Archaeological and literary evidence shows that our concept of and relation to god or the gods has changed over the past six thousand years, this being the titular “great shift” of James Kugel’s The Great Shift: Encountering God in Biblical Times. After study of this excellent book, I could not help but ask some questions.
Has God become more remote or have we put God at arm’s length? Did Jesus restore a personal relationship to God with us, among us? Did we respond to Jesus by again pushing God out of our daily lives into the church or temple or prayer closet? Are we determined to make God too holy to approach?
Great Shift Take Aways
It’s not an easy task to summarize a book that is a page turning sprint through evidence of human views about the divine from some 30,000 years ago until shortly after the second temple period (which ended in AD 70 or, as scholars put it, 70 CE). So, lucky you, I won’t even try!
The shift is one from a god(s) that is/are close by, in human-like form, and in one place at at a time, to god(s) that are omnipotent and beyond description, omniscient, distant yet omnipresent, and inaccessible or accessible only through prayer without expectation for a direct response. Archaeology as well as the Biblical texts show such a shift over time. Kugel’s book also discusses neurology, anthropology, and a host of other scientific elements that I’ll not delve into here. That notwithstanding, key take away points are in order:
- 30,000 years ago or so, there is currently no evidence of human belief in or worship of the divine. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, however, the “god gene” theory does not appear to be supported by anthropological or archaeological evidence.
- About 6,000 years ago, say 4,000 BCE, we start having evidence of a belief in the afterlife and of gods, often in burial artifacts.
- The earliest texts (and drawings and pottery etc.) indicate gods that come among the people in human or human like forms such as are found in Genesis and the Garden of Eden: N. B. Genesis 3:8 and the couple hearing God walking in Eden.
- People see what they think to be a person which they later discover was God (such as Abraham’s encounters, the encounters prior to the birth of Samson). Note that, today, 10-15% of the population “hear” and / or “see” apparitions of the divine at one point or another in their lives. Most of us are normal, average, sane individuals.
- As time goes forward, depictions of the divine become more remote, more foggy, less direct. Still, gods appear wherever they please whenever they please.
- At Sinai, God speaks directly to the people (Exodus chapter 20). Note also that God resides on Sinai (Exodus Chapter 33: Moses has to plead with God to accompany the people into the promised land after the golden calf incident. Side note: in Exodus 33:2, God would have ‘driven out’ the peoples of the promised land had He not accompanied Israel. A note of interest.) It is also in Exodus 33 where Moses is allowed to see God’s glory (Exodus 33:19-23) but not His face; clearly God is of imaginable size at this point. In terms of date, biblical reckoning has the Exodus at at or near 1446 BCE.
- Concepts of the gods become unapproachable to the common person – only through the mediation of priests and other special people such as prophets. The gods themselves become enormous and impossible to describe. Perhaps the footprints at Ain Dara (ca 1300 BCE) are part of the transition (that god would have been about 60 feet tall) to the full size described in Isaiah 6:1 with the hem of his robe filling the temple (ca 740 BCE).
- The concept of the immortal soul is put forth (certainly prior to Plato [ca 400 BCE] but Plato’s writings are a good example). It is less clear in the Bible when this occurs, because the intended meaning of the Hebrew words Ruah, Nefesh, Neshama, all of which can be translated as spirit or soul, changed during the time in which the Biblical corpus was written.
- Kugel did not include the Egyptian Ba and Ka concept which predates this shift in Biblical literature (Ba/Ka/Akh are attested to in the oldest pyramid texts, ca 2,400 BCE). The Ba/Ka/Akh concept is certainly one of the soul, and in my other studies it is clear that Israel and Egypt are closely tied.
- Time marches on and the concept that god is not confined to a singular locations, such as the Temple in Jerusalem and is accessible through prayer regardless of location. God is no longer the God of the elite and powerful. Again, not in Kugel but notable is the progression of the Ba/Ka/Akh in Egyptian burial literature from an afterlife for kings only to an afterlife for everyone who is deserving, notably in the Papyrus of Ani ca 1250 BCE where the Egyptian Book of the Dead has clearly become accessible to average people whereas it was only accessible to rulers in the Pyramid Texts (see also the references in my bibliography post).
- Throughout this entire journey, our concept of “self” has also evolved. Indeed, it is that concept that separates the East and the West with individual identity being paramount in the West whereas cultural identity is of high import in the East. This leads to a different picture of our interaction with the divine in these cultures, with the East being more mystic in many ways than the individual based West
That’s the gist, and to go much further seems inappropriate since the book is available and Kugel is a master at using clear prose to make difficult concepts accessible to the average reader. I highly recommend all of his works and collaborations of which you will find many, but not all, on my bibliography post.
I started with questions. Humans always want answers, we can’t be confined to the mere existence of a God with whom we interact. We must characterize the Ancient of Days and seek a way to manipulate this power to our advantage. That’s my crass view of what we’ve done. For my opening questions, I’d say that in some ways the answer to all of them is yes, we have made God too distant and holy to approach. The thing is, He is approachable, and an extremely good listener as well.
On the claims of great plans and eschatology or soteriology or any of the other things that we study, I’ve make no claim to know what’s right if any of it is. I do know that He knows me, and you, better than we know ourselves. And He loves us all, even and perhaps especially the many prodigals like me.
Think about it.