The Israelites were not the first to believe in a higher power
Many ancient civilizations are worthy of study, and I hope you have time to learn about them. The reason a Catholic university wants you to learn about the Israelites is because our tradition believes they were right. They had true insights into God, who we are as human beings, and what God expects us to do. Christians do not accept everything they said, but do consider the questions they asked and the points they made worthy of consideration. Why should we trust them?
Christians differ on the details, but to begin we can say that all Christians believe that the Israelites lived in a special relationship with God and received revelation from God. Some Christians imagine God dictating the entire Bible word for word to humans who passed it on without change. Catholic Christianity understands God’s role in the production of the Bible as more complex, incorporating human language, expressions, literary devices, and other cultural assumptions. Catholicism teaches that the Bible is revelatory. God is revealed through the Bible. Sometimes revelation means prophecy in the sense of God speaking to humans. Other times, truths are made known to us through our own reason, our families and teachers, and the created world around us. The Israelites grappled with truth in the same basic set of ways that we do. The Bible did not just fall out of the sky and hit them on the head. They spent hundreds of years working on the ideas and articulation of the biblical books. The Catholic tradition holds that they did a particularly good job, with God’s help. Their questions and insights have been passed down to us for our consideration. Catholicism considers the Bible a reliable guide for understanding the central points of God’s desire for our salvation, but the human expression relies on ancient language, culture, historical and scientific assumptions that can be incomplete, flawed, or just plain wrong.
In fact, the denial of the existence of a higher power is not really found until modern times. Across human history a variety of conceptions of higher powers and spiritual realms have occurred. In the ancient Near East, which is the cultural neighborhood of the Israelites, the gods, by definition, had the following characteristics:
- Immortal : They do not die.
- Spiritual : The word “spirit” originally meant breath or wind. Breath is invisible , but its presence can be felt. Wind cannot be measured, but it is very powerful. Though they can take physical forms, gods mostly exist and travel outside the tangible physical realm.
- Personal : in the ancient Near East the gods had personalities and interactions. They sense, think, and communicate. They are more than vague forces.
- Super-human : They can be compared to humans, but are superior in every way, including strength, cleverness, knowledge, the ability to see or know things, and wisdom.
Although the existence of gods was not controversial in the ancient world, the Israelites were distinctive in their conception of what kind of god they have.
2.2.1. How did other ancient civilizations think about the gods?
The stories about the gods in the ancient Near East are full of drama . The gods are far from perfect. The gods are all more powerful than humans, but some are more powerful than others. They may resemble our comic-book superheroes more than the God Christians teach today. They are full of gossip, intrigue, rivalry, competition, and conflict. At early stages they were conceived of primarily as forces of nature, such as the sun and water. The conception of the gods developed into imagery of politicians. They have councils, roles, and designated authority, but politics can often be manipulated.