I read in the new book “The Ark before Noah” that the Babylonians moved towards seeing Marduk as the one true god under Nebuchadnezzer II (rather than him just being the king of the gods). The author writes “For the best part of three millennia, the cultures of ancient Mesopotamia had served a profusion of gods great and small, but in the period of these Neo-Babylonian kings we can see a new monotheistic framework evolving out of this rich pantheistic background.” and that there is for example a tablet which starts identifying minor gods as different aspects of Marduk (“Enlil is Marduk of lordship and deliberation, Adad is Marduk of rain” for example). Apparently the later king Nabonidus then did a similar thing elevating the moon god Sin. I guess there is a similar thing with Akhenaten in Egypt.

      • OOH! –

        1) let me know what the book is like
        2) could you, pretty please, write a guest post review of it? You know you want to…

        I posted a couple of Guardian articles on the book.


        • Peter

          1) The books very interesting. It’s not just about the Ark story but goes into the the history of cuneiform and sumerian culture (and how we know about it).

          2) Sure, that sounds like fun! I’ll try and throw something together.

          • Good man! It’s one I’d like on my reading list, but my present reading list takes me up until 2025…

    • In Deut 32:7-9 we have evidence that Yahweh was one of many gods. . . . The god most high gives the 70 nations (as they believed) to his divine sons, or council, of which Yahweh is a member.

      The Bible equates Yahweh with El Elyon (Gen. 14:22; 2 Sam. 22:14; Pss. 21:7; 83:18; 91:9; 92:1) so it is not possible to maintain that the deity El Elyon gives a separate deity, Yahweh, a nation. The divine council consists of heavenly beings but they are not equals with Yahweh (e.g., Ps. 29:1; 89:6-7).

      Eventually, these two gods get combined, and Yahweh ‘consumes’ El Elyon’.

      Since you already admit that Yahweh is El Elyon in some passages of the Bible, how do you know Yahweh is not El Elyon in all passages of the Bible? None of your examples require that Yahweh and El Elyon are different deities. It sounds like you came up with an hypothesis to explain away the problems with your interpretation of Deut. 32.

      These texts only make sense on the assumption that they (in contrast to other texts) assume there are other gods.

      To take the first example, Exodus 12:12, the judgment on the gods of Egypt consists of Yahweh having his way with Egypt. In other words, the gods of Egypt are no gods at all. Yahweh is God.

      It is also strange that Daniel 11:39 is supposed to be an example of polytheism. Even on a traditional dating this is an exilic writing. Skeptics are likely to date it to the second century BC. Such an interpretation undercuts the earlier claim that polytheism evolved into monotheism, for here we have an allegedly polytheistic text being revered by monotheistic Jews.

      That whilst these facts and claims seem to point to an obvious evolution of the Yahwistic notion of God, it doesn’t invalidate it per se.

      We need to distinguish between the teachings of the Bible and the practices of the ancient Israelites. The Bible itself makes it clear that the ancient Israelites engaged in idolatry. This does not mean the authors of the Bible endorsed polytheism at any point in time.

      • All of the Israelites were polytheists at one point. Yahweh evolved from one of many gods, to the only god over time, especially after Yahweh’s divorce from Ashera.

      • Hi Jayman

        I will reply to your points in another post.


    • Luke Breuer

      You seem to assume that the Bible cannot be a record of Yahweh making himself known to a people-group in a gradual fashion, slowly altering their conception of him and finally appearing as Jesus. See, for example, Peter Enns’ Inerrancy: I think someone forgot to tell the Bible. In order to fully make your point, you would seem to have to argue one of two points:

           (1) There is no continuity between Genesis and Revelation.
           (2) An omni-god would not work gradually.

      To illustrate “no continuity”, consider the possibility that e.g. the fine-structure constant is slowly changing. This can happen in such a way that we detect it. Likewise, I think that there is a way that people’s conception of Yahweh can change that can (i) be detected; (ii) be connected to previous conceptions. In other words, there are no “jump discontinuities” between Yahweh and Jesus, no grue or bleen.

      • Phasespace

        Maybe, but this smells like post-hoc rationalization to me (not that a people’s conception of God might have gradually changed, but that Yahweh is responsible for the changes). I would say that such changes are more plausibly explained by changes in cultural norms.

        • Luke Breuer

          How would you be able to tell the difference? I suggest Keith Ward’s The Case for Religion:

          Religion does seem to be partly a social construct. But it also seems to be something more, and that ‘more’ is the most important part of it. (70)

          It is a common error to argue that something supervening upon some microstructure makes it irrelevant to talk about it at the higher level of abstraction. To combat this, I suggest reading Massimo Pigliucci’s Essays on emergence, part I.

          • Phasespace

            Oh, I whole heartedly agree! Figuring out how to tell the difference is, indeed, the crux of the problem.

            My point, ultimately, is that I think we are better off erring on the side of the null hypothesis in this case. The key word in your Ward quote is the word “seems.”

            I’m just going to leave it at that, since the post is really more about biblical interpretation… which is way outside my expertise.

            I can tell you all about why the fine structure constant probably isn’t changing though! :)

            • Luke Breuer

              Even if the fine structure constant isn’t changing, there is reason to believe that the physical constants can vary from point to point in spacetime. See Sean Carroll’s work, for example. It’s really cool stuff.

              As to accepting the null hypothesis, I’m not sure there is a problem with some people accepting it, and other people trying to find the critical difference. This establishes a tension, and is in my opinion the best way to deal with confirmation bias: intersubjectivity. The idea that any one person ought to hold all sides of the issue in his/her head constantly (an idea probably held by Karl Popper) is, in my opinion, ludicrous. Instead, we can work together.

              I will point out that some people seem to actively believe the null hypothesis, to the extent that any and all countervailing evidence is ignored. You see this with creationists, you see it in Max Planck’s “Science advances one funeral at a time.”, and you see it elsewhere, as well. I’m currently reading Divine Intervention: Metaphysical and Epistemological Puzzles, in the hope of finding a decent model of divine action which is actually testable.

              I do worry that God’s chosen method of action—that of not insisting on his own way—is undetectable by some metaphysical views. One way of viewing all of the “evil actions” in the OT is to see God as colliding evil against evil, causing self-annihilation, or at least reduction in total evil. Habakkuk is an excellent example of this. So when Jesus says this,

              And if Satan casts out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then will his kingdom stand?

              , he means that it is God who “casts out Satan”, because Satan doesn’t self-destruct of his own will! Ultimately, death will swallow up death and go poof, as gloriously illustrated in George Herbert’s A Dialogue-Anthem:

                                            Christian, Death

              Chr.   ALAS, poor Death ! where is thy glory ?
                        Where is thy famous force, thy ancient sting ?
              Dea.   Alas, poor mortal, void of story !
                        Go spell and read how I have killed thy King.

              Chr.   Poor Death ! and who was hurt thereby ?
                        Thy curse being laid on Him makes thee accurst.
              Dea.   Let losers talk, yet thou shalt die ;
                        These arms shall crush thee.

              Chr.                                                 Spare not, do thy worst.
                        I shall be one day better than before ;
                        Thou so much worse, that thou shalt be no more.

      • Your version of Yahweh appears to be intrinsically temporal. So has Yahweh according to you been changed forever? Or did he start changing at some point in the past?

        • Luke Breuer

          I’ve not thought about it as much as you’d like. I just started chapter 4 of Evan Fales’ Divine Intervention: Metaphysical and Epistemological Puzzles, titled Trouble with Time, with first section titled Time and the Mechanism of Divine Causation. Really The Thinker, check this book out of your library if you really want answers to these questions. There are much better answers out there than I can give you. I haven’t thought much about God & time, because I haven’t really cared. I still don’t care a whole lot, and you aren’t giving me any good reasons to care.

          • This is the problem with you. You haven’t even thought about your own worldview. That’s why I don’t really take you seriously and that’s why when you espouse some part of your worldview, I immediately can see the problems with it – problems that you “don’t care a whole lot” about. Personally, from what I know of your worldview, it makes no sense to me. That’s why I bug you with these questions, But you don’t care.

            • Luke Breuer


              You haven’t even thought about your own worldview.

              Translation: I haven’t thought deeply about the issues that interest The Thinker.

              That’s why I don’t really take you seriously

              Translation: it is better to make bold claims not supported by the evidence (such as the majority of Christians are behind some vague form of DCT) than admit when I don’t have the requisite evidence to make a strong, precise claim.

              I immediately can see the problems with it

              Translation: I quickly see ugliness and wrongness, but I’m pretty unable to make things more beautiful if they aren’t already gorgeous.

              But you don’t care.

              Translation: If I don’t care deeply about the issues The Thinker cares deeply about, then I “don’t care” about my worldview in general.

            • Haha Luke, I love your sense of humor and sarcasm.

              Translation: I haven’t thought deeply about the issues that interest The Thinker.

              No. You haven’t thought deeply about the most basic challenges that could be raised by anyone to your beliefs.

              Translation: it is better to make bold claims not supported by the evidence (such as the majority of Christians are behind some vague form of DCT) than admit when I don’t have the requisite evidence to make a strong, precise claim.

              There’s no reason to deny that most Christians are behind some vague form of DCT. Even you hold to “some vague form of DCT” you just don’t admit it because you also realize how stupid DCT looks on paper.

              Translation: I quickly see ugliness and wrongness, but I’m pretty unable to make things more beautiful if they aren’t already gorgeous.

              Haha nice try. I see glaring contradictions and errors that you don’t even bother with trying to investigate. I’ve considered a Christian worldview from a philosophical and scientific perspective and I get cognitive dissonance. You just brush off every problem like its dandruff off your shoulders. I’m a thinker, I can’t do that.

              Translation: If I don’t care deeply about the issues The Thinker cares deeply about, then I “don’t care” about my worldview in general.

              See my response to your first quote. I’m just the messenger.

          • You kind of remind me of someone using the stork-theory to explain where babies come from.

            Q. Where do babies come from?

            A. Storks bring them.

            Q. Where do the storks get them from?

            A. I’ve not thought about it as much as you’d like, because I haven’t really cared. I still don’t care a whole lot, and you aren’t giving me any good reasons to care.

            But apparently we should all take your stork-theory seriously.

            • Luke Breuer

              You’d really rather make yourself feel good by uttering crap like this than have a conversation with me? Ok, talk to you once in a while then, if at all. Seriously, do you realize how much of a dick you are being? Do you have any conception of this whatsoever?

        • Void L. Walker

          I just read your post on the incompatibility of evolution and God, very nice and in depth. Cheers

      • josh

        (1) There is a continuity, it is the historical path from ancient Middle Eastern religions through various phases of Judaism and on into Christianity, which itself evolved. The author of Revelation surely had access to Genesis, or at least was part of a culture that included it.

        (2) An omni-god wouldn’t work at all, and the most obvious problem is not the ‘gradually’ per se but the misinformation which would constitute a lack of perfect benevolence.

    • Void L. Walker

      Jon, I was wondering if you’ve ever done a post regarding theistic evolution? To me (as I’ve told Luke before), evolution is far from compatible with any concept of God (one salient exception being a Deistic God).

    • Pingback: The Problem with Yahweh #3 (Reply to Jayman) | A Tippling Philosopher()

    • Tara Farhid

      the key to the evolution of Judaism from monolatrism or polytheism to monotheism can be traced in the second temple period and Babylonian exile. see this:

      also see this:

      The same prophet celebrates Yahweh for the first time in Jewish literature as Creator, as Ahura Mazda had been celebrated by Zoroaster: ‘I, Yahweh, who created all things . . . I made the earth, and created man on it . . . . Let the skies rain down justice . . . I, Yahweh, have created it’ (Isaiah 44. 24, 4 5 . 8 , 1 2). The parallels with Zoroastrian doctrine and scripture are so striking that these verses have been taken to represent the first imprint of that influence which Zoroastrianism was to exert so powerfully on postexilic Judaism.

      Mary Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices
      (London, 2001), pg. 52

      M. Boyce “Achaemenid Religion.”
      In Encyclopaedia Iranica, http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/achaemenid-religion

    • Arthur Zetes

      Here’s the thing, though.

      Because someone’s understanding of X has changed, doesn’t mean X has changed.

      If I stand really close to an elephant so that I can only see and touch part of it, my understanding of that elephant is going to change once I back up.

      Looking at the bible, and I’ve been doing a lot of research on this, this is what I see:

      There is one God who consistently reveals himself to people.
      Those people consistently misunderstand who he is, relating him to their nearest point of reference.

      This is why Moses focuses on one god, whereas the other’s mistaken him as Baal and Ashteroth (That’s why they build the golden calf and worship it).

      This is why Elijah and Elisha focus on the only God, whereas everyone else sees him as just another form of Baal.

      This is why Jeremiah says to worship God only, whereas everyone else worships him and his consort, provoking him to anger.

      This is also why the old testament uses the term “gods,” because to those people they really were real gods and it was the message that they most easily understood and grasped.

      As time moves on, the image of God get’s clearer and clearer. But it doesn’t happen overnight.