Hello, everyone! David Withun for Pious Fabrications, as always, and in this video we will be really kicking off our new series on the history of Christianity. Specifically, in this video, I’ll be discussing the ancient Hebrews and some of their unique ideas about God and about people that have shaped the Christian worldview and continue to shape the way we view the world today.
When studying ancient polytheistic religions, commonly called “pagan” as shorthand, one really gets a sense of just how different the ancient worldview was. For most ancient peoples, including those in the Ancient Near East such as the Sumerians and Babylonians, as well as those elsewhere, the gods were generally viewed as indifferent and amoral. Of course, this makes sense when we consider that most of their gods were personifications of natural forces. Imagine living thousands of years ago, before all of the modern luxuries and scientific knowledge we so often take for granted today. The world is a big place and you know only a small portion of it. Even the portion of the world you know is often subject to forces you can’t comprehend or control – forces like heat and cold, light and dark, storms, earthquakes, floods. The world is terrifyingly unpredictable. It often seems it is at war with itself – perhaps certain parts of it are even at war with you personally. This is the world people lived in 4000 years ago in Mesopotamia. As a result, they came to see the various forces of nature as gods who vied with one another for power, prestige, and pleasure. In their relations with humans, the gods were often cruel and arbitrary and almost always indifferent to human suffering. For these people, religion – the set of rituals and doctrines concerning supernatural forces – was largely the means by which one either secured the favor of at least one of these gods – in a world like this, it’s good to have a powerful friend – or, more frequently, religion was simply the means by which you tried to just keep the gods off your back so they wouldn’t harm you.
The religion that would become Judaism arose out of this context in its earliest form and introduced a novel way of viewing God that would have major ramifications for views of other humans and of the world in general. One of the greatest novelties was the idea of monotheism, that there is a single God who governs the entire cosmos rather than, as in polytheism, a plethora of gods who are the various forces within the cosmos. We can see the development of this idea, which took a very long time to develop in its fullest form, in the life of Abraham as told in the first book of the Bible, Genesis. When the story begins, Abraham is a male in the ancient Near East – he has a household and his household has a god who functions, basically, as a good luck charm. When Abraham needs some super-human help, he turns to his god, offers a sacrifice, and makes a wish. This is, in a nutshell, the way people at this time viewed the gods. Abraham’s God, though, is different – he starts making crazy demands like that Abraham abandon his ancestral homeland and set off into the desert and the unknown and danger and that Abraham kill his only son – his heir in whom Abraham had placed all his hopes for a continuation of his family – then he stops the execution at the last minute, he shows that his power extends to more than that of other gods — he destroys whole cities like Sodom and Gomorrah, and, even more bizarre, he destroys them not because of some arbitrary whim or to establish his own dominance or because they didn’t offer the right sacrifices, but because they behave immorally by not being hospitable to strangers. This God is unlike the other gods of the Ancient Near East – he’s downright crazy. He demands absolute obedience, claims absolute power, and behaves in startlingly unexpected ways.
The view of God that is emerging here ultimately culminates in the ideas of the prophets which we’ll discuss in the next video. What is important to remember right now is that something remarkable is happening in Hebrew thought even at this early stage. God is coming to be viewed as a unitary power who stands apart from and above the world. As a result, the world is becoming, in a sense, more comprehensible. It is no longer filled with mysterious, cruel, and whimsical gods – it is a system under the governance and watchful eye of a single, all-powerful, all-good God. God is also coming to be viewed as someone who personally and lovingly created human beings as the pinnacle of his creation and who is intimately concerned with human conduct – and especially with how humans treat other humans. As a result, the way people view other people is changing; the ideas of the individual, of a concern for the weaker members of society, and of the intrinsic value of a person are being born.
In the next video, we will follow these ideas as they continued to progress and expand in the history of Abraham’s descendants. Until then, I thank you very much for watching and I look forward to reading, hearing, and seeing your comments.