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We know that a baby’s birth and early life story shape behavioral styles that are often carried through adulthood.  We express it through aphorisms: “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree”; “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Others link childhood trauma or abuse with adult behavior. The Greeks said, “Character is destiny,” and saw society’s responsibility to form people of good character as paramount.  

The same is true for the birth stories we write for our gods.  

It’s easiest to see this among the Greek gods, since their gods were such obvious projections of both psychological dynamics and natural forces. Hermes, the Greek Trickster god, stole Apollo’s cattle in the evening of the first day he was born, later inventing the lyre, and trading it to Apollo in return for all the cattle.  It doesn’t take long before we realize that this is the story of a Trickster god, and neither gods nor humans will ever be able to trust him.   He’s charming and seductive, but with Hermes, you can never be quite sure.  

When it comes to Yahweh, the God of the Bible and of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the birth story is not part of the religious stories, but part of the real-world history of the ancient Hebrews studied by historians and biblical scholars.  Since these facts weren’t incorporated into the myth as they were for many Greek deities, it is important to understand how Yahweh’s early historical evolution still hounds believers, and is the dimension of Yahweh that Christopher Hitchens described as “not good.”  

The earliest Hebrew traditions show that Yahweh was a Bedouin war god from the deserts of Edom and the surrounding regions. His warlike characteristics are shown in his name: "Yahweh" is an abbreviation of his official, longer name, "Yahweh Sabaoth," which means, "he assembles armies." Yahweh's name identifies this god as primarily the military commander of his people.  When he became identified with the tribe of ancient Hebrews, he kept his war god attributes, and added a “tribal chief” character.  

The covenant he made with “his” people was modeled on an ancient Hittite sovereignty treaty, and was what we would expect from a war god or tribal chief. He would be their god, and they would be his people.  If they obeyed him, he would protect them; if they disobeyed, he could destroy them (or let them be taken into captivity, as by the Babylonians).  That deep character of war god and tribal chief has been in the forefront of Western religions, to varying degrees, ever since.  How many priests and ministers have made a living pretending to fix things for you with God – when they’re really not doing much more than playing Hermes’ role: persuasive but not necessarily true?

Yahweh was an odd god, narrowly conceived.  Compared to Zeus, Yahweh was a celibate.  He had no sex life at all, no significant interactions with women, no children (except in the poetic sense of claiming the Hebrews as his “children”).  The earliest Christians, soaked in Greco-Roman culture, tried to construct a Jesus who was Yahweh’s son, then tried to define Jesus as both fully divine and fully human, a hybrid no theologian has ever been able to make much sense of.  

Some of the poets whose writings appear in the Bible tried to soften God, sometimes gave him feminine characteristics.  But the Yahweh identified with laws for stoning disobedient teen-agers and women to death remained a god of war, with a warrior’s lack of sensitivity or concern for women, and capital punishment for disobedience.  He was and remained a Man’s Man.  Worshiping him could be done only through male rabbis – women weren’t even allowed in the same space as men – and later male Popes and Imams.  The sexual abuse of children by priests has been known about and covered up by the Catholic Church throughout its history.  Only in a narrowly conceived men’s club could pedophilia be seen as what has amounted to an entitlement of male priests: accusations Pope Benedict XVI even tried to dismiss as “petty gossip.”  

Women are property in patriarchal societies growing from a war god and tribal chief.  The practice, still part of many weddings where the officiant asks, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” was a literal transfer of property.  Shiite Islam also has its misogynistic and murderous attitudes toward women, from narrowly read lines in their own tradition.  But all these brutal traits spring from and reflect the story of Yahweh’s birth as a war god and early life as a tribal chief.  Western Biblical religions are a men’s club, sanctioned by a man’s God.  Pope Benedict even put the ordination of women at the same level of moral disgust as the sexual abuse of children by priests.  Many suspect he will still try to hide pedophile priests, as he will oppose the ordination of women or married priests – unless they are already married when they transfer in.  Don’t try tracing the logic of that one or your tongue could get stuck in a nasal passage.  

Conservative Jews, Christians and Muslims still find their home as members of the tribe of God’s people.  The Catholic Church’s insistence that “there is no salvation outside of the Church” and conservative Christians’ proclamation that “Jesus is the (only) Way” both maintain the strong connection to the anciently and narrowly conceived tribal and war god.  

Religious liberals are trying to replace the ancient bipolar god of conditional love/hate with the more universal perspective that many roads lead to “salvation” (in the non-supernatural sense of wholeness and authenticity). This converts Jesus from “Son of God” to an avatar: an embodiment of our highest calling and capacity, a guide to living more wisely and compassionately here and now, rather than elsewhere and later.  

Can Western religions with their war god baggage be transformed into religions content to be one of many useful paths where even their God is just one option among many, but no longer The Way?  Can liberal religions, offering all carrot and no stick, both empower and challenge?  Church attendance in the U.S. has been declining for over a century, and Christian churches are now losing over two million people a year, so the answer isn’t yet clear, though the trajectory seems to be.  In the meantime, the growing number of atheists (now numbered at about thirty million) and many millions of other “church alumni” no longer speak in God-talk, and find their inspiration — as do many “believers” — through literature, movies and television.  We’re in the middle of a slow, huge, spiritual revolution.  Stay tuned.

Originally posted to DavidsonLoehr on Sun Sep 05, 2010 at 02:44 PM PDT.

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Comment Preferences

    •  Good essay. Check out /nt (5+ / 0-)

      Happy little moron, Lucky little man.
      I wish I was a moron, MY GOD, Perhaps I am!
      -Spike Milligan

      by polecat on Sun Sep 05, 2010 at 02:55:46 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Good writing (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      historys mysteries

      Does the West still possess a birth story about the object of their monotono-theism?   I am not sure after reading this.  When you say that a god is based on another god, you have hardly told a birth story.  

      When we learn that one god was based on another, prior god, we learn only about an historical fact.  We do not learn the content of a religion, and none of its myths are expressed by the sentences stating that fact.  But a birth myth would be contained in sentences that express the content of the religion in question.  Hence, your story about the origin of this god of monotono-theism contains no birth myth/story.  

      And it seems to me that the boring god who always was and always will be -- the creed of domination -- simply cannot have a birth myth.  

      Nietzsche can explain this perplexing situation -- the ancients viewed change as a lower value than permanence.  Hence their god, who had to be best, had to have the better of these two values, and thus had to be permanent.  Being born argues for impermanence.  Hence, no birth myth in the big bad religions of the west.  

      Youth lives by personality, age lives by calculation. -- Aristotle

      by not2plato on Sun Sep 05, 2010 at 03:52:42 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Even Tolkien's (0+ / 0-)

        deity Eru (the One) sprang into being with the fire of creation held firmly in his hand. There was no "birth." Tolkien was very much a Christian and a philosopher, and as such could not conceive another way. That he spent much more time writing about epic battles than periods of peace and plenty says it all.

    •  Consider too... (0+ / 0-)

      That christ was a child of a rape.  A divine rape maybe but a rape nontheless.  Very much the war god.

      Best Wishes, Demena Left/Right: -8.38; Libertarian/Authoritarian: -6.36

      by Demena on Mon Sep 06, 2010 at 02:24:00 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Interesting. I had never heard this before. (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    historys mysteries

    "A man of true science uses but few hard words, and those only when none other will answer his purpose..." - Melville

    by ZedMont on Sun Sep 05, 2010 at 03:44:43 PM PDT

  •  I like the exposition, Citations please. (4+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    x, historys mysteries, marykk, Prof Haley

    I am a student of religions and their histories. What you posit is extra biblical for sure, please cite the relevant texts if you have them at hand as I would like to study them for myself. Other wise as is common in religion discussions, all due respect it is just some stuff some guy wrote.

    N.B. In the path from polytheism to monotheism, gods morphed from deities with limited franchises (Mountain, Valley, Moon, Sun, Harvest, Rain, Smiting...) to one size fits all. No one today can chart the path from gods by the dozen to the one omnipotent G-D. A birth narrative for an omnipotent G-D seems ox-moronic on the face of it, but it would by no means be the strangest thing I have read*

    To be fair a straight read of the Torah does not read like an omnipotent god. Zipporah stopped G-D from killing Moses herself and their sons by circumsising one of her sons and dabbing the bloody foreskin on G-D-s foot (google bridegroom of blood). The Torah as reinterpreted over time and through the Talmud and modernity is something else entirely.

    *Note Omnipotent implies omniscience and omnipresence.  This makes it tough to create a believable birth narrative.

    Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. Voltaire

    by leftover on Sun Sep 05, 2010 at 06:17:59 PM PDT

    •  See, a woman (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Prof Haley

      circumcising her child and dabbling the bloody foreskin "on God's foot" is weird enough in itself. It is saying a lot more than the original tale.

    •  Uh... (0+ / 0-)

      No, omnipotency does not imply omniscience or omnipresence.

      The classic (philosophy 101) definition of the judeo-christian got is that of Omnipotence, Omniscience and Omni-benevolence.  They are separated for a very definite reason.  No overlap.

      Best Wishes, Demena Left/Right: -8.38; Libertarian/Authoritarian: -6.36

      by Demena on Mon Sep 06, 2010 at 02:40:30 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Yes they are separated, (0+ / 0-)

        But the logic is flawed.

        Omnipotence: The capability to do any and all things without limit.

        Omniscience and Omnipresence are specific examples of the power of Omnipotence.

        N.B. being Omnipotent does not mean that the omnipotent one chooses to use all of their power. An Omnipotent G-D is just as capable of infinite evil as infinite love.

        It may be true that Philosophy 101 separates the "Omnis" as you say. Religion 600 says otherwise. :-)


        Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. Voltaire

        by leftover on Mon Sep 06, 2010 at 12:28:43 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Okay. (0+ / 0-)

          Who is flawed?

          The people who all agree what a word means and create a language or the person who wants there own personal definitions of every word?

          So, you have nothing to discuss?  Your rules are better than societies?

          Mate, mate, I know where the flaw is.

          Best Wishes, Demena Left/Right: -8.38; Libertarian/Authoritarian: -6.36

          by Demena on Mon Sep 06, 2010 at 05:23:10 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Don't end an essay with open questions (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Don't make broad assertions, like "...a hybrid no theologian has ever been able to make much sense of."  What, are you the reincarnation of Thomas Aquinas?  Cuz if you're not, that's a hellishly bold statement.

    If you really want to pursue this, you'll need to read more than one book.  Entire libraries have been written about early Hebrew beliefs, Christian theology, the influence of the Sumerians and other ancient Near Eastern cultures on the early Hebrew people, and the adoption of elements of Roman religion by early Christians.  Also don't forget the big impact modern archaeology is having on the study of ancient Hebrew beliefs and early Christianity.  You are entering a realm where literally tens of thousands of scholars have disputed, argued, clashed, fought, and sometimes even shot each other.  What you think you know will be challenged, and then those ideas will in turn be challenged.  Devout believers have become atheists and atheists have become devout believers.  What are you waiting for, your preconceived notions to be affirmed?  Cuz that ain't gonna happen.  It's a great intellectual journey and a lot of fun, but only if you're open to it.  My experiences in life have led me to the conclusion that most people are quite comfortable with their preconceived notion of things and do not enjoy seeing those notions overthrown.  Be especially wary of the journey if you are a fundamentalist Christian or an atheist with very firmly held opinions.  The extremes tend to suffer the most.  

    "It was like that when I got here." - Homer Simpson

    by rbird on Mon Sep 06, 2010 at 01:23:39 AM PDT

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