We know that a baby’s birth and early life story shape behavioral styles that are often carried through adulthood. We express it through aphorisms: “As the twig is bent, so grows the tree”; “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” Others link childhood trauma or abuse with adult behavior. The Greeks said, “Character is destiny,” and saw society’s responsibility to form people of good character as paramount. The same is true for the birth stories we write for our gods.
It’s easiest to see this among the Greek gods, since their gods were such obvious projections of both psychological dynamics and natural forces. Hermes, the Greek Trickster god, stole Apollo’s cattle in the evening of the first day he was born, later inventing the lyre, and trading it to Apollo in return for all the cattle. It doesn’t take long before we realize that this is the story of a Trickster god, and neither gods nor humans will ever be able to trust him. He’s charming and seductive, but with Hermes, you can never be quite sure.
When it comes to Yahweh, the God of the Bible and of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, the birth story is not part of the religious stories, but part of the real-world history of the ancient Hebrews studied by historians and biblical scholars. Since these facts weren’t incorporated into the myth as they were for many Greek deities, it is important to understand how Yahweh’s early historical evolution still hounds believers, and is the dimension of Yahweh that Christopher Hitchens described as “not good.”
The earliest Hebrew traditions show that Yahweh was a Bedouin war god from the deserts of Edom and the surrounding regions. His warlike characteristics are shown in his name: "Yahweh" is an abbreviation of his official, longer name, "Yahweh Sabaoth," which means, "he assembles armies." Yahweh's name identifies this god as primarily the military commander of his people. When he became identified with the tribe of ancient Hebrews, he kept his war god attributes, and added a “tribal chief” character.
The covenant he made with “his” people was modeled on an ancient Hittite sovereignty treaty, and was what we would expect from a war god or tribal chief. He would be their god, and they would be his people. If they obeyed him, he would protect them; if they disobeyed, he could destroy them (or let them be taken into captivity, as by the Babylonians). That deep character of war god and tribal chief has been in the forefront of Western religions, to varying degrees, ever since. How many priests and ministers have made a living pretending to fix things for you with God – when they’re really not doing much more than playing Hermes’ role: persuasive but not necessarily true?
Yahweh was an odd god, narrowly conceived. Compared to Zeus, Yahweh was a celibate. He had no sex life at all, no significant interactions with women, no children (except in the poetic sense of claiming the Hebrews as his “children”). The earliest Christians, soaked in Greco-Roman culture, tried to construct a Jesus who was Yahweh’s son, then tried to define Jesus as both fully divine and fully human, a hybrid no theologian has ever been able to make much sense of.
Some of the poets whose writings appear in the Bible tried to soften God, sometimes gave him feminine characteristics. But the Yahweh identified with laws for stoning disobedient teen-agers and women to death remained a god of war, with a warrior’s lack of sensitivity or concern for women, and capital punishment for disobedience. He was and remained a Man’s Man. Worshiping him could be done only through male rabbis – women weren’t even allowed in the same space as men – and later male Popes and Imams. The sexual abuse of children by priests has been known about and covered up by the Catholic Church throughout its history. Only in a narrowly conceived men’s club could pedophilia be seen as what has amounted to an entitlement of male priests: accusations Pope Benedict XVI even tried to dismiss as “petty gossip.”
Women are property in patriarchal societies growing from a war god and tribal chief. The practice, still part of many weddings where the officiant asks, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” was a literal transfer of property. Shiite Islam also has its misogynistic and murderous attitudes toward women, from narrowly read lines in their own tradition. But all these brutal traits spring from and reflect the story of Yahweh’s birth as a war god and early life as a tribal chief. Western Biblical religions are a men’s club, sanctioned by a man’s God. Pope Benedict even put the ordination of women at the same level of moral disgust as the sexual abuse of children by priests. Many suspect he will still try to hide pedophile priests, as he will oppose the ordination of women or married priests – unless they are already married when they transfer in. Don’t try tracing the logic of that one or your tongue could get stuck in a nasal passage.
Conservative Jews, Christians and Muslims still find their home as members of the tribe of God’s people. The Catholic Church’s insistence that “there is no salvation outside of the Church” and conservative Christians’ proclamation that “Jesus is the (only) Way” both maintain the strong connection to the anciently and narrowly conceived tribal and war god.
Religious liberals are trying to replace the ancient bipolar god of conditional love/hate with the more universal perspective that many roads lead to “salvation” (in the non-supernatural sense of wholeness and authenticity). This converts Jesus from “Son of God” to an avatar: an embodiment of our highest calling and capacity, a guide to living more wisely and compassionately here and now, rather than elsewhere and later.
Can Western religions with their war god baggage be transformed into religions content to be one of many useful paths where even their God is just one option among many, but no longer The Way? Can liberal religions, offering all carrot and no stick, both empower and challenge? Church attendance in the U.S. has been declining for over a century, and Christian churches are now losing over two million people a year, so the answer isn’t yet clear, though the trajectory seems to be. In the meantime, the growing number of atheists (now numbered at about thirty million) and many millions of other “church alumni” no longer speak in God-talk, and find their inspiration — as do many “believers” — through literature, movies and television. We’re in the middle of a slow, huge, spiritual revolution. Stay tuned.
Davidson Loehr is author of the book