The God that Jews, Christians, and Muslims worship is not simply or merely the biblical god, whether considered in his component parts (El in various manifestations and YHWH at different stages of supremacy, together with a variety of Levantine divinities whose attributes he has assumed) or in his composite, edited portrait. To be clear, the God of developed Abrahamic or Adonaistic religions includes that biblical material, but they are products of a later era of reconciliation between that God and the God of late antique philosophy, which is, really, to say the supreme divine principle of Middle and especially Neoplatonists, philosophers like Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, and Proclus. But to fully understand that God as he has been revealed and understood by those traditions requires knowing something of the development of his cultus, mythos, and logos.
I propose to do so in four phases. The first phase is in the religion of Ancient Israel and Judah, which was decidedly polytheistic in its earliest iterations and only gradually became an aniconic, Yahwistic monolatry. Ancient Israel and Judah were a set of Canaanite people groups who, probably, experienced brief unification (under the warlords Saul and David and David’s son Solomon) followed by a return to political independence and rivalry (under Réhoboam and Jeroboam). They worshiped the Canaanite pantheon, headed by El, the patriarchal creator god and high king of the other gods, his children, and Baal, his royal successor; but in place of Baal, the fertility and storm god of ancient Levantines, Israelites and Judeans held YHWH, the Midianite god of Mushite and later Levite priests, as the cosmic viceroy and divine champion of El against cosmic monsters like Yamm (the Sea) and Mot (Death). Over time, as was common with ancient deities, El and YHWH fused into a single god for Ancient Israelites and Judahites: YHWH El, or YHWH Elohim. As such, this composite god allowed his worshipers to claim all previous local apparitions of and cults to El as experiences of YHWH, and therefore to claim a single covenantal bond from the patriarchal folk heroes of Israel and Judah. This fusion was accomplished before the composition and compilation of the earliest Israelite and Judahite literature, the J, E, P, and D sources of the Torah.
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The YHWH of these sources is diverse; in J, E, and D is a personal, involved, and compassionate god, but P’s god is cosmic and just, maintaining creation from encroaching chaos exclusively through cult. But both portraits are of a corporeal, multiply embodied deity, with a divine retinue (inclusive of a goddess wife, Asherah, and numerous sons, though these make the later editors uncomfy). He is also, decidedly, much more cosmic and even supracosmic than the earlier El or YHWH. As Judah’s political fortunes waned between the vying Assyrian, Egyptian, and Babylonian superpowers, a reform of the cult led to an exclusivist and aniconic form of Yahwism, where YHWH became Judah’s sole god, it became impermissible to depict the divine body, limits were placed on the monarchy’s power and self-conception, and a new legislative code were adopted, all under the reign of Josiah, Judah’s penultimate king.
The first stage in the theography of the Abrahamic god is, therefore, the story of the development of Yahwism: YHWH’s journey from local god, divine champion, and cosmic viceroy to king of the gods. The second stage is the story of Yahwism’s transformation into Early Judaism, and the distinctive literatures—prophetic, apocalyptic, and philosophical—that further expanded the Judahite god’s profile, from king of a local pantheon to sole supreme power in the universe. To some extent, this development was simply rooted in Josianic Yahwism: late preexilic Judah was seeking to do for YHWH what other cultures like the Babylonians did for their high god, Marduk, and the Egyptians did for their high god, Re, during times of geopolitical uncertainty and competition. What was different about the Early Jewish phase of YHWH’s theography was that the problem of suffering—national, personal, cosmic—raised by ongoing political turmoil, and the encounter with Near Eastern and Mediterranean philosophical systems, encouraged the question of God’s nature and involvement on much more cosmic and intimate scales. After the Babylonian Exile of the Judahite nobility in 586 BCE, and the conquest of Babylon by the Persians, Judeans or Jews (yehudim) were permitted to return to their homeland, the new Persian satrapy of Yehud, beginning in 536 BCE. 50 years in Babylon had shifted the nobility’s perspective on Judahite ancestral customs, stories, and thinking about their god. Many now spoke Aramaic, were fully invested in Babylonian society and economics, and held high positions in government. They were exposed to, and impressed by, claims of supremacy for the Babylonian high god, Marduk, and later by the Persian claims for Ahuramazda, and like their preexilic grandparents and great-grandparents, spoke of YHWH in similar ways as the peerless supreme power in the universe. This is clearly how YHWH is portrayed, for example, in Deutero-Isaiah (Isa 40-55) and the postexilic prophets: the god of all the nations, who is alone ultimately responsible for their rise and fall, their destinies deferred and definite. But this YHWH is also so exalted as to be even a bit distant from the world, and so powerful as to raise questions about the very possibility of evil. Why were so many Judean hopes for the future, expressed in the promises of the prophets, either disappointing when they happened (as the building of the Second Temple in 516) or disappointed entirely (as the promise of the monarchy’s restoration as a vassal state for the Persian Empire under the Davidide Zerubbabel proved to be), especially if YHWH was sovereign god and Israel, now the Jewish people, were his people? Apocalyptic and sapiential writers set out to answer this question, often in tandem with one another. Appealing to ongoing revelations from heaven purporting to express divine secrets about the universe, including its future crisis and consummation, apocalyptic writers interpreted their present experiences of subjugation and frustrated hope under Persian, Ptolemaic, Seleucid, Hasmonean, Herodian, and Roman rule (in that order) as the unfolding of a divine plan. Presently, that plan was interrupted by the interference of wicked divine powers, angels, or demons whose rule over the nations was defined by their ignorance, incompetence, or malice and led to problems for Israel, especially its righteous people who held to God’s most important commands or the right interpretation of the Torah (about which Jewish apocalypticists disagreed). In the future, though, God’s rule would be vindicated, whether through direct, subordinate divine, angelic, messianic, and/or other human intervention to, broadly, renew Israel, reckon with the gentiles (and possibly reconcile with them), and renovate the cosmos. The scenarios by which this would happen were not at all uniform, but the hope for a better future that God would provide either intrahistorically, at the end of history, or simply at death united these authors in a common belief in God’s ultimate goodness and supremacy. Still, the apocalyptic God is distant. He is enthroned in heaven, not in the Temple; human flesh cannot behold his celestial body of glory without melting (as Enoch does in the Book of Watchers). His will is carried out instead by angelic servants, whose potential for misbehavior also provokes his judgment. This is simply a new iteration of an older theme: ancient Israelites and Judahite thought of YHWH as the one who fought the powers of chaos at creation and at the events of the Exodus, and here those powers of chaos have been delimited a bit to a mere spat of rebellious angels. Daniel 7 gives a bit more of both ideas. There, God is the Ancient of Days, the primordial and patriarchal ruling god of heaven, attended by myriads of angels as he judges the chaos monsters that symbolize the earthly empires; but he then grants rule to “one like a son of man,” a junior divinity like YHWH himself once was, over the whole world forever as his proxy (Dan 7:9-14), who is also the heavenly patron of Israel. God himself will not step in, but subordinate powers acting on his behalf will.
Sapiential writers partly dissented from the apocalypticists: they often criticized the notion of specialized divine revelation from heaven not available to reason, and they sometimes rejected the specific kinds of postmortem or future reward that apocalypticists envisioned (Job, Ecclesiastes, and Ben Sirach all reject the resurrection of the dead, for example, and at least question or doubt the immortality of the soul). But they agreed on God’s ultimate goodness and that a moral wisdom governed the cosmos, even if they sometimes argued against the idea that humans could sufficiently understand or were even entitled to an answer about what that wisdom was when they suffered (as Job and Ecclesiastes argued). The sapiential writers looked both to Near Eastern philosophy (Proverbs is mostly an Israelite reproduction in Hebrew of a popular wisdom text from Egypt), and the God that they depict—who is intimately involved in the workings of nature and the maintenance of the cosmic cycles within which the human world exists, without necessarily being personally involved in human affairs—reflects a somewhat more international awareness of divinity. This is certainly the case with texts written in Greek during this period, like Wisdom of Solomon, which expresses a basically Middle Platonic theology of a metaphysically ultimate God who is present throughout the universe and to the human soul (which will receive the reward of immortality for righteousness) by the mediatrix of Sophia, Lady Wisdom (Wis 7:22ff). Wisdom as a goddess or divine persona appears in other sapiential texts—God creates the world with her in Proverbs 8:22ff, and she takes up residence in the world as the Mosaic Torah in Sirach 24–but it is here that she receives her ultimate characterization as a divine emanation of God connecting God, cosmos, and (righteous, wise) human soul. In a way, then, the notion of two Gods in heaven—an elder, superior divine power and a junior, subordinate divine power—also appeared in philosophical Judaism, and also as a way of trying to explain God’s relationship to the world, considered less on the grounds of political fortune and more through the lens of universal ethics, cosmology, cosmogony, and metaphysics. If older sapiential texts look to Near Eastern sources, Wisdom—probably written in Alexandria—looks to a Hellenized Near East where Greek practices of reading mythic texts allegorically and philosophical concepts of divinity were becoming well-known. Aristobulus, an Alexandrian Jewish philosopher writing in Greek who now survives only in fragments, opined that this was the right way to read Jewish Scripture: allegorically. He insisted that the Sinai theophany was simply a visual metaphor for God’s presence over the cosmos and that it did not happen literally: for God, he agreed with Aratus, is everywhere present. His more famous successor, Philo of Alexandria, agreed: the Torah should be read with Greek exegesis and philosophy as a hermeneutical guide. Philo’s God is utterly transcendent, knowable directly as Being itself (“the one who is,” in the Greek translation of God’s Name in LXX Exod 3:14), in his generative effects as God (ho theos), and in his providential effects as Lord (ho Kyrios). The last of these effectively came to replace the very Divine Name, YHWH, for which it stood: Early Jews generally did not pronounce the Name due to its considered holiness, which left room, as Philo showed, for a more philosophical explanation of the meaning of divine names in Scripture and so the further exaltation of the biblical god. Behind Scripture, this way of thinking about God also changed the way many Early Jews thought about the cult in Jerusalem. Believing in an analogical connection between cosmos and Temple, whether because cosmos was the true Temple or because there was a celestial, ideal Temple in heaven, Jewish apocalypticists and philosophers alike came to think of the Temple service as a material allegory for the universe, and the worshipers, priests, and high priest especially as undergoing degrees of deification during the course of the liturgy. Sirach 50, for example, describes Simon ben Onias III in much the same language as he uses for Wisdom in Sirach 24, implying that the high priest has been deified by being sophianized. Jewish apocalypticists spoke of angels as priests in the cosmic or heavenly temples and the human worshiping community of Israel and her human priests as a kind of terrestrial chapter of this higher vocation; they also, therefore, spoke of postmortem or eschatological reward in the language of becoming an angelic priest and dwelling with God in a celestial or glorified earthly tabernacle or temple. These streams of discourse about God in Early Judaism, even when they engaged in polemics against one another, could be participated in simultaneously by different kinds of Jews in their various sectarian identities. Pharisees, for example, had less tolerance for apocalypticism than the Essenes at Qumran, but still seem to have held apocalyptic beliefs, like hope for a future resurrection, that Sadducees did not. These different kinds of God-talk could also be mapped onto wider Greek philosophy: Josephus, for example, could describe Pharisees as Stoics, Essenes as Pythagoreans, and Sadducees as Epicureans when trying to explain varieties of Judaism to the non-Jewish world. For some people, clearly, all three streams of discourse—apocalyptic, sapiential or philosophical, and mysteriological—could be used to think and speak of God simultaneously. This is obviously the case for Saul/Paul of Tarsus, a first-century Diaspora Jew, a Pharisee, and later a member of the Jesus Movement. On the one hand, Paul speaks apocalyptically of God’s eschatological activity in the death, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus; on the other hand, his concept of God clearly owes something to Stoicism and possibly (though uncertainly) to Middle Platonism, and Paul’s God is therefore just as philosophical as Aristobulus’ or Philo’s. Like the former, Paul probably quotes Aratus’ Phaenomena I.5, albeit reinterpreted from his apocalyptic perspective to be about the eschaton, as an authentic description of God (1 Cor 15:28). And Paul can also speak of the mysteria of God, of the eschatological transformation of the righteous into pneumata/angels/extensions of the deified Christ, of the ekklesia as a temple of the Holy Spirit, of marriage as a rite of Christ and the ekklesia, etc. John’s Gospel—probably sourced in John the Elder, a priestly Judean who joined the Jesus Movement in the latter part of Jesus’ career, but was not himself one of the Twelve (and therefore not John bar Zebedee)—likewise combines a very Greek philosophical Judaism with apocalyptic and mystical ideas. In John, God creates, sustains, and consummates the kosmos in and through the intermediary of the Logos, enfleshed as Jesus Christ; at the same time, Christ’s ministry, and especially his passion, are apocalyptic events, the simultaneous revelation of God’s judgment and salvation of the kosmos, and the first part of the Gospel, the Book of Signs, unveils this significance in conjunction with the events of the Jewish festal calendar, all while speaking of Jesus’ own corpus in the language of the Temple. As the Pauline and Johannine corpora constitute the majority of the New Testament, it is this synthesized portrait of the Jewish God, ritual, scriptural, and philosophized, that Early Christians inherited.
The Hellenistic and Roman periods of Early Judaism fairly constitute a third phase of the Jewish God’s theography, one that is responsible for the theology proper of the New Testament and earliest Christianity. The fourth phase follows the second century through to the end of the patristic age and the rise of Islam, in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims all adopted the late antique Middle and Neoplatonic philosophy about God as definitive and used it to further interrogate their scriptural texts and ritual practices. Briefly, dogmatic Platonism resurged in the third phase of our present history, with Antiochus of Ascalon’s movement away from the skepticism of the New Academy during the Hellenistic era; by the second century, figures like Plutarch of Chaeronea and Alcinous presented, in different genres, a systematized form of Platonic logic, dialectic, ethics, physics, and metaphysics or theology. The God of these later Platonists—the monad, the One—is unknowable in himself, but detectable in his activities or effects by intellection of the Divine Ideas, the indwelling Forms, and careful discursive reasoning about the sensible universe, which provides us with material for analogical reasoning about what God must be like. Beneath God are the Logos, the World Soul, and a panoply of finite gods, daimons, and other intermediary spirits both beyond and within the universe that are more immediately available to interaction with mortals. Plotinus, Porphyry, Iamblichus, and Proclus—the so-called “Neoplatonists”—qualify this system largely by denying that either evil or matter are principles, contending instead that they are nothingness and therefore privation of being and goodness, and so reasserting a genuine monism. Jews, insisting on the unicity of God, whether now or in the future, adopted Neoplatonic metaphysics in the Middle Ages, as did Muslims; Christians in Alexandria, the Levant, and Cappadocia embraced them almost immediately, however, in part because they were contemporaries and partners in debate and dialogue with the relevant thinkers, sometimes even students of the same master (the point is disputed, but it is possible or probable that Plotinus’ teacher, Ammonius Saccas, also taught Origen of Alexandria, who possibly met with Plotinus once and certainly met Porphyry (who respected him as a philosopher but bemoaned his Christianity). The Nicene theology of Athanasius, Gregory Nazianzen, Makrina, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory Nyssen, and Evagrius Ponticus simply would not have been possible without Neoplatonic metaphysics and logic, nor would the various Christologies of the fifth and sixth centuries. It is because the God of Jewish and Christian Scripture had already long been equated with the supreme divine principle of Greco-Roman philosophy that the God of the Quran was so easily seen as the true subject of Greek theology by medieval Muslim philosophers.
Jews, Christians, and Muslims have always, then, been synthesizers: none of them worships a purely scriptural deity, but one who has always been syncretically composed from the concepts of the divine found attractive and impressive in surrounding cultures, ritually, mythically, iconographically, scripturally, and philosophically. There is no pure, isolated Abrahamic tradition that is uncontaminated by paganism: no Israelite religion fully distinct from Canaanite, Mesopotamian, and Egyptian religiosity, no Judaism that is not touched by Hellenism, no Christianity that is not already Judaism and Hellenism alike, no Islam that is not in some sense composed from all of these layers. Might Abrahamists, then, also adapt their understanding of God further by what seems useful to them from traditions they are now better acquainted with than their premodern ancestors in faith were—the God of South Asian traditions like Hinduism and Sikhism, or the ideas one can find in various forms of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism? Whether this is done officially or not, the fact that it is unofficially done by Abrahamists familiar with and attracted to these cultures is undeniable. Syncretism is normal, and it is a fundamental ingredient in how great leaps and bounds in theological thinking are made.
Is there anything, though, distinctive about the Abrahamic God that might likewise be attractive for syncretists coming from other angles? I will identify three ideas here. First, the Abrahamic God is, much like the God of later Hinduism, a God at once transcendent as well as deeply involved in the world and its workings. Jews, Christians, and Muslims speak of a distinction between the infinite God as he is in himself (ein sof, the divine essence, etc.) and God in his manifestation to the world (the sefirot, the incarnation and the divine activities, the 99 Names of God, etc.), just as Vedantists and bhaktins do (brahman nrguna vs. brahman saguna/Ishvara). But undeniably, the biblical God is invested in the individual lives of people, their ethical choices to be just and merciful, the consequences of their actions, the possibility of their redemption, in a way that the devas and avataras of dharmic systems are not necessarily. This does not always translate into an equivalent Abrahamic concern for justice, though at their best, Jews, Christians, and Muslims take it upon themselves to become God’s response to the world’s sufferings in acts of righteous loving-kindness. Second, building on the first, the Abrahamic God is concerned for the future. There is cyclicality to the biblical tradition, more than is often admitted, just as there is linearity to dharmic traditions, but it is generally true that dharmic religions embrace a concept of cosmic time that can (but again does not have to) encourage complacency about one’s circumstances and the world’s. in standard Puranic chronology, not always taken literally in the Hindu tradition, this is Kali Yuga; we simply have to wait it out, over however many lifetimes in which we pay off karmic debt, before there will be a new golden age. But the Abrahamic God brings the promise of restoration, of action, of changed fortune, in the foreseeable future. It does not always come to pass—that is a topic for a different article—but YHWH does promise to act on his people’s behalf, does promise to bring restoration, does promise that at the turning of the age there will be life from the dead. The importance of this life will be finally revealed, Abrahamists agree (even when they have been willing to consider some theory of transmigration). Third, the Abrahamic God, not unlike several of his dharmic counterpart(s), is therefore a God of Love. For mystically inclined Jews, all Christians, and some Muslims, the love which God has for the world, for humans, for Israel, for the ekklesia, for the umma, in some sense preexists within God; and it is for all of them (at their best, anyway) ultimately stronger than God’s inclination towards justice and punishment, which are considered secondary aspects of love. It is not even that the biblical tradition has the market cornered on this idea—the Rasa Līla can give Song of Songs a run for its money in its account of an amorous God—but it is the case that God as the faithful lover, the loving Father, the charitable redeemer, of the world is a central concept to Abrahamic traditions. I might here say especially that the Christian claim that in the crucifixion of Jesus the omnipotence of divine love for kosmos, Israel, and the nations is demonstrated to the ultimate degree is in its way an unparalleled ideal: not just martyrdom (which has many parallels), but specifically the definition of love as sacrifice, self-emptying for the beloved, that this encourages.
Theology has a way of keeping and synthesizing the stages of a theography, so that ideally nothing is lost. There seems to me something of perennial value in the Platonized God of the Bible, both the sole, transcendent origin of reality as well as the covenant deity of a specific physical and spiritual lineage. There seems to me something of perennial value in a God that includes but transcends the world, thereby rendering the universe itself a divine theophany. And perhaps this is nowhere more apparent than in the panoply of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim saints that have emerged from the worship of God in this way: that is, those who have discovered the mystery of God as the heart not only of the world but also of the self. The grace of the tzaddik, the love of the saint interred beneath the altar, the noor in the face of the enlightened sheikh—these too are ways of knowing God, and they further open the door to contemporary Abrahamists further coordinating their faiths with those of others as they deem appropriate, for holiness is a universal human experience, as present in these as in the devout yogi or the love-struck devotee or the bodhisattva’s compassion. Theography does not have to undermine theology’s synthesis, so long as theology remains open to the possible futures that theography outlines. Supposing that every current dream of our species comes true: supposing we become spacefarers, and meet our distant cousins from other worlds among the stars. Will we really fail to look for the ways their experiences of religion and philosophy can be productive for understanding our own traditions? Will we really try to present our religions to civilizations potentially much older and certainly quite different than ours as though we have it all figured out? It is not that human religions will naturally die out in such cosmic vistas; they need not, anymore than they should have died out in discovering the other half of the globe. It is rather that the horizon of our perspectives on God will ever have to evolve as we do.
This does not necessarily mean that God changes. It is logical indeed to suppose that God does not change, already being fully actual in himself. But we change, and our awareness of God changes as we do, and so how God chooses to appear changes to suit us, just as parents relate differently to their children as they age. What Jews, Christians, and Muslims can take confidence in is that God is not threatened by that, and neither should we be. We look upon God like infants look upon their parents in their first days: we can see no further than a few inches from our face; what we see is the hazy blur of a face looking back at us, and we yearn with excitement, for it seems to be smiling upon us, the warmth of love in its dazzling eyes. To think that our first coos in reply capture the full essence of that face would be folly; but to think they do not matter would be more foolish still.
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One of the best pieces you've written (and they are all good).
Excellent essay! I have a few questions.
1. In what ways is the Bible or the religions of the Book more prone to a cyclical model of time than is typically let on? I can't think of any examples off the top of my head, but I know you are much more well versed in the scriptures than I.
2. I too am a syncretist of sorts but I've always wondered about the limits of such syncretism. There seems to me like there's and organic version that is wholesome and there seems also to be the possibility of taking it too far which makes a mockery of one or more traditions and be just an illicit appropriation of things into a context for which they are not only not suited for but diametrically opposed to. I'm thinking not only of some particularly traditionally religious modes, but also the Silicon Valley types that want to appropriate meditation techniques but not to strive to become all aflame with the love of God but rather to be more productive to make more money, etc. Just wondering if you're on the same page and what you think.
Thank you for this invigorating and enlightening piece!