Abraham the Polytheist?

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More interesting thoughts from Karen Armstrong’s A History of God. In discussing the origins of monotheism, she presents a more nuanced view than what I learned growing up. I always assumed that while a lot of the early figures in Genesis (like Adam and Noah) knew God, by the time of Abraham most people were polytheists, and Abraham correctly recognized that there was only one God. (All of this assumes that these figures were actual people and not legends. Adam and Noah are certainly legendary, since there was no first man, and no Flood, while Abraham’s historicity is disputable, though somewhat irrelevant.)

Armstrong’s view is based partly on the different names and actions recorded for God in the Pentateuch. Because the Pentateuch came from several different sources (the Documentary Hypothesis) that were later edited together, we can overlook the differences between the God of the J (Jahwist), E (Elohist), and other later sources. The similarities between some of the actions and attributes ascribed to these gods and those used to describe other ancient gods can be striking. What is the better conclusion, that Abraham and subsequent monotheists recognized that these attributes all pointed to a deity who was there all along, or that Abraham and his fellows were very much a product of their times, and we reinterpret them based on later Jewish, Christian or Islamic understandings of God? The line between monotheism and polytheism really isn’t quite so clear. Armstrong writes:

We are so familiar with the Bible story and the subsequent history of Israel that we tend to project our knowledge of later Jewish religion back onto these early historical personages. Accordingly, we assume that the three patriarchs of Israel—Abraham, his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob—were monotheists, that they believed in only one God. This does not seem to have been the case. Indeed, it is probably more accurate to call these early Hebrews pagans who shared many of the religious beliefs of their neighbors in Canaan. They would certainly have believed in the existence of such deities as Marduk, Baal and Anat. They may not all have worshipped the same deity: it is possible that the God of Abraham, the “Fear” or “Kinsman” of Isaac and the “Mighty One” of Jacob were three separate gods.

We can go further. 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. Elsewhere he is called El Elyon (The Most High God) or El of Bethel. The name of the Canaanite High God is preserved in such Hebrew names as Isra-El or Ishma-El. They experienced him in ways that would not have been unfamiliar to the pagans of the Middle East.

Later, Armstrong writes about the relatively frequent occurrence of ‘epiphanies’ in ancient cultures:

[While the Israelites found the “holiness” of Yahweh a terrifying experience], [in comparison] Abraham’s god El is a very mild deity. He appears to Abraham as a friend and sometimes even assumes human form. This type of divine apparition, known as an epiphany, was quite common in the pagan world of antiquity… The Iliad is full of such epiphanies…The world was full of gods, who could be perceived unexpectedly at any time, around any corner or in the person of a passing stranger. It seems that ordinary folk may have believed that such divine encounters were possible in their own lives: this may explain the strange story in the Acts of the Apostles when, as late as the first century CE, the apostle Paul and his disciple Barnabas were mistaken for Zeus and Hermes by the people of Lystra in what is now Turkey.

I’ve asked my friends before this question: If you ran into Paul tomorrow, fresh from the road to Damascus, and he told you he had seen a light and a vision and received a message from God, would your response be to believe him to be a balanced, sane person who should be listened to, or merely the product of either mental illness or a radically different culture? For those who insist that such visions and revelations once occurred, but simply haven’t in recent years, I would suggest that this sort of epiphanous revelation of God is still quite common in other cultures (such as much of Africa). I think if I’m honest with myself and my worldview, I would be just as skeptical of Paul as I am that the lives of the Africans I know are actually controlled by ancestors, demons, or other spirits.

Julia Sweeney, a standup comedian, performs a one-woman play entitled “Letting Go of God.” I highly recommend this clip of the play available at TED Talks, where she talks about realizing the oddity of doctrines such as the virgin birth after being visited by Mormon missionaries. If they can believe such absurdities about Joseph Smith, the book of Mormon, and Native Americans, she wondered, should she be more critical of her own beliefs?

Again, on the commonality of things that we would find ridiculous in the Old Testament:

In Chapter 18 of Genesis, J tells us that God appeared to Abraham by the oak tree of Mamre, near Hebron. Abraham had looked up and noticed three strangers approaching his tent during the hottest part of the day. With typical Middle Eastern courtesy, he insisted that they sit down and rest while he hurried to prepare food for them. In the course of conversation, it transpired, quite naturally, that one of these men was none other than his god, whom J calls “Yahweh.” The other two men turn out to be angels. Nobody seems particularly surprised by this revelation.

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9 Responses to Abraham the Polytheist?

  1. Cody says:

    At the very least Abraham believed that his God was one among many. If you pay attention to the stories of the Hebrew Bible you notice that other gods are not denied, but called less powerful etc. The wars etc. in the Hebrew Bible can easily be seen as fights between gods being played out on earth through humans. This is all very interesting to me because of what I grew up believing. It isn’t exactly like what I was told as a youngster.

  2. Tim Cooke says:

    And you were around to witness this lack of first man and flood, I’m assuming? There is evidence for it everywhere. Just look at the great mountain ranges, all of which contain large amounts of fossilized sea creatures at the highest places. The lack of erosional features between rock layers, showing rapid depositiion. The exponential increase in population of the earth over the years can be traced back to not more than a few thousand years Before Christ, with the population being less than one third of what it is now as recent as a century ago, according to Wikipedia. And with Paul, that does sound a little crazy, but seeing how his life changed from that point on – from hating Christians and getting people to kill them, to being a leader of and father to them – has to beg the question: What happened to him on that journey?
    “For they are willingly ignorant of the fact that long ago by God’s word the heavens existed and the earth was formed out of water and by water. By these waters also the world of that time was deluged and destroyed. By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly people. (2 Peter 3:5–7).

  3. globalizati says:

    And you were around to witness this lack of first man and flood, I’m assuming?

    Yes, I was there – it was just, what, 60 years ago?

    Hehe, did you just call me ungodly?

  4. Jonathan says:

    The denial of a deluge was acceptable a decade ago, but it is no longer acceptable. Evidence of localized floods from various cultures who claim it “universal,” water damage on the Pyramids of Giza, as well as me personally (and anyone who explores mountain caves) finding sea shells in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee, USA – I think the deluge is quite probable.

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