Gods of the Ancient States
In ancient Mesopotamia, where divinities first entered the historical record, they were often less than divine. A prominent god named Enki once got drunk and gave the secret powers that govern civilization to the goddess Inanna. Inanna wasn’t a pillar of sober responsibility herself; though smart (she had tricked Enki into drinking excessively), she was self-indulgent, and spent much of her time having sex. A hymn from the early second millennium (by which time she had acquired the name Ishtar) reports that “sixty then sixty satisfy themselves in turn upon her nakedness. Young men have tired, Ishtar will not tire.” For a time Inanna/Ishtar was the patron deity of prostitutes, and was also thought to help wives conceal their adultery. (One Mesopotamian text imagines a woman who has been extramaritally impregnated praying to Ishtar, while looking at her husband’s face, “I want to make my child to be born look like him.”) The great god Enlil (himself a sometime sex addict) once ordered up an epic flood, like the biblical flood that Noah would later survive; but, whereas Noah’s god used the flood to punish people for wickedness, Enlil’s motive was less exalted: humanity had been noisy while he was trying to sleep, so he decided to extinguish it.
In short, the gods of early Mesopotamian civilization were much like their ancestors, the gods of chiefdoms and of hunter-gatherer societies: basically human—for better or worse—except with supernatural powers. So too in ancient Egypt, ancient China, and other places where, as writing appeared, social organization crossed the hazy line between chiefdoms and states: the line between “primitive” religion and “civilized” religion proved hazy, too. Gods still weren’t paragons of virtue and still were noted at least as much for their cunning and ferocity as for their love and compassion. And, though mentally human, they still assumed a variety of forms, including some creepy ones. In Egypt the mummified bodies of millennia-old crocodiles have turned up in a temple honoring Sobek, a crocodile god.
The most obvious difference between the “primitive” gods of prestate societies and the gods of early states was in scale and grandeur. The Polynesian gods were honored with little temple-pyramids (“marae”), the Mesopotamian gods with big temple-pyramids (“ziggurats”). The Polynesians made images of deities out of wood or stone; the Egyptians used gold and surrounded their idols with luxurious furnishings.
Some thinkers of the early Christian era, on encountering residues of religions from the early ancient states, were horrified—all those amoral animal gods, their grotesqueness only amplified by the attendant ornateness. “The god of the Egyptians,” wrote Clement of Alexandria, is “a beast rolling on a purple couch.”
Clement lived in the late second century of the common era. By his time, the now familiar profile of western religion had appeared: belief in only one god, a fundamentally good god who focuses on the moral improvement of human beings, not the gratification of his own desires, and who cares about all people everywhere. That is: a monotheism that has an ethical core and is universalist.
The last two of these three elements can interact powerfully. An ethical code, by itself, isn’t necessarily a great thing; even murderous racists may be nice to members of their own race, and in that sense be ethical. But if the god who commands you to treat your neighbors nicely values people of other races and nations as highly as he values your neighbors, then justifying the mistreatment of nonneighbors gets harder (in theory, at least). By Clement’s time this conclusion was explicit in church doctrine, and Clement himself wrote attacks on the racism that was used to justify slavery.
So naturally Clement had high standards for divinity. It’s not surprising that from his vantage point, there seemed to be two worlds—the world ushered in by the god of the Hebrews during the first millennium BCE and crystallized by Jesus Christ at the end of that millennium, and the world before, the world in which all past religions had been mired.
Still, this is a false divide. It’s true that when religion enters the historical record, around the beginning of the third millennium BCE, there is no sign of monotheism, much less a monotheism focused on ethics and universal in scope. Nor would these three elements—monotheism, an ethical core, and universalism—be thoroughly combined for millennia. But it’s also true that each of these elements had appeared in at least rough form, in one ancient state or another, during the third or second millennia BCE. Perhaps more important: that synergistic result of the last two elements—the extension of moral consideration to people in other lands, of other races—had started to take root. By the time the God worshipped by Clement showed up, he had been anticipated by the religions Clement disdained.
What’s more, the moral progress these religions abetted turns out to be embedded in the very logic of religion as mediated by the basic direction of social evolution. Cultural evolution was all along pushing divinity, and hence humanity, toward moral enlightenment.…