2017 · Research · Scripture

How YHWH is Unique: Differences Between Him and Mesopotamian Gods

high_priest_offering_incense_on_the_altarOver the last few months I have been studying the ancient history of the Near East to get a handle on how the surrounding nations impacted King David’s life. This is impossible to do without running into dozens and dozens and dozens of pagan deities, who went on to become the gods of Canaan, Babylon and Assyria. One thing that has struck me time and time again, is how radically different our God, YHWH, is compared to the other gods. Moses agrees with me: “For what great nation has a god as near to them as the LORD our God is near to us whenever we call on Him? And what great nation has decrees and regulations as righteous and fair as this body of instructions that I am giving you today?” Deuteronomy 4:7-8

Studying ancient history has shown me similarities between Biblical stories (*the flood) and how YHWH was worshipped, so how do I know that YHWH is the one true god? Because He is so distinctively unique.

Firstly, how do I account for the similarities in worship between Mesopotamia and Israel, which include blood sacrifice, the system for supporting priests; incense, music used in worship, the altars having horns, and the similarities in spiritual language? Scott Aniol from Answers in Genesis sums up what I was thinking beautifully: “All nations had a common ancestry in Adam, and God’s self-revelation was part of their heritage, thus accounting for any similarities in worship practice that exist.” Worship stemmed from one God and one original system which was corrupted for man-made divinities. This form of corrupted worship in the Mesopotamian world remained in vogue for over four thousand years, and some practices (such as the fear of the number 13) still affect many world cultures today.

“When comparing the psalms of Israel with those of Ugarit people, important distinctions emerge as well. According to Walton, “the category of declarative praise is unique to Israel”. Oswalt argues that although Psalm 29 may resemble Ugarit references to Baal as god of thunderstorms, “nowhere in the psalm is Yahweh identified with the thunderstorm. . . . Yahweh sits above the flood” (Oswalt 2009, 105–06. Emphasis original). Likewise, Currid observes that even “the style of writing of the cosmological texts from the ancient Near East is best described as ‘mythic narrative,’” while the biblical record “bears all the markings of Hebrew historical narrative.” (Currid 2013, 43)… Biblical history and pagan myth have very different purposes, functions, and literary forms and therefore must not be interpreted in the same manner.

The key elements of worship that appear in most religions are instituted in the first few chapters of Genesis. God places Adam and Eve in his sanctuary as priests who serve him and commune with him. After they disobey him, God institutes the idea of substitutionary sacrifice and atonement, establishing a covenant with them. Each of these elements characterises the worship of all religions since they are part of the religious heritage of all children of Adam. As Rodríguez notes, “those religious expressions belong to the common human experience of God” (Rodríguez 2001, 47). Romans 1:19–20 testifies to this when it says that God has revealed himself to all people through “the things that have been made.” 
[Source: Worldview Bias and the Origin of Hebrew Worship by Scott Aniol https://answersingenesis.org/presuppositions/bias-and-origin-of-hebrew-worship/]

What is also interesting, is how the Laws that God gave through Moses seem to be put in place to stop the Israelites from copying many of the pagan practices of other religions. For example, the Israelites were told: “A woman must not put on men’s clothing, and a man must not wear women’s clothing. Anyone who does this is detestable in the sight of the LORD your God.” Deuteronomy 22:5 In some Mesopotamian ritual processions, the participants dressed half as men, half as women to worship their god. The more I study, the more I realise how much cultural information is lost to us, which sheds an entirely new light on Biblical precepts.
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foster_bible_pictures_0073-1_offering_up_a_burnt_sacrifice_to_godI could write a book on everything I have learned, but the main point I want to leave you with is how YHWH is a distinctive deity:

1. The Israelites could only have one religious relic/artefact, which was the Ark of the Covenant which had the manifest Presence of God upon it. Unlike polytheism, where there are many statues of a god made for every temple and need, there was no limit to the number. YHWH specifically banned the making of such images to represent Him. [Ref. Exodus 34:17]
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2. YHWH is way above the average intelligence of other gods
Some Mesopotamians created statues of themselves praying that they could place in their temples to make theirs gods think they were being prayed to all the time, and the gods knew no difference. According to the Jewish Virtual Library: “An idol, in the pagan mind, was a living and feeling being… The god’s spirit dwelt within the idol and was identified with it. The god was not confined to a single idol or a single shape; rather his spirit dwelt within many idols of varied shapes. The god perceived and sensed whatever happened to its idol…  The argument offered by the Psalmist (Ps. 106:36; 115:9), “they have eyes but they do not see” should be taken literally… The Biblical description of idolatry as “sacrifices to the dead,” (Ps. 106:28) and of idols as “wood and stone,” (Deut. 28:36, 64), and similar descriptions, challenge the pagan claim that the images they worshiped were in fact “living idols.”” 
[Source: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0009_0_09475.html]
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3. YHWH has exceptional moral character
“And Jehovah (YHWH) came down in the cloud. And he placed himself there with Him, and he called on the name of Jehovah. And Jehovah passed by before his face and called out: Jehovah! Jehovah God! Merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and great in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and not leaving entirely unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on sons, and on sons of sons, to the third and to the fourth generation.” Exodus 34:5-7

God’s were prone to the human traits of bitterness, revenge, theft, deception and basically, behaviour which is “fleshly.” [Ref. Galatians 5:16-25] Pagan gods are recorded as viciously punishing their followers over hurt feelings, regardless of who was responsible. This was a way to account for the tragedies and baffling ups and downs of life.

In the Epic of Gilgamesh, King Gilgamesh refuses to marry the goddess Ishtar and reminds her of how she has abused the affection of her past lovers. In vengeance, she complains to her father, who at first says, “serves you right,” but then: “Ishtar opened her mouth and said again, ‘My father, give me the Bull of Heaven to destroy Gilgamesh. Fill Gilgamesh, I say, with arrogance to his destruction; but if you refuse to give me the Bull of Heaven I will break in the doors of hell and smash the bolts; there will be confusion of people, those above with those from the lower depths. I shall bring up the dead to eat food like the living; and the hosts of dead will outnumber the living.’ Anusa said to great Ishtar, ‘If I do what you desire there will be seven years of drought throughout Uruk when corn will be seedless husks. Have you saved grain enough for the people and grass for the cattle? Ishtar replied. ‘I have saved grain for the people, grass for the cattle; for seven years of seedless husks, there is grain and there is grass enough.’ “ 

“She stirs confusion and chaos against those who are disobedient to her, speeding carnage and inciting the devastating flood, clothed in terrifying radiance. It is her game to speed conflict and battle, untiring, strapping on her sandals.” Battle itself is sometimes referred to as “the dance of Inanna.” [Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inanna]

YHWH is not prone to such human faults and appalling acts of retribution. As we read in Exodus 34:5-7, He is open to reconciliation rather than murder. His people have to completely turn their back on Him before they are cursed.
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4. YHWH is not dependent upon us to provide any of His needs According to Mesopotamian mythology, human beings were created so the gods would have servants. “Man shall be charged with the service of the gods, that they might be at ease.” Babylonian Creation myth.

While the Hebrews (later Israel,) served YHWH, it was by obedience and through worship, they didn’t provide for His physical needs or were used and abused for His pleasure. To please Anu, you had to do the following (plus meet all the other requirements): “Several times a day in an elaborate ritual the god was served a sumptuous meal. The courses were set out before the statue of the god or goddess, music was played, and incense was sprinkled. Here is a daily menu for the god Anu at Uruk: 12 vessels of wine 2 vessels of milk, 108 vessels of beer, 243 loaves of bread, 29 bushels of dates, 21 rams, 2 bulls, 1 bullock, 8 lambs, 60 birds, 3 cranes, 7 ducks, 4 wild boars, 3 ostrich eggs, 3 duck eggs.”
[Source: http://www.dl.ket.org/humanities/connections/class/ancient/mesopreligion.htm]

Instead, He meets ours! “And He will love you, and bless you, and multiply you. He will also bless the fruit of your body, and the fruit of your land, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your oxen and the wealth of your flock, in the land which He has sworn to your fathers, to give it to you. You shall be blessed above all people; there shall not be a barren man or a barren woman among you, nor among your livestock. And Jehovah shall turn aside every sickness from you; and He will not put on you any of the evil diseases of Egypt, which you have known, but He will put them on all who hate you.” Deuteronomy 7:13-15 Literal Translation of the Holy Bible
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557px-the_ark_of_the_covenant5. YHWH is accessible to all of His followers, not just the elite or the priests. “The higher-echelon did all the preparation, and private individuals only came into contact with the gods when statues of deities were brought out of the temple and carried through the streets.” [Source: http://www.dl.ket.org/humanities/connections/class/ancient/mesopreligion.htm]
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6. YHWH cannot be controlled by man
Since the god fully identified with its idol, whoever controlled the idol also controlled the god. When the king of Elam saw that he was about to be defeated by Sennacherib, he took his idols and fled in order that they [the idols] should not fall captive… The custom of taking captive the idols of the vanquished was ancient and widespread… Rab-Shakeh wanted to impress upon the people of Judah the fact that the gods of the neighbouring nations failed to protect them from the armies of Sennacherib .(Isa. 36:18–20; 37:10–12) [Source:
https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0009_0_09475.html]

It was believed that once you had the idol, you controlled the god who would do your bidding if you appeased them. From there, any success would be possible. YHWH is completely resistant to manipulation. This is shown in Numbers 22 with Balaam who was ordered by the Moabite King, Balak, to curse the Israelites. “But Balaam responded to Balak’s messengers, “Even if Balak were to give me his palace filled with silver and gold, I would be powerless to do anything against the will of the LORD [YHWH] my God.”
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7. YHWH is not a God who has to retreat
When in enemies’ hands, the power of the idol vanished. The vanquished kings would come and beg for the return of the idols; to return an idol to his temple was considered an act of mercy. Because of his fear of the enemy, the god would leave the idol “and fly to the heavens” Jeremiah 50:1–3 makes reference to this belief). [Source: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0009_0_09475.html]

Our God rules over all and has no need of retreat, and no fear of man as He showed when He delivered His people from Pharaoh in Exodus, which David acknowledged when he said: “O LORD, there is no one like You. We have never even heard of another God like You! What other nation on earth is like Your people Israel? What other nation, O God, have You redeemed from slavery to be Your own people? You made a great name for Yourself when You redeemed Your people from Egypt. You performed awesome miracles and drove out the nations that stood in their way. You chose Israel to be Your very own people forever, and You, O LORD, became their God.” 1 Chronicles 17:20-22

Conclusion: “For who in all of heaven can compare with the LORD? What mightiest angel is anything like the LORD?” Psalm 89:6 How blessed we are.

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Notes:
*Flood stories were recorded well after the event, so pagan cultures associated what occurred with their cultural beliefs at the time.


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