Year One: Not Quite What I Expected

Alert: Spoilers are included in this article.

I have been working at my job pretty close to nonstop for several weeks and needed a break and some levity. I sometimes enjoy mindless humor and was interested in seeing either Land of the Lost or Year One. Since nobody I know is interested in seeing Year One, I decided that if I was going to see a film alone, that would be the one to see. So, I went to the local Alamo Drafthouse where someone else could cook dinner for a change and I could have a drink and watch something that required no thought. (I feel compelled to mention I parked right next to Matt D’s car, but I had no paper with me and was unable to leave a note. I didn’t ever see Matt, but just to say, “Hey Matt! I saw your car last night!”)

While I can’t say Year One actually prompted too much thought, and it was about what I expected from Jack Black and Harold Ramis, it was not what I expected overall. I thought it was going to be a confused film about an ancient man in the ancient world with a thin plot about whatever. What it was, was a statement about religion and belief (or more to the point, unbelief and the reasons for unbelief). Since I had not the slightest clue I would be writing about this film, I made no notes. Any quotes I offer are purely paraphrases to the best of my memory. And most likely I’ll have to visit IMDb to get the characters’ names.

The theme of the film was very reminiscent of Life of Brian: A man, confused as being god’s messenger, stumbles through a series of loosely written Bible tales, crossing paths with Old Testament legends and giving them a bit of a reinterpretation from an outsider’s perspective.

In the film, the main character Zed is a tribe member in a group of hunter gatherers who live in an unspecified forest region. He is no hunter. He is no gatherer. But he is charming and funny and sometimes lucky (but mostly unlucky with a lucky twist). He has a way of making lemonade from life’s lemons. His friend, Oh, may represent “Oh” in the “Eureka” sense. Of the two “Oh” is the one most likely to see the reality of what is actually happening or likely to happen; but what he can’t predict are the random twists of fate that consistently turn Zed’s harebrained plans into successes, even while things appear to get worse and worse for them.

Zed gets tired of the status quo and decides to shake things up. He can’t be the best “male” in this society where brawn and physical prowess are that standards of quality, but he can be the smartest guy–just not with his current level of intellect. So, Zed decides to eat from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. In the film, the tree is not about good and evil, but simply knowledge. Certainly the fruit looks magical enough, eerily florescent golden apple-like somethings. And Zed eats it despite the warnings of his friend, Oh, that it’s “forbidden.” Oh can’t answer Zed’s questions about why the fruit is forbidden–it’s simply forbidden. And you don’t eat forbidden things. That’s not good enough for Zed. Clue number one that there were going be to some things examined: Someone was immediately challenging the idea that “forbidding” things without any understanding of why, is not justified.

Zed believes the fruit endows him with super-knowledge, but in reality there is nothing to demonstrate he is any more intelligent than he was before he ate it. He asks Oh to test him and he pretty well fails in the capacity to wisely answer any question Oh throws at him. “Where does the sun go at night?” Zed replies with “Pass. Next question.”

Zed is found out and meets with the village shaman who tries to explain “forbidden,” unsuccessfully, as well. But in the end Zed is banished and Oh ends up going with him. Oh explains there is little point in walking anywhere, because they’ll only end up at the edge of the world–it’s “general knowledge.” When they come to the edge of a large canyon where they can see far out over the horizon, Oh realizes Zed was right to question the assumption about the world’s edge.

They first meet Caine and Abel, which is somewhat uneventful except that it is the guys’ first time seeing a “farmer” and someone who works in animal husbandry–forms of subsistence unfamiliar to them. And this is part of the film as well: As Zed travels, he begins to learn that there are many different views on topics thought to be “general knowledge.” Caine is a bit bi-polar and ends up killing Abel and “inviting” Zed and Oh to dinner with the family–including Adam and Lilith, a lesbian–who represents yet another new view Zed has never encountered.

Caine takes Zed and Oh away, explaining that when Abel is found, they will be suspected as the killers, since they are “two drifters.” They get their first ride on a cart and see, for the first time, a wheel. Caine is struck in the head by lightening, which leaves his famous “mark.” But rather than be disappointed, Caine is excited: “Wow! What are the odds of that?! It didn’t leave a mark, did it?”

Later Zed and Oh encounter “slavery” when they are sold by Caine as slaves. They run into some of the old villagers who have been taken as slaves as well, and Zed explains he has been chosen by god–referring to god as “He.” One of the women from the village asks “Why do you assume god is a ‘he’?” to which Zed gives Oh a condescending “do-you-believe-this-chick?” eye roll and says, “What do you even say to that!”

Zed, in a cage-cart traveling to the home of his new masters, asserts “Nobody can own a human being–except, I guess, for the guy who bought us.” This brings up the question of moral rights versus the reality of a situation and reminded me of the scene in Life of Brian where one of the men rallies for the “right” of men to bear children.

The slave train is raided by Romans, and Zed and Oh escape and run up a sand dune. Later they decide to try to find the slaves, who are on their way to Sodom, and free them, since some of them were from their old tribe. They lose the caravan, and wander the desert, where Abraham comes into the story. It isn’t hard to make Abraham look like a nut job without deviating all that much from the actual Bible stories. We first meet him as he’s building a sacrificial pyre with son, Isaac. “Where is the sheep, dad?” Abraham replies, “The Lord will provide.”

As Abraham begins to bind Isaac’s wrists, Isaac says in a nervous voice, “What is this, dad? Is this some kind of magic trick?” When Abraham picks him up to put him atop the woodpile, Isaac begins to panic and says, “Is this about me not cleaning my tent last Thursday?! Because I’m really sorry!” Abraham insists god has commanded him to kill Isaac, to which Isaac rightly replies, “If god told you to jump off a bridge, would you do that?!”

The irony here is that we so often see the foolishness of what Isaac asserts–“would you jump off a bridge if so-and-so told you to?” But we, as a Christian culture, think nothing of idolizing a historic figure who would do far worse. Isaac’s example of jumping off a bridge is nothing compared to what Abraham is about to do. Obviously Abraham is mad, and, since he would murder his own son, it’s a safe bet he also would jump off a bridge for god.

Abraham raises a large knife and says some sacrificin’ words, and just then we hear “STOP!” It’s Zed and Oh. “What are you doing? Are you going to kill that kid?!”

Abraham looks embarrassed, half-heartedly tries to hide the knife, and says, “No. This is my son. We were just playing a game. It’s called burneyburney, knifey knifey.” Then he plucks up more courage and asserts god told him to sacrifice the boy, asking Zed, “Do you speak for the Lord?” To which Zed lights up and answers sincerely that he has been chosen by god, and that yes, he does speak for the Lord. Abraham accepts Zed’s claim and praises god for sending a messenger to stay his hand and save Isaac. He invites them to dinner where he regales them with stories of the wicked twin cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, and warns them that god has promised to destroy the cities. They are cities where people eat, drink, engage in all manner of debauchery, and where the streets are filled with whores. “Which city has the most whores?” Zed asks, “Uh, just so we know which one to avoid the most.”

After a good feast and a lot of wine drinking, Abraham takes Zed and Oh and Isaac to a ridge where he announces that “all this land” has been given to him by god. Zed and Oh are impressed, but the cynical Isaac adds, as an aside to the strangers, “Yeah, but god forgot to tell anybody else about it–so, we’re constantly having to fight somebody over it.”

Abraham then announces that as a pact with god, he plans to circumcise all the males in his group, starting with himself, Isaac, Zed and Oh. “Circumcise? What is that?” Abraham describes what he intends, to which Zed and Oh are rightly appalled. But Zed, always rolling with the punches, says, “You know, Abe. We all had a lot to eat and drink tonight. And I’m sure this circumcision thing seems like a really cool idea to you right now. But why don’t we sleep on it? In the morning, you know, we can always cut it off then, if you still think that’s what you want to do…”

Zed and Oh escape, but hear poor Isaac screaming as they run off over the desert hills. Later Isaac catches up to them and leads them to Sodom if they promise to buy him drinks when they get there. Isaac explains that he and his buddies are always sneaking off to Sodom, loosely portrayed as an ancient Las Vegas, for a good time. Isaac abandons them at the gates and they are immediately arrested for disturbing the peace and find themselves facing a scary punishment at the hands of a particularly large, intimidating, and sadistic guard whom they continually encounter throughout the film.

They are saved by Caine, who has become a member of the Sodom guard and identifies them as his “brothers.” They also become members of the guard. And one day, Zed fails to kneel when the procession of a beautiful princess passes. She notices this and admires it. Her step-father is the king of Sodom. Sodom is suffering from a drought that the high priest, advisor, and king are all concerned with. And in order to end the drought they are sacrificing virgins left and right, a “waste of perfectly good virgins!” according to Zed and Oh. Zed and Oh try to understand the sacrifice, and they ask about it. “So, it hasn’t rained in a long time. And you need it to rain. So, you’re burning women who have never had sex to death? How does that work, exactly?” To this, one bystander complains, “Look, I’m just here to enjoy the sacrifice with my family.”

In Sodom there is a temple with a “Holy of Holies,” which, in the Bible is actually part of the Hebrew temple. But like the temple in the Bible, anyone who enters the Holy of Holies will die. Zed’s first introduction to the room is when the princess explains that she knew when he did not kneel that he was a man chosen by god who could enter the temple, without dying, and plead for an end to the drought–and that god will certainly hear him. Oh’s first encounter is from the high priest who tells him that anyone, but the high priest, will die upon entering the room.

Oh: “Wow, so, you kinda hafta wonder whether the guys who finished building it died then, right? I mean, did they get like a grace-period second to get out of there or did they just die instantly as soon as they laid the last brick?”

The priest in perfect apologetic style answers, as though he knows, that “There was a four-second grace period.”

Oh: “So, does it just kill people or does it kill animals as well? Like, if a fly gets in, would it just drop dead on the floor the second it enters?”

The priest confirms that it kills even animals.

Oh: “So, there are just dead bugs all over the floor in there?”

No, the priest explains, because they are “vaporized.” They are vaporized, apparently by a “deadly vapory vapor thing that turns them to vapor.”

It reminded me so much of my discussions with many theists.

Young Oh ends up in the temple hiding from the oppressive and gay high priest. Zed ends up in there at the prompting of the princess who feeds into his belief that he is special and chosen, and who promises to help free his friends if he will help her end the drought.

Zed takes it very seriously. Finally, the moment for which he was chosen has arrived–to meet and speak to god. He did not die upon entering the room. Clearly, he is the chosen one. Until he sees Oh hiding behind a pillar. Zed reasons that Oh is not dead because he is a friend of the chosen one. Oh, alternately, suggests he is alive because, perhaps there is actually “nothing” in the temple. And a serious, and loud, argument ensues.

They are caught and sentenced to be stoned to death. But Zed saves them when it dawns on him to ask the king, who is present at the stoning, a clever question: “Why didn’t I die in the Holy of Holies? Because I’m the chosen one!” He manages to whip up the crowd so that the king is advised not to kill Zed and Oh, but they are sentenced to hard labor instead–which is portrayed unmistakeably as a scene right out of the classic film, Ten Commandments. Oh stomps mud in a pit, ala Charlton Heston, with another man who explains he’s not a slave, but a “volunteer.” This was reminiscent of the apologetic that slavery was so much nicer back in the day. Yes, I’m sure people were falling all over themselves to sign up!

Volunteer: “The mud is really great for your skin. Look how great my skin is. Ask me why I have such great skin. Go on, ask me.”

Oh (in a tired, uninterested voice): “Why do you have such great skin?”

Volunteer: “The mud!”

Oh: “Yeah. I knew you were going to say that.”

The volunteer then stretches and adds, “Man, gotta love bein’ outside!”

The king then decides to sacrifice the princess and her two handmaids (fellow villagers of Zed’s and Oh’s), and Zed tries to save them. In a series of mishaps, he brings down a huge scaffolding, and Oh sees his opportunity, “A sign! It’s a sign!” In the mayhem that follows, eventually none of the women is thrust into the fire (a firey bull’s head), but the high priest ends up falling in covered in oil. A huge fireball results. The crowd is stunned and there is a moment of shock that Zed takes advantage of: “How about that by the high priest?! What a sacrifice he just made! Let’s hear it for the high priest!” And he begins to clap. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the idea of “sacrifice” and what it meant to be a high priest in days of yore when your “sacrifice” consisted of someone else’s life! But tossing yourself into the fire? Now that would be a real sacrifice.

I can’t promise everyone would like this movie. If you can’t stomach Jack Black, don’t even try. I can’t claim it’s deep or offers anything you probably haven’t already considered. But I do think it offers a second look at some events that seem too familiar to too many. Christians who idolize Abraham for trying to kill his son should take note of what they might think, or have thought, if they had encountered this act as Zed did. Would they intervene or let this take place? “Well, I mean, if god said ‘do it,
‘ I guess, go for it…?”

I have a feeling the film won’t play long. But there is nothing visual about it that won’t translate perfectly well to small screen. You won’t lose anything by waiting for DVD release if you think you might like it. And, if you’re up for a lighthearted view of religious history, you might find it entertaining.

The Bible’s greatest hits: Genesis edition

The Atheist Experience episode #606 will be about the Bible’s impact on our culture, focusing on the book of Genesis. Dust off that Bible and follow along. We’ll talk about

  • how just-so stories have been used to blame and repress minority groups,
  • how the in-group uses the stories to align with power and justified thuggery,
  • how the breeding log of Genesis provides convenient hooks for derivative religions, and
  • how so many aspects of the goofy episodes in Genesis still remain with us while the really embarrassing ones are forgotten.

In future episodes, we’ll look at the greatest hits from some other parts of the Bible.

Dec 14th Atheist Experience Topic

In a recent AE list dialogue, I was referred to as a Conspiracy Theorist on two counts. The first count was that I stated that while I would not say Jesus never existed, I also could not say that I am certain that he did. The second count was that I stated that the church drove the “official” doctrine by creating an environment where the more powerful and popular positions simply eliminated opposition–sometimes by execution, exile or destroying dissident books.

So, the intended topic for today will be a bit about Christian history, the shaping of doctrine and the historical response to “heresy.” Assuming we get to it, we’ll cover the idea that there were, in fact, divisions from the time the foundations of the church were being laid. Arguments between the apostles themselves and problems between apostles and the churches are clearly recorded in the New Testament texts.

The idea, that seems to be widespread in modern Christianity, that there was a time of doctrinal unity in the early Christian church, to which they should also adhere, is simply incorrect. There has never been a unified Christian doctrine, but Constantine (Roman Emperor, 272-337 CE) attempted to remedy that when he made Christianity the official religion of Rome. If Christianity was to be endorsed and promoted by the government, it had to be defined–and that proved to be quite a task. He appointed Eusebius to work on producing a collection of texts while he called for a series of meetings (Nicea) to try and determine what would become the official church doctrine moving forward. The manuscripts Eusebius would collect would be used in conjunction with the doctrines determined in these debates. And his anthology would eventually (some centuries later) become the Bibles (there are still multiple “official” versions that contain different books) we recognize today as authoritative–meant to reflect and support a doctrine determined not by Jesus and his apostles, but rather by processes put in place much later by the Roman government. The Bible is, then, the result of an attempt to unify the Christian schisms in Rome under a legal Christian doctrine endorsed by Constantine, and to put an end to dissension, by force if necessary. Despite well documented history, the idea that the book is a message from god to Christians today has somehow sprung up and entrenched itself with modern fundamentalist Christians–many of whom are sometimes completely unaware of the basic facts surrounding the production of what today they labeled as “God’s Word.”

Some names and events to bone up on: Arius, Montanus, Priscillian of Avila, Nestorius, Library of Serapeum in Alexandria, Peter Abelard, Cathars of Languedoc / Albigensian Crusade.

What’s the Difference?

When I first recognized I was an atheist, I hadn’t read any atheist literature. I studied and came to my own conclusions about god after being brought up as a fundamentalist (and for many years accepting the Bible as the inerrant word of god). After a few years as an atheist, visiting atheist forums and debating and dialoging with atheists and theists alike, I stumbled upon ACA in my community. I had already begun drawing Atheist Eve–a character who reflected my own perspective of what I saw as problems in my own past “logic” and who also voiced my assessment of current Christian doctrines and trends.

I was so ignorant of the atheist community and what it offered that I recall a discussion on the ACA list where someone quoted Richard Dawkins. I replied, “Who is Richard Dawkins? And why should I care what he says?” Interestingly, while I’m not proud of my ignorance, I am happy with my response. Here’s why:

As a Christian, I was always reading the Bible, attending Bible studies and reading commentaries that reinforced my fundamentalist beliefs about doctrine and interpretation. I wanted to be thoroughly informed about what I “believed” (although I have a lot of trouble calling something I have to learn and constantly reinforce _my_ “belief”).

With atheism, it didn’t work that way. I observed and studied all I could about the nature of existence around me, and concluded that god appeared to be a metaphor.

While I can’t claim that no one might read Dawkins and change their mind with regard to religious beliefs, I can claim that I never was “swayed” by Satan in the form of any atheist writer. No silky smooth sophistry confused me into atheism. No angry incident with my church or a preacher made me hate god. No rebellion against the Christian lifestyle or rules and regulations made Christianity impossible for me. No desire to sin with abandon drove my motives. (In fact, later, when I began to adopt a more Buddhist perspective, I was far more morally restricted than I ever had been as a Christian. Personal sacrifice has never been an impediment for me. I’m simply not a highly materialistic person). The truth is, believe it or don’t, I just put my mind to the task of considering the question and studied relevant data as much as I could, and I determined god is a metaphor.

What made me happy about my own ignorance, though, is that there is something to be said for being able to respond to apologetic criticisms that I’m being blindly led astray by the intellectual prowess of such as Dawkins, by pointing out that it can hardly be a valid criticism while it is aimed at someone who has never read any atheist author’s views on religion, and who doesn’t know who Dawkins is. So, even after discovering Dawkins, I never read more than one article. I didn’t want to “learn” arguments from him. I didn’t want to be accused of adopting the beliefs of others and simply labeling them as “my own,” in the same way I had done in my religious years. There is no atheist leader. There is nothing in atheism to follow. And if I disagree with Dawkins, it’s OK to say, “So what if Dawkins says it? I don’t agree.”

When is the last time a fundamentalist posted, “So what if the Bible says it? I don’t agree.”

That’s the difference. And it’s a biggie. And so, if there could ever be a positive result to ignorance, hopefully it was illustrated in my reply on the atheist list those years ago.

But Dawkins is a man, and the Bible, well, that’s god, isn’t it? That’s why you won’t hear that from a fundamentalist. That’s what I would have said as a fundamentalist in response to my own point above. After taking a course of Josh McDowell’s materials with my preacher at about 15 years old, I would have insisted it was inarguable. The Bible was the inerrant word of god. My church said it. My family said it. My school never disputed it. My community held to it. Everyone knew the Bible was the word of god. Everyone knew that if there was a god, then Christianity was the option. And none of us ever bothered to confirm any of our assumptions.

Now, after many years of avoiding reading books about atheists and atheism, I feel I’ve proven my point—mainly to myself, but perhaps to some others—that atheism is my fully informed choice and “my” belief based on “my” conclusions. I have not accepted the claim of atheism from someone else. I’ve given theists their opportunity. I’ve looked at the world and universe around me, and after crunching the data, god is a metaphor.

In celebrating my release from the feeling of obligation that I need to respond to those who would accuse me of succumbing to Satanic atheist dogma that presumably corrupted my brain, I now have begun reading atheist literature. I read some Bertrand Russell, some George Smith, some Dawkins, and now I’m reading Ehrman. I enjoy some of it. I enjoy some of it somewhat less. I find some of it hard to read. I find some of it easy to read. I agree with some of it. I disagree with some of it. But I am able to evaluate all of it and make up my own mind whether or not I deem it as valid based on what I know of the world around me and how it operates.

The Erhman book I’m reading currently reminded me very much of my own experiences with religion in my past. And I decided to write some notes about that to someone, and I’m going to share a portion of that correspondence (somewhat paraphrased) here for anyone who likes that sort of thing:

“…At 15, I still would not commit to Christianity, because I was too unsure if there was a god or not. Finally, a preacher invited me to attend a series based on the materials of Josh McDowell, who puts forward the inerrancy of scripture via historical ‘evidence.’

“I was so swayed by McDowell (back then there was no Internet, and local libraries in small towns weren’t overflowing with controversial books that questioned mainstream ideas). It wasn’t until college that I even met anyone who questioned whether or not the foundation of my beliefs (the Bible–and even the existence of god) was something I should probably think more about. [Because truth was important to me, I took their advice.]

“Outside of my normal course load and my part-time job, I made time to spend in the evenings at the university library, looking up religious history–especially regarding the production of the Bible. What I finally determined (much to my dismay) was that the criticisms of my fellow students (many of whom were taking history themselves) were well-founded. In the end, as a layman, sitting many nights at a table with my books all spread out, I was able to piece together the information–that is today put forward in the book ‘Misquoting Jesus’–from many different sources–some religious, some secular (none, however, which were atheistic or anti-religious). Once I recognized that the history of the Bible–even as presented by honest, god-fearing Christians promoting Christian doctrine–indicated a group of texts one should take with a heaping pile of grains of salt–my mind was finally freed to pursue honest truth.

“Thanks to books like Erhman’s and the Internet, there is today a place for fundamentalist youth (or even the aged) to go and find this information in a simpler fashion…for a layman, this information isn’t really old hat, nor is it easy to necessarily even find and put together. But it is becoming more common and available, and that’s because of the work of people like Erhman. At the time I was a teen, Josh McDowell’s claims could stand completely unchallenged by schools, churches, and communities in America. There was no independent, unbiased source to go to, to see if what McDowell claimed was verifiable. Erhman is part of a structure that is slowly growing and finally making sure that all sides of the fundamentalist story are available to the public.

“Freedom of choice surely needs to be respected, but what is
the difference between an uninformed choice and no choice at all? By keeping people ignorant, freedom of choice is clearly impeded. Books like Erhman’s open up real choice to people who might not otherwise realize they even have options. This is upsetting to some people…But they need to ask themselves what ‘truth’ should have to fear from facts. If my version of truth cannot withstand the full brunt of complete disclosure of facts, my version of truth requires re-examination…”

I’m not sure what else to say about it. I no longer have any dogma or doctrine that requires defense against reality or facts or data. I can accept whatever I observe and see how it fits into the rest of the facts and data. If it doesn’t fit, I can re-evaluate the whole enchilada if I have to. Nothing need be too sacred to examine. No question need remain unanswered merely because it’s a taboo of the highest order to even ask it. I have no stake in any “belief” any longer. It can now be purely about truth alone. I have nothing of value that requires me to reject data. In fact, I doubt I would today be capable of valuing anything that would require such a thing from me. I have no bias I’m aware of that causes me to deny what can be observed or to distort its meaning so that it force-fits within my preconceived framework of reality. But as a Christian, I could not have honestly claimed that.

Ugarit and the Bible

On a few past episodes we looked at some of the gods mentioned in the Old Testament. Among them, Asherah, Nehushtan, Ba’al, Yahweh, and El.

Many people are familiar with the texts found at Qumran, commonly known as the Dead Sea Scrolls, in the 1940s. But fewer people have heard of the Ugarit findings, which began to be unearthed in the late 1920s. Both discoveries greatly increased our knowledge and understanding of Biblical texts and also of the history surrounding the evolution of Judaism and Christianity.

The Dead Sea Scrolls impacted both the Old and New Testament interpretations, while the findings at Ugarit impacted only the Old Testament. These texts and architectural inscriptions predate the Hebrew settlement at Canaan, but interestingly, they mention some of the same gods that appear in the Hebrew religious writings, produced after the Hebrew contact with the Ugarit region. The most significant god mentioned is El. In one temple inscription he is said to be the father of Ba’al. In other mentions, he is even the father of Yaweh.

In the Old Testament, Ba’al is associated with the Canaanites. And he is described as the focus of their religious worship in those stories—while El is described as being another name for Yahweh, the Hebrew patron god. In reality, however, based on the discoveries at Ugarit (the land called Canaan in the Bible), El is clearly the father of the gods in much the same way that Zeus is the head of the gods on Olympus in Greek mythology. And Yaweh is not another name for El, but a separate deity. Like Zeus, El headed a pantheon. He was not only the father of mankind, but the leader of the Ugarit gods. His pantheon, in Ugarit, is called the Elohim (literally, the plural of El).

Using the book of Genesis as an example, the best scholarly estimates date it back to somewhere between 950 and 500 BC. It appears that the writings were composed in two styles, one style preferring to refer to god as El and the other using YHWH (or Yahweh). Eventually these texts came together into the form we have today, sometime around 450 BC. Just to give some perspective, the best documented time in the Ugarit history was between 1450 and 1200 BC.

According to many modern apologists, El is simply another name for god, or even a generic word for “god” used by the Hebrews; and Elohim is simply another form of El. However, Bible translators do translate Elohim as plural in some instances and do translate El to be a proper noun in some instances. Some apologists defend a wholly singular usage of Elohim by pointing to the inconsistency with which Elohim is used with singular verb forms; however, this does not rule out the very real (and likely) potential that as monotheism evolved out of polytheism, the Hebrew texts were adjusted to correct for this problem (as we discussed the evolution of the book of Genesis in the above paragraph). However, it does seem oddly coincidental—and difficult to overlook—that the Hebrews had significant contact with Canaan and then, some years afterward, wrote out a Hebrew religious mythology using a name for god that parallels the Ugarit mythology’s chief deity. It is also odd that Elohim appears in Ugarit texts as a clearly plural form of El, and then later in a sometimes confused singular/plural fashion in the Hebrew texts.

The important question becomes, then: Is there any reason beyond the contact with Canaan to view the Hebrew deity as being synonymous with the Canaanite god El? The answer is “yes.” There are parallels between the two gods. For example, if we look at more of the attributes of El in the Ugarit texts, we find that El had a consort, Asherah (who was also, occasionally, recorded as the consort to Yahweh). This would appear to distance the Hebrew El from the Ugarit El then, if there is no mention of the Hebrews combining El with Asherah. However, there is mention in the Hebrew texts that illustrates that Asherah was connected with El in the minds of the Hebrews as well as in their worship. Twice in Jeremiah (chapter 7 and chapter 44), she is referred to as the Queen of Heaven, and it is clearly indicated that the Hebrews were worshipping her in those instances. Also, in 2 Kings 18, it is noted that her objects of worship (the Asherah poles) were removed from the “high places” of worship to El/Yahweh.

There is no doubt that as the Hebrews moved from polytheism, into henotheism, and ultimately into monotheism, that they adjusted their religious practices accordingly. It is not surprising that the worship of Asherah was ultimately condemned, discouraged, and forbidden. But what can’t be ignored is the fact that the Hebrews did acknowledge Asherah. They did worship her. And they did associate her with El by placing her symbols in the same temples of worship. If Hebrews did not adopt the older Ugarit El, with which they were surely familiar, then it is very odd that Asherah also appears in their religious texts and worship.

I would never underestimate the apologist’s ability to find a perspective that can reinterpret this data to make it less problematic. However, the clear and simply explanation is this: The Hebrews interacted with Ugarit, adopted their pantheon, and their religion evolved, as all religions do through time, to become a uniquely Hebrew monotheism.

Further Reading:
[General information about Ugarit]
[Describes similarities and parallels between Biblical texts and Ugarit texts]
[Describes the production of Genesis]
[Presents an apologetic case for the singular form of Elohim]
[Another apologetic case for the singular form of Elohim]
[Identifies Asherah as El’s consort]
[Information about Asherah]
[Asherah as the Queen of Heaven]