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Seated statue of El
Seated statue of El from Megiddo (1400-1200 BCE)
Photo Credit: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago

 

The final post of my three-part series covers “Part Three: What is God?” of Reza Aslan’s book, God: A Human History. The author traces the evolution of the nature of God from God is one, to God is three, and later to God is all.

The ancient Israelites worshiped the Canaanite god El as their chief god presiding over a pantheon of lesser gods. The very word Israel means “El perseveres.” The god who became known as Yahweh first appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush. Around 1050 BCE when they established the Kingdom of Israel, Yahweh became their patron God. In the capital, Jerusalem, they built a temple to house the Ark of the Covenant, Moses’s covenant with Yahweh: the highest and strongest god over all other gods.

Moses and the Burning Bush
Moses and the Burning Bush – Saint Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai, Egypt
Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

 

In 586 BCE, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II breached the walls of Jerusalem, plundered the capital, and burned the temple to the ground. Survivors suffered a humiliating exile in Babylonia. That the Babylonian god, Marduk, was more powerful than Yahweh caused an identity crisis. Rather than accept the possibility of a defeated god, Israelite religious leaders rationalized that Yahweh was the one and only god who created light and darkness, brought peace, and created evil.

Yahweh of Judaism became the singular, eternal, and indivisible God who exhibits both the good and bad of human emotions and qualities.

Five centuries later, a sect of apocalyptic Jews calling themselves Christians upturned the indivisibility of God. Their religious leader, Jesus of Nazareth, claimed oneness with God the Father. While the concept of a “god-man” was nothing new in the Ancient Near East, early Christians had difficulty in accepting Jesus as the human manifestation of the only God.

John the Apostle and Marcion of Sinope
John the Apostle and Marcion of Sinope (face intentionally disfigured) from an image in an Italian Gospel codex written in Greek (eleventh century)
[Marcion proposed two Gods: Yahweh the “Man of War” and the loving, merciful God of the Logos as manifested in Jesus the Christ]
Photo Credit: The Morgan Library & Museum / Janny Chiu, New York

 

In 325 CE, at the summons of Emperor Constantine, the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity, the elders of the Christian Church finally reached a consensus about the nature of God. At the Council of Nicea, they declared Jesus Christ, the Son, “of one substance” with God, the Father, and the Holy Ghost, the divine spirit of God in the world.

The Christian God became the Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. All three existed at the beginning of time and shared the same measure of divinity.

In Mecca of 610 CE, now in Saudi Arabia, the Prophet Muhammad began preaching the prophetic revelations—later known as the Quran or the Recitation—he had received from a god he called Allah. Among ancient Arabs, Allah was the creator of the heavens and the earth. But the god Muhammad encountered in a cave on Mount Hira claimed to be the sole deity in the universe.

Journey of the Prophet Muhammad from the Majma al-Tararikh by Hafiz-i Abru
Page from “Journey of the Prophet Muhammad” – Majma al-Tararikh by Hafiz-I Abru (c. 1425 CE)
Photo Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art

 

Like Yahweh, Allah is One, singular and indivisible, but differs in his unique essence. Allah has no image, no body, is of no substance, and takes no human or other form.

Allah’s unique essence presented a paradox for a small group of Muslim theologians. If God is indivisible and God is Creator, how could a divide exist between Creator and creation? Are they not one and the same? Their radical conclusion led to a new branch of Islamic mysticism called Sufism.

To accept the unity of the Creator is to accept the unity of all creation. In other words, if God is one, then God must be all. This conception of the divine is known today as pantheism.

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It took a crippling military defeat for the ancient Israelites to accept the concept of God as one and only. Will the existential crises our species now face alter the way we-humans perceive God the Creator and our relation to the divine and to each other? Or will the gods of men, armed with nuclear arsenals, have the final say about our destiny? The choice is ours.

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