The Pokey Finger of God

meditations on religion and culture

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Questions from a seeker 1

September 8th, 2003 · No Comments · metaphysics, ritual

Dear Seeker —

You ask: First of all, why is “god” called various names —
I’ve seen “El Shaddai”, “Yaweh”, and “God” multiple
times. Are they all referring to the same god, or is
there an implication of other gods or parts of God?

First of all, the term “god” is an ancient gothic construct that refers to
deity in general. When the was translated into English, a decision
was made early on to translate any instance of “Elohim” to “God” and any
instance of “Yahweh” to “Lord”. Thus, the principal gods of the Old
Testament are “Elohim” and “Yahweh”.

“Elohim”, or more properly, “El Ohim”, means “the gods” (note plural
form). “Yahweh”, on the other hand, is considered a proper name, yet is a
semitic pun on the phrase “I am”. Thus, when YHWH introduces himself to
Moses, he says “I am who I am”: indicating that God does indeed have a
sense of humor. (See comment below.)

You’re probably familiar with the “Four Authors” of the bible (and if
you’re not, you should be hearing about them soon): the Jahwehist, the
Elohist, the Priest, and the Redactor. In the stories by the Jahwehist,
god was referred to as “YHWH”; when the Elohist wrote, god was “El Ohim”.
The Priest (more probably Priests) were 8th Century writers who
perpetually ruin the flow of the bible with endless geneaologies and land
claims, rules and ritual instruction; and Deuteronomy. The “Redactors”
were the 5th C. editors in Babylon who tried to merge all the disparate
sources into a generally coherent form. These different sources (or source
sets) are another reason god has different names, depending on where you

From an historic perspective, there was never any notion of monotheism the
way it is practiced today. There were many gods, and different gods in
different places. Even Moses asks of YHWH, “who, among the gods is like
you?” (Ex 15:11) The stories comprising the books of Moses were collected
from a variety of peoples and cultures who lived in the regions of Egypt,
Canaan, Assyria, and Babylonia. They each worshiped their own particular
gods, thus their stories referred to different gods. In the area of
Canaan, YHWH was frequently worshiped, typically, as one of a triad of
deities. Usually the triad was viewed as an atomic family unit: father,
mother, son. YHWH would either be the father or the son, depending on
where you were. Yah had his own symbols, rites, and implications: he was
considered a protective god, one who would rescue the worshipper from
times of strife. In some areas, he occupied a conspicuous mountain; in
others, he was the god of the river (most notably, the Jordan — hence the
fish was his symbol there).

The term ‘El Ohim’ refers the triad of gods, which was a common enough
pattern in the Levant to be widely understood. Other common names of god
in that region at that time were El Shaddai, Baal, even Baal Zebub
(Bealzebub). Personally, I feel that the reason the name of god was
verboten to speak was because they didn’t want people to fight over the
specific name of god, so long as they were all tithing to and sacrificing
in their big temple.

You ask: Does Yaweh have a specific rules set for his humans?
The only ones I see specifically mentioned are for
Adam and Eve and then some small ones. Yaweh decides
to destroy the earth by flood because he doesn’t like
what the humans are doing, but it is not made clear
what that is exactly.

This is a delightful question: so innocent, and yet, so penetrating. There
are more than a few, certainly more than ten, rules that YHWH left as his
legacy to the people of Israel. Unfortunately, most of these were left
care of Moses, so Adam, Eve, Abel, Cain, and Noah were completely without
any sort of rational exposition of YHWH’s wishes. Adam & Eve were given
somewhat vague instruction and expelled when they were unable to fathom
the wishes of god. Noah was just as inexplicably saved as were his
neighbors inexplicably killed.

Please note that there are four stories of the beginning of the world at
the start of Genesis. We get two “creation” myths, a flood myth, and a
tower myth. These stories all occupy the place of the “Tale to begin all
tales”, and thus, whatever happened before or had any causal relation to
these stories is all immaterial. Why did god flood the earth? It doesn’t
matter because our world began when the world dried out. Why did god
destroy the tower? It doesn’t matter because our world began when the
peoples were scattered.

From a more literalist approach, there is the text about the “sons of God”
marrying the “daughters of the Earth” and having babies with them who
became heroes and the like. From the flow of the text, one might be led to
believe that god didn’t care much for heroes, or felt that heroes were
somehow evil. Unfortunately, this hypothosis gets a few good hits on the
way through Genesis, and kinda falls apart in the middle of Samuel.

Going back the the real authors of the bible, it was the Priestly author
who was really responsible for the imposition of most of the “rules of
god” present in the bible. Probably, the commandments of the covenant, in
its various forms, predate the Priestly author by several centuries.
Otherwise, rules of ritual, especially rules that favor the priesthood,
were most certainly written by the Priestly source.

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