About 100 pages into a fascinating new book, detailing the rise and fall of gods, goddesses, the religious impulse and its repercussions. The Evolution of God, by Robert Wright, is a general history, starting from the earliest hunter-gatherer societies, moving into chiefdoms after the discovery of agriculture, onto city-states in Mesopotamia and Egypt, and through the advent of Levantine monolatry and monotheism. I’ve reach the foot of Mount Monolatry and fierce storms are taking shape.
Wright reminds us how much religion permeated every culture, from the dawn of human time to the present. All things were tied to the gods, especially early on in our evolution. The fate of your hunts, your harvests, your health, your personal fortunes and the fortunes of your tribe, chiefdom and city-state were inextricably linked to them. He shows how important facts on the ground — political, economic, general welfare — were when it came to the ascendancy of this god or that god. The quid pro quo nature of that. As in, if a person was seen to have access to a particular god, and good things were associated with that god, like strong harvests and victories in wars, then both the gatekeeper and the god could gain in stature. Multiply that by many factors when we reach city-states, and whole histories might be revised, destroyed, overcome.
So far, Wright is blazing the trail from polytheism to monotheism, but does not say that it’s a straight line. More like a zig zag. In Egypt, for example, monotheism lived for a brief time in the late 2nd millenium under Akhenaton, as he elevated Aten above all other gods. Mesopotamia came close with the god Marduk.
Wright frequently talks about the moral and ethical dimension in religions from around the world, and reminds us that it existed long before monotheism. Even in the very earliest societies, it was believed that the gods punished bad behavior, that if you did X, Y or Z, they might inflict terrible things on you, your family, your clan. Religious rites were primarily designed to prevent that, to push the gods into allowing good things to happen and prevent bad things. We have not changed much in that regard, even after thousands of years of religious evolution.
Back to the foot of the mountain. In a section of the book that might well stir up a lot of controversy, although it’s not controversial amongst scholars, Wright talks about new discoveries regarding Canaan and the origin of the Israelites:
. . . . If you read the Hebrew Bible carefully, it tells the story of a god in evolution, a god whose character changes radically from beginning to end.
There’s a problem, however, if you want to watch this story unfold. You can’t just start reading the first chapter of Genesis and plow forward, waiting for God to grow. The first chapter of Genesis was almost certainly written later than the second chapter of Genesis, by a different author. The Hebrew Bible took shape slowly, over many centuries, and the order in which it was written is not the order in which it now appears. Fortunately, biblical scholarship can in some cases give us a pretty good idea of which texts followed which. This knowledge of the order of composition is a kind of “decoder” that allows us to see a pattern in God’s growth that would otherwise be hidden.
Meanwhile, archaeology has supplemented this decoder with potent interpretive tools. In the early twentieth century, a Syrian peasant plowed up remnants of an ancient Canaanite city called Ugarit. Scholars set about deciphering the Ugaritic language and combing the earth for Ugaritic texts. These texts, along with other vestiges of Canaanite culture unearthed in recent decades, have allowed the assembly of something notably absent from the Hebrew scriptures: the story from the point of view of those Baal-worshipping Canaanites. And, over the past few decades, archaeology has brought another check on the story as told in the Bible. Excavations in the land of the Israelites have clarified their history, sometimes at the expense of the biblical story line.
When you put all this together—a reading of the Canaanite texts, a selective “decoding” of the biblical texts, and a new archaeological understanding of Israelite history—you get a whole new picture of the Abrahamic god. It’s a picture that, on the one hand, absolves Abrahamic monotheism of some of the gravest charges against it, yet on the other hand, challenges the standard basis of monotheistic faith. It’s a picture that renders the Abrahamic god in often unflattering terms, yet charts his maturation and offers hope for future growth. And certainly it’s a picture very different from the one drawn in the average synagogue, church, or mosque.…
Wright’s book is heavily footnoted, comes with several appendices, and the deep research shows. I’m looking forward to discovering more of it and following the evolutionary road deeper into the desert, to the sea, and into the sun.