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The Humble Origins of the Abrahamic Religions

The biblical narrative of the Israelites begins with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob shepherding a fledgling group of people based in the Levant, who benefit from God’s special protection provided that they are loyal to him and keep his laws. Eventually moving to Egypt to escape the famine and drought that periodically affected their homelands, they find themselves as slaves of the Egyptian Pharaoh. Guided by Moses, and following a series of devastating plagues inflicted on the Egyptians to provoke them into freeing their captives, they set about reconquering the lands of the western Levant (known at this time as Canaan) under the guidance of Joshua, Moses’ successor. There then followed the period of the ‘Judges’—leaders such as Samson, who would emerge periodically to save the Israelites from the conquering intentions of surrounding civilizations such as the Philistines. As skirmishes with neighboring tribes became more and more common, leadership under a strong king was sought, and Israel became a monarchy, first under Saul, and then under his successor David, who was in turn succeeded by his son Solomon. The monarchy under these last two kings is seen as a ‘Golden Age’ where there was peace and prosperity, and where the previously disparate tribes of Israel were brought under central leadership based in Jerusalem. This kingdom then fractured in two, bringing about a northern kingdom called Israel and a southern kingdom called Judah.

Whether religious or not, these stories make for fascinating reading. However, the lack of evidence for the biblical narrative is striking, and no support for it is ever advanced from a disinterested ancient historian. The myriad of documents that have come to light from ancient Egypt never mention a huge population of foreign slaves that leave in the hundreds of thousands following a series of catastrophes. Modern archaeological techniques have also been able to identify the movements of nomadic wanderers as early as the third millennium BCE in the Sinai peninsula, but have found nothing about the supposed half a million refugees (Exodus 12:37) travelling many hundreds of years later with their families in tow. Likewise, no neighboring empire seems to have noticed the kingdom of David, which is said to have comprised of a vast piece of territory from the Euphrates River to the borders of Egypt (1 Kings 4:21), and no evidence has ever come to light of Solomon’s opulent gold-decked Temple and palace ruled by a king whom “people from around the world wanted to meet” (1 Kings 10:24).

So where did the Israelites come from, and what was their early history? In the second millennium BCE, Canaan was an Egyptian stronghold consisting of a number of modest city-states, one of which was Jerusalem, or ‘Uru-Salim’ as it was then called. The Amarna letters, discovered in the late 1800s, document correspondence between the Egyptian hierarchy and the king of Uru-Salim, Abdi-Heba. They reveal that his territory was modest enough for the pharaoh to have sent a mere 50 archers to guard and protect it from potential invasion. By the late Bronze Age—the time at which Joshua is said to have led his conquering armies—Egyptian rule was beginning to weaken, and it is this loosening of its grip of power that led to the emergence of a number of independent tribes. One of these, ‘Israel,’ appeared in the hinterland of Canaan, inland from the Mediterranean coast. The first mention of the Israelites is found on the ‘Merneptah Stele,’ a granite tablet that bears the name of Rameses II’s son and heir Merneptah, who ruled Egypt from 1213 BCE to 1203 BCE. Currently housed in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, the Merneptah Stele celebrates a number of Merneptah’s military victories, one of which was over the Israelites, who are referred to as a people rather than as a country. Where this tribe came from is lost to history. One theory is that they emerged from within Canaan. Another is that they were outsiders to the area who chose Canaan as a convenient place to settle. Either way, supernaturally guided origins can be ruled out as a more fanciful and infinitesimally less likely explanation. Merneptah’s military campaigns came towards the end of Egyptian rule, which was to limp on until 1180 BCE. The so-called ‘Bronze Age collapse,’ which saw additional cultural and political upheaval, further destabilized Canaan, leaving a power vacuum that such tribes could exploit.

We hear nothing of ‘Israel’ in contemporary reports until hundreds of years later. However, archaeology tells us that various villages continued to develop in the area. Population growth meant that by the 900s BCE, two states had begun to emerge, with Israel occupying a fertile and navigable terrain to the north of the Levant, and a southern state Judah situated on a more rugged and hilly landscape. Archaeology has revealed that, as with many cultures of ancient times, both worshiped many gods—Baal, Asherah, Astarte, Resheph, and El—to name but a few. Yahweh, the Canaanite god of metallurgy, was just one of the gods that competed for their attention. Both states dealt with the usual skirmishes and attempted invasions that typified the geopolitics of the area in Iron Age times. The mighty Assyrian Empire seized their chance to invade the easily traversable northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE and was successful. Judah fared a little better and was able to resist conquest for another 150 years, eventually succumbing to the reemerging Babylonian Empire. In a number of deportations starting in 597 BCE, the Babylonians took captive many of Judah’s most senior figures, destroying its capital Jerusalem and beginning the time known as ‘the Babylonian exile.’

The years following the Babylonian exile generated a great deal of soul-searching among Judah’s elite. How could a people who were so deeply religious, and who had worshiped its gods so fastidiously, have been subjected to centuries of persecution and eventual destruction? A group of Judeans began to develop further a line of thinking that had sought to answer this question. It was not because they were not diligent enough in the worship of their gods—it was because they had been worshiping the wrong gods. In particular, an influential group among them began to develop the idea that their checkered history was due to their reverence or otherwise of one god in particular—Yahweh. This group was particularly dominant when the canon of Jewish scripture was constructed, particularly those tracts that chart the history and origins of the people of Israel and Judah. While more traditional datings of many of the scriptures that eventually became part of the Jewish Bible have them written more or less concurrently with the events that they describe, anachronisms (that is, chronological inconsistencies) contained therein suggest a much later date.

For example, camels are mentioned at the time of Abraham, who was said to have existed around 1800 BCE. Genesis 12 mentions him acquiring “sheep and cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels” (Genesis 12:16). Their next mention is in Genesis 24, where Abraham instructs his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac, and he leaves “taking with him ten of his master’s camels loaded with all kinds of good things from his master” (Genesis 24:10). However, radiocarbon dating has told us that the time at which camels became domesticated came many, many hundreds of years after the time that Abraham was said to have lived. Similarly, Abraham is said to hail from ‘Ur of Babylon’ or ‘Ur of the Chaldees’ (Genesis 11:31), referring to the dynasty that ruled this city in the 6th century BCE. The history of Israel and Judah as recorded in such books as Exodus, Chronicles, Joshua and Kings smacks of people who were not writing at the time but of people writing much, much later who had got their dates wrong.

Other anachronisms are plentiful. For example, the book of Exodus seems to misunderstand the time that the Philistines appeared in the Levant. The Philistines were a group of settlers who arrived in Canaan in the 1200s BCE. Sophisticated for the time, and with an advanced culture that belies the insinuation suggested by their name today, they set up a number of cities near the Mediterranean coast. The writers of the book of Exodus curiously have Moses take a route out of Egypt so as to avoid them—some several hundred years before they had established themselves in the area (Exodus 13:17). Also telling is the repeated use of the phrase “to this day” in the biblical history of the Israelites. One such use can be found in Deuteronomy 34, which recounts the death of Moses and tells us that he is buried in a place that “no-one knows to this day” (Deuteronomy 34:6). Similar uses of this phrase, or variants thereof, can be found in numerous places, particularly in the historical parts of the books of Genesis, Deuteronomy, Judges, Joshua, and Chronicles (e.g., Deuteronomy 2:22, Joshua 16:3, Judges 10:4, and 2 Chronicles 35:25). There is no logical reason for this phrase to be used unless considerable time had elapsed between the events being described and the time at which they were written down.

The biblical history of the Israelite people was a much later redactive process over which a small but significant group of Yahweh loyalists had huge influence, such that misfortunes or successes were reinterpreted as being caused by their level of devotion to a jealous Yahweh, who was made to look like he played a significant part in determining the fortunes of the states of Israel and Judah. When things went right, their good fortune was a reward for their allegiance to him. Conversely, tribulations were attributed to their frequent dalliances with other Canaanite gods. When Israel fell in 722 BCE, the party line is that it fell not because of its proximity to the mighty Assyrian Empire and because its geography made it easier to invade, but due to Yahweh’s wrath at Israel’s worship of other gods such as Baal and Asherah (2 Kings 17:15-17), causing Yahweh to “remove them out of his sight” (2 Kings 17:18), leaving only Judah behind. Similarly, the official story is that the later detention of Judeans in Babylonia was not due to a reemerging empire restaking its claim and flexing its proverbial muscles, but due to Yahweh’s punishment of its king Manasseh, who had flagrantly encouraged the worship of other gods as described in 2 Kings 21. In adding this supernatural explanation of what were essentially natural events, the Yahwehist writers of the Jewish Bible’s books of history created cautionary tales should their people consider worshiping any other gods.

The further they moved back in time, the more creative Yahwehist historians could be as they constructed their supernaturally embellished history of the Israelite people. For example, they borrowed creation myths from Mesopotamian mythology for the famous first chapters of Genesis, and borrowed from the Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh for the story of Noah and his Ark. To these they added instances where devotion to Yahweh was rewarded, such as Noah being saved from the worldwide flood due to him finding “grace in the eyes of the Lord” (Genesis 6:8), and instances of disobedience being punished, such as in the case of Adam and Eve being banished from the Garden of Eden as recounted in Genesis’ third chapter.

The mythical figures of Abraham and Moses provided people with further role models, and explained how people might find favor personally if they disregarded other gods. Abraham, who goes so far as to come close to murdering his own son on Yahweh’s orders (Genesis 22), earns blessings from God “in every way” (Genesis 24:1). Similarly, Moses rejects the polytheistic ways of his Egyptian patrons, and acts as Yahweh’s faithful, if tentative, prophet to his people, in spite of the reservations they have regarding their current slavery (Exodus 6:9 and Exodus 6:12). The Exodus, one of the most famous biblical stories, set to demonstrate that if people harnessed Yahweh’s power, they would be the eventual victors against any entity that persecuted them, even the mighty Egyptians who, prior to the Roman era, were still regarded as the archetypal ‘mighty empire.’

David and Solomon provided an exhortation as to what could be achieved as a nation-state if a leader and the masses focused their religious devotion on Yahweh alone. The golden age of the Israelites—the so called ‘united kingdom’ that is said to have existed between 1050 BCE and 930 BCE—was largely down to the loyalty of their Yahwehist kings and populace. King David is consistently shown to be a fervent Yahwehist. When going in to battle he puts his trust in Yahweh that he will be victorious (1 Samuel 17:37) and is consequently able to create a huge kingdom such that all neighboring nations fear him (1 Chronicles 14:17). While he is also known for his indiscretions, such as his adultery with Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11), he seeks solemn forgiveness from Yahweh alone (2 Samuel 12:13) and is thus permitted to continue his reign. This utopia continues under David’s son Solomon, where people “ate and drank and were happy” (1 Kings 4:20). Such is his favor with Yahweh that he is able to maintain his father’s vast empire, and at his height is able to earn 18 tons of gold in a single year in the form of tributes from neighboring states that had submitted to him (1 Kings 10:14). Cracks begin to appear when Solomon “turns his heart after other gods” (1 Kings 11:4), which sees Yahweh “tear away” his kingdom (1 Kings 11:11). The kingdom subsequently splits in two, whose fortunes wax and wane according to their levels of allegiance to Yahweh.

This Yahwehist faction was successful in winning over the hearts and minds of the fellow Judeans with whom they were exiled. When the Persian King Cyrus conquered the Babylonians some 60 years after the Babylonian exile, they returned to Jerusalem armed with a reconstructed history of their past and a resolute loyalty to Yahweh. It is at this time that the staunchly monotheistic ‘Second Temple’ period of what by now had begun to resemble Judaism began. Many hold that the Ten Commandments, with its famous and unambiguous edict to disregard other gods, originated at this time.[1] Certainly no version of these rules have been found which predate it. Once back in Jerusalem, they continued to hold steadfastly to belief in the primacy of Yahweh over the pagan deities favored by their neighbors. In spite of their subsequent occupation by the Macedonians and Romans, some even harbored hopes that a new king or ‘messiah’ would emerge to eventually prove their god’s supremacy once and for all.

An embellished and creatively written history of the origins and development of a Canaanite tribe therefore forms the basis of the Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is important to note that the Jesus of the Gospels seems to concur with the Yahwehists’ version of history. For example, he refers to the Genesis creation myth (Matthew 19:4-5), Noah (Matthew 24:37-39), Abraham (John 8:33), and Moses’ exodus (John 5:45-47) as if they were historical realities. In the same way, the Qur’an and Islamic exegesis subscribe to the historicity of such people and events, embellishing them further still. For example, Islamic literature has an expert in economics advise Pharaoh that the killing of Israelite children would result in loss of potential manpower during the Egyptian enslavement. The seemingly arbitrary selection in the 6th century BCE of one of the deities from the vast Canaanite pantheon by a small group of Yahwehist loyalists over 2,500 years ago has therefore had a profound effect on mankind, forming the basis of the belief systems of billions of people who have lived since.


[1] Craig Evan Anderson, [Review of Etched in Stone: The Emergence of the Decalogue, by David H. Aaron]. Religious Studies Review Vol. 35, No. 3 (September 2009): 167.