Pentateuch is considered to be the most important part in the Old Testament. It recorded the account of creation, the fall of man, the Law Code as well as the experience of the Ancient Israel. Among them Genesis is the first book recorded incidents happened from the creation of the world to Joseph’s time. In chapter one to eleven, the origin of the world and human race are introduced and in chapter twelve onwards are the stories of the Ancestors.
In this passage, we will concentrate in discussing the theology of chapter one to eleven which contained much valuable and important message for the readers who were probably Israelites in post-exilic period (which would be discussed later). In order to understand the text it is important to have some knowledge about the background of the readers as the author should compose his work under their background so that they may understand easily. Hence brief introduction of the background of Ancient Israelites and Genesis as well as its authorship would be given before we go into discussing its theology.
The discussion will be within four topics —(a) Yahweh has supreme authority and power, (b) Man—as image of God, (c) Mankind’s failure and God’s reaction and (d) Creation—a continuing process. (B) Background of Canaanites’ Religion and Ancient Israelites Both Biblical record and archeological evidence showed that beside the Israelites, there were many other people living in Palestine. They included Kenites, Kenizzites, Kadmonites, Hittites, Perizzites, Rephaim, Amorites, Canaanites, Girgacensoredes and Jebusites. In this passage, they are all regarded as Canaanites.
Basically, the Canaanites’ religions are polytheistic. They believed in many gods in many different levels including those national god, functional gods and family gods or ancestors. In the following paragraphs, a brief introduction of Canaanites’ religions would be given as a background for the studies of religion of ancient Israelites. Religion in Ancient Near East Although the gods they worshipped were different, tribes in Ancient Near East did have similar although not exactly the same doctrines. As mentioned above, their religions are polytheistic. Each god in their religion had different function and statues.
They had different characters and might fight among themselves. We are going to discuss the religion in Canaan and Babylon as examples. One point must be noted is that the functions of the gods in Canaan are closely related to natural phenomena . For example, Baal Hadad was known as the thunder god who was responsible for raining. Other examples included El Elyon who was known as the sun god , Yamm who was the god of the sea and Mot who was the god of death . Some of the gods were related to daily life. For instant, Anath was the goddess of war and Astarte was known as the goddess of love and fertility and also of war.
Another function of Baal was related to fertility. The Canaanites always explained natural phenomena using myths. The alternation of the seasons and the death and renewal of vegetation were believed to be explained through the following myth. When Baal had his temple built, he sent a message to the god of death Mot in which he threatened Mot’s life. After that there was a struggle between Mot and Baal and Baal was killed in the battle. After some times Baal’s sister Anath went down to the underworld and defeated Mot. Baal was resurrected from death and returned to his power to bring about raining to the Earth.
The Canaanites believed that the death and resurrection of Baal happened every year. The defeat of Baal indicated the death of vegetation due to winter frosts or summer drought. The resurrection of Baal revealed the vegetation grew because of annual or seasonal flooding. In this myth, one could easily observe that other that a thunder god, Baal was also a god of fertility. In the sight of the people in Ancient Near East, men were just the slaves of gods. For instance, in Babylon, people believed that mankind was created only because of the laziness of gods . The gods created men so that they could take over their work and serve them.
The gods needed the sacrifice of men. However, due to the noise and din of men, Enlil, the King of the lands wanted to destroy men. Another god Ea brought about deliverance to Atrahasis in a series of plagues. Finally, Enlil sent a flood and again Ea warned Atrahasis who made a ship to save himself later. The Gilgamesh Epic had another record of the flood story. When the gods sent a flood to the Earth, Ea warned Utanapishtim in Shuruppak and Utanapishtim built a ship to save himself and his family, together with all sorts of animals. The rain and storm continued up to the seventh day.
The story told that the gods became hungry without sacrifice and repent for their decision. Utanapishtim sent out respectively a dove, a swallow and finally a raven. When the raven did not returned which indicated that the flood was gone, Utanapishtim went out and made a sacrifice. The gods then gather around him immediately indicated that they really needed the sacrifice from men. The flood story was very popular in the ancient Near East. One interesting point must be noted was that the record in the Gilgamesh was in a large extent similar to that in the Biblical account.
We will go back to the story in Section E. The Canaanites, as usual, using myth to explain the origin of the world. In the creation story of Canaanites’ religion , the sea god Yam got the approval of El to attack Baal. However, Baal victor over Yam and seized his royal power. Sea was thought to be evil in the sight of Babylonians, Canaanites as well as Israelites. We could find examples in the Old Testament describing the struggle between Yahweh and the sea, for instance, Ps 77 : 16 – 19 and also Isa 27 : 1. One of the creation myth stated that El was drunk during creation and so some deaf, blind and disabled people was created.
The Canaanites might use this kind of myth to explain the imperfection of human being. Background of Ancient Israelites When one read through the Old Testament, the text seems to tell us that Israelites were descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who worshipped Yahweh as their God. Gen 12 : 1 stated that Yahweh told Abraham to leave his own country to where He would show him. It was strange that Abraham would know the name Yahweh in Haran in the North East of Canaan. There was no archeological fact showing that the name Yahweh was known in Haran, Ur as well as Canaan.
The Biblical text also showed that God appeared to Abraham was not using the name Yahweh. For instant, in Ex. 6: 3 we find To Abraham, Isaac and Jacob I appeared as El Shaddai, a general name of gods, El, was used. Living among the Canaanites, Abraham himself was no doubt full of their concept in religion. As mentioned above, the Canaanites were polytheistic and there was no idea about monotheistic, Abraham himself would not be exceptional. His religious practices, for example, in making the covenant with God in Gen 15, Abraham split the animals down the middle was a common practice of the Canaanites when they made a covenant with their gods.
Moreover, when Yahweh told Abraham to have his son sacrificed, he did not bargain with God since sacrificing sons was common in Canaanites’ religion. As we read through the Bible from Judges to Kings, we may find that the Israelites would turn away from Yahweh and worshipped other gods easily. It would be strange if the concept of monotheism has been well developed. For instant, when a believer turned away from God nowadays, usually he would just believe in himself or simply not believe any religion. Cases in which believers turned to believe in religions which are polytheistic were not frequent.
The point was that once the idea of monotheism was fully developed, turning to worship gods like Baal, Asherah etc would mean to have a complete change in the concept of belief. It would not be so easy to change one’s concept that has been developed since his childhood. However, it would be easily to explain the fact of Israelites turning away from God easily in Judges if their concept of religion were still polytheistic and Yahweh was only one of the god they worshipped. In such a hypothesis it was logical that they worshipped gods such as Baal and Astarte who were god of fertility in Canaanite religion.
The idea of polytheism of the Israelites before the exile could be clearly seen in Psalms, for example, in Ps 82 we found that Yahweh was giving judgement in the divine assembly, which was similar to El Elyon to rule over other gods in Canaanites religion. In Deu 32: 8 – 9, the text described Israel was Yahweh’s portion when the Most High (El Elyon) distributed the land among his sons. The king Manasseh had his son sacrificed through fire and built up image of Asherah (2 Kgs 21 :1ff). All these show that before exile the Israelites’ mind was full of concept of Canaanites religions that are polytheistic.