The Hebrews

The Pre-Mosaic Period


   Little or nothing can be known for certain about the nature of Hebrew worship before the migration from Egypt. In Hebrew history, Abraham is already worshipping a figure called "Elohim," which is the plural for "lord." This figure is also called "El Shaddai" ("God the Mountaineer (?)," translated as "God Almighty"), and a couple other variants. The name of God, Yahweh, isn't learned by the Hebrews until Moses hears the name spoken by God on Mount Sinai. This god requires animal sacrifices and regular expiation. He intrudes on human life with astonishing suddenness, and often demands absurd acts from humans. The proper human relationship to this god is obedience, and the early history of humanity is a history of humans oscillating between obedience to this god and autonomy. This god is anthropomorphic: he has human qualities. He is frequently angered and seems to have some sort of human body. In addition, the god worshipped by Abraham and his descendants is the creator god, that is, the god solely responsible for the creation of the universe. The god of Genesis is bisexual: he/she is often referred to in female as well as male terms. For instance, this god is represented frequently as "mothering" or "giving birth through labor pains" to the world and humans (these passages are universally mistranslated in English as "fathering"—this god is only referred to as a "father" twice in Genesis ). In Genesis , Elohim or El Shaddai functions as a primitive law-giver; after the Flood, this god gives to Noah those primitive laws which apply to all human beings, the so-called Noachite Laws. Nothing of the sophistication and comprehensive of the Mosaic laws is evident in the early history of the human relationship to Yahweh as outlined in Genesis .

   Scholars have wracked their brains trying to figure out what conclusions might be drawn about this human history. In general, they believe that the portrait of Hebrew religion in Genesis is an inaccurate one. They conclude instead that Hebrew monolatry and monotheism began with the Yahweh cult introduced, according to Exodus , in the migration from Egypt between 1300 and 1200 BC. The text of Genesis in their view is an attempt to legitimate the occupation of Palestine by asserting a covenantal relationship between Yahweh and the Hebrews that had been established far in the distant past.

   All these conclusions are brilliant but tentative, for we'll never know for sure much of anything substantial about Hebrew history and religion during the age of the patriarchs or the sojourn in Egypt. Nevertheless, scholars draw on the text of Genesis to conclude the following controversial ideas about early Hebrew religion:
   —Early Hebrew religion was polytheistic; the curious plural form of the name of God, Elohim rather than El, leads them to believe that the original Hebrew religion involved several gods. This plural form, however, can be explained as a "royal" plural. Several other aspects of the account of Hebrew religion in Genesis also imply a polytheistic faith.
   —The earliest Hebrew religion was animistic, that is, the Hebrews seemed worship forces of nature that dwelled in natural objects.
   —As a result, much of early Hebrew religion had a number of practices that fall into the category of magic: scapegoat sacrifice and various forms of imitative magic, all of which are preserved in the text of Genesis .
   —Early Hebrew religion eventually became anthropomorphic, that is, god or the gods took human forms; in later Hebrew religion, Yahweh becomes a figure that transcends the human and material worlds. Individual tribes probably worshipped different gods; there is no evidence in Genesis that anything like a national God existed in the time of the patriarchs.
   The most profound revolution in Hebrew thought, though, occurred in the migration from Egypt, and its great innovator was Moses. In the epic events surrounding the flight from Egypt and the settling of the promised land, Hebrew religion became permanently and irrevocably, the Mosaic religion.


Hebrew Monolatry and Monotheism


World Cultures

World Cultures Home Page


1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 9-20-96