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Column 7
How many gods?

Faith, critical thought and modern America

By © Martin Foreman
Word Count: 791 words
Publication date: March 20, 2005

“In the beginning, God created heaven and earth.”

Here we are with a couple of hours to spare and nothing better to do than translate Genesis from ancient Hebrew into modern English. That version of chapter one, verse one looks all right, but there’s something missing. Let’s check the original again. What’s the fourth word? “Elohim” Of course; the –im ending means it’s plural, like cherubim and seraphim. Let’s try again.

“In the beginning, the gods created heaven and earth.”

That’s better. On to verse two… “Elohim” again. Rewrite as “The spirit of the gods moved upon the waters.” Verse three… “The gods said ‘Let there be light’.” We’re getting into the rhythm now. How often does the word “Elohim”, in the plural, appear in the Old Testament? About 1,500 times. So it wasn’t just a cleric’s error. We really are talking about several gods, who not only create the world but who hang around long enough to be part of several generations of history.

Who are these gods? The Bible refers to El, Yahweh, Ba’al and (not in every version) Asherah. All four originally appeared in Canaanite myth, together with other deities that don’t make it into the Old Testament.

El is the Most High, the father of the Gods. Asherah is the Queen of Heaven, the fertility goddess. El’s children include Yah (later known as Yahweh), Ba’al, Mot, Anat and Yam. To resolve rivalries between siblings, El divides the recently created world among them. Yahweh gets the Israelites, as he explains in chapters 31 and 32 of Deuteronomy. Verses 32.8 – 32.9 emphasize the point that this is a gift from the god who ranks above him.

The Israelites soon learn that Yahweh is a demanding deity who insists that his people repudiate all the other gods. He is particularly vexated by Asherah, who gave her name to the phallic symbols worshiped in holy places across Israel. One of his obsessions is that the asherah must be destroyed.

In the King James version of the Bible, “asherah” is translated as “groves”, or group of trees, which leads to some pretty strange situations. In 2 Kings 23.6, Yahweh orders the high priest to remove a grove from inside the temple. Elsewhere, he complains about groves among the trees. Later versions of the Old Testament partially clear up the mystery, replacing “groves” with “Asherah poles”, although usually without explaining what an Asherah pole is…

This point - that there are several gods in the early chapters of the Bible is covered in more depth here.

But while modern versions of the Bible have caught up with “asherah”, they are still coy about “Elohim”. In every version I have consulted, the word continues to be translated as “God”. In maintaining the fiction that a single god created the universe, Biblical translators and scholars across the centuries have remained true to their faith. In doing so, however, they have lied to every believer who does not share their linguistic skills.

We can discuss another time the theological and historical implications of distorting the creation story. Today I’m more interested in looking at the implications for twenty-first century America. Why should we be concerned by mistranslations in a 2,000 year-old book?

Failure to translate honestly such a key word as “Elohim” reflects religion’s failure to confront its own contradictions, both within and outside the Bible. Faith presents answers, not questions. The statement is made “God exists”, and all evidence to the contrary, even from scripture, is ignored. Belief is prized and strong conviction admired, no matter how weak their foundations. Reason is valued only if it comes to predetermined conclusions.

That attitude permeates thinking in every aspect of American life. In schools and colleges, creationism is increasingly promoted as a viable alternative to evolution. Radio stations broadcast programs treating alien abduction as fact. Television shows feature “psychics” bearing “messages” from the dead. Superficial arguments convince millions who have never learned how to use their minds critically.

This inability to reason except in support of a predetermined conclusion dominates political life. Iraq is a threat – now look for the evidence to prove it. Social Security should be privatized – now create the argument in favor. Gay marriage will destroy our society – don’t even bother rationalizing that statement.

The trend is exacerbated in the media and on the internet. A recent report from Columbia University's Project for Excellence in Journalism points out that news is increasingly dominated by opinion and assertion rather than unbiased research.

It is no coincidence that a White House led by a practicing Christian is the leading exponent of conviction politics. Nor is it surprising that George W Bush displays little ability for critical thought. What is disappointing is that the president is aided and abetted by so many politicians, journalists and members of the public who fail to challenge the prejudices, biases and misinformation that dominate American discourse today.

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If God existed, he would...

admire the beauty of a universe that he did not create

recognize that eternity is meaningless

deny both heaven and hell

disown all men and women who speak in his name

denounce the harm caused by religious "morality"

help the human race to thrive without him

If God existed, he would be an atheist.

What is the difference between science and faith?

science is certain of nothing and requires proof of everything

faith is certain of everything and requires proof of nothing

Which do you trust?

"I know there is no God"
"I believe there is no God"

Check the answer

wear the Scarlet letter

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