Our Desert Shepherd God

One constantly hears of the importance of the “Judeo-Christian tradition” to Western society and values.  Apparently Islam, which is clearly also part of the Abrahamic family, does not count, perhaps because it is so obviously at odds with the values touted in the West.  Yet apart from the fact that the West has been essentially Christian, with a smattering of Jews, it is not exactly clear how Judeo-Christian ideas are so important to modern society.

The two religions certainly espouse basic social values common to virtually all of humanity – homicide, theft, adultery, etc. are bad and family, compassion, charity, etc. are good – and they at least suggest that law and justice are vital to a well-organized society.  But does not the classical tradition also support all these values and do so within a context of rationalism, eliminating the need for any god?  Further, the Greco-Roman legacy lays the foundation for scientific enquiry and the democratic state, emphasizing a rule of law disconnected from any sort of faith.  The mainstream versions of the three Abrahamic religions ultimately accommodated, at least to some degree, rationalism and constitutional government, but this evolution took a very long time and segments of these faiths are still hostile to such Western notions.  Yahweh/God/Allah is manifestly not a democratic figure and has required unthinking acceptance of his words.

Inasmuch as they are rooted in faith rather than reason all religions are inherently silly to one degree or another, but the believer will of course only see the silliness in the other guy’s religion, especially if it is not Abrahamic.  There are, to be sure, differences in what might be called sophistication: god as a first principle behind the universe is more sophisticated than god as a personal savior requiring certain ethical behavior, which is in turn more sophisticated than god as nature spirit requiring offerings and ritual behavior.  But no matter how primitive or sophisticated all religions require a suspension of reason, and consequently Athena springing full grown from the brow of Zeus is inherently no more unreasonable than Jesus being born of a virgin mother or a Buddhist being reborn as a bug.  In fact, it is easier to make sense of the utterly anthropomorphic Olympic gods, who act just as humans do, than of the Abrahamic deity, who demands often strange behavior and proclaims his love of humanity while loosing all manner of evils upon us.

The many flocks of Abraham are of course generally oblivious to such considerations and display an arrogance possible only for a monotheist, dismissing poor benighted polytheists (the term “pagan” – “those of the countryside” – carries the contempt) as ignorant fools who cannot see how obviously false and man-made their gods are.  Ironically, the historical and cultural roots of the Abrahamic god, particularly in his Christian and Muslim incarnations, are quite evident, as obvious as the environmental origins of any weather god or fertility goddess.

The invisible tribal god of the people who would become the Hebrews readily betrays his local and west-Semitic character, particularly in his often bizarre prohibitions and punishments, many of which are common to other deities in
Syria-Palestine at the time.  Despite centuries of redactions the early books of the Old Testament still reveal signs of the polytheist and mythic past of the Judge of Nations, the creation of one time semi-nomadic stock herders.  This nameless desert shepherd god shares the original henotheistic nature possessed by many of his Canaanite colleagues, and only because of the understandable historical circumstances that detached him from nature and made him the sole god in the universe does he escape the scrap heap of religion to which they were ultimately consigned.  He becomes the ethical deity, but remains encrusted with the ritual and animal sacrifice of his early days.

His next incarnation comes out of the conjunction of a number of religious and historical factors that are found in Judea in the first century AD.  Because of the return of the Babylonian exiles, who had preserved his ancient character, and the successful nationalist revolt of the Maccabees, which helped stem the tide of Hellenism, Yahweh survived intact in a rapidly changing world.  The centuries old tradition of religious activists – the prophets – challenging the authority of a wealthy and corrupt priesthood allied with the state continued with the appearance of a charismatic preacher from Galilee.  As a heretic and potential revolutionary the popular Jesus would have to die, and his execution was approved by a Roman governor interested in maintaining order and keeping the propertied classes happy.

But because of the Greeks the story did not finish there, and Jesus did not simply join the line of martyrs for the Mosaic god.  The Hellenic wave that washed over Judea in the wake of Alexander brought with it a new religious form, the mystery cult, at the heart of which was a new idea of deity, the dying and resurrected god.  Jesus could thus live on, united with his divine father and divine spirit in a new version of the sole god, one more concerned with the downtrodden rather than the powerful, with forgiveness rather than punishment.  This was the Prince of Peace rather than the Lord of Hosts, Yahweh with a smiling face – and in a questionable three pack edition.

And the timing was perfect, which is of course why a new major religion emerged from this amalgam of ideas.  The Roman Empire allowed for the easy and rapid spread of the Christian god into the most distant corners of the Mediterranean and western Europe, and that Empire was packed with people ready to hear about the first truly poor man’s god, who preferred the powerless and offered a reward in the next life.  Facilitating all this was Saul/Paul of Tarsus, who striped the new creed of all the intimidating dietary and ritual practices of traditional Judaism.  The one ethical god was now available to the uncircumcised.

Some six hundred years later the third and seemingly final model of the god of Moses appeared, essentially the work of a single individual.  Growing up in the polytheist and socially retarded society of Red Sea Arabia, Mohammed did not have to create an Arabic supreme being from scratch but could draw upon the ideas of the Jews and Christians found in Medina.  Fully reflecting the primitive and semi-Bedouin environment, the resulting deity was a return to the more west-Semitic Jewish version, a Lord of Battles suitable for the constantly warring tribes.  Even more aniconic than his Hebrew predecessor, Allah was the ultimate desert shepherd god, who would carry his barbarian adherents to world power.

Yahweh/God/Allah is now worshipped by more than half the people on the planet, quite an achievement for a deity who started out as the tribal god of a tiny group of semi-nomadic herders.  And while he has undoubtedly satisfied the spiritual needs of millions upon millions of humans and has certainly inspired incredible art, he has equally clearly brought untold misery into the world.  Polytheists are almost relentlessly religiously tolerant (extremist Hindus only demonstrate what happens when you share a country with Arab Muslims), but monotheism introduced humanity to religious arrogance, holy war and baptism by the sword.  Two millennia after Christ and fifteen hundred years after Mohammed the world is still plagued with religious bigotry and violence and hostility towards rationalism.

Even worse, this is the no-fun god, enshrining the puritanical and narrow-minded attitudes of his herding and Bedouin progenitors and the uneducated and rural masses that underpin his worship.  Human sexuality, an inescapable element of our being, is suppressed and considered virtually an evil necessity, and the human body, celebrated by the high civilizations of Greece and India, has become an object of shame.  Islam carries the travesty even further, prohibiting alcohol, the chosen drug of the human race and the solace of millions, while its more extreme adherents seek to remove all the most colorful elements from the tapestry of life.  How is that sex and drink have fallen into the same category as theft and murder?

Suppose that priestly Judaism had disappeared under the impact of Hellenism or that the Galilean preacher had never appeared.  The educated elites in the classical world were already abandoning polytheism for a more unitary understanding of god, a divine principle rather than a personal savior.  How would that have played out without the intervention of Christianity and Islam?  In the midst of all its polytheist beliefs Hinduism has produced for the educated a more unitary notion of deity.  It is far too much to believe that humanity would have moved away from religion altogether, but the absence of the desert shepherd god would likely have resulted in a more pleasant history for the race.

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