Who created God? Not a bad question to ask. Although it is not often questioned. While that’s a valid question, it’s scary. You know what they say…curiosity killed the cat! There’s this feeling that if we keep to ourselves and don’t go too dangerously down the rabbit hole, we’ll be fine. Perhaps the question is seen as irreverent. Perhaps we are afraid of what it might mean that our minds have even reached a point where we assume there might be an answer to this question. This is all a bit complicated, isn’t it?
Earlier this year, Francesca Stavrakopoulou, a scholar of Hebrew and ancient religions, published “God: An Anatomy.” Although I have three seminary degrees, I am not an expert in the Hebrew Scriptures or in history. When teaching or preaching from the Hebrew Testament, I am very careful, because it was and still is Jewish Scripture before it was mine and claimed by Christianity as the Old Testament. So when I saw this book being published in such large volumes by a highly respected scholar and thinker, I was really looking forward to getting my hands on it. I must say it did not disappoint. Like most books I devour and can’t reserve, my copy is carefully annotated and it’s a text I’ve come back to several times since.
When I handle and study biblical texts, I usually don’t worry too much about empirical realities outside of that. Of course, I’m interested in the world in which these texts were born and certainly reflect, but when it comes to interpretation, the text can usually tell us all we need to know.
We have the god of the Bible and we interpret that god as such… within the confines of his house, that is, the biblical text and its stories. That’s the only way it makes sense, and then we can interpret and derive the meaning.
However, if you are interested in the birth of the “God of the Bible”, the evolution of Yahweh and the ancient historical realities of the Near East, and the ultimate question: “Who created God?” we definitely need to go somewhere else. The Bible is not a history book, it is a deeply meaningful and dramatic religious account of a people and their own account of their history with their god. And it’s a beautiful thing.
When I was in my junior seminary cycle in my early 20s, I learned so much. There were also a lot of things that I didn’t learn. I can see it now. But back then, fresh out of Pentecostal Bible college, I absorbed everything new and different. It was so exciting! Much of the puzzle was coming together for me. And it didn’t take away the god I was serving at the time, it added it. I’m so thankful, again, for those days.
I remember attending an Old Testament class on wisdom literature. This teacher was considered particularly liberal compared to some of the more conservative evangelical teachers. I remember sitting in his class for a week and he started talking about the worship of Ba’al, the ancient Canaanite god of thunder and storm and son of El, the great god and head of the Pantheon.
Most of you may have heard the name Ba’al or Ba-El before. It occurs over 90 times in the Hebrew Scriptures. In particular, we can see that there are actual Psalms that speak specifically of the god of thunder and lightning, which would have been a direct reference to Ba’al. We also know from ancient Ugaritic texts and tablets that there are striking similarities in rhetoric. It stands to reason that the writer of Psalms and Proverbs would have been familiar with the worship of their Canaanite ancestors and could probably have rewritten it in the worship and service of Yahweh. That’s how my teacher used to talk about it. And he wasn’t wrong.
I was so deliciously confused. To be honest, I was thrilled! This awakened and aroused in me so much desire to know more. Because at the time, I thought to myself, now I can engage in conversations with those who have tried to debunk the authority of the Bible! And I’ve met so many of them in this time of my life. The arguments were always the same…
“Did you know that Mark’s texts were taken from Homer’s Odyssey?”
“Or what about the fact that this worship of Yahweh was actually for El and Ba’al and other gods?”
And now I could say (and I did!) “Yes, I do. And here’s how it happened and here’s why it happened. The writers decided to worship where the real worship was due. And as a means of overthrowing other gods, they did.
It was stimulating and I loved it. I have not been threatened by any atheist argument from anyone. Even now I find these arguments boring and tired and still a complete non-starter.
Anyway, my teacher didn’t take it all the way. He stopped short of what most would have considered heresy and that is the fact that this cult was actually for Ba’al. Not his fault. I think the administration would have eaten him for breakfast if he had. There is much historical argument and evidence that: 1. The worship of Yahweh evolved from stories and myths about El, 2. That Yahweh was actually Ba’al, 3. That there still had an active pantheon and the worship of this pantheon at the time The worship of Yahweh began to emerge.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t a safe enough space for him to say much.
But Francesca Stavrakopoulou does it… and more.
One thing that we always have to remember, that I feel like I say often, is that we always make God in our image. Which is logical. Why wouldn’t we? Why wouldn’t we worship a god who narrates, knows how we function and understands us?
In ancient times, deities behaved like humans. It was a bit problematic in terms of the moral nature that gods often took on, but that’s how gods were related to humans and humans to gods.
At the time, in what was known as the Levant or Levantine (which is now Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Palestine/Israel and Jordan), there was an extremely active Pantheon. El was the head, having 70 sons, one of whom was Ba’al…and…one of whom was (perhaps) Yahweh. Yahweh, son of El, son of God. Historical documents (what we have) can corroborate this.
The historical records are frustratingly silent when it comes to the emergence of the worship of Yahweh. Although we see Yahweh come into play towards the end of the 2n/a and at the beginning 1st millennium BC.
It is not difficult to understand that Israel, as a small nation that was forming, wanted to reach the top. Yahweh eventually came to be known as a god of storm and war. Not as big and as bad (or as well known) as Ba’al, but he did the same thing. They wanted this kind of god to be their personal boss and give them some street cred. Yahweh was actually a minor deity, but still a fierce storm deity.
Stavrakopoulou says he was “on the fringes of the inhabited world” and that it was in the “dangerous and mountainous desert”. Although Yahweh was not alone as a “desert-dwelling deity”.
He was one of the Shadday gods, the gods who lived in the desert. Which also makes sense for the history of Israel. We also know that these desert deities were subject to El, as we have a record of El as El-Shadday. Meet El, leader of the ancient Levantine pantheon. The El, which according to Stavrakopoulou, is the one recognized by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. It was the El of Isra-el or Yisra-el, the El of El Shaddai.
How Yahweh usurped El is “frustrating and unclear.” But, again, looking at the socio-political situation of emerging Israel and Judah, it is easy to see why they were able to claim Yahweh’s personal patronage to strengthen and legitimize their royal powers and kingdoms.
By the 9e century, Yahweh is “firmly established at the head of the local pantheons of two kingdoms”. When we come to the writings of the exiled prophets, we can see the case they present. It’s not Yahweh’s fault. He has not abandoned us. We are still worshiping other gods and we have to stop and worship Yahweh exclusively. So he will help us.
And so we have the new image of the “god of the Bible.”
Snowball of myths. Because gods reflect cultures, situations, needs and those they serve. And that changes with each new generation.
Maybe you are reading this and your mind is a little blown. Or maybe you see me as an atheist heretic. Or maybe you are offended by my irreverent study of God outside of the scriptures. Either way, stay with me a minute as this story continues to be written and I’m just as excited about it as I was when I first started seminary as my teacher took me on a journey that I’ve been on again and again.
What does the birth of God have to do with the birth of Jesus? And does Jesus matter even though it’s God’s origin story? The god of the bible anyway.
We are Christians because Jesus continues the beautiful trajectory of history.
Jesus is a whole new interpretation of God, a whole new son of God. One that would overthrow not only the Roman imperial cult, but also the cult of Yahweh.
Our “god of the Bible” is the son of God (El), created in the image and needs of his people. Our Jesus-Son of God-is the remaking. A brand new launch!
The savior of the world and perhaps the savior of the image of God.
Maybe it was his attempt.
Maybe that could be our attempt as well.
With a grateful mind and heart, I dedicate this message to a beloved teacher and scholar of the Hebrew Bible, Tim Sena.
 Francesca Stavrakopoulou, God: An Anatomy. (London: Picador, 2021), 21.
 Same, 22.
 Same, 23.