Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Did God Have a Wife?

“Did God have a wife?” was the title of a programme on BBC2 yesterday. I didn't bother watching it, because that series isn't about presenting new evidence; it's about recycling old arguments that have been refuted but still hang around like a bad smell in the atheistic corners of the theology faculties of the world. And it depresses me to see the stupid things that people get paid to say on TV and other people accept is true.

Here's their basic argument:
YHWH is the Hebrew personal name for the God of the Old Testament. Someone found an inscription in the area of Israel from the Old Testament period saying “YHWH and his Asherah”. Asherah was a female goddess. Therefore, so the argument goes, the ancient Israelites said that God had a wife, called Asherah. And what you see described in the Old Testament are the attempts to stamp it out.

Here's some background you probably need in order to understand the situation: The main gods in the (“pagan”) Canaanite pantheon around 800BC were called El, Asherah and Ba'al. El and Asherah were married, Ba'al was their son. But Ba'al and Asherah were comparative newcomers – they don't appear on the scene much before 1500BC. So at the time the books of Kings are set, it's El, Asherah and Ba'al; at the time of Abraham, it's just El and some worship of the Sun and Moon.

Now, when Abraham was around, God revealed himself to him as “El”, or variants of “El” like “El Shaddai”, “El Elyon” and so on. I've written more about that here. The traditional argument is that “El” was how they remembered the true God, and Ba'al and Asherah were later additions. The Hebrew conception of El is similar to the Arabic Al, which was later picked up by Mohammed as Allah... It's also similar to the Latin “Deus” and the English “God”, which are used both as a title for the one God but also as labels for the many gods in a polytheistic pantheon.

But at the time of Moses, God revealed himself by the name YHWH as well as El – YHWH is used as a name that's associated with God's promises and with the fact that they come out of Egypt. Interestingly, God first uses the name when Moses basically asks him which God he is, because Moses grew up in polytheistic Egypt. When there is only really one God worshipped at the time of Abraham, God is fine going as just “God”, but when there are lots of gods around, he adds the name YHWH.

So by the time you get to the books of Kings, the followers of Moses' religion use El and YHWH for the same God. Elijah, who is one of the big figures in that religion in about 800BC even had a name that meant “El is YHWH”. The followers of Canaanite paganism had three main gods – El, Asherah and Ba'al. And so the question is whether the two religions were actually merged.

Right, so now to the argument.

The way that ancient history works is that there is often some kind of text that describes what happens. If you're lucky, it's from roughly the same time as the events it describes. If you're very lucky, there are two or more texts. And there may be some archaeology as well, which usually won't be enough to put a complete picture together. Ancient history tends to treat the text as basically reliable, unless there is some contradictory evidence from archaeology or unless the events described are impossible. We shouldn't discard the narrative account unless it clashes with archaeology – that's bad history.

That means that we need to think about what situation the Bible actually describes from about 900BC to 500BC. And what we see is that the people of Israel consistently sliding back into worshipping other gods, starting off with the gods of the Canaanites like Ba'al and Asherah under kings like Ahab and Ahaziah, and moving onto worshipping the gods of the nations around them like Chemosh and Molech. So according to the Old Testament, what you get is people trying to merge Judaism with Canaanite paganism. You get people building Asherah poles in the temple, for example. And the prophets (the ones the OT calls “true prophets” anyway) are consistently criticising them for doing so.

My point is this:
If the Old Testament account is right, then you'd expect that many of the Israelites were worshipping YWHW alongside Asherah and trying to merge Judaism with Canaanite paganism. So you'd expect them to be making statues saying things like YHWH and his Asherah. You'd also expect the OT prophets like Elijah to be condemning them for it.

Does it mean that God had a wife? No.

So what's new?

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Rob Bell, Universalism and Hell

There's been quite a lot of controversy lately about Rob Bell's new book, which is probably a very well-done marketing campaign to make sure it sells lots of copies, which it will.

Rob Bell's past work (e.g. Nooma) is generally really really good at connecting with modern culture, especially the end of it that likes computers with fruit logos on. But he often leaves himself open to the accusation that he is so connected to modern culture that he has at some points lost connection with the Bible.

His new book is called "Love Wins", and sounds like it will be about the non-existence of Hell. Some condemn it outright on the grounds that it looks like it's teaching universalism - that everyone will be saved in the end. And others condemn those people on the grounds that it's a bad idea to attack someone on the basis of a book that isn't even out yet.

Anyway, I thought that Richaard Taylor got the balance about right on his blog. He explains why universalism doesn't work as an idea, then leaves it up to the reader to decide whether or not Rob Bell is teaching it.

Here are a few quick reasons why I don't think universalism works.

1. It downplays the seriousness of sin

In modern western culture, we tend to forget how much of a big deal sin is. Sin is us rejecting the God who made us. Sin is saying that we think we are better off away from the source of all life and love. Sin is ultimately attempted deicide - us trying to kill God - and part of the shock of the cross is that we managed it. Except that death couldn't hold him.

We tend to think that God treats sin like a benevolent old grandfather would, welcoming us in and gently ticking us off for occasional bits of naughtiness while actually indulging us. But sin is far more serious than that. Sin is trying to kill the rightful and loving ruler of the universe and put ourselves in his place. Sin is cosmic treason. God cannot and should not just shrug it off and say that it is all ok.

2. It downplays the dignity of human responsibility

Some people clearly reject God. They clearly say that they do not want God to be Lord of their lives - they want to run the show themselves. And in some cases, over time, those people come to change their minds. But what if they don't? What if they hard-heartedly persist in their rejection of God? Is he going to over-ride them completely, and drag them kicking and screaming somewhere where they do not want to go? Or is he going to let them choose to reject him?

3. It misunderstands the nature of heaven

Jesus said to God "this is eternal life - to know you, the one true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent." (John 17:3). The essence of eternal life is to know God, and to be in relationship with him. Heaven is not some beautiful existence with God as an incidental feature - it is seeing God face to face and knowing him fully in perfect communion with him. Everything else is secondary.

So what would it mean for those who persistently rejected God to be in heaven? Some people argue that heaven and hell are actually the same, and are experienced differently by different people only because of their attitude to God. And I'm not persuaded by that argument, but there's certainly something in it.

Imagine that you'd been bullying a kid in the playground, and then his dad becomes headmaster or Prime Minister. You'd feel pretty stupid, and scared. Now imagine that the God you had been persistently trying to dethrone as king of the universe, surpress, ignore and even kill - suppose that that God turns out to be the ultimate reality of the universe. How is that meant to be good news for you?