In Search of One God: Human Path to Monotheism

  January 08, 2024   Read time 9 min
In Search of One God: Human Path to Monotheism
In 742 BCE, a member of the Judaean royal family had a vision of Yahweh in the Temple which King Solomon had built in Jerusalem. It was an anxious time for the people of Israel. King Uzziah of Judah had died that year and was succeeded by his son Ahaz, who would encourage his subjects to worship pagan gods alongside Yahweh.

The northern kingdom of Israel was in a state of near anarchy: after the death of King Jeroboam II, five kings had sat on the throne between 746 and 736, while King Tigleth Pilesar III, King of Assyria, looked hungrily at their lands which he was anxious to add to his expanding empire. In 722, his successor King Sargon II would conquer the northern Kingdom and deport the population: the ten northern tribes of Israel were forced to assimilate and disappeared from history, while the little kingdom of Judah feared for its own survival. As Isaiah prayed in the Temple shortly after King Uzziah's death, he was probably full of foreboding; at the same time he may have been uncomfortably aware of the inappropriateness of the lavish Temple ceremonial. Isaiah may have been a member of the ruling class but he had populist and democratic views and was highly sensitive to the plight of the poor. As the incense filled the sanctuary before the Holy of Holies and the place reeked with the blood of the sacrificial animals, he may have feared that the religion of Israel had lost its integrity and inner meaning.

Suddenly he seemed to see Yahweh himself sitting on his throne in heaven directly above the Temple, which was the replica of his celestial court on earth. Yahweh's train filled the sanctuary and he was attended by two seraphs, who covered their faces with their wings lest they look upon his face. They cried out to one another antiphonally: 'Holy! holy! holy is Yahweh Sabaoth. His glory fills the whole earth.' At the sound of their voices, the whole Temple seemed to shake on its foundations and was filled with smoke, enveloping Yahweh in an impenetrable cloud, similar to the cloud and smoke that had hidden him from Moses on Mount Sinai. When we use the word 'holy' today, we usually refer to a state of moral excellence. The Hebrew kaddosh, however, was nothing to do with morality as such but means otherness, a radical separation. The apparition of Yahweh on Mount Sinai had emphasised the immense gulf that had suddenly yawned between man and the divine world. Now the seraphs were crying: 'Yahweh is other! other! other!' Isaiah had experienced that sense of the numinous which has periodically descended upon men and women and filled them with fascination and dread.

In his classic book The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto described this fearful experience of transcendent reality as mysterium terrible et fascinans: it is terrible because it comes as a profound shock that severs us from the consolations of normality and fascinans because, paradoxically, it exerts an irresistible attraction. There is nothing rational about this overpowering experience, which Otto compares to that of music or the erotic: the emotions it engenders cannot adequately be expressed in words or concepts. Indeed, this sense of the Wholly Other cannot even be said to 'exist' because it has no place in our normal scheme of reality. The new Yahweh of the Axial Age was still 'the god of the armies' (saboath) but was no longer a mere god of war. Nor was he simply a tribal deity, who was passionately biased in favour of Israel: his glory was no longer confined to the Promised Land but filled the whole earth.

Isaiah was no Buddha experiencing an enlightenment that brought tranquillity and bliss. He had not become the perfected teacher of men. Instead he was filled with mortal terror, crying aloud: What a wretched state I am in! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have looked at the King, Yahweh Sabaoth. Overcome by the transcendent holiness of Yahweh, he was conscious only of his own inadequacy and ritual impurity. Unlike the Buddha or a Yogi, he had not prepared himself for this experience by a series of spiritual exercises. It had come upon him out of the blue and he was completely shaken by its devastating impact. One of the seraphs flew towards him with a live coal and purified his lips, so that they could utter the word of God. Many of the prophets were either unwilling to speak on God's behalf or unable to do so.

When God had called Moses, prototype of all prophets, from the burning bush and commanded him to be his messenger to Pharaoh and the children of Israel, Moses had protested that he was 'not able to speak well'. God had made allowances for this impediment and permitted his brother Aaron to speak in Moses's stead. This regular motif in the stories of prophetic vocations symbolises the difficulty of speaking God's word. The prophets were not eager to proclaim the divine message and were reluctant to undertake a mission of great strain and anguish. The transformation of Israel's God into a symbol of transcendent power would not be a calm, serene process but attended with pain and struggle.

Hindus would never have described Brahman as a great king because their God could not be described in such human terms. We must be careful not to interpret the story of Isaiah's vision too literally: it is an attempt to describe the indescribable and Isaiah reverts instinctively to the mythological traditions of his people to give his audience some idea of what had happened to him. The psalms often describe Yahweh enthroned in his temple as king, just as Baal, Marduk and 29 Dagon, the gods of their neighbours, presided as monarchs in their rather similar temples. Beneath the mythological imagery, however, a quite distinctive conception of the ultimate reality was beginning to emerge in Israel: the experience with this God is an encounter with a person. Despite his terrifying otherness, Yahweh can speak and Isaiah can answer. Again, this would have been inconceivable to the sages of the Upanishads, since the idea of having a dialogue or meeting with Brahman-Atman would be inappropriately anthropomorphic Yahweh asked: 'Whom shall I send? Who will be our messenger?' and, like Moses before him, Isaiah immediately replied: 'Here I am! (hineni!) send me!' The point of this vision was not to enlighten the prophet but to give him a practical job to do. Primarily the prophet is one who stands in God's presence but this experience of transcendence results not in the imparting of knowledge - as in Buddhism -but in action. The prophet will not be characterised by mystical illumination but by obedience. As one might expect, the message is never easy.

With typical Semitic paradox, Yahweh told Isaiah that the people would not accept it: he must not be dismayed when they reject God's words: 'Go and say to this people: "Hear and hear again, but do not understand; see and see again, but do not perceive." ' Seven hundred years later, Jesus would quote these words when people refused to hear his equally tough message. Humankind cannot bear very much reality. The Israelites of Isaiah's day were on the brink of war and extinction and Yahweh had no cheerful message for them: their cities would be devastated, the countryside ravaged and the houses emptied of their inhabitants. Isaiah would live to see the destruction of the northern kingdom in 722 and the deportation of the ten tribes. In 701 Sennacherib would invade Judah with a vast Assyrian army, lay siege to forty-six of its cities and fortresses, impale the defending officers on poles, deport about 2000 people and imprison the Jewish king in Jerusalem 'like a bird in a cage'.

Isaiah had the thankless task of warning his people of these impending catastrophes: There will be great emptiness in the country and, though a tenth of the people remain, it will be stripped like a terebinth of which, once felled, only the stock remains. It would not have been difficult for an astute political observer to foresee these catastrophes. What was chillingly original in Isaiah's message was his analysis of the situation. The old partisan God of Moses would have cast Assyria into the role of the enemy; the God of Isaiah saw Assyria as his instrument. It was not S argon II and Sennacherib who would drive the Israelites into exile and devastate the country. It is 'Yahweh who drives the people out'. This was a constant theme in the message of the prophets of the Axial Age. The God of Israel had originally distinguished himself from the pagan deities by revealing himself in concrete current events not simply in mythology and liturgy. Now, the new prophets insisted, political catastrophe as well as victory revealed the God who was becoming the lord and master of history. He had all the nations in his pocket. Assyria would come to grief in its turn simply because its kings had not realised that they were only tools in the hand of a being greater than themselves.

Since Yahweh had foretold the ultimate destruction of Assyria, there was a distant hope for the future. But no Israelite would have wanted to hear that his own people had brought political destruction upon its own head by its short-sighted policies and exploitative behaviour. Nobody would have been happy to hear that Yahweh had masterminded the successful Assyrian campaigns of 722 and 701, just as he had captained the armies of Joshua, Gideon and King David. What did he think he was doing with the nation that was supposed to be his Chosen People? There was no wish-fulfilment in Isaiah's depiction of Yahweh. Instead of offering the people a panacea, Yahweh was being used to make people confront unwelcome reality. Instead of taking refuge in the old cultic observances which projected people back into mythical time, prophets like Isaiah were trying to make their fellow-countrymen look the actual events of history in the face and accept them as a terrifying dialogue with their God.

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