Last week, I jumped across 3.8 billion years of history from the first life to the human purpose of doing good. Somewhere around 5,000 – 10,000 years ago, humans realized they were in an environment that was much, much bigger than they could ever comprehend or fully control. However, they knew they were alive and were experiencing mysterious forces and energies. Early humans named those forces and sought ways to use those powers to improve their conditions—leaving behind clay representations of hunting scenes and phallic and feminine symbols. Obviously, they had their priorities!
As language developed, they tried describing the forces that they couldn’t understand using terms like “the personification of the sky” or “goddess of morning.” Eventually, these were reduced to simple proper names—for example Anu in Mesopotamia.
Early societies wanted control over their physical environment—crops, floods, fertility, weather, volcanos, to name just a few. They also wished for better interpersonal relationships—from individual to tribal to national. And they assumed “beings” they couldn’t control must be causing these conditions. So, for thousands of years, people tried to improve their relationship to good gods and to appease bad gods. These supplications took the form of offerings, sacrifices, or specific behaviors (rituals).
Of course, we know now that those supernatural gods didn’t really exist. However, those people obviously saw their world as if those gods where out there. We also need to clearly understand that all peoples were describing their own experiences and attributing human characteristics to those experiences. They had no better way of portraying these happenings.
The relational God
Roughly 3000+ years ago, the Israelites reduced these gods into a single paternalistic god, calling him Yahweh or El (depending on which tribe’s author was writing). This god was unique in that it was not linked to a force of nature. It was a relational god. A god who wanted to relate to humans, to guide them, to have them be successful as a people.
Having a god who could help them and who wanted a relationship with them, is what gave them hope—the human recognition that things can be different in the future. Hope buoys us and gets us through difficult circumstances.
Everyone knew that being in a positive relationship with Ultimate Reality was the worthwhile goal. Life is simply more successful when things go well. So, the Israelite’s god mirrored the values of their culture—their focus on what was good for their nation. At first, their god simply reflected their needs and beliefs. Then they wrote about their god in ways which tried to keep their culture on the right path to please that god.
We call them sacred.
Many Hebrew authors sought to describe how they experienced their single relational god. They added stories, myths (in the anthropological sense), legends, and bits of history to flesh out their explanations. Over hundreds of years, their writings were collected and sometimes rejected, often merged and edited, and eventually became the library of scrolls called the Scriptures. Plus, after many translations, Yahweh became God—a much later Germanic word.
I want to be explicit about the authority of the Scriptures. Since God is not a being, “he” couldn’t have dictated the contents. The scriptures originated with religious writers who wished to codify and illustrate how they experienced their concept of a god. Often, they wrote to influence their fellow Israelites in positive—or sometimes, controlling—ways. We accept them as sacred because their content resonates with our understanding of Ultimate Reality. They give us direction in fulfilling our quest for wholeness.
Next time, I plan to move the timeline to a Galilean peasant who focused on the key concepts of Israel’s sacred Scriptures. Stay tuned.
_______________________ June 18, 2018
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Art Fabian is on a spiritual journey to enjoy more aliveness and to share the goal of wholeness with others. He has no special training or degrees in this field. He’s not a religious scholar or theologian. However, he hopes you might also enjoy walking towards a richer life that benefits us, our neighbors, and all creation.