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Pre-Jewish Ancient Semitic Religion
Pre-Jewish Ancient Semitic Religion
Living in today’s world, we can easily become familiar with some of the religious beliefs and customs other people practice, but it is more difficult to understand the origins of these beliefs and customs, especially tracing these back to ancient times. Jews and Christians and to some extent Muslims recognize the authority of the ancient Jewish scriptures that make up the Old Testament of the Bible, also known as the Tanakh in Hebrew. While many people throughout the world believe that these scriptures are the word of God, those who believe this usually aren’t aware of the historical evidence that casts serious doubt on many of the claims made in these scriptures.
The first five books, known as the Torah, tell of early history of the Israelite people (whose descendents became known as Jews). The purported history written in the Torah, however, is mostly unreliable as a historical source because it is filled with claims that are either supernatural or that are inconsistent with more reliable historical knowledge. It is likely that some accounts in the Torah are partially accurate, but it is quite important for everyone today to understand the historical context in which the Torah came about. One important thing to understand is the timeline in which major events took place.
For one thing, the earliest historical event in the Torah that is not supernatural is Abraham leading the Hebrew people (whose descendents became known as Israelites) out of the Mesopotamian city of Ur and into the so-called “promised land” of Canaan, which later became known as Palestine. Regardless of whether there was in fact a man named “Abraham”, it is reasonable to conclude that the ancestors of the Israelites originated in Mesopotamia. Archeological and linguistic evidence, along with a rough estimation of the timeline within the Torah itself, points to the Hebrew people’s emigration from Mesopotamia occurring somewhere near 1800 BC.
We can look at the Hebrew language and the culture of the ancient Hebrew people and compare this to the writings of the ancient Babylonians from around 2000 BC and we can conclude that they are related. The Babylonian writings and culture, however, are older. In fact, the ancient Semitic1 culture can be traced back several hundred years before any of the semi-reliable accounts that are recorded in the Bible. From this we can reasonably conclude that the Hebrew language and the Jewish religion and culture ultimately grew out of an older Semitic language and older Semitic religious beliefs and customs.
Looking at the ancient Semitic religion as it existed in the centuries before the time of the Hebrew emigration, one can find several interesting similarities to some aspects of Judaism. The ancient Semitic religion was polytheistic, but one of the main gods was known as “El”, which is similar to the Hebrew word for God, which is “Elohim”2. In fact, it is likely that ancient Judaism was also polytheistic, but where Elohim was the supreme God. One can even find stories in ancient Semitic writings that seem to have partially inspired Biblical stories such as the Great Flood, the Tower of Babel, and the Garden of Eden.
The more one looks at the details of ancient Semitic culture, religion, and language, the more clear it becomes that the Torah and Judaism originated as a cultural evolution from older beliefs and older scriptures. Probably nobody today believes that ancient Semitic scriptures are the word of God, and nor should they. These writings were compiled by ancient people who were just trying to make sense of life and who had very limited information to go with. It would be silly to believe, this day and age, that such scriptures are true. Despite this, probably hundreds of millions of people throughout the world believe that the scriptures that originated as a cultural evolution from the ancient Semitic beliefs are the word of God.
The scriptures that make up the Torah, the Tanakh, the Bible, are for the most part quite fancifully invented stories that were written by people thousands of years ago who had very limited information available to them. Their beliefs naturally changed over time, from century to century, but at a certain point their writings were copied more accurately and were then passed from generation to generation. This is how the Bible originated. It did not originate as the word of God. If more people understood ancient history better, then they would realize that the Bible is certainly not a book that one should base their life on. It is just one of many books that might have some wisdom, but it also has many flaws. We should all try to understand more about the ancient Semitic peoples and their customs and beliefs and how Judaism originated from this. We would all benefit from this understanding.