Building a nation with religion

Throughout history, humans have imagined thousands of gods. Yahweh, the God of Israel, was one of them. The Israelites started as a tribe in Canaan, much like other tribes living there. For a long time, the area was under Egyptian control. That began to change after 1150 BC. Egypt was beset by droughts, food shortages, civil unrest, corruption, and endless bickering in the court, causing it to retreat from Canaan. Agriculture was the basis of existence in the area. That required territorial defence, hence states. In the resulting power vacuum, several petty kingdoms emerged. Israel and Judah were among them. This situation lasted until new imperial powers emerged on the scene four centuries later.

Map of Israel and Judah
The kingdoms of Canaan

Yahweh was one of several gods and goddesses worshipped in Canaan. At first, El was the supreme deity in the Canaanite belief system. The goddess Asherah was his wife.1 The new small states in the area needed religion to justify their existence. The kings of Judah, and perhaps also Israel, promoted a national religion around Yahweh to solidify their authority. Other kingdoms in the region had adopted national deities too. For instance, Molek was the deity of Ammon, while Moab had Chemosh to defeat its foes and to supply the country with blessings.2

Even though the worship of Yahweh may have become the state religion in Judah and possibly Israel, people still worshipped other gods. The Hebrew Bible testifies of tensions between those who worshipped other deities alongside Yahweh and those insisting on worshipping Yahweh alone. But even those insisting on worshipping Yahweh alone, still believed that the other gods existed. As Yahweh had become the primary deity, El became a generic word for god, and Asherah then became Yahweh’s wife.

As time passed by, new empires arrived on the scene. Israel was overrun in 720 BC by the Assyrians. The Babylonians conquered Judah in 597 BC after taking over the Assyrian Empire. The Babylonians destroyed the country and deported many of its inhabitants. Others moved to Egypt. The Jewish communities in Egypt, Babylon, and Judah became dispersed. The biblical authors responded to the situation by reconnecting them and showing that they share a common heritage. In this way, the Jewish community was not split up and did not go back to their prior identities of being the town of Bethlehem or the town of Lachish that had nothing in common. They belonged to a larger group, a nation, a family with common ancestors. The Hebrew Bible became a compilation of existing tales from these communities and the royal archives of Judah.3

After the Persians conquered the Babylonian Empire, Emperor Cyrus the Great allowed the Jews to return to Israel. He also commissioned the rebuilding of the Jewish temple. Those still living in the area opposed this and a political struggle unfolded. After seven decades, Ezra and Nehemiah finally succeeded in rebuilding the temple. At the time, Jewish society was on the brink of being wiped out. Israel and Judah did no longer exist. The remaining Jews were mixing with the surrounding population. Jewish leaders had to find a way to keep their people together. The editors of the Hebrew Bible aimed to preserve Jewish identity around a common religion, history and cultural heritage.

Judaism gradually became monotheist under the influence of Zoroastrianism. The prophet Zoroaster believed in a single good creator god and an opposite evil power. The Jews probably were henotheists at first. It means that they believed in other gods but only worshipped Yahweh. It is expressed, for example, in the commandment that you shall have no other gods before me rather than you shall believe there is only one God. Most of the Hebrew Bible has a henotheist perspective.4 Zoroastrianism was widespread in the Middle East. This religion influenced Judaism by bringing in monotheism, messiahs, free will, heaven and hell, and Satan. Zoroastrianism not only affected Judaism. Some of the Greek philosophers around 400 BC were also monotheists.

The Hebrew Bible emerged under the reign of five successive empires: the Assyrians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Hellenistic Rulers, and the Roman Empire. Judah probably had royal archives, so several writings date from centuries before the Hebrew Bible was compiled. There is however no evidence for the historical account of the Hebrew Bible from before the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. The first chapters of Genesis resemble previously extant Mesopotamian myths. Moses most likely never led the Israelites out of Egypt. Israel and Judah may have been united under the reign of David and Solomon but this united kingdom could also have been invented to promote unity. It made the inhabitants in the area all descend from one great nation. And before that, history becomes truly murky. No written records exist from these times. The tales about Abraham, Isaac, and Moses may have been legends from different communities merged into one narrative to promote a sense of single Jewish people.3

The survival of the Jews and their religion has been hanging by a thread for a long time. More than 2,500 years later, the Jews are still a people, so building a sense of peoplehood around a religion proved to be a successful long-term survival strategy. The Jews even managed to rebuild their nation. The odds of this happening were zero from the outset, but it has happened nonetheless. It is also remarkable that Judaism stood at the cradle of Christianity and Islam. In a controlled virtual reality, it may not be a historical accident but part of a scheme.

Featured image: Torah scroll (public domain)

1. “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. Dijkstra, Meindert (2001).
2. 1 Kings 11:7
3. The Bible’s Prehistory, Purpose, and Political Future. Wright, Jacob L. (2014). Coursera.
4. How Jesus Became God: The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee. Bart. D. Ehrman (2014).

Sepphoris Mosaic

Sarah, mother of the Jews

Inventing a nation and a religion

The Hebrew Bible features great stories about Jewish patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And there was Moses who led the Israelites out of Egypt to the Promised Land. To make that happen, the Israelites passed the Red Sea after God parted the waters. The Egyptian army that followed them, drowned. Sadly, there is no archaeological evidence to support these account in the Hebrew Bible. What happened before the kingdoms of Israel and Judah emerged has not been written down. The authors of the Hebrew Bible 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 Hebrew Bible 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 Hebrew Bible.

How the avatars may have emerged

Wright points out that the authors of the Hebrew Bible may have refashioned the role of men and women in order to involve men in raising children and preserving Jewish culture. In the Hebrew Bible, 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 Hebrew Bible 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 Hebrew Bible recognised this, hence there is no commemoration of the war dead in the Hebrew Bible.3 A similar consideration might have made the editors of the Hebrew Bible 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 Hebrew Bible 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]

Lucretia Garfield. Library Of Congres

The identity of God

We may live inside a virtual reality created by an advanced humanoid civilisation for the personal entertainment of an individual who is God to us. God could be like us in many ways and use an avatar to appear as an ordinary human in this world. The entertainment thus could be playing roles in God’s imaginary world. And we may best understand God in this way. Hence, the deities and religions humans have made up tell us little about God. Still, Judaism stood at the cradle of Christianity and Islam, and that may not be a mere historical accident. And so, avatars of God may be present in the Bible.

Archaeological evidence does not corroborate the narrative in the Hebrew Bible from before the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Jesus has lived and preached even though there a lot of uncertainty about what he did and what he preached. Scholars believe that Jesus was just one of the many end-time prophets of his time. According to the Gospel, Jesus had a close personal bond with God. We can infer this from writings that may reflect his own words. And so, Jesus may have known the avatar of God.

That may explain why Jesus stood at the cradle of Christianity, nowadays a global religion with more than two billion followers. That is a most remarkable turn of history. The message of Christianity is that God loved the world so much that God sent Jesus to sacrifice himself for our sins. And this can save us from hell if we accept him as our saviour. That begs for an explanation. Six centuries later, in an astounding turn of history, a small band of Arab warriors created an empire stretching from the Atlantic to India, spreading Islam. Nowadays, Islam has close to two billion followers. And God allegedly promised Abraham that all peoples on Earth are to be blessed through him (Genesis 12:3).

Apart from the Son of God, Jesus was also called the Bridegroom, but the identity of the Bride is unknown. Being the Bridegroom appears to have been his mission and the Kingdom of God is compared to a wedding banquet. Christians believe that the Church is Jesus’ bride. There was no Church at the time Jesus was preaching so this is an anachronism. Perhaps Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and maybe a wedding of the Son of God to an ordinary woman was deemed inappropriate. Another explanation is that Mary Magdalene was God. She may have convinced Jesus that She was the reincarnation of Eve and that Jesus was Adam, and that they were an eternal couple from the beginning of creation until the end of times.

That would have raised controversy as it is at odds with the the Jewish scriptures. Christianity may have been shaped by dealing with this issue. The evidence of a controversy is still visible in the Gospels. The Gospel of John has a very distinct character and theology that is absent in the other Gospels. Scholars agree that the Gospels and the letters of the Church Fathers are edited. The Gospel of John adds a few insights into the nature of this controversy. Christians are born of God (John 1:12-13). Hence, God could be a Mother. And Jesus felt that he had an eternal bond with God and that he existed from the beginning (John 14:6).

Jesus may have believed that he was a reincarnation of Adam, that Mary Magdalene was a reincarnation of Eve, and that Eve did not come from Adam’s rib, but that Eve gave birth to Adam. There is evidence for these claims in the scriptures. Eve is called Mother of All the Living (Genesis 3:20), Adam is named Son of God (Luke 3:38) while Jesus is the Firstborn of all Creation (Colossians 1:15). And so, Adam may have been born. It makes no sense that the woman came from the rib of the man. It is more natural that the woman gave birth to the man. It makes sense but the Jewish scriptures and Greek thought provide us with alternative explanations.

Initially Christianity might have been about the marriage between Mary Magdalene and Jesus representing the Kingdom of God. The love of God Jesus was speaking of (John 17:23-26) may have been the love of a Goddess for her husband. This could explain why Christians believe that God is love (1 John 4:16). It sheds another light on Jesus’ assertion that he is one with God (John 10:30) as marriage is the usual way to become one flesh with another person (Mark 10:8, Matthew 19:5).11 It can clarify why Christian marriage is a sacred union between one man and one woman. Judaism and Islam do not sanctify the institution of marriage in the way Christianity does.

Christianity probably at first had a distinct creation myth and fall story. It may not be an accident that the Quran differs from Genesis on these matters. The Quran describes the creation of Adam extensively but tells little about how Eve came into being. The Quran claims that Jesus and Adam were both made from dust (Quran 3:59). As the Quran corroborates that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a virgin (Quran 3:47), Adam may have been born from a virgin too. The Quran further blames Adam for the Fall while leaving Eve out of the picture (Quran 10:115-121). It does not include the account of Eve convincing Adam to eat from the forbidden fruit. It is however merely a matter of emphasis. The Quran does not contradict the Bible on these matters.

Abraham, the mythical founder of Judaism, was married to Sarah. In family affairs, God consistently sided with Sarah, the Hebrew Bible tells us. And Egypt was beset by plagues when the Pharaoh tried to make Sarah his wife. There is no evidence that Abraham has ever lived, but even if he did, the story about his life is probably a myth, as it was written down over a thousand years after he allegedly had lived. But at least this myth is consistent with God being a woman who can have human avatars. Sarah could have been an avatar of God. And we cannot know that Mary Magdalene was an avatar of God either, even though She, unlike Sarah, probably has lived. At this point, Islamic accounts come to the rescue, making it a more convincing case.

The stories about the life of Muhammad probably are reliable, at least for the purpose at hand. At the age of twenty-five, Muhammad married his boss, the merchant Khadijah Bint Khuwaylid. She was a widow and fifteen years his senior when She proposed to him. Their marriage was both happy and monogamous. Only after Khadijah had died did Muhammad marry other women. Khadijah was the first to convert to Islam immediately after Muhammad received his first vision, which is odd as She was still his superior to the point that Muhammad depended on Her rather than the other way around. Her support was invaluable to Muhammad’s mission, and Islam would not have existed without Her. One can imagine no plausible political or religious agenda for misrepresenting the facts in this way. So, if God did have human avatars, then Khadijah probably was one of them. Women hardly ever were boss over their husbands in seventh-century Arabia, so the odds that the founder of Islam has found himself in this position by accident appears close to zero. Avatars of God may have played a significant role in world history. And God could still be dwelling among us today.

Featured image: Lucretia Garfield. Library Of Congres.