Friday, May 18, 2012

Mutiple Gods in Genesis? Responding to Pagan Claims

In her article, “We Are the Other People,” by Oberon (Otter) Zell, she recounts an incident in which some unsuspecting Christian missionaries were showed up by her innovative exegesis of the Genesis account of creation and the fall. The article begins with her saying that a group of Yahweh’s witnesses dropped by attempting to save her souls. By Yahweh’s witnesses does she mean Jehovah’s Witnesses or an orthodox Christian denomination? Jehovah’s witnesses are not considered orthodox Christians by most Christians because they are not Trinitarian but the author is nonplussed. Unfortunately, this is only the beginning of her indifference to facts and details.

Zell reveals the same indifference to truth in the way that she relishes in the joy of mockery—a clear sign that she does not take the questions being raised seriously. If she thinks Christians are wrong about basic metaphysical and ethical questions, she is right to say so. However, questions about God and the nature of humankind have concerned great pagan minds like Aristotle and the author’s tone reeks of indifferentism. I would have preferred a thoughtful defense of pagan claims rather than trivialization of the matter, which indicates that she simply does not take the questions seriously.

However, my greatest contention with the author is not attitudinal but factual. I am going to grant her the benefit of the doubt by assuming that the objections she raised to her Christian interlocutors were done in good faith, that she sincerely believes that she has stumbled on some exegetical point that Jews and Christians have not considered, but she is mistaken.

The crux of her argument is that Elohim is in the plural and therefore refers to a multiplicity of gods. If the author knew more Hebrew rather than how to use a little bit of Hebrew to stump Christians she would know that the very first line in the Bible proves her wrong. Hebrew, as in most languages, uses a different form for plural or singular verbs. In other words if a noun is plural, it will take a plural verb but if a noun is singular it takes a singular form of the verb. This agreement that is common to most languages is often forgotten by English speakers because other than in the third person singular, we use the same form of verb no matter the person.

The Bible begins with the words, “In the beginning, when God (Elohim) created (bara) the heavens and the Earth,” (Gen 1:1). Zell is claiming that Elohim refers to “gods” and not “God” but if that were true, than the appropriate Hebrew verb would be “baru.” The long “a” would be replaced by a silent “e” and a long “u.” That is not what happens in Genesis. In fact, throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, Elohim, unless a comment is being made about “the gods of the gentiles” is consistently used with a singular noun because it is referring to one God not a multiplicity of gods.

Zell is absolutely right that the word “Elohim” is a plural noun, but this is simply what is known as the “majestic plural.” The majestic plural is commonly used for royalty or divinity. It basically arises out of the sense that that figure is so great, so worthy of exaltation that a plural noun has to be used to capture the grandeur of the figure. Over the centuries, persons of rank, such as Queen Victoria of England or the Roman Pope, have used the majestic plural to refer to themselves. For example, the Basic Law of the Sultanate of Oman opens with, “On the Issue of the Basic Law of the State We, Qaboos bin Said, Sultan of Oman….”  Despite the fact that sultan refers to himself as “we,” it would be foolish to argue that Mr. Said here is actually more than one person. This is simply known as “the royal we.”

Zell’s distortion of the Biblical text continues when she alleges that Yahweh is simply “an individual member of the Pantheon” who creates Adam and Eve in Genesis 2. This is where I am forced to ask is Zell being intentionally deceptive. She repeatedly quotes the Bible pointing out that “Yahweh God…” is said to do x, y, and z.” This is an accurate rendering of the English translation but the word for God is still “Elohim.” If Zell was right that Yahweh was here being described as one of the gods in the pantheon, we would expect the Scripture writer to drop the majestic plural and simply say, “El” instead of Elohim. So, what Zell wants us to believe is that the same word which she alleges is plural in the first chapter of Genesis now suddenly singular in the second chapter. This is a classic example of how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Elohim and Yahweh are one and the same. There is nothing in Genesis that suggests that the Heavens and the Earth are created by a multiplicity of gods. There is a perfectly logically explanation for the fact that both names are used in the Bible. The short explanation is that early Israelite religious devotion included both names for God and certain traditions were more likely to use one over the other. El is simply an Ancient Near East word for God. It was used by many peoples in the Ancient Near East, including the children of Israel. It is a basic word that means God. The Israelites used a plural form of the word to show the majesty of that one God. Yahweh is the specific name of God revealed to Israelites by God himself. It means “I am” and that name is unique to Israel. The best way to think about it is Elohim is to Yahweh as human being is to Carolyn.

Zell goes on to say, “Then Yahweh decides to make a woman to go with the man. Now, don't forget that the Pantheon had earlier created a whole population of people, "male and female," who are presumably doing just fine somewhere "outside the gates of Eden." This is another gross misunderstanding of the text as well as the purpose of the Biblical narrative. This is not a story about what the “Elohim’s” did as opposed to what Yahweh did. This is two stories about Elohim who is Yahweh, designed to fulfill to separate theological purpose. The first story is about how God created the world by the power of His voice. Unlike the creation narratives of the Ancient Near East in which the gods are warring each other during creation, the point of Genesis is exactly the opposite of Zell’s claim. It is a counter-narrative to the pagan view of Middle Bronze Age in which the pantheon of gods are jostling for power. The Scripture writer is saying here that God creates all things, including human beings simply by the power of His voice. There are no other deities to contend with. He speaks and it comes into being.

Genesis 2 however is about sexual complementarity. It would be unwise to do, as the author and her fundamentalist visitors apparently did, to take this account as literal descriptions. Instead it is a story about the fact that man and women are made of the same substance and that an appropriate sexual partner for a man is a woman. On the other hand, Genesis I is designed to teach that human beings, both male and female are made in the image and likeness of God. Both of these are true but have independent theological purposes.

Also, since these stories are from two separate traditions in Israelite history, it is equality unwise to attempt to harmonize them as sequential, historical accounts of the actions of Yahweh. Thus, when Yahweh is said to be creating a helper for Adam, one should not imagine that there are people outside of the garden doing other things. The writer of Genesis treats Genesis 2 as the total sum of human existence and to properly understand his theological point, we should do likewise.

Zell proceeds to discuss the issue of the fall and original sin. For the sake of brevity, I will discuss that in a separate response.

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