Fashioning God - Ancient Sources for a Modern God

There is significant evidence that the Hebrew God Yahweh was simply an innovation in the understanding of a past god or gods. Traces of Egyptian and Mesopotamian religions and societies appear throughout the Hebrew Bible, with that of Canaan ascribed as particularly influential. In sacred Ugarit texts, the god “El” appears as a storm god and head of a polytheistic pantheon of gods. In the relatively newer Bible, “El” is borrowed as a name for the monotheistic God who has subsumed all other gods. An evolution of the concept of God seems apparent by these developments, which spans centuries and crosses geographic and cultural divides.

Throughout the ancient Near East, from Egypt, across the Sinai Peninsula, to the upper reaches of Mesopotamia, the collective body of religious writings shows that a “formula” for religious literature had long been well-established. By the time of the creation of Biblical texts, it would have been taken for granted that clearly formulated literary traditions must be followed when writing about sacred matters. Regardless of doctrine, faith, or even which God or gods were recognized, the "story" of any religion in this ancient time needed to follow recognized protocols.

One standard protocol was the use of repetition. Because some of these writings may have been recited or even sung at ritualistic events, they are stylized as poems or songs, where important phrases or thematic lines are repeated rhythmically. Sometimes, a particularly important event in the story may be repeated at length several times, as news is carried from one character to another.

The repetition always serves a purpose. For example, in Mesopotamian texts, anyone venturing into the Netherworld must move through a series of chambers, removing an article of clothing in each chamber until they appear, naked, before Erishkigal, the goddess of the realm of Death. In leaving “the land of no return,” they must pass again through this series of chambers, putting on what they had earlier taken off. This element of repetition, which perhaps becomes monotonous to read each time a character moves into or out from the netherworld, is important as it emphasizes the seriousness of the passage between life and death. Repetition emphasizes what is most important.

A subtle change of details within the duplicated event can carry significant meaning. In the book of Genesis, Abram asks his wife Sarai to pose as his sister before the Pharaoh of Egypt. The ruler is captivated by Sarai’s beauty and takes her as his wife, until he discovers she is already married, whereupon he confronts Abram about the lie: “Pharaoh sent for Abram and said, 'What is this you have done to me! Why did you not tell me that she was your wife? Why did you say, 'she is my sister,' so that I took her as my wife?’” (Gen. 12:18-19). In this first version, we are left to understand that the Pharaoh had sexual relations with Sarai. Later in Genesis, the same events unfold again in the region of the Negeb, with a king named Abimelech. This time, the ruler is warned by God in a dream that the woman must remain untouched as she is already married. In anger, “Abimelech summons Abraham to confront him. ‘What have you done to us? What wrong have I done that you should bring so great a guilt upon me and my kingdom?’” (Gen. 20: 9). The single difference between these two otherwise duplicate stories is of paramount importance, and is marked by a change in name of the married couple: Abram and Sarai have become Abraham and Sarah. Her protection from harm in the second story is a result of God’s covenant with Abraham, demonstrating the divine protection that God bestows upon those who worship Him.

The Hebrew authors could easily tap into the power and sacredness of past writings by evoking them in their new works. In the Bible, the God Elohim (a plural form of “El”) says to Noah: "I am about to bring the flood -- waters upon the earth -- to destroy all flesh under the sky in which there is breath of life; everything on earth shall perish. But I will establish My covenant with you, and you shall enter the ark, with your sons, your wife, and your sons' wives. And of all that lives, of all flesh, you shall take two of each into the ark to keep alive with you" (Gen. 6:17-19). This exact speech is seen in the much older Mesopotamian tale of Gilgamesh, although the divine order comes from a different god. Here, the God Ea says to Utnapishtim: "Tear down your house and build a ship. Abandon your possessions and works that you find beautiful and crave and save your life instead. Into the ship bring the seed of all living creatures" (Mason 77).

Dramatic scenes have always been reused by storytellers, as a kind of shorthand to express what people already well know. In the following example, a young man’s righteousness is demonstrated through a woman’s attempt to betray him. As the story is told in the Bible:
"After a time, his master’s wife cast her eyes upon Joseph and said, 'Lie with me.' But he refused.... She caught hold of him by his garment and said, 'Lie with me!’ But he left his garment in her hand and got away and fled outside. ... She kept his garment beside her, until his master came home. Then she told him, `The Hebrew slave whom you brought into our house came to me to dally with me, but when I screamed at the top of my voice, he left his garment with me and fled outside'" (Gen. 39:12-18).

This mythological plot likely came from a much older Egyptian story etched on papyrus. Here, a man named Bata is approached by his brother’s wife:

“She got up, seized hold of him, and said to him, `Come, let’s spend an hour lying together.’ … Then the youth became like an Upper Egyptian panther in furious rage over the wicked proposition she had made to him.” He storms out. Later in the day, when her husband comes home, his wife tells him that his brother had “found me sitting alone and said to me, ‘Come, let’s spend an hour lying together’… but I refused to obey him’” (Simpson 83).

In addition to repetition, the authors of sacred texts in the ancient world often strove for emotional intensity, to create believable characters whose situations would touch the hearts of people and draw them into the deeper spiritual messages being put forth. The writers of the Bible loved to depict a moment of poignancy, as occurs in the story of Joseph. Years after being sold into slavery by his brothers, the favor of God has placed Joseph in a high position of authority in Egypt. When a period of desperate famine descends over the entire land, his brothers, unaware of his identity, are brought before him to humbly plead for food. Not disclosing who he is, Joseph assumes a strict manner that could only have made them wonder if they were to be turned away hungry. Shaken to the core at the sight of his youngest brother, Benjamin, Joseph cuts the meeting short:

"With that, Joseph hurried out, for he was overcome with feeling toward his brother and was on the verge of tears; he went into a room and wept there. Then he washed his face, reappeared, and -- now in control of himself -- gave the order, 'Serve [them a] meal'" (Gen. 43:30-31).

Characters in painful situations are an essential component of ancient sacred writings. Again, in the Bible, we are moved by the emotional intensity of Esau. Isaac, on his deathbed, is tricked into bestowing his blessing upon his second-born son. When Esau, the first-born (and traditionally the unquestioned heir), arrives at his father’s bedside, the two men learn of the deception too late – Esau’s inheritance has been given away, leaving him with nothing. Clinging to his stunned father, Esau is overcome with despair:

“Esau burst into wild and bitter sobbing, and said to his father, 'Bless me too, Father!'... 'Have you not reserved a blessing for me?'... 'Have you but one blessing, Father? Bless me too, Father!' And Esau wept aloud" (Gen. 27:33-39).

The genuineness of the Bible characters and their raw emotional intensity was nothing new. It had been passed on to the writers of the Bible from those authors who had written countless other texts of mythology or in praise of their gods. Emotional power was simply one of the literary tools used to reveal the divine. Arguably, no writer reached a level of passion more heartrending than the Mesopotamian authors of “Gilgamesh.” In this epic story, Gilgamesh and Enkidu are two men whose friendship has made them both better individuals. They each find completion in the other, and during their short, adventure-filled relationship, have never given a thought to their mortality. Now, Enkidu has suffered what will clearly be a mortal wound, and, with Gilgamesh at his side, the two men face imminent, eternal separation. As their emotions surge from disbelief to anguish, Gilgamesh calls out to the gods, to his mother, to the world, to somehow stop what is about to happen. Softly, Enkidu utters a few final words to his dearest friend:

"You are crying. You never cried before.
It's not like you.
Why am I to die,
You to wander on alone?
Is that the way it is with friends?
Gilgamesh sat hushed as his friend's eyes stilled.
In his silence he reached out
To touch the friend whom he had lost” (Mason 50).

Naturally, when dealing with subjects as profoundly serious as death, betrayal and righteousness, religious writers knew they could not avoid issues of theodicy (the justification of evil), and doubt. From the beginning, religious texts from all cultures sought to address these issues. In early Egyptian works, such as “The Man Who Was Weary of Life,” we eavesdrop on an argument between a man and his soul. Embittered by the evilness of the world, the man sees no reason to prolong his already temporary existence. His soul, on the other hand, is buoyant and resilient, and focuses on the eternal aspect of existence itself. Similarly, the subject of the Mesopotamian “Poem of the Righteous Sufferer” feels that he has been driven to the depths of despair for reasons he cannot fathom. He regards his god, Marduk, as an unpredictable power that can swiftly shift from support to oppression. In this case, the man’s steadfast adherence to faith in his god does eventually bring about the god’s favor.

In the Bible, the character of Job has no hope of winning God’s favor. This examination of spiritual doubt presents dual perspectives on reality: the relative consciousness of Job, whose egocentric viewpoint makes God seem indifferent and heartless; and the absolute consciousness of God, whose theocentric view shows no discrimination or malice.

With a monotheistic understanding of God, it was much more difficult and important for Biblical writers to try to explain and justify the existence of evil in the world. We encounter one possible justification in the story of God’s instruction to Abraham to sacrifice his son:

“Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test. He said to him, ‘Abraham,’ and he answered, ‘Here I am.’ And He said, ‘Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you’” (Gen. 22: 1-2).

The implication of this story is that the evil which befalls a righteous man is actually a “test” from God – a challenge of faith that could ultimately bring reward. But a different justification for evil is presented in a statement attributed to Joseph:

"Although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result -- the survival of many people" (Gen. 50:20).

Here, Joseph suggests that evil exists as a tool for the creation of God’s intended good; and that, in examining evil through his individual viewpoint, a man cannot comprehend God’s greater perspective.

The Bible authors undoubtedly borrowed elements of repetition, style, detail, emotional intensity and range of thought that had been known to work effectively in the past. By following a tested and recognized formula, they created new sacred literature. The formulaic production of sacred texts continued long after the Hebrew Bible, on into the era of Christian and Islamic texts. Even sacred writings produced very recently reflect these same literary traditions (i.e. The Book of Mormon). Such is the literary formula by which God is revealed.

Works Cited

The Holy Bible. New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989.

Foster, Benjamin R. From Distant Days: Myths, Tales, and Poetry of Ancient Mesopotamia. Bethesda, Maryland: CDL Press, 1995.

Mason, Herbert. Gilgamesh: A Verse Narrative. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.

Simpson, William Kelly. The Literature of Ancient Egypt: An Anthology of Stories, Instructions, Stelae, Autobiographies, and Poetry. New Haven: Yale UP, 2003.

Smith, Mark S. The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. Grand Rapids: HarperCollins, 1990.

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