The Evolution of God

The other day I was chatting with friends and the subject of God came up. (Imagine that!) They knew I was an atheist and one of them, who had been reading Karen Armstrong’s A History of God, told me that one thing in the book left a lasting impact on her. She said that it had never quite occurred to her that the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is a very different portrait than that painted by Christianity. “If God didn’t like a neighboring tribe,” she remarked, “he would instruct an Israeli king to rise up and he’s help him to wipe them out.” (I’m paraphrasing here.)

It’s always rewarding to see such an “a ha” moment because I’ve spent years trying to dissuade people from the mistaken notion that God is a concept that has been fixed among people for all time. The concept of God has changed radically over the centuries and means different things to different people. The ancient Hebrews were not monotheists. As Mueller coined the term, they were henotheists, or believers in “monotheism in principle” but “polytheism in fact.” They would not have denied the existence of other gods, the ones the Syrians, Greeks, Romans, Babylonians and other neighbors worshipped. But Jehovah (YHWH) was special because this particular god established a bond with the Jews. The dictum to have no other gods before him is quite literally a reference to worship only him rather than to make libations to the other gods out there. (Today among Christians, for whom polytheism is an unknown concept, this is taken metaphorically to mean that one should focus on God rather than to chase after riches or “worldly” things.) The point is that monotheism and the conception of God evolved over time. It’s still evolving. A current fad among fundamentalists posits that God wants his believers to be rich. (What biblical basis is there for this idea? Hint: look to the new covenant when it comes to salvation but to the old one when it comes to wealth.)

One advantage the Hebrew conception of God has over the Christian conception is that is solves the problem of evil. The Hebrew God smites his enemies because they are the enemies of Israel; no logical paradox between omnipotence and omnibenevolence at all. Of course, this raises the question of whether such a being is worthy of worship but that’s for another day.