Where did they all come from?
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I noticed in Meditation 317 that Russell Odell referred to the Encyclopedia of Gods by Michael Jordan which lists and describes over 2,500 deities.
I was surprised. The number seems low to me. Perhaps not all gods made it into the encyclopedia.
But, regardless of the number, where did they all come from?
Most religions, though not all, suggest there is one true god, or one true pantheon of gods, who kickstarted the whole thing and created the first man / first woman / first family. And the first humans knew who had created them.
Given this initial knowledge, and given that all humanity is supposedly descended from these first humans, then why would they ever consider inventing additional gods outside of the known one true god / one true pantheon? And why would they forget and deny that one true god / one true pantheon?
It does not make sense.
I turned to that book which good Christians are always suggesting I read to find the answers to all my questions and I looked for the first mention of gods other than the one true god of the Christians.
The first time in the Bible, to the best I can determine, that other gods are brought into the story is Genesis 31:19
Laban had gone to shear his sheep and Rachel stole her father's household gods.
Suddenly, we find out that Laban who is both Jacob's uncle and father-in-law has household gods. There is not a word of explanation except the suggestion in the text that leads up to this theft that Rachel may have regarded these gods as her due inheritance. Other than that, we are given the impression that household gods are commonplace in this world where everyone is descended from Adam, and everyone is also descended by about a dozen generations from Noah who had even more recent direct experience of the one true god.
And, we find out just a little later that Jacob has such gods in his household too. Here is someone on the main story line; someone who is identified as a major figure in all the genealogies from Adam to Noah to David to Jesus. This is someone who talks to the one true god. Yet, there are other gods in his household. And where did they come from?
We know this because in Genesis 35, we find the following passage after the one true god has told Jacob to build an altar:
2 So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, "Get rid of the foreign gods you have with you, and purify yourselves and change your clothes. 3 Then come, let us go up to Bethel, where I will build an altar to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone." 4 So they gave Jacob all the foreign gods they had and the rings in their ears, and Jacob buried them under the oak at Shechem.
Obviously he knew, and had known all along that there were other gods in his household. He knew this all the years that the one true god was talking to him. And only now did he decide to eliminate these other gods. The inclusion of earrings shows that members of his household were openly wearing the symbols of those other gods.
If you want to take the bible literally, it does not make sense that Jacob would permitted foreign gods in his household over an extended period of years.
Symbolically, on the other hand, this can be marked as an important step on the way from many gods to one - the spiritual evolution from polytheism to monotheism. Not only is that a secular reading, it is the reading of the intelligent Jew or Christian who is capable of reading the bible as metaphor expressing spiritual truths.
But if you want to interpret the bible literally - there is no rationale for gods in Laban's household or in Jacob's household - nor a little later when the family heads off to Egypt and there they find people following a whole bunch of different gods.
But, let's face it. Memory is short and these people were twelve generations removed from Noah. Perhaps that is enough time to invent any number of pantheons of alternate gods and forget the one true god.
Let us fast forward to the time of Moses.
We have the Israelites brought out of Egypt. They have firsthand seen the plagues brought down on Egypt by their one true god. They have experienced firsthand the first Passover, still celebrated by their descendents to this day; they have seen the parting of the Red Sea, they have received water and manna in the desert; they have personally experienced many miracles from their one true god. And when Moses goes up the mountain to have a chat, what does Exodus 32 tell us happened?
1 When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, "Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don't know what has happened to him."
2 Aaron answered them, "Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me." 3 So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. 4 He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, "These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt."
And these are people who directly experienced that supposedly one true god.
Is this a credible tale?
And if they, who had apparently experienced firsthand their one true god in a way we never will, at the first opportunity rejected him for a golden calf, why should we believe in such a god?
We have a choice. We can accept that there was initially a recognized one true god, and that people forgot about this deity and went ahead and created thousands of additional ones. Or, we can think that the various communities around the world all developed their own set of gods, and that the concept of the one true god is a later refinement - which (for believers) might have come about via divine revelation.
From the tale as told in the bible itself, the one to many scenario does not make sense. The idea of many came long before the idea of one.
- Some still retain tribal religions in which the gods and creation story apply only to the tribe; it is recognized that other tribes should have their own gods and own creation story. Some would call this primitive religion; I consider it civilized.