The Evolution of God

Destruction of Leviathan

Everything has a beginning, including God, whether the faithful would like to think so or not. But, when was it?

The oldest parts of the Bible as we know it is (theoretically) the J an E sources, dated back to the 8th or 9th century BCE. Even a cursory glance at those parts of the Bible, though, gives us a pretty clear indication that Yahweh was viewed in a very different light than he is today. There are references to Yahweh walking though the Garden of Eden “in the cool of the day” (that’s hot, even god waited until it started to cool down)(Genesis 3:8); standing around with Abraham debating on what it would take for him to not kill the Sodomites (Genesis 18:22-33); and coming down on a cloud to stand at the door of the Tent of Meeting (Numbers 12: 4-6).

The more abstract god that we think of today would not be depicted until the later writings of the Bible.

We don’t have any original copies of any of the Old Testament writings. Up until 1948, the oldest copies of the Old Testament we had were from the middle ages. In 1948, though, a discovery in the Jordon dessert turned that around. The Dead Sea Scrolls contained multiple copies of most of the Old Testament books, and they have been dated to 200BCE to 100CE; not as old as we would have liked, but better than what we had. Though the texts do show a very careful copying of manuscripts by the scribes, there are some interesting differences between them and the Masoretic texts. Like this passage in Deuteronomy:

“When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance,
When he separated the children of men,
He set the bounds of the peoples
According to the number of the children of Israel.
For Jehovah’s portion is his people;
Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.”
- Deuteronomy 32:8-9 (Masoretic text)

became this

“When `Elyon (the Most High) allotted peoples for inheritance,
When He divided up the sons of man,
He fixed the boundaries for peoples,
According to the number of the sons of El
But Yahweh’s portion is his people,
Jacob His own inheritance.”
- Deuteronomy 32:8-9 (Dead Sea Scrolls version)

This puzzling piece of data can be explained with another recent archaeological discovery: The Ugaritic texts. In 1929, an site in Syria uncovered religious texts far older than the Old Testament.

The Documentary Hypothesis of the Old Testament had long theorized that the passages in the Bible that refer to god as “El” had originated from the northern Kingdom of Israel and that the part that refer to god with the personal name Yahweh (or more properly, YHWH) were from the southern land of Judah.

The Ugaritic texts originate from the northwest of Israel, and also use El to refer to god (or variations – Elyon meaning “god most high”; El Shaddai meaning “god almighty”; or, Elohim, which is the plural). There are some differences to how he’s depicted, though. He is the head of a pantheon, with 70 sons. 70, the number of nations the Hebrews believed to have existed (“He fixed the boundaries for peoples,According to the number of the sons of El”).

The Ugaritic texts, which have been dated from the 13th to 15th centuries BCE, depict El as a father of all mankind; a dessert dwelling .. El’s son, Yam (or Yaw), is believed to be the name sake of Yahweh. Once the Hebrews adopted mono-theism these two gods seem to have been combined, as mentioned in Exodus:

“I revealed myself to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob as Ēl Shaddāi, but was not known to them by my name Yahweh.” Exodus 6; 2-3

Oddly enough, the Christian derivation of Judaism adopted a sort of pantheism again once Jesus, the anointed son of Yahweh, was given equal status with him inside the concept of the trinity. (“We affirm, too, a crowd of angels and ministers ”-Athenagoras of Athens).

Yaw, himself, seems to have originated as a sea deity, similar to Poseidon. This does fit elements of Yahweh’s mythos, most notably his infamous battle with the sea dragon, Leviathan.

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