Decoding God’s Changing Moods
This article by Robert Wright, based on his book The Evolution of God, appeared in the June 15, 2009, issue of Time magazine.
The ancient Israelites got straightforward guidance from Scripture on how to handle people who didn’t worship Israel’s god, Yahweh. “You shall annihilate them—the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites—just as the Lord your God has commanded.”
The point of this exercise, explained the Book of Deuteronomy, was to make sure the “abhorrent” religions of nearby peoples didn’t rub off on Israelites.
Yet sometimes the Israelites were happy to live in peace with neighbors who worshipped alien gods. In the Book of Judges, an Israelite military leader proposes a live-and-let-live arrangement with the Ammonites: “Should you not possess what your god Chemosh gives you to possess? And should we not be the ones to possess everything that our god Yahweh has conquered for our benefit?” (See pictures of spiritual healing around the world.)
The Bible isn’t the only Scripture with such vacillations between belligerence and tolerance. Muslims, who like Christians and Jews worship the God who revealed himself to Abraham, are counseled in one part of the Koran to “kill the polytheists wherever you find them.” But another part prescribes a different stance toward unbelievers, “To you be your religion; to me my religion.”
You’d think the Abrahamic God would make up his mind—Can he live with other gods or not? What’s with the random mood fluctuations?
But the fluctuations aren’t really random. If you juxtapose the Abrahamic Scriptures with what scholars have learned about the circumstances surrounding their creation, a pattern appears. Certain kinds of situations inspired tolerance, and other kinds inspired the opposite. You might even say this pattern is a kind of code, a code that is hidden in the Scriptures and that, once revealed, unlocks the secret of God’s changing moods.
And maybe this code could unlock more than that. Maybe knowing what circumstances made the authors of Scripture open-minded can help make modern-day believers open-minded. Maybe the hidden code in the Bible and the Koran, the code that links Scriptural content to context, could even help mend the most dangerous of intra-Abrahamic fault lines, the one between Muslims and Jews.
The first step in seeing this code is to look to the world that gave us the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament) and the Koran—the world that embedded the code in them. There we’ll see how consequential God’s mood changes could be—how, indeed, a burst of vengeful intolerance helped give us monotheism itself; we’ll see that the birth of monotheism left us with what you might call a bad God.
But we’ll also see that this God then had bursts of moral growth—within both Judaism and Islam—and that the proven ingredients of that growth are around today, just when another such burst is needed.
In the beginning—or near the beginning—was King Solomon. Israel’s third King, he reigned in the 10th century B.C.E. (before the common era). In addition to being famously wise, he was flagrantly polytheistic. The Bible handles this awkward fact by blaming it on his many wives of foreign extraction, who “turned away his heart after other gods.”
The Bible has the logic backward. In ancient times, when a man of royal blood married a foreign woman of royal blood, it wasn’t on a romantic whim. It was part of foreign policy, a way to cement relations with another nation. And that cement was strengthened by paying respect to the nation’s gods. Solomon’s many wives didn’t lead to his many gods; his politics led to both the wives and the gods.
Solomon believed Israel could benefit—economically and otherwise—by staying on good terms with nearby nations. As game theorists say, he saw relations with other nations as non-zero-sum; the fortunes of Israel and other nations were positively correlated, so outcomes could be win-win or lose-lose. His warmth toward those religions was a way of making the win-win outcome more likely.
Again and again in the Bible, this perception of non-zero-sumness underlies religious tolerance. This doesn’t mean religious tolerance is always consciously calculated. The human mind does lots of subterranean work to pave the way for social success. But whether the calculation is conscious or not, people are more open to the religious beliefs of other people if they sense a non-zero-sum dynamic.
The flip side is that perceptions of a zero-sum dynamic—of a game in which one side will win and one side lose—can foster intolerance of other religions and their gods. Indeed, a close look at the Bible shows how this worldview helped move Israel from the polytheism of Solomon’s time toward monotheism—a monotheism that (contrary to the standard story of Christians and Jews) doesn’t seem to have taken root until the middle of the first millennium B.C.E.
Paving the way for this eventual triumph of monotheism was a series of prophets who cried out for exclusive devotion to Yahweh, railing against the polytheistic ways of Israel. These prophets aren’t necessarily monotheists; they don’t deny the existence of gods other than Yahweh. They seem to be what scholars call monolatrists, insisting that Israelites worship only one God. (See the top 10 religion stories of 2008.)
Among the earliest of these prophets is Hosea, who is thought to have written in the 8th century B.C.E. Rejecting a Solomonic view—that immersion in the larger world could make Israel richer—Hosea insists the game is zero-sum: when Israel “mixes himself with the peoples … foreigners devour his strength.” Hosea’s suspicion of the foreign isn’t surprising. Israel, a small nation in a tough neighborhood, often did get pushed around.
The monolatrous prophets gained a following, but they had trouble winning consistent support from Israel’s leaders. So in the early part of the 7th century B.C.E., decades after Hosea issued his sermons, Israel was still awash in religious pluralism. The Jerusalem Temple itself, according to the Bible, was home not just to Yahweh but also to Asherah, a goddess who, scholars increasingly believe, was Yahweh’s consort. And there were “vessels made for Baal,” the Canaanite God.
Then, in 640 B.C.E. came an intense Israelite King named Josiah who would lend brutal support to the monolatrist cause and push Israel closer to monotheism. He took the figure of Asherah out of the Temple and “beat it to dust.” The vessels for Baal didn’t fare well either.
Was Josiah, too, driven by a zero-sum worldview in which the worshippers of gods other than Yahweh looked like enemies?
Apparently, but in his case the enemies included Israelites—domestic political rivals—not just foreigners. In ancient times, political power flowed from the divine. Prophets who could claim to speak for a god with a large following thus had influence. If that god was Yahweh, these prophets would be concentrated in the King’s court, since Yahweh was Israel’s national God. But prophets of other gods were less amenable to the King’s control and so a threat to his power.
And so long as polytheism reigned, there were lots of those prophets. At one point, Israel contained “400 prophets of Asherah” and “450 prophets of Baal,” the Bible reports darkly. Josiah’s cleansing of the Temple was good strategy in a zero-sum game: the less influence these prophets had, the more he had.
Josiah was probably a monolatrist, not a monotheist. But within a few decades of his death, true monotheism would finally emerge. In 586 B.C.E., Israelite élites were exiled to Babylon after conquest by the neo-Babylonian Empire. In passages from Isaiah that are thought to have been written during the exile, Yahweh says unequivocally, “Besides me there is no god.” Does this extreme intolerance of other gods—the denial of their very existence—flow from a zero-sum view of Israel’s environs?
It would seem so. The author of these monotheistic passages (known by scholars as second Isaiah, to distinguish him from the author of earlier chapters in Isaiah) sees an Israel long tormented by “oppressors” who are due for a comeuppance. The punishment that Isaiah envisions for these enemies seems to include subjugation and, as a bonus, the news that their gods don’t exist. Isaiah’s God promises the Israelites that, come the apocalypse, people from Egypt and elsewhere will “come over in chains and bow down to you. They will make supplication to you, saying, ’God is with you alone, and there is no other; there is no God besides him.’” So there.
Happily, after the exile, life got more non-zero-sum. The Babylonians who had conquered Israel were in turn conquered by the Persians, who returned the exiles to their homeland. Israel was no longer in a bad neighborhood. Nearby nations were now fellow members of the Persian Empire and so no longer threats. And, predictably, books of the Bible typically dated as postexilic, such as Ruth and Jonah, strike a warm tone toward peoples—Moabites and Assyrians—that in pre-exilic times had been vilified.
A more inclusive view is also found in a biblical author (or authors) thought by many scholars to be writing shortly after the exile—the priestly source. The priestly source, or P, uses internationally communal language and writes not just of God’s covenant with Israel but of an “everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.”
A zero-sum, isolationist worldview had moved Israel from polytheism to belligerent monotheism, but now, as Israel’s environment grew less threatening, belligerence was turning out not to be an intrinsic part of monotheism. Between second Isaiah’s angry exilic exclamations and P’s more congenial voice, Israel had segued from an exclusive to an inclusive monotheism.
A millennium later, this same dynamic—swings between zero-sum and non-zero-sum—would have a similar impact on Islamic monotheism, moving it back and forth between belligerence and tolerance.
Muhammad’s preaching career started in Mecca around 613 C.E., and he seems to have had hopes of drawing Jews and Christians into a common faith. In the Koran—which Muslims consider the word of God as spoken by Muhammad—the Prophet’s followers are told to say to fellow Abrahamics, “Our God and your God is one.”
This hope of playing a win-win game shows up in overtures to Jews in particular, made mainly after Muhammad moved to the city of Medina and became its political and religious leader. Muhammad decided his followers should have an annual 24-hour fast, as Jews did on Yom Kippur. He even called it Yom Kippur—at least he used the term some Arabian Jews were using for Yom Kippur. The Jewish ban on eating pork was mirrored in a Muslim ban. Muhammad also told his followers to pray facing Jerusalem. He said God, in his “prescience,” chose “the children of Israel … above all peoples.”
As for Christians: having denounced polytheists who believed Allah had daughters, Muhammad couldn’t now embrace the idea that Jesus was God’s son. But he came close. He said Jesus was “the Messiah … the Messenger of God, and His Word … a Spirit from Him.” God, according to the Koran, gave Jesus the Gospel and “put into the hearts of those who followed him kindness and compassion.”
Muhammad’s ecumenical mission seems to have failed. Certainly, he sensed rejection from Christians and Jews. A Koranic verse captures his disillusionment. “O Believers! Take not the Jews or Christians as friends. They are but one another’s friends.” Once you’re convinced that non-zero-sum collaboration isn’t in the cards, the bonhomie dries up.
In his new, zero-sum mode, Muhammad changed the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca. According to Islamic tradition, he expelled three tribes of Jews from Medina—and killed the adult males in the third tribe, which was suspected of collaborating with Meccans in a battle against Medina.
Still, in the end, Christians and Jews get a favored place in Islamic tradition as “people of the Book.” The Koran repeatedly says they’re eligible for salvation.
Within years of Muhammad’s death in 632, Islamic leaders started conquering lands far and wide. This imperial expansion gave birth to the doctrine of jihad, which mandates battle against unbelievers with the aim of conversion.
But once the conquering was done, Muslim leaders found that trying to compel uniform belief in a multinational empire was a lose-lose game. Doctrines granting freedom of worship to Christians and Jews emerged promptly. And later, such freedom would also be granted to Buddhists and polytheists.
Meanwhile, the doctrine of jihad would be dulled through amendment. And the notion of a “greater jihad”—struggle within oneself toward goodness—would arise and be attributed to Muhammad himself. As in Israel after the exile, the Abrahamic God, having found himself in a multiethnic milieu rife with non-zero-sumness, underwent moral growth.
In neither case had the growth been smoothly progressive, and in both cases, there would be backsliding. Still, in both cases, God spent enough time in benevolent mode to leave the Scriptures littered with odes to tolerance and understanding, verses that modern believers can focus on, should they choose.
Will they so choose? Maybe the code embedded in the Scriptures can help. The key, it suggests, is to arrange things so that relations between Muslims and Jews are conspicuously non-zero-sum.
Sometimes this may mean engineering the non-zero-sumness—for example, strengthening commerce between Israel and the Palestinian territories. Other times it will mean highlighting a non-zero-sum dynamic that already exists—emphasizing, for example, that continued strife between Israelis and Palestinians will be lose-lose (as would escalated tensions between the “Muslim world” and the “West” more broadly). Enduring peace would be win-win.
This peace would also have been foretold. Isaiah (first Isaiah, not the Isaiah of the exile) envisioned a day when God “shall arbitrate for many peoples” and “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” And in a Koranic verse dated by scholars to the final years of Muhammad’s life, God tells humankind that he has “made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another.”
This happy ending is hardly assured. It can take time for people, having seen that they are playing a non-zero-sum game, to adjust their attitudes accordingly. And this adaptation may never happen if barriers of mistrust persist.
But at least we can quit talking as if this adaptation were impossible—as if intolerance and violence were inevitable offshoots of monotheism. At least we can quit asking whether Islam—or Judaism or any other religion—is a religion of peace. The answer is no. And yes. It says so in the Bible, and in the Koran.