Who is God? What is he? She? How did humanity move from being mostly polytheistic (worshipping many gods), to being mostly monotheistic (worshipping one God)? In 1912, Father Wilhelm Schmidt, in his book, The Origin of the Idea of God,” suggested that there had been a primitive monotheism before men and women had started to worship a number of gods”. He states that this original, High God, was replaced by the “more attractive gods of the pagan pantheons.” However, most anthropologists believe that most of the ancient world was polytheistic.
It was with an ancient man named Abraham in the land of Sumer, outside of the city-state of Ur, that the God of the Jews is revealed. Abraham is said to have left Ur and eventually settled in the land of Canaan sometime between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries BC, or about 4000 years ago. God tells Abraham that he has a special destiny as the father of a great nation. His sons become the fathers of the tribes of Israel and eventually move to Egypt to escape a famine. Abraham knew Him as El Shaddai. In these ancient times God would appear and walk among men in an intimate manner. They could talk to him and even wrestle with Him, as Jacob did on the West Bank of Jabbok. God tested Abraham’s trust (faith) when he ordered him to sacrifice his son Isaac. This is a horrible story to our modern understanding, and many Christians have debated what this was for. We need to understand that many of the gods of ancient days practiced human sacrifice as they required “the input of energy from men and women.” God did not, and by stopping the sacrifice of Isaac he was distancing himself from these other human-created gods. Abraham had proven his faith and the covenant was secure. God was seen as a jealous, war-like God, who protected His elect, and punished all who stood against them. So afraid of Him were the Jews, that they refused to call him by name (they believed that names had power, and that no mere mortal could contain the power of God by naming him). Ancient Hebrew writing YHWH, left out the vowels so His name would not be pronounced.
Later, when God led Moses and the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, he sent many plagues and finally the Angel of Death to strike down all the first born males of Egypt, then destroyed Pharaoh’s army by swallowing them up in the miracle at the Sea of Reeds. At this time the Israelites saw God as a God of War, also known as Yahwek Sabaoth, the God of Armies. God would make a new covenant with Moses. The people of Israel were to worship only God and would keep to his laws. He required obedience, but time and time again the Israelites would fail in their part of this agreement.
Eventually the Jews created a temple as a place to house the Ark of the Covenant and they began to see it as a “replica of Yahweh’s heavenly court.” His worshippers saw him as a being of fire and power, though Elijah would show another aspect of God when he took refuge on a mountain of the Sinai peninsula. He sheltered in the rocks and waited to see God. There was a mighty wind, but God was not in it. Then a great earthquake, but God was not in it. Then fire, but again God was not in it. After the fire came the sound of a gentle breeze. Elijah knew God was there and he “covered his face with a cloak.” Unlike the pagan gods, the God of the Hebrews was not in any of the “forces of nature but in a realm apart. He is experienced in the scarcely perceptible timbre of a tiny breeze in the paradox of voiced silence.”
Around 900 B.C., the Hebrew’s ideas of God began to change again. God’s prophets communed with him and new ideas of social justice began to develop. What was in men’s hearts was more important than the outward observances of Jewish traditions. God, ever seeking a closer relationship with man was continually being revealed. In fact, a basic tenet of the Jewish religious beliefs includes studying the Torah, as well as the ever-revealing truth of God. This is something that many Christians have lost in their traditions. God is always seeking a closer relationship with us and is ever-revealing Himself to us. Jews were required to profess their faith in the Shema: “Listen Israel! Yahweh is our God. He alone! You shall love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. “
At the time of Christ, the most progressive of the Jewish sects were the Pharisees. Yes, I know they have been depicted as hypocrites in our modern churches, but some scholars suggest that Christ was one of them as he often debated with them in their style of questioning and debate (only other Pharisees were allowed to debate in this manner). They believed that everyone in Israel were “called to be a holy nation of priests. God could be present in the humblest home as well as in the Temple….Jews could now approach [H]im directly without the mediation of a priestly caste and an elaborate ritual. They could atone for their sins by acts of loving-kindness to their neighbor; charity was the most important mitzvah in the Torah; when two or three Jews studied the Torah together, God was in their midst.”
One story of Pharisaic Master Hillial, states he was approached by a pagan and told that the man would convert if the Master could recite the Torah while standing on one foot. “Hillial replied: ‘Do not do unto others as you would not have done unto you. That is the whole of the Torah: go and learn it.”
Another story, following the destruction of the temple by the Romans has the Rabbi Yohannan teaching another not to be upset, that “We have another atonement as effective as this. And what is it? It is the acts of loving kindness, as it is said: ‘For I desire mercy and not sacrifice.’”
So God is ever revealing himself to us. He desires a personal relationship with us. His grace calls to us. He loved us enough to take on human form, to live amongst us, to suffer loss, end experience the joys and sorrows of mankind, and to finally experience death on a cross in our place, so we may come to him justified, and have life-everlasting in him.
God loves you. Accept it.
Most of this was extracted from the book A History of God by Karen Armstrong and from the Bible.