The Birth and Evolution of Judaism:
The Pre-Mosaic Stage
Little or nothing can be
known for certain about the nature of Hebrew
worship before the
migration from Egypt. In Hebrew history,
already worshipping a figure called "Elohim,"
which is the plural for "lord."
This figure is also called "El Shaddai"
("God the Mountaineer (?)," translated
as "God Almighty"), and a couple
other variants. The name of God, Yahweh,
isn't learned by the Hebrews until Moses
hears the name spoken by God
on Mount Sinai. This god requires animal
sacrifices and regular expiation. He intrudes
on human life with astonishing suddenness,
and often demands absurd acts from humans.
The proper human relationship to this god
is obedience, and the early history of humanity
is a history of humans oscillating between
obedience to this god and autonomy. This
god is anthropomorphic: he has human qualities.
He is frequently angered and seems to have
some sort of human body. In addition, the
god worshipped by Abraham and his descendants
is the creator god, that is, the god solely
responsible for the creation of the universe.
The god of Genesis
is bisexual: he/she is often referred
to in female as well as male terms. For
instance, this god is represented frequently
as "mothering" or "giving
birth through labor pains" to the world
and humans (these passages are universally
mistranslated in English as "fathering"this
god is only referred to as a "father"
twice in Genesis ). In Genesis
, Elohim or El Shaddai functions as
a primitive law-giver; after the Flood,
this god gives to Noah those primitive laws
which apply to all human beings, the so-called
Laws. Nothing of the sophistication
and comprehensive of the Mosaic laws is
evident in the early history of the human
relationship to Yahweh as outlined in Genesis
Scholars have wracked their brains trying to figure
out what conclusions might be drawn about this human history. In general,
they believe that the portrait of Hebrew religion in Genesis is
an inaccurate one. They conclude instead that Hebrew monolatry and
monotheism began with the Yahweh cult introduced, according to Exodus,
in the migration from Egypt between 1300 and 1200 BC. The text of
Genesis in their view is an attempt to legitimate the occupation
of Palestine by asserting a covenantal relationship between Yahweh
and the Hebrews that had been established far in the distant past.
All these conclusions are brilliant but tentative,
for we'll never know for sure much of anything substantial about Hebrew
history and religion during the age
of the patriarchs or the sojourn in Egypt. Nevertheless, scholars
draw on the text of Genesis to conclude the following controversial
ideas about early Hebrew religion:
Early Hebrew religion was polytheistic;
the curious plural form of the name of God, Elohim rather than El,
leads them to believe that the original Hebrew religion involved
several gods. This plural form, however, can be explained as a "royal"
plural. Several other aspects of the account of Hebrew religion
in Genesis also imply a polytheistic faith.
The earliest Hebrew religion was animistic,
that is, the Hebrews seemed worship forces of nature that dwelled
in natural objects.
As a result, much of early Hebrew religion
had a number of practices that fall into the category of magic:
scapegoat sacrifice and various forms of imitative magic, all of
which are preserved in the text of Genesis .
Early Hebrew religion eventually became
anthropomorphic, that is, god or the gods took human forms;
in later Hebrew religion, Yahweh becomes a figure that transcends
the human and material worlds. Individual tribes probably worshipped
different gods; there is no evidence in Genesis that anything
like a national God existed in the time of the patriarchs.
The most profound revolution in Hebrew thought, though,
occurred in the migration from Egypt, and its great innovator was
Moses. In the epic events surrounding
the flight from Egypt and the settling of the promised land, Hebrew
religion became permanently and irrevocably, the Mosaic religion.
Source: The Hebrews:
A Learning Module from Washington State University, ©Richard Hooker,
reprinted by permission.