The origins of religions and evolution of gods

VargheseThe Hebrew Bible, the starting point for Judaism, Christianity and Islam, contains remnants of primitive religions – the religion of hunter-gatherer or the  agrarian. The monotheism of Abrahamic religions evolved organically out of the ancestral milieu of primitive religions. Edward Tylor, considered  the founder of social anthropology, believed that the primordial form of religion was “ animism “,  defined generally as the attribution of life to the inanimate – rivers, clouds, wind, thunder, volcanos,  stars, trees, mountains, and the like. The hypothesis that humans have souls was wide spread in primitive societies. Animism also handled the enigma of death; death happens when the soul departs from the body.

The early impetus to religion has  come largely from those who tried to make sense of the world.  Religion is  the natural outgrowth of humanity;  natural product of the brain built by natural selection to make sense of the surroundings  with a hodgepodge of tools whose collective out put  is not wholly rational. Religion has been deeply shaped by factors ranging from politics to economics. Elemental spirits, organic spirits and high gods ( gods that control other gods) are a few of the supernatural beings of the  primitive people.

In the hunter- gatherer universe, the supernatural does not take the form of a single all-powerful being, much less a morally perfect one. To them, the supernatural realm is populated by various beings that, as a rule, are strikingly like human beings; they are not always in a good mood, and the matters that make them to be in bad moods do not make much sense either. Theologians in the Abrahamic lineage – Jewish, Christian and the Islamic- are constrained by the  stiff premise that reality is governed by an all-knowing, all-powerful and good god. This premise does not answer the question of human suffering  and the existence of  evil despite  the  “ good God “.

The hunter- gatherer gods are not  paragons of virtue either. Hunter- gatherers do not generally worship their gods; they treat their gods, quite often, as mere humans, capricious  in their behaviour. Hunter- gatherers give ritualised respect to their gods out of fear and the rituals are not formal. The primitive religions generally lack clear moral dimension eg., regarding stealing, cheating, adultery and the like. Edward Tylor observes that the religions of primitive societies are   almost devoid of the  ethical element,  sine- qua-non of mainstream religions. Nevertheless, the moral standards of the primitive people are generally well defined and praise-worthy. But these ethical laws stand their own ground of tradition and public opinion and not on a religious foundation. Punishment for human   wrong doings are not left to   the deity nor is it its concern. Humans correct or avenge such wrong doings themselves. Relations to the spirits have no ethical implication. Religion did not concern itself about morality in the beginning. Hunter-gatherer society’s morals did not deploy the moral incentive of heaven for good deeds and hell  for bad ones. The general absence of moral sanction in hunter-gatherer societies is not surprising for they lived 12,000 years ago in intimate and transparent groups of thirty to fifty people. Hence wrongdoing was hard to conceal. The fact that one has to live with one’s group for the rest the life  was strong incentive for  treating its members   decently. Mutual help was essential for survival. Departures from honesty and probity were detected often enough to dissuade deviations becoming rampant. Social order could be preserved without deploying the powers of religion.

According to evolutionary psychologists, human nature includes at least two basic innate mechanisms enabling people to treat each other nicely. The first  the product of an evolutionary dynamic known as “ kin selection “ motivating sacrifice for close relatives. The other one  is “ reciprocal altruism” making humans to be considerate of friends, non-kin but with whom there is enduring cooperative relationships. In a hunter- gatherer village most of the inhabitants belong to either of these categories. In such a settlement there is no anonymous ones.

As anthropologist Elman Service observes:  values such as love, generosity and honesty “ are not preached nor buttressed by threat of religious reprisal “ in these societies “ because they need not be “. Modern societies preach  these values as  they  worry “mostly about morality in the larger society, outside the sphere of kindred and close friends. Primitive people do not have these worries because they do not conceive of – do not have – the larger society to adjust to. Their  ethics does not extend to strangers; they are simply enemies, not even people. This narrow compass of moral consider-ation is the basic characteristic of hunter-gatherer societies. Universal love, an ideal preached by many modern religions, though it is ‘ honoured mainly in the breach’  is not even an ideal in a typical hunter-gatherer society”.

What is religion?

The Europeans in the nineteenth century thought that the religions  of the hunter-gatherers have  barely anything common with the religions  they knew. The questions posed were : what was the moral dimensions of those religions?; where was brotherly love?; where was the reverence for the divine?; where was the stately ritual?; where was quest for inner peace?; and what is with  this jumble of spirits and deities doing implausible things to control parts of the world that are in fact controlled by natural law?.

At least two things are common with these two types of religions: why bad things happen? Both offer their own ways to clarify things better. A Christian prayer on behalf of a gravely ill child is logically at the same level of a primitive man’s gesticulations addressed to his God. Basically adherence to any  religion is self serving. H. L. Mencken says of religion: “ It's single function is to give man access to the powers which seems to control his destiny, and it's single purpose is to induce those powers to be friendly to him ……Nothing else is essential “. Self interest is the core of religion, though expressed in loftier language. Religion “ consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto” ( William James in ‘ The Varieties of Religious Experiences’).  Religious doctrines can not survive if they do not appeal to the psychology of the people whose brains harbour them, and self interest is one potent source of this appeal. Self interest can be aligned to the interests of the self, of the family, of the society, of the world and of the moral and spiritual truth. Religion needs to mature more if the world is to survive in good shape and above all it has to hold the respect of the intellectually critical people.

The Shaman

Whenever people sense the presence of a puzzling and momentous force, they want to believe that there is a way to comprehend it. If one can convince them that he has the key to this  comprehension, he will  reach great stature. Once there is a belief in the supernatural, there there will be demand for people who claim to fathom it viz., the religious experts known as “ shaman “. The shamans are of different varieties claiming to possess different powers and capabilities. What unites shamans everywhere is their supposed ability to contact with the hidden world that shapes human destiny. They tend to focus their powers on things that  are important and erratic: illness, the weather, predators and prey. They claim to possess powers to inflict disease and death, to cure all disorders, to make known distant and future events, to cause rain, hail and tempest, to call up the souls of the dead and consult them on hidden matters,  put on the form of dangerous animals, handle every kind of serpent without danger etc. The seminal scholar of shamanism,  Mircea Elide writes “What is fundamental and universal is the shaman’s struggle against what we would call ‘ the powers of evil’ ….It is consoling and comforting to know that a member of the community is able to see what is hidden and invisible to the rest and to bring back direct and reliable information from the supernatural worlds ”.

The shaman represents a crucial step in the emergence of organised religion. He ( or she sometimes ) is the link between the earliest religion – a fluid amalgam of beliefs about a fluid amalgam of spirits – and what religion come to be: a distinct body of belief and practice, kept in shape by an authoritative institution. The shaman is the forerunner of the Archbishop and the Ayatollah. Shamanism harkens  back to a time before industrialisation had impeded communication with nature;  before church hierarchies had discouraged direct experience of the divine by making themselves conduits to the sacred. In this view, the primordial shamanic phase of religion was a little like the Garden of Eden prior to  Adam and Eve ruining  everything. Some serious scholars see in the Stone Age shaman the origins of mysticism. Still shamanism inevitably share one unfortunate characteristic with religious leaders in modern societies: being human, notwithstanding the claim of the priesthood  having stepped into the shoes of the divine. Religion having come from the brains of people, is bound to bear the marks of their species, for good or bad.

Primordial religion emerged from some people telling stories in an attempt to explain why good and bad things happen; to predict their happening, and if possible to intervene for the better option. They became leaders in their field and further to shaman hood. The high status of shamans brought them both tangible and intangible benefits such as  wealth, prestige and  above all,  more females in the form of  polygyny. Quite often,  shamans resorted to dubious practices  like ventriloquism, sham tricks,  sleight of hand and consumption of hallucination inducing substances. The world’s shamans have run the gamut the affairs of  true believers  and even resorted to  frauds in order to have their sway over the people.  “ The limits of spiritual dedication and self-advancement have often been unclear in the history of religions” ( Anthro- pologist  Spencer Rogers – “ The Shaman” ).

Gods of the Ancients

In ancient Mesopotamia, where divinities first emerged, they were often less than divine. A prominent god  named Enki was a drunkard and goddess Innanna ( later known as Ishtar ) spent much of her time having sex. A hymn from early second millennium reports that “ sixty then sixty satisfy themselves in her nakedness. Young men have tired, Ishtar will not tire”. She was the patron deity of prostitutes;  she is also thought to help wives to conceal their adultery. The great god Enlil was also a  sex addict. These gods were basically human except for supernatural powers. So too in ancient Egypt, ancient China and other places. Gods were not paragons of virtue either; they were noted for their cunning and ferocity as well as for their love and compassion. Human in their mind and behaviour, they assumed a veriety of forms including some creepy ones.

The now familiar profile of the Christian religion with a  fundamentally good god, who focuses on the moral improvement of human beings, and caring about his people and not the gratification of own desires, is  a later emanation. The  God of the Hebrews of the first millennium BCE,  by the end of the millennium had  crystallised in  Jesus Christ. Still this is a false divide. Around the beginning of the third millennium BCE, there  was no sign of monotheism, much less monotheism that focuses on ethics and universal in scope. Nor would these three elements – monotheism, an ethical core, and universalism – would combine for millennia. Cultural evolution was all along pushing divinity, toward moral enlightenment.

The records on gods

The earliest written records on religion are fragmentary and sketchy, be it is in Mesopotamia, Egypt or China. Moreover,  religion as recorded in early history is, by and large the official history, does  not tell the complete story.

The character of gods could have been different in ancient states. Here are some observations made by scholars about ancient civilisations.  Egypt: “ the cardinal features of that culture and society were determined by the existence and power of its all- pervading religious

beliefs; China: “ the fate of human was inseparable from the extra-human world”; the Maya: “ everything  in the Maya world was imbued in different degrees with an unseen power or sacred quality”; the Aztecs: “ existence revolved totally around religion. There was not a single act of public or private life which was not coloured by religious sentiment”; Mesopotamia: “ the  gods constantly intervened everywhere and participated in everything”.

In the second millennium BCE, when the Mesopotamian scribes conducted a divine census, listing the gods in various Mesopotamian cities, they came up with nearly two thousand names. The pantheon typically included lots of nature gods ( sun, moon, storm, fertility and so on). Much like in the  Catholic faith with  saints for different vocations and purposes, so in that ancient state; there were gods for farmers, scribes, merchants, and craftsmen . Mesopotamia had gods for everything from brick making to brewing. In Aztec society robbers claimed their own deity! There were also gods that defy easy categorisation: the Mayan God for suicide, the Mesopotamian ‘ Lord of Livestock Pens’, the eight Egyptian deities that oversaw lungs, liver, stomach, and intestines (two gods for each organ ). These gods expected goods and services from humans and dished out rewards or punishment accordingly. So everywhere made sacrifices to the gods, flattered – that is worshiped – them, and tended to their every needs in other ways. The priests had their heydays, no doubt.


The Mesopotamian city states had clear cut, elaborate, bureaucratic and hierarchical  leadership. As on earth so it was in heaven. Not only did the city states and later the whole region typically, had a single Head God  ( a god that was called a King ); this major god did have subordinate gods that plainly reflected a royal court. A  Mesopotamian document from the second millennium BCE lists gods with titles such as valet, head chef, head shepherd, gardener, ambassador, vizier, grand vizier, aide-de-camp,steward, secretary, sentinel, gatekeeper, bailiff and hairdresser. The Mesopotamian god Enki was a subordinate of the great god Enil who appointed a god as “ inspector of canals” and another in charge of justice. The historian Jean Bottero describes it as a “ simple incoherent gathering  of gods”.  At the dawn of civilisation had emerged  “ through centuries of evolution, mythological reflection and calculations, a true organisation of supernatural power….which dominated people as the structured earthly royal authority dominated its subjects “.

In Egypt too, the pantheon developed some semblance of hierarchy. And in China of the Shang era, the god of heaven seemed to have run the show, supervising the gods of wind, of rain, of rivers, mountains, and so on. The resulting “pyramid of powers “ as Bottero calls it was itself a kind of step towards monotheism. Enil, during his  days at the top of the pyramid was called “ the great and powerful ruler who dominates Heaven and Earth, who knows all and understand all “. Thus a theological trend was set afoot toward a concentrated majesty of monotheist  god. Enil’s successor was Marduk, a formidable figure; “ His heart is a kettle drum “ and “ His penis is a snake that yields sperm made of gold “.  Marduk was elevated to this great height by the Babylonian King Hammurabi ( the author of the famous Hammurabi legal code ) in the early second millennium. What better theological weapon for the desire of the Babylonians to rule Mesopotamia for ever but to reduce Marduk’s rivals subservient him. But the attempt did not carry the day.   

Meanwhile, over in Egypt, king  Amenhotep  IV attempted to experiment with monotheism by elevating Re also known as  Aten, represented by the luminous Sun ‘disc “ by subduing the most powerful god Amun, the favourite of the political and financially  powerful priests of Egypt. Aten became  the god, “ he who decrees life; he who “ created the earth “; he who “ built himself by himself “; he whose “ sun beams mean sight for all that he has created “. Amun’s name was erased wherever it   appeared and his high priest was dispatched to fetch stone from a quarry;  the entire Amun priesthood too was dissolved The pharaoh built a big city in Aten’s honour, named it Akhetaten  (“Horizon of Aten“) and moved the capital there. He renamed himself Akhenaten (Helper of Aten); appointed himself Aten’s high priest; declared himself Aten’s son and was praised as “ O beautiful child of the Sun-disc “. Aten, at the height of his power, stood alone in the divine firmament. However, within decades of his promotion to the  one-and-only god, he would fall from grace. But he  clearly  foreshadowed the Hebrew God, Yahweh.

Sigmund Freud in his book ‘ Moses and Monotheism has suggested that Moses was in Egypt during Aten’s reign and then carried this idea of monotheism toward Canaan,  where it would launch Judaeo-Christian civilisation. ( There is another conjecture which says that Moses was one among the 150 or so Egyptian princes, born to one of the Pharaoh’s 100 wives,who escaped after killing another prince, through the Sea of Reeds to Canaan along with  followers of Aten).

Religion of ancient Israel

The Bible’s  classic  pagan deity is  Baal, worshipped by the much derided Canaanites and,  at times by deluded Israelites, who had stayed from devotion to Yahweh.       “ Unlike  the pagan deities, Yahweh was not in any of the forces of nature but in a realm apart ( Karen Armstrong – A History of God ). Baal, as a fertility god, was sometimes called the Lord of Rain and Dew. Yahweh in contrast, was the Lord of nothing in particular – and everything: he was the ultimate source of nature’s power, but he did not micromanage it. This kind of god is often described as more modern than pagan Baal-like gods. “ Transcen-dent “ is the  term some scholars use to describe this god, while others prefer “ remote “ or “ hidden “. This god is considered  as  more powerful. “ Yahweh does  not  live in  the processes of nature, he controls them “    (Yehezkel Kaufmann – biblical scholar ). He rejected the idea that Israelite religion was “ an organic outgrowth of the religious milieu “ of the Middle East. The common complaint against the monotheism emerged in the Middle-East is that it's theology has bred belligerent intolerance. According to this indictment ardent monotheists are allergic to peaceful coexistence.

Christians and Muslims, like Jews, trace back to the god that, according to the Bible, revealed himself to Abraham in the second millennium BCE. Though all three groups claim the same lineage, they don’t see each other as worshipping the same god. This perception seems to have lubricated a certain amount of Yahweh-on-Yahweh violence ( Crusades, jihads and all ) that has only reinforced Abrahamic monotheism’s reputation for belligerent intolerance. The first step in understanding this question is to find out how the Abrahamic god evolved. Many believers think  that He was there in the beginning, fully formed and he then gave shape to everything else. But this not really the story in the Bible, or at least not the whole story. If one reads the Hebrew Bible carefully it tells the story of a god in evolution, a god whose character changes radically from beginning to end. For understanding this one should not start reading the first chapter of Genesis. This first chapter was almost certainly written later than the second chapter by a different author. The Hebrew Bible took shape slowly over many centuries, and the order in which it was written is not in the order it now appears, biblical scholarship has “ decoded “.  Archeology has supplemented this decoder with potent interpretive tools.  The remnants of  Ugaritic  language and other vestiges of Canaanite culture unearthed in the early twentieth century and in recent decades in  Ugarit, an ancient Canaanite  city, has brought about a  revisit on the story told in the Bible. It challenges the standard basis of the monotheistic faith and renders the Abrahamic god often in unflattering terms. And it is a picture very different from the one drawn in the average synagogue, church or mosque.

For a start, though Yahweh may have wound up “ in a realm apart” – a remote, even transcendent God,whose presence is felt subtly – this is not the kind of god that come across in the earliest scriptures, fragments of the Bible  that may go back as far as the closing centuries of the second millennium BCE. In fact, even in the first millennium BCE, when most, if not all of Genesis took shape, this god was a hands on deity. He personally         “ planted “ the Garden of Eden and he “  made garments of skins “ for Adam and Eve “ and clothed them “. And he doesn’t have done these things, while hovering ethereally above the planet. After Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, according to the Genesis, “ they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden.” Hiding may sound like a naïve strategy to deploy against the omniscient God we know today, but apparently he wasn’t omniscient back then. For “ the Lord God called to the man, and said to him,     “ Where are you?”

In short, Yahweh is at this point remarkably like all those “ primitive “ gods of hunter-gatherer societies and chiefdoms: so strikingly  human – with supernatural power – to be sure, but not with infinite power. It may seem strange that the God who created the whole universe would be limited to “walking“ through the Garden of Eden. True he created the earth and sky, and he created human beings “out of dust.” But the part about creating the stars and the moon and the sun and light itself – the story in the first chapter of the Genesis – seems to have been added later. In the beginning, Yahweh was not yet a ‘cosmic’  creator. In the poems that most scholars consider  the oldest pieces of the Bible, there is no mention of God creating  “anything”. He seems more interested in “ destroying”, he is in large part a warrior God. What some   believe to be the oldest piece of all, Exodus 15 is an ode to Yahweh for drowning Egypt’s army in the Red Sea.

If Yahweh starts life  a warrior god, not the one running the universe who does it;  the answer is various other gods. That some Israelites worshipped gods other than Yahweh is clear to even a casual Bible reader. ( Much of the Bible’s plot line can be summarised as: Israelites fall for non-Yahweh gods, Yahweh punishes them, Israelites mend their ways, only to stray from fidelity, get punished again, and so on).  Early affirmations of devotion to Yahweh don’t single him out for being the only god, just for  being the best God for Israelites, the one they should worship. The scriptures warn Israelites not to” serve other gods and bow down to them” lest “the anger of the Lord will be kindled  against” them. Would the Bible authors have warned against “serving” other gods if those gods even did not exist? In other words, before Israelite religion denied the existence of all gods other than Yahweh, it went through a phase of granting their existence, but condemning their worship by Israelites . Israelite religion reached monotheism only after a period  of  “monolatry” – exclusive devotion to one god without denying the existence of others. This finding is accepted most Jewish and  Christian scholars. But  things get more controversial when suggested that there was a long time when even “monolatry ” was too strong a word for mainstream Israelite doctrine – a time when not all non-Yahweh gods were considered evil or alien; a time when Yahweh was ensconced in  Israelite pantheon, working alongside other gods. The Bible famously says that  God “created man in his own image” but those are not Yahweh’s words. When Yahweh is actually quoted, in the previous verse, he says, “ Let us make him in ‘our’ image, after our likeness “. Then when Adam eats the forbidden fruit, Yahweh says “Behold, the man has become like one of ‘us’ knowing good and evil. When people start building the Tower of Babel, which will reach to the heavens, and Yahweh opts for presumptive intervention, he says let ‘us’ go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech”.   “US”, who is US? The Bible talks more than once about a “ divine council “ in which God takes a seat. Psalm 82 says “ God has take his place in the divine council: in the midst of the gods he holds judgement “. And God himself, addressing the other council members a few verses later says, “ You are gods”.

Bible stories unearthed

The standard biblical version of early Israelite history is simple: the Israelites escape slavery in Egypt, wander in the desert, and finally arrive at the promised land, Canaan. The native Canaanites are a wicked and doomed people, on the wrong side of theology and therefore history.The Israelites march in, conquer the city of Jericho with Yahweh’s help, and then do likewise with a series of Canaanite cities. “ Joshua defeated the whole land, the hill country and the  Negeb and the low lands and the slopes, and all their kings, he left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as the Lord God of Israel commanded “. This  scenario nicely fits the views of Yehezkel Kaufmann and other scholars who deny that Israelite religion evolved organically out of the local milieu. The swifter and more decisive Israel’s conquest of Canaan, the less chance there was for native culture to take hold.

Recent decades of archeological research, including painstaking excavation of various cities supposedly conquered by the Israelites, have failed to turn up the hallmarks of violent conquest. There is not even much evidence of a slower, more peaceful influx of desert wanderers, a gradual displacement of  Canaanites by, Israelites. In fact, it looks more and more as if the Israelites were  Canaanites. As biblical archaeologist William  G.  Dever has observed; there is some consensus on one thing: the Israelites who first settled in the highlands of Canaan “ were not foreign invaders, but came mostly  from somewhere within Canaanite society…..The only remaining question is “ where “ within Canaan. The most intriguing theory of how the Canaanites became Israelites comes from iconoclastic Israel Finkelstein, who has excavated many Holy Land cities. He notes that in the twelfth century BCE, as the Bronze Age was giving way to the Iron Age, there was political and economic disruption, even collapse, across the Middle East. The Canaanite herders cum traders selling meat for grain might have been forced give up their nomadic life and settle down in areas the Bible calls Moab, Ammon, and Edomite thus causing the emergence of Israel. As for Moses leading Hebrews out of bondage: “ There was no mass exodus from Egypt” Finkelstein notes. Finkelstein’s theory has not won universal assent. Still the story in the book of Joshua, that sudden replacement by Canaanite culture by Israeli culture is wrong and there was ongoing contacts with Canaanite culture broadly. Various data including a lack of fortifications and weapons in those early villages suggests that the contacts was often peaceful. A  bronze bull, exactly the kind of Canaanite idol the biblical devotees of Yahweh abhorred was found in one of the early Israelite settlements.  Some biblical historians now doubt that Moses even existed, and virtually none now believe that the biblical accounts of Moses are reliable. Those stories  were written down centuries after the events they describe, and were edited later still, sometimes by monotheists who presumably wanted to suffuse their theology with august  authority.

Who was Yahweh  before he was Yahweh?

There is no reason to assume that Israeli monotheism emerged anywhere other than Canaan;  that Israelite religion is an outgrowth of Canaanite culture and that Yahweh actually started life as Canaanite god El.  If one peers beneath the word “ god “ in some parts of the Bible, one will find not the Hebrew word for Yahweh,  but rather the Hebrew word El. In the historic records El appears before Yahweh leading to the conclusion that in some way Yahweh emerged from El.

There is a few times in the Bible  when the “El” applied to the Hebrew god seems to be a proper noun. Jacob “erected an altar and called it El-Elohe-Israel” which could be translated as “ god, the god of Israel “. Further look at the word “ Israel “ itself. In ancient times names were often inspired by gods, and names ending in “el” typically referred to the god El. During one of Moses’ conversations with God says “ I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them “. Even Yahweh himself says that he started life with the name El.

According to the 19th century scholar Julius Wellhausen’s “ documentary hypothesis “ the early phases  of the biblical narrative, through creation through the time of Moses, came largely from two authors ( two groups of like minded authors ); the “ E” source  and the “J ” source. The E source refers to the Hebrew god as either El or Elohim ( hence the E). The J  source refers to the Hebrew god as Yahweh ( and is known as J because of the way Yahweh is spelled in German, the language of much pioneering biblical scholarship, including Wellhausen's ). The documentary hypothesis suggests that at some point in Israelite history there were two geographically distinct traditions to reconcile, one worshiping a god El ( in the north) and another worshiping Yahweh ( Judah in the south ). Certainly the Bible holds hints of once separate groups having united. The basic idea that Israel coalesced somewhere around the land of El worship, and only adopted Yahweh later gets support from ancient Egyptian inscriptions. The name “ Israel “ enters the historical record in 1219 BCE, on an Egyptian slab of stone known as the Merenptah Stele. The inscription on the Stele reads “ Yhw (in) in the land of the Shasu”. The Shasu were nomads who had a history of  antagonism with Egypt. One Egyptian relief even shows people labelled Shasu being brought captives by Egyptian soldiers. That earliest reference to Israel, in the Mernptah Stele is a boast that Egypt has exterminated the Israelites (Israel’s “ seed is not “). It suggests that a merger of Shasu and the Israelites could have taken place; a common enemy is a greater starter for friendship. And this particular common enemy would have enabled the crafting of a shared narrative of divine deliverance from Egyptian torment.

It seems like plausible scenario: El, a powerful god from the north (of Israel), admits Yahweh to the lower level of his pantheon by way of letting Yahweh’s wandering people enter. Political confederation – Israel – in a junior partnership with El’s people and ultimately it is Yahweh’s name, not El’s, that stays attached to Israel, thanks to a reversal of fortune. Yahweh’s people get more powerful, while El’s people get less  so, and encounter catastrophe. There may be  no reconstruction of Israel’s early history that gracefully accounts for all the odd evidence,  includ ing  the description of Yahweh as a son of Elyon in the undoctored version of Deuteronomy 32 and the fusing of Yahweh and El Shaddai in Exodus 6. Meanwhile, whatever the truth about  Yahweh’s early history, there is one thing that is clear – the Bible’s editors and translators have deliberately obscured it in an attempt to conceal evidence of early mainstream polytheism.

Yahweh's Sex Life

One oft-claimed difference between the Abrahamic god  and other gods is that Israel’s God “has no sexual qualities or desires”. It seems puzzling that if Yahweh eventually merged with El, and El had a sex life, why didn’t the post merger Yahweh inherit El’s consort, the goddess Athirat. May be he did. There are references in the Bible to a goddess named Asherah and scholars have long believed that Asherah  is the Hebrew version of Athirat. Biblical writers heap disdain  on Israelites who worshipped Asherah. However,archaeologists, in the late 20th century discovered intriguing inscriptions, dating to 800 BCE, at two different Middle Eastern sites; blessings in the name of not just of Yahweh but of “ his Asherah “.

The question of Yahweh’s  sex life is part of a larger question that has high stakes. It is bad news for those who depict Yahweh as totally different from pagan myths. In fact Yahweh’s family history may contain something even more scandalous than an early fusion with Canaanite deity El. It may be that Yahweh while inheriting El’s genes, somehow acquired genes from the most reviled of all Canaanite deities: Baal.


The theologian Robert Karl Gnuse presciently observed in 1997 that “  a ‘  paradigm shift ‘ with more and more scholars acknowledging “ a gradual evolution of a complex Yahwistic religion from a polytheistic past”. Increasingly, “ the perception of a gradual emergence of monotheism combines with an understanding that stresses Israel’s intellectual continuity with the ancient world “. New religions do not come outbox from  nowhere. But intellectual continuity can be messy, and certainly was in the case of ancient Israel. The head of the  Canaanite pantheon was was El, and Yahweh inherited much of El’s character. There is ample evidence to put Yahweh in Baal’s lineage as well. He is described in the language used to describe Baal, and he fights the very mythic enemies that Baal fought.

Summing up

It is important to remember that gods are products of cultural evolution. In biological evolution, lines of descent are neat; one gets all traits from either one parent or two, depending on whether the species reproduce clonally or sexually. Either way the heritage is set. With cultural evolution, in contrast, endless cross fertilisation is possible. Cultural evolution is fuzzy. Simple questions such as as whether Yahweh consists more more of El or of Baal, may not have definite answer, much less answer visible through the mists of antiquity. But the matter is worth pursuing. Baal, throughout the Bible,  is Yahweh’s rival. Bitter enmity does not seems like a good basis for merger. But in cultural evolution, competition can indeed spur convergence.

Varghese Pamplanil

Mob: 00447570161248


( Mostly based on the book  — “The Evolution of GOD – The origins of our beliefs “ by Robert Wright.)

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