The Ground of Change

The Ground of Change

William Blake’s Elohim Creating Adam. 1795

Wright’s book is picking up steam. He writes with compression, gets to the point quickly, after marshaling his facts and evidence. And the story he tells is enthralling. Polytheism, to monolatry to monotheism. Some of it I already knew. But much of it is new to me, based upon recent excavations and readings of better, more accurate translations of existing scripture. Wright’s gift is to put it all together in a very accessible, organized manner.

There is much evidence to suggest that Yahweh evolved from at least two Canaanite gods before him, El and Baal. There is also much evidence to suggest that political and economic changes on the ground led to his merger with these gods and then to supplanting them outright. And the Hebrew bible itself provides some clues, but very close reading is necessary to uncover them:

Consider this innocent-sounding verse from the thirty-second chapter of Deuteronomy as rendered in the King James Version, published in 1611:

When the Most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel.

For the Lord’s portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.

This verse, though a bit obscure, seems to say that God—called the “Most High” in one place and “the Lord” in another—somehow divided the world’s people into groups and then took an especially proprietary interest in one group, Jacob’s. But this interpretation rests on the assumption that “Most High” and “the Lord” do both refer to Yahweh. Do they?

Wright is very good at close analysis like this. But he is sensitive enough to understand how this may upset certain people, and tells us to wait. Be patient. If you read the whole book, he says, you’ll see that it’s not his intention to undermine belief in a higher purpose, only to, perhaps, redirect it and strengthen it. He continues with his breakdown:

The second term—“the Lord”—definitely does; this is the Bible’s standard rendering of the original Hebrew Yhwh. But might “Most High”—Elyon—refer to [the Canaanite god] El? It’s possible; the two words appear together—El Elyon—more than two dozen times in the Bible. What moves this prospect from possible toward probable is the strange story behind another part of this verse: the phrase “children of Israel.”

The King James edition got this phrase from the “Masoretic Text,” a Hebrew edition of the Bible that took shape in the early Middle Ages, more than a millennium after Deuteronomy was written. Where the Masoretic Text—the earliest extant Hebrew Bible—got it is a mystery. The phrase isn’t found in either of the two much earlier versions of the verse now available: a Hebrew version in the Dead Sea Scrolls and a Greek version in the Septuagint, a pre-Christian translation of the Hebrew Bible.

Why would some editor have invented the phrase? Was something being covered up?

There is much evidence to suggest that religions across the globe and through time covered things up. Changed them to reflect new political and economic facts on the ground. Altered scripture. Kicked this book out, edited that one, or changed them just to protect and defend that religion:

Some scholars who have used the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint to reconstruct the authentic version of the verse say that “children of Israel” was stuck in as a replacement for “sons of El.” With that lost phrase restored, a verse that was cryptic suddenly makes sense: El—the most high god, Elyon—divided the world’s people into ethnic groups and gave one group to each of his sons. And Yahweh, one of those sons, was given the people of Jacob. Apparently at this point in Israelite history (and there’s no telling how long ago this story originated) Yahweh isn’t God, but just a god—and a son of God, one among many.

So how does Yahweh rise through the ranks? How does a god initially consigned to a lower level of the pantheon eventually merge with the chief god, El, and even, in a sense, supplant him? …

Wright goes on to talk about Baal as well, to show the many similarities between Yahweh and the Canaanite god, and to suggest that Yahweh is a fusion, in a sense, of the two gods. Yahweh becomes more like El once he is secure in his status as the only one. Prior to that, he seems to act more like Baal, more like a storm god, not all knowing and all powerful. That evolution looks to be the central narrative of this study . . .

 As for the Israelites. They were moving, with fits and starts, from polytheism to monolatry at this point in the narrative. Not full fledged monotheism yet. Because they admitted to the existence of other gods. Their more zealous leaders just hated the idea that any god but Yahweh would be the subject of worship.



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