I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.
All that is in heaven and earth gives glory to Allah. He is the Mighty, the Wise One.His is the kingdom of the heavens and the earth. He ordains life and death and has power over all things.
He is the first and the last, the visible and the unseen. He has knowledge of all things.
Another post I find difficult to begin, so I will begin at the beginning. Is monotheism older than polytheism? Certain authors and religious scholars believe so. Father Wilhelm Schmidt popularized this hypothesis in 1912 with the publication of his book “The Origin of the Idea of God”. He states that the earliest worshipers followed one “god”. This belief is mirrored in many indigenous African tribes who worship a distant “Sky God”. Their cultures and religions have remained relatively unchanged or thousands of years. The worship of a single GOD in the sky seemed to also be a common theme among many early Native American tribes as well. These were not personal gods either. They did not influence people’s lives or interact with the world. They were never depicted in effigy or spoken of in human terms. It was viewed as foolish to even attempt to relate to them or understand why they had created the world. They were gods. You couldn’t know gods.
This is simply a hypothesis though and cannot yet be proven if at all. To begin to understand the GOD many of us know today we go back about 14,000 years. Maybe further. As agriculture became prominent and distinctive villages and cultures began to populate the earth, many looked for a meaning in the world around them. The first great “religion” to spring up appears to have come about in prehistoric times. Various small sculptures of a female god, or mother goddess, can be found all through out the area surrounding ancient Mesopotamia. “Mother Earth”, the earth as a life giver, is a very old concept. In ancient Sumeria, Ki was a primary GOD of their religion. Ki meant “earth” and she was the counterpart of Anu, the sky and heavens. In most ancient religions, the female was always associated the earth and the life force contained within. We are born of the Earth. A tradition carried on into early Jewish religion in the Genesis account of Yahweh forming man out of the very earth itself.
Also in ancient Sumerian religion we have Inanna, the goddess of sex and fertility. Her and Ki had various counterparts all throughout religious history. Ishtar in Akkadian myth, Anat in Canaan, Isis in Egypt, and Aphrodite in Ancient Greece. The early gods and goddesses of the ancient world were depicted in stories and accounts never mean tot be taken literally. They were myth and metaphor mean to impart a message to the reader. It didn’t mean they believed their gods were not real, they were just trying to understand how they fit in to the world. Sumerians have the earliest accounted creation story but they did not believe it was literal. There were no eyewitnesses to the creation, so who is to say what happened? They were simply using metaphor and iconography that made the most sense to them.
Ancient peoples believed the divine existed all around them. They saw the mystical in every aspect of the human world. The land was filled with various emissaries of this divine power. In Ancient Rome, numina(spirits) populated sacred areas around the country. In Iran, the jinn were found all across the landscape. On the South Seas islands in the Pacific Ocean, the indigenous tribes felt the land, and all living things, were filled with a mystic force they called mana. They were trying to connect to the gods of their world. When they developed gods with human qualities and human feeling they weren’t making a literal interpretation of how they though them to be. This connection to the gods was a heavy influence in ancient Greek mythology. The gods of Greece didn’t just oversee the realm of man, they were actively involved in it. They were depicted as human in appearance but possessing immortality and incredible powers. Zeus, the king of the gods, often visited mortal women in various forms to conceive children referred to as demigods. Human but possessing some “god like” trait, such as Heracles(referred to as Hercules by ancient Romans) and his incredible strength.
The idea of a “pantheon of gods” was shared by many cultures all across the world. The Romans simply adopted the gods of their Greek forerunners, with only slight changes here and there, the Norse clans on Northern Europe worshiped a similar collection of gods led by Odin. The Hindu religion features certain sects who believe that that there is one supreme being, Brahma, but Brahma manifests through avatars— Vishnu, the preserver and Shiva, the destroyer. A very old and culturally rich religion, Hinduism has incorporated monotheistic and polytheistic theory into their religion which has had a far reaching impact on future religions, like the Catholic sect of Christianity and the concept of a “Holy Trinity”. But I’m jumping too far ahead.
Let’s go back to around 2300 B.C. and the land of Canaan. Canaan covered present day Palestine/Israel, Lebanon, and some parts of Jordan. The Canaanites worshiped a court of gods as well, led by El the High God. El’s council included other gods such as Baal-Hadad, who would later receive poor treatment in the Bible. But, at some point, the Semitic tribes migrating to Canaan adopted El as a their own personal god and did away with his court. Abraham, the founder of the Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, is visited by El-Shaddai (God Almighty or God of the Mountain) and told he would father a great nation that would spread and cover all of Canaan. All he asked was that Abraham and his people worship him and only him as the one true God. Something easier said than done. It was just customary to observe the rituals of other lands when you were there. When Jacob has his vision of a “ladder to Heaven”, he upended the rock he was using for a pillow and anointed it with oil, consecrating the area. A pagan custom of Canaan.
In Genesis there is a story of Abraham’s god assuming human form,along with 2 of his angels, and approaching Abraham’s tent. Abraham does not immediately recognize who they are but welcomes them to stop, eat, and rest, as was the custom in the region. As he rushes to gather everything together he sees his wife, Sarah, displaying pagan images of gods. Again, old habits die hard. But let’s stay with the story of GOD visiting Abraham. In Greek mythology, the Gods interacted with humans, but rarely on such a personal basis. Zeus did not often visit his potential mates as a man, nor appear in a defined human form in their dreams. Here was “GOD”, the supreme being, casually dining and conversing with his favored child, Abraham. In later periods a conversation with GOD would sound almost blasphemous, but in ancient times it was just an accepted part of life. Man did not need a mediator to speak to his gods. To interact with them. The gods were everywhere. They could be the person you pass on the street. But hardly ever did they make themselves so known or accessible, and people excepted that.
Abraham’s god again told him that he would be a father of a great nation. Abraham and Sarah laughed at the thought as Sarah was past the age to conceive children. How could Abraham father anything? GOD merely chuckled with them and asked that they have faith. Abraham accepted his words but Sarah still had doubts until the day she discovered she was pregnant. They named the child Issac, which could mean “laughter”. Abraham was overjoyed to have a son. His faith in El grew deeper, but that faith would soon be tested. When Issac entered adolescence, GOD came to him and told him he must sacrifice his first born son to him. First we must realize that human sacrifice, especially the sacrifice of the first born, was a commonplace things among many pagan cultures of the time. They viewed the first born as an offspring of their gods, and their god needed to give up some of his divine energy to make it happen. Sacrificing the first born back to the gods was a way to ensure their continued power and grace over your tribe. Abraham brings Issac to the top of a mountain, binds him and places him on an alter. As Abraham places the blade of his knife to Issac’s throat, GOD comes to Abraham and tells him he has passed the test. His faith is absolute.
Now, I bring this story up for a reason. It paints GOD as a remorseless sadist when just a few chapters earlier, he was a kindly grandfather like figure. This feeds into the theory that the Bible has at least “two gods”. El, the god of Abraham, and Yahweh, the god of Moses. It is believed at least 2 different authors penned much of the first 5 books of the Old Testament and that they often combined on the same stories but with different perspectives. This explains the many contradictions and uneven depictions of GOD in the Bible. When GOD comes to Moses in the burning bush he is Yahweh, but he has to explain to Moses that he is also “El-Shaddai”, the god of Abraham. Perhaps the tribes of Abraham and Issac simply forgot El during their time in Egypt and he has decided to make himself known once more. Or perhaps El was simply the Canaan god and Yahweh was the true “One GOD”, come to finally deliver his people.
Either way, the kind loving El, is replaced by “Yahweh Sabaoth”, the GOD of Armies. It makes sense. El worked when the Jewish tribes were wanderers trying to find a place to call their own. Now they were warrior tribes looking to expand their territory. Their god changed as they did, which makes sense no matter how you look at it. Yahweh was a merciless, jealous GOD who demanded loyalty and obedience. Death was given without warning to anyone who trespassed against his law. But, he awarded obedience and faith with victory in battle. It is during this time that Yahweh “kills” the old gods of Canaan. Possibly including El. He demands,like El, that no other gods but He be worshiped. Though his punishments for refusal are far, far more severe. This reflected the current tribes of Judea. In a time of almost endless conflict, discipline and loyalty were the most important thing to any leader. It made sense that your god echoed these sentiments and punished those who would not walk the path. When Yahweh frees the Jews from Egypt, he engages in warfare with the mystics of the Egyptian pharaoh. Each plague he sends is met with mockery from the Egyptian priests. Finally, to prove his all powerful presence, he kills the first born of Egypt(common theme, no?). The pharaoh finally relents and frees the Hebrew slaves, but soon after changes his mind and pursues. Yahweh parts the sea for his people and sends them across. When the Egyptians pursue he crashes the water in on them and drowns them all. No prisoners in war.
The centuries following the exodus from Egypt are full of brutal conflict all across the land of Canaan. Yahweh, the war god, leads his people to victory and the kingdom of Israel(persevere with GOD) is first established around the 11th century B.C. The promise made to Abraham all those generations ago has been fulfilled. It is during this time that many are said to have forgotten Yahweh or stopped paying homage to him. They put their faith in heroes like King David, slayer of Goliath. Though Israel is whole, David is constantly waging war against invaders looking to reclaim what we will now call Palestine, as Canaan was fading from the lexicon. David had achieved many victories in his short time as king and was quite full of himself, having almost forgotten Yahweh’s contribution to his victories. The fact he ruled, not by his own merit, but by the will of GOD. David’s arrogance led him to one day covet the wife of one of his soldiers.
He instantly became smitten with the woman known as Bathsheba, but knew he could not have her as long as her husband, Uriah, still lived. The land had laws that even a king must obey. Since Israel was almost constantly repelling invaders all around it’s borders, it was not hard to find a heated area of conflict and send Uriah to it. When word came that Uriah had fallen in battle, David sent word for Bathsheba to be brought to the palace. He took her as a wife and she bore him a child. Lost, or possibly forgotten in all this, was Yahweh. And he was pissed. In his eyes what David had done to Uriah was nothing short of cold blooded murder. Yahweh, however,could not punish David though he probably very much wanted to. Yahweh’s first concern was for the people of Israel as a whole, and pulling David off the the throne in such a way would be incredibly demoralizing to his armies. So, He did the only thing he knew to do. He took their baby from them. And not instantaneously. The baby grew sick over many days and eventually passed, leaving David shamed and heartbroken.
This is a far cry from El – Shaddai, the god of Abraham, who was very deliberate with his judgment. Even allowing Abraham a chance to save Sodom and Gomorrah before He destroyed it. Some speculate that this dual nature shown by GOD, in the Bible, led later Christians to make the Devil what he is today. And it is with the dawn of the Christian movement that El and Yahweh became one. A god of boundless love and forgiveness, tempered by a wrath that was all consuming.
Doubtless by now you have noticed that we have not discussed a Heaven or an afterlife in much detail so far. The reason being that a defined Heaven did not exist. The realm of GOD was just that. No humans were involved and there was no thought of ever getting there. There was no Valhalla or Elysium Fields, no reward for the just and virtuous. There was simply Sheol. A dark, formless void away from the light of GOD where all souls went regardless of how they lived their life. It is unclear though if early Jews viewed Sheol as a physical place/destination or merely a way to comprehend consciousness after death. It is an idea that predates all later Jewish and Christian ideas of an afterlife. Even in the early Christian religion, there was no eternal life in Heaven. The book of Revelation ends with GOD reigning on Earth for 1,000 years. All who ever died, and are worthy of his gift, will rise and live in GOD’s new kingdom. But only for 1,000 years, then comes the end of time and your return to the void. Heaven is the place of GOD and his angels, you will never know it.
This idea became kind of a bummer though and, because of it, GOD would go through his biggest change since appearing to Moses. GOD became the Father, the keeper and shepherd of all his children. He opened his home to good souls and allowed them to reside in eternal bliss among Him. The writers of the Gospels wanted Jesus’ death to mean something greater than had come before. His death marked the forgiveness of man and his acceptance into the true Kingdom of GOD. These ideas would also heavily influence Islam, and their perceptions of Heaven and GOD. Heaven was a place of pure joy and bliss. An eternal reward for the faithful. Today we view faith as a belief in GOD but that was not it;’s original meaning. Everyone back then believed in GOD. To have faith in Him was to trust Him and accept his judgment. The faith is rewarded with a “seat at the table” and eternal life in Heaven. GOD was still loving though. No one believed He would just cast a soul into hellfire for all eternity. The punishment for the wicked was to be removed from the light of GOD. A great punishment in it’s own right. It would be later generations looking to “scare people straight” who would devise the Hell we all know. It was never in GOD’s original plans. But, then again, neither was a permanent Heaven.
I believe if early Christians could see their religion today, they would wonder why there are so many intermediaries between the people and GOD. Why so many men and their churches claim dominion over His word. GOD was never a big fan of churches. Churches are full of iconography long ago deemed blasphemous, and old men who think they know GOD better than you. Jesus himself was against P.D.Fs, Public Displays of Faith. Your relationship with GOD is a deeply personal one and subject to no one else. GOD is not like the early contemporaries he replaced. He exists on his own. He does not need constant prayer and sacrifice to maintain his power. He simply is. He populates all people and all things, and to know Him is to simply look out your window at the world around you. You do not need another to help GOD come into your life, he is always there with you, waiting for you to accept Him. He is not pushy, He is not demonstrative. He is love and acceptance.
Modern religion is a whole nother animal though. Power does not reside in GOD but in the Church. The divine that many use to experience everyday,all around them, is now a wholly owned subsidiary of organized religion. Your faith and your relationship with GOD is subject to their scrutiny and their own interpretation of His word. By the dawn of the Crusades in the 11th century, the Catholic Church had basically become GOD. All matters of faith were decided by them. To claim to speak with GOD of your own accord was to be branded a heretic or lunatic and “disappeared”. Dreams like the one that came to Jacob as he lay at Beth-El were now just that, dreams. Their meaning was for liaisons of the Church to decide. And it usually went their way. Big surprise.
The Bible states that you will be known by your works. Not by your faith. Early Christians believed the power to communicate with GOD or to be with GOD was inside them. The idea of the “divine spark” is an ancient theory appearing in writings from ancient Greece and Persia. We view Jesus GOD who became a man. What if he were a man who became GOD? It wasn’t exactly a revolutionary idea. Again, the myth of a man becoming a god is an old one. Hinted at in Zoroastrianism and early Judaism and speculated about at great length in early gnostic writings, the debate reached a crescendo with the life of Jesus. Was he GOD made flesh or a man whose good works made him a god or one with god? The phrase, “Son of God”, existed long before Jesus and was a part of many Jewish sects. The Essenes, who are believed to have written the Dead Sea Scrolls, many of which predate Jesus, often used terminology like “Son of god” or “Sons of GOD”. It never had a messianic tint to it until it was applied to Jesus by early Christian writers. When the Holy Roman Church became the preeminent power in the land, they quickly worked to snuff out any idea of a man coming to GOD on his own. If the power to come to GOD and be saved was inside each of us, the Church was kind of out of a job.
Before the Church, a man was judged by his works. What he did on his own to come closer to GOD. After the Church it was all about “faith” and worship. I put faith in quotation marks because it wasn’t the same faith that early Christians expressed. Instead of a trust in GOD it was now a belief in GOD. Never before had non-belief even been a question. Western Religion became about formal practice and rigid dogma. Any and all texts making any claim to GOD existing outside the Church were marked for destruction. Any group promoting these ideals was forced underground for fear of reprisal. The Church had built GOD a very fancy cage and they were determined to keep him in it. That may sound harsh but you have to remember that anyone outside the Church who claimed to know GOD was executed. Especially if they gathered a following. The Church of the greatest prophet who has ever lived wanted nothing to do with prophets.
This indignity toward other faiths is obvious in the rise of Islam. In the 7th century, when Islam was first emerging, it was common to find them studying with their Jewish and Christian contemporaries.The Qur’an is full of imagery we would associate with Judaism and Christianity. The prophet Muhammad is spoken of as one of the 5 great prophets of the one true GOD, along with Jesus, Moses, Noah, and Abraham. The Virgin Mary is spoken of more in the Qur’an than in the New Testament. Images of paradise and a fiery “hell” for the wicked. The founders of Islam felt that the previous religions, Christianity and Judaism, had corrupted or lost touch with the message GOD had given them. A feeling many early Christians had toward Judaism. In the beginning, these religions focused on what they had in common – The one true GOD. This would not last though.
The religion of Islam is said to have been founded in 610 AD by Muhammad ibn ‘Abdullāh, a merchant from the city of Mecca, after he received a vision from GOD. The GOD of the Qur’an/Koran is depicted much like Yahweh in the Old Testament, caring for the people but extremely vengeful. Like Yahweh, he is highly intolerant of infidels and often a “war god”. Muhammad could very easily have been familiar with Jewish and Christian writings of the era. Muhammad’s people, the Quraysh, had long ago moved off the open steppes and founded great merchant cities like Mecca. They were becoming rich and very influential in the region. Many believed this great wealth and abundance would end much of the conflict that had existed among various individual tribes, but it only made it worse as each tribe sought more and more money and power.
Mecca was being slowly torn apart by infighting and rampant corruption. This disheartened Muhammad greatly. He knew full well the history of his people and how far they had come. Now, at the moment they should be celebrating as one, they were art each others throats. At the age of 40 Muhammad began taking frequent trips to a cave outside the city of Mecca for solitary meditation. During this time it is said that he was visited by the angel Gabriel and given a message from GOD. GOD reveals to Muhammad that the Abrahamic chain has been broken and he will now instruct Muhammad on how to repair it. Islam isn’t so much a new religion as an attempt to right perceived wrongs committed by the Judaism and Christianity. This was, after all, the same GOD who spoke to Moses and Jesus.
Intractable differences between Christian and Muslim leaders, and a need to control the holy city of Jerusalem led to several drawn out conflicts over the city known as The Crusades. Not all the crusades were against Muslims but they counted for some of the bloodiest battles. Following the Middle Ages, the Renaissance not only was a rebirth of science and art but of religion and philosophy. This began the romanticism of GOD and Heaven. Most of the modern ideas we have of GOD and Heaven were actually developed during the Renaissance. The Church’s grip on dogma had lessened dramatically and new ideas on GOD and the world were created.
GOD returned to being the Father. Heaven became a “community”. Renaissance poets painted a picture of Heaven as a neighborhood much like one you would see on earth. An idea that previously existed in ancient Persian religions, such as Zoroastrianism, in which everything we encounter on Earth will be used to continue on in the world after. Heaven had mansions that GOD had prepared for each of us, much like the homes we have on Earth. By modern times we were convinced we would see all our loved ones in Heaven and live an eternal life much like the one we have here now. Maybe even your favorite pet.
After the Renaissance, skepticism of the Church and religious beliefs became broader and more public. A new kind of atheism popped up in Europe. The word atheist has existed for a very long time. Before the 17th century it was an insult and not something anyone would call themselves. Now, skeptic thinkers branded atheists gladly accepted the label. Still, many atheists had a belief in a god, but went against accepted church doctrine so they were branded atheists. During the French Revolution atheism became a big part of the struggle as the ruling parties looked to keep the clergy in line and undermine their influence on the people. Stalin in Russia and Mao in China made atheism the “state religion”. Similar doctrines exist in North Korea and Cuba. By the mid 20th century the question arose, “Is GOD Dead?” A theological movement sprung up around it espousing ideas such as GOD having died creating the world or that GOD died as Jesus on the cross. Giving up the last of himself for us.
It’s difficult to say atheism is prominent. Many people who say they don’t really believe the stories in the Bible or the Koran, still admit to believing in some sort of afterlife where GOD exists. Most people can balance their personal faith with the way of the modern world. They want a secular society that allows them to believe what they want to believe. Many people seem to believe that secularism is anti-religion. That a secular society would be a society without GOD. It isn’t. It is the separation of church and state. It’s that simple. It’s not to hinder or bully religion but an effort to prevent any one religion from gaining unjust dominion. You cannot blame the Church for feeling this way though. For 1,000 years they ruled the world, controlled all avenues and all aspects of faith and religion. Since the Renaissance they have seen that power and influence slowly fade away. Many progressive thinking members of the Church have not fought against the advance of science. They have seen it for what it is, another way of looking at GOD’s creation.
GOD seems very much alive and well today. The Abrahamic religions boast billions of followers across 6 continents. Polls taken show that a majority of citizens in “developed countries” have a belief in GOD, Heaven, or angels. Many of us know someone who has a deep personal faith but tend to shy away from organized religion. In some respects, the worship of GOD has returned to it’s roots for many people. A personal one one one connection that existed in many early religious communities.
In summary(and because I am seriously running out of steam here), the biography of GOD is far too long and complex for me to try and convey, and I still don’t know why I tried. 🙂 Since the concept of the “Sky God”, man has sought a way to explain the world around him with the words and images he could understand. In the land of Canaan, El/Yahweh, slayed the gods of the past and asserted himself as the One True God. Since then He has been portrayed as a vengeful, spiteful figure and a vessel of endless love and compassion. All the time though, He was the Father. Rewarding our good deeds and punishing our transgressions. An “absentee landlord”, as Pacino said in Devil’s Advocate? Maybe. But look at the accommodations He gave you at a pretty reasonable price.