the still small voice

The Evolution of God by Robert WrightI’m really enjoying Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God. Some of the material he covers I know from elsewhere. What’s brand new to me is the evolution of the Babylonian god Marduk toward monotheism. I haven’t yet gotten to the role Marduk plays in ancient Canaanite (and Hebrew) religions. I look forward to finding out more.

Meanwhile, here’s a passage on one of my favorite scenes in the Bible:

5. Polytheism, the Religion of Ancient Israel

The Hebrew Bible — what Christians call the Old Testament — records a memorable experience that the prophet Elijah had on Mount Sinai. God had told Elijah to stand there and wait for an encounter with the divine. Then “there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” These last few words — “a sound of sheer silence” — are sometimes translated as “a still small voice.” But, either way, you get the picture: the Hebrew god, Yahweh, for all the atmospherics surrounding him, was elusive.

This episode, from the first book of Kings, is often cited as a landmark in the history of religion. In “primitive” polytheism, the forces of nature may be inhabited by the gods, or loosely equated with them. But in the monotheism that was taking shape in the Middle East, there would be more distance between nature and divinity. “Unlike the pagan deities, Yahweh was not in any of the forces of nature but in a realm apart,” wrote Karen Armstrong about Elijah’s peak experience in her book A History of God.

The Bible’s classic pagan deity was Baal, worshipped by the much-derided Canaanites and, at times, by deluded Israelites who had strayed from devotion to Yahweh. Baal, as a fertility god, was sometimes called the Lord of Rain and Dew. Yahweh, in contrast, was the Lord of nothing in particular — and of everything; he was the ultimate source of nature’s power, but he didn’t micromanage it; he was as much chairman of the board as chief executive.

This kind of god is often described as more modern than pagan, Baal-like gods, more compatible with a scientific worldview. After all, looking for mechanistic laws of nature wouldn’t make much sense if, as the pagans of Elijah’s day believed, nature was animated by the ever changing moods of various gods. There’s more room for scientific principles to hold sway if there’s just one god, sitting somewhere above the fray — capable of intervening on special occasions, maybe, but typically presiding over a universe of lawful regularity.

“Transcendent” is a term some scholars use to describe this god, while others prefer “remote” or “hidden.”

Kaufmann, writing in the middle of the twentieth century, saw this and other distinctive traits of Yahweh as evidence that the Hebrew god had been more revolutionary than evolutionary. He rejected the idea that Israelite religion was “an organic outgrowth of the religious milieu” of the Middle East. Rather, the religion of Yahweh was “an original creation of the people of Israel. It was absolutely different from anything the pagan world ever knew.”

Whether Yahweh indeed took shape in such splendid isolation — and whether he took shape as early as Kaufmann and other traditionalists would have it — is an issue to which we’ll return. Meanwhile, it’s important to stress that, however “modern” this “transcendent” god may have been, the Yahweh of Elijah’s time still didn’t possess what many people would call a modern moral sensibility. For example, he wasn’t very tolerant of alternative theological perspectives. In that episode in First Kings, God uses his “still small voice” to instruct Elijah on how to get every Baal worshipper in the vicinity killed. Then, a chapter later, after some Syrians express doubt about the Hebrew god’s power, Yahweh underscores their confusion by producing 127,000 dead Syrians. This god may have spoken softly, but he carried a big stick.


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