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God and the Gods: Hostile Takeover

December 17, 2012

The theme of divine takeover is similar in many ways to divine warfare.  Both are hostile actions between gods but the primary difference is that takeovers are aimed at a god’s abilities and not that god’s images or people.  This, like many of these divine interactions, can be confusing to those raised under monotheism (whether or not these people remain monotheists).  However, for the ancient Near East a god had one or more particular metaphysical areas of power.  Things like war, fertility, storms, the sea, the flooding of rivers, pottery, and so on might all be the specific domain of a god or gods.

Much like divine warfare the Old Testament prophets express sentiments of takeover.  Hosea 2 begins with this theme as part of a divorce case between Yahweh (the offended husband) and Israel (the adulterous wife).  In verse 5 Israel says that her lovers (the foreign gods) give to her food, water, wool, linen, olive oil, and drink.  In verses 8 and 9 Yahweh says that he will show her who really gave her these things by taking them away from her.  Israel says that the Ba’als1 bless Israel with economic prosperity, crops, and livestock.  Yahweh says no, that’s His doing.  He will pull a divine takeover, attacking the Ba’als in their ability to do anything by undoing the very things they are supposed to do best.

I said earlier that divine takeover is closely related to divine warfare.  This is because divine takeover often involves these challenges either explicitly or implicitly: god X is supposed to do Y and so Yahweh will either do Y (soft takeover) or prevent Y from happening (a harsher form of takeover).  Either way the power of god X will be called into question.

One of the best Old Testament examples of this is an example that might easily be classed as an example of warfare, the showdown between Yahweh and Ba’al that ends with the famous fire-from-heaven smackdown between Elijah and Ba’al’s prophets.  This story is found in 1 Kings 17-18.  It’s important to this story to understand that Ba’al is a storm god and that it is primarily in this arena that Yahweh confronts and defeats him.

There are three acts to this story.  This first is simple: Elijah tells Ahab that Yahweh will stop the rain and for three years there is no rain.  (The rest of the story actually takes place within this time period.)  A storm god should easily be able to bring rain but Ahab’s switch of allegiance from Yahweh to Ba’al results in a drought instead.  Obviously, Yahweh controls the rain.

The second act is also seemingly simple: Elijah leaves Israel and goes to Zarapeth in Sidon and stays with a widow there.  While there, he performs two miracles: first, the widow’s jar of oil and her jar of flour do not run out no matter how much they are used.  Second, when the widow’s son dies Elijah raises him from the dead by the power of Yahweh.

The important thing for this story is that ancient Near Eastern gods are bound to their territories.  A god should not be able to act outside of his region.  In fact, in 2 Kings 5 (notably after at least some people have seem what Elijah did) Naaman the Aramean is converted to Judaism (or at least some form of Yahwism) and gives a bit of a speech to Elisha about this (verse 17).  He asks for Elisha to give him as much dirt (from Israel) as two mules can carry.  Naaman says that this is because he will never again sacrifice to any god but Yahweh.  Naaman then goes on to explain some difficult political realities involving Aram’s god Rimmon but Naaman’s point is that he is now worshipping Yahweh and he needs some dirt.  Why?  Almost certainly because Naaman needs some of the land to which he believes Yahweh is bound.  If you want to worship Israel’s god you need some of Israel’s land.  Of course, this whole business about Elijah leaving Israel and doing miracles is contradicting that.  Unlike the classic Near Eastern gods, Yahweh is not bound by geography.  In fact, Ba’al has moved into Israel from Sidon with the Sidonian princess Jezebel (1 Kings 16:29-34) and now Yahweh moves into Ba’al territory, Zarapeth of Sidon, and performs miracles.  Yahweh 2: Ba’al 0.

The final act is the confrontation on Mount Carmel.  The terms are simple, although setting up the confrontation takes some time.  On one side are Ba’al’s 450 prophets and 400 prophets of Asherah (Ba’al’s consort) as backup.  On the other Elijah as the lone prophet of Yahweh.  Each side gets a bull.  Each side builds an altar to put the bull on and prays to their god to light the sacrificial fires.  As Elijah says, “The god that answers with fire, he is the god.”  Now, growing up I always envisioned this story as one about a huge column of flame dropping from the sky.  Fire from heaven, right?  However, fire from heaven shows up in at least one place that makes me think I’ve seen fire from heaven hundreds of times.  In Exodus 9:23 Moses initiates the plague of hail.  “Moses stretched out his staff to the heavens and Yahweh gave sounds and hail and fire walked about the earth and Yahweh caused hail to rain upon the land of Egypt.”  The sounds are obviously thunder – indeed, the word is used this way elsewhere.  So, thunder, rain, hail, and fire.  The fire is clearly lightning – fire from the skies. (Although we should be clear that “fire walked about the earth” is way, way cooler than “and there was lightning”.)  So when Elijah makes this bold claim, “The god that answers with fire, he is the god,” he is playing right into the hands of a storm god.  I mean, really, you’re going to pick one divine task to face down a storm god and it’s going to be the ability to throw lightning?  In a world where gods are limited in their abilities this is stupid – pick something Ba’al isn’t good at!

Of course, Ba’al’s prophets get thrashed.  They fail their simple task, Elijah mocks them and their god, and then when it’s Elijah’s turn he has water poured over the altar until it fills the makeshift moat he has built and then gets an answer of fire so strong that the very rocks are vaporized.  The people recognize this sign and turn on the prophets of Ba’al, slaughtering them and Elijah turns to Ahab and informs him that the drought it over.  Israel’s acceptance of the real god of storms, Yahweh, has brought back the rain.

So what do we do with this theme?  This theme is actually somewhat easier to deal with than warfare in that direct warfare sort of presupposes or at least imagines that the opponent is real.  The aim of divine takeover is to show that there is no proof that a given god is real.  Ba’al’s claim to fame was rain, the worship of Sidon, and lightning and yet Yahweh held back (and then gave) the rain, did miracles in Sidon, and provided lightning when Ba’al couldn’t.  Much like divine warfare the purpose of these extended takeover stories is the obliteration of a false god.  Elijah does not simply start by saying, “Ba’al is not a god,” he starts by demonstrating that if Ba’al is a god he is a powerless one.  Three years into the showdown, at the time of the final act on Mount Carmel, Elijah lays the cards on table and suggests that one of these gods is not a god.  When the people see Yahweh’s power displayed, they roar in affirmation, “Yahweh – he is the god!”  This is, of course, claiming the opposite about Ba’al.  If one of these gods isn’t a god and Yahweh is the god then Ba’al is nothing but a trap.

[1] The Ba’als are the gods normally addressed as ba’al (that’s ba-al and not “bail”, a pronunciation that I find strangely irritating), a word that simply means “master”.  The word itself is used in Hebrew as a normal word and the gods called ba’als are sometimes ba’al of something as in Ba’al Zebul, Master of the High Places (famously mocked by Elisha as Ba’al Zebub, Master of Flies).  Often the chief Ba’al is simply Ba’al, the Master, hence the usage of Ba’al as a proper name and as a class.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. December 17, 2012 8:53 pm

    “The aim of divine takeover is to show that there is no proof that a given god is real.” So is the aim of an atheist. I really have no point here, just an observation that has nothing to do with anything…LOL.

    • Eric permalink
      December 17, 2012 10:06 pm

      Actually, I think it does point out something useful. For many atheists particular philosophies that explain away gods have taken the place of those gods. Anointing science as a god is quite common (and more than a bit irritating for me as a scientist with some rather clear ideas about the utility and limits of science) but the basic idea that something comes in and knocks out a god and then tells us what to do is preserved.

      (To be clear, I think science tells us quite a lot of very useful things or I wouldn’t be a scientist. However, I also see people trying to use science to answer questions, especially moral questions, that are not easily quantifiable and which cannot be answered well with science. Science can often provide useful data in these situations but it cannot provide a value framework with which to interpret that data.)

      • December 18, 2012 6:34 pm

        Well, now that you put it that way, science (as a pseudo-religion) does currently act as a warfaring or take-over god. Interesting, since I’ve always seen awesome compatibility between science and God, not discord.

  2. Eric permalink
    December 19, 2012 10:44 am

    I agree with you that there is a great deal of compatibility but that depends on science being used to do science and not everyone feels that they should restrict themselves to legitimate uses of science.

    • December 19, 2012 6:33 pm

      Yep. Agreed.

      And Merry Christmas, btw.

      • Eric permalink
        December 20, 2012 10:25 am

        Thank you. Merry Christmas to you also.


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