Inventing a nation and a religion
El was the supreme deity of Israel and the goddess Asherah was his wife.1 Baal was also worshipped by the Israelites. Over time El became the generic word for god and the supreme deity of Israel became named Yahweh or the One Who Was, Is And Will Be. Asherah then became Yahweh’s wife. When Israel and Judah became kingdoms, the kings became the head of the national religion of Yahweh. The kings of Judah used this religion to exert their authority. Other kingdoms in the region also had national deities, for example Molek was the god of Ammon and the god of Moab was Chemosh.2
Jews began to worship Yahweh alone after the advent of Zoroastrianism, the first major monotheist religion. The prophet Zoroaster believed in a good creator god and an opposite evil power. Zoroastrianism came to prominence around 600 BC in Persia and was widespread at the time the Jewish priests were compiling the Torah. Zoroastrianism exerted a great influence Judaism. Zoroastrianism included messiahs, free will, heaven and hell. Under the influence of Zoroastrianism some of the Greek philosophers around 400 BC also became monotheists.
Around 450 BC Jewish society was at the brink of being wiped out. The Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great allowed Jews to return to Israel and commissioned the Jewish temple to be rebuilt. People already living in Israel opposed their return as well as the building of the temple. A political struggle unfolded. After seven decades the Ezra and Nehemiah succeeded in rebuilding the temple. Judaism as a monotheist religion and the identity of Israel as a nation began to take shape. In this era the Torah was written. It was compiled from existing tales and writings, some of them as old as five centuries.3
Archaeological evidence doesn’t support the account of events in the Torah from before the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. The writers of the Torah used sources such as Mesopotamian myths, royal archives and oral traditions, and rewrote them to forward their agenda, which was to preserve Jewish identity around a common religion, history and cultural heritage. The biblical scholar Jacob Wright claims that the stories about Abraham, Isaac, Moses and David may have been based on legends from different local communities connected into a historical narrative to promote a sense of single nation.3
This universe might be a virtual reality created for entertainment for someone we call God. And God may use avatars and appear like an ordinary human to us. The absence of archaeological evidence can be an issue when looking for potential avatars of God in the Jewish scriptures. A question that might arise is how could God have played roles in tales that never happened? If this universe is a virtual reality running a script then the contents of the Torah may be the way our creators meant them to be even though they may be myths. The possible avatars may have emerged because of some consideration of the editors of the Torah.
How the avatars may have emerged
Wright points out that the authors of the Torah may have refashioned the role of men and women in order to involve men in raising children and preserving Jewish culture. In the Torah men play a significant role in family life while women contributed to military victories. One of the great Jewish heroines was Deborah in the Book Of Judges. Wright contends that these stories were meant to undermine the pretence males had to power. The men in the Torah weren’t valiant warriors.3 For example, Abraham said that his wife was his sister because he was afraid of being killed.4 Isaac did the same.5
The Jews didn’t have the military power to maintain a state of their own. They had little to gain by military adventurism, which was a typical activity on which male power in society was based. Wright thinks that the authors of the Torah recognised this, hence there is no commemoration of the war dead in the Torah.3 A similar consideration might have made the editors of the Torah let women to determine the fate of the most important male prophets and kings such as Moses and David. And so it is possible to identify potential avatars of God in stories that may never have happened.
Sarah and Abraham
Judaism started off with Sarah and Abraham. Sarah became pregnant at the age of 90.6 The will of God coincided with the wishes of Sarah several times. God summoned Hagar to return to her mistress Sarah.7 God told Abraham to send Hagar away when Sarah wanted this.8 The Egyptians were subject to plagues when the Pharaoh tried to make Sarah his wife.9 King Abimelech received threats from God when he tried the same.10
Sarah may have been an avatar of God. She may have put up a charade when three angels came along informing Abraham that she would become pregnant. This was an important moment for Judaism because Even though Jewish society was patriarchal like nearly all other societies, Jewishness is based on matrilineal family lines. You are born as a Jew when your mother is one.
In patrilineal societies a woman leaves her family to become part of the family of her husband. Remarkably Genesis suggests that a man leaves his father and mother to be united to his wife.11 Jews considered themselves to be children of Abraham but they are children of Sarah rather than children of Abraham as it defines the distinction between Jews and Arabs, who are also children of Abraham. It resembles the concept of Christians being born of God and children of God.
Asenath and Joseph
According to the Book of Genesis, Joseph was a handsome man. When Joseph was Viceroy of Egypt, he married Asenath, the daughter of an Egyptian high-priest. The Torah tells very little about her. There is an account of this marriage dating from the first century BC. It probably was invented to explain how Joseph came to marry a pagan priestess. According to the story known as Joseph and Asenath, Asenath was proud and despised men, the story tells us, but she became impressed by Joseph’s good looks.12
Joseph at first did not want to marry her because she bowed before idols and did not worship the God of Abraham. Asenath then showed penitence and an angel from heaven came to her chamber to bless the marriage. When she told Joseph of the angel, he changed his mind and decided to marry her.12 Asenath’s penitence and change of faith appear insincere and the result of a desire to marry Joseph. The marriage nevertheless was approved by God. Asenath may have been an avatar of God.
The Quran dedicates an entire chapter of 111 verses to Joseph. It expands on his good looks as well as the desire women had for him.13 Hence, Joseph may have been important to God and his good looks may have been worth mentioning.
Zipporah and Moses
In the Book of Exodus it is written that Moses was married to Zipporah. Zipporah saved Moses’ life. God wanted to kill Moses for neglecting the rite of circumcision of his son. Zipporah averted this by hastily performing the circumcision.14 She apparently knew of God’s intention to kill Moses even though this happened without notice. She apparently also knew the reason why. Zipporah may have been an avatar of God. In the Quran it is written that Moses sighed and said: “My Lord, indeed I am in need for whatever good You would send down to me.” Then one of the daughters of Reuel came to him and invited him to the house where the proposal for marriage was made.15
Bathsheba and David
Bathsheba caused severe embarrassment to King David. She was bathing on a roof where David could see her naked from his palace. David ordered her to come to his palace. She became pregnant after sleeping with him. David then commanded her husband Uriah to go home hoping that he would sleep with her so that the scandal would remain unnoticed. Uriah didn’t comply. David then asked his general to place Uriah in front line of the battle so that he would die. After Uriah died David married Bathsheba.16 The marriage was considered to be a sin but God loved Bathsheba’s son Solomon who was destined to become King.
Bathsheba turned out to be a fate changer. The prophet Natan told David that his house would be cursed because of his act.17 David’s eldest son Amnon was killed by his half brother Absalom after he had raped Absalom’s sister Tamar.18 Later Absalom was killed after he had declared himself king and raised a revolt against David at Hebron.19 In this way two potential heirs to the throne were eliminated. In David’s old age Bathsheba secured the succession to the throne of her son Solomon as David had promised this to her.20 Bathsheba was a possible avatar of God.
The name Bathsheba can be split up in Bath and Sheba. This is a bit peculiar as she may have seduced David by bathing naked while the Queen of Sheba later visited David’s son Solomon. Hence, the Queen of Sheba was also a possible avatar of God.
Featured image: Sepphoris Mosaic. Pbs.org. [copyright info]
1. Dijkstra, Meindert (2001). “El the God of Israel-Israel the People of YHWH: On the Origins of Ancient Israelite Yahwism”. In Becking, Bob; Dijkstra, Meindert; Korpel, Marjo C.A.; et al. Only One God?: Monotheism in Ancient Israel and the Veneration of the Goddess Asherah
2. 1 Kings 11:7 [link]
3. Wright, Jacob L. (2014). The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future. Coursera.
4. Genesis 20:2 [link]
5. Genesis 26:7 [link]
6. Genesis 17:17 [link]
7. Genesis 16:9 [link]
8. Genesis 21:12 [link]
9. Genesis 12:17 [link]
10. Genesis 20:3 [link]
11. Genesis 2:24 [link]
12. Joseph and Aseneth
13. Quran 12 [link]
14. Exodus 4:24-26 [link]
15. Quran 28:24-27 [link]
16. 2 Samuel 11 [link]
17. 2 Samuel 12:10-11 [link]
18. 2 Samuel 13 [link]
19. 2 Samuel 15 [link]
20. 1 Kings 1 [link]