Years ago I ran a group devoted to Greco-Egyptian polytheism called Neos Alexandria. Although the choice to honor Hellenic and Kemetic deities together was controversial at the time (massive understatement!) that was nothing compared to my decision to include Iao Sabaoth (otherwise known as Yahweh) into the pantheon. Here’s a piece I wrote in defense of that decision.
Contemporary Greco-Egyptian polytheism honors all of the Gods that were known to have been worshiped in Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt, especially those Gods that were given a prominent place in Alexandria, the capital of the country during those periods. Our pantheon consists primarily of the major Gods of Greece and Egypt, with a few additional deities from neighboring regions who found their way in via trade and cultural contacts. Some of these foreign deities include the Persian Mithras who had a temple in Alexandria (Sokrates Scholasticus, Ecclesiastical History 5.16), Sumerian Ereshkigal who was commonly invoked in the Greek magical papyri both on her own and syncretized with Hekate (VII.370-3), Anath who was made a daughter of Ptah and consort of Seth in the 16th Dynasty (Victory Stella of Ramesses II), and Antinous, a Roman youth who was deified after drowning in the Nile river in the 2nd century CE (Athenaios, Deipnosophistai 15).
Another foreign deity that was admitted into the Alexandrian pantheon was the God of the Jews (Theos Ioudaios), who was first honored by the founder of the city, Alexander the Great, during his conquest of Persia (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 11.332, 336-8).
The decision to include this deity in our pantheon may strike some as peculiar and even controversial. This is perhaps one of the most misunderstood deities that has ever existed; he seems to be especially disliked by many in the neo-pagan and recon communities, who will likely have a very difficult time understanding why we would bother to include him at all. I have set out to answer some of these questions in the following pages.
Q. What basis is there for including this deity in your pantheon?
As already stated, the first Alexandrian to honor the Jewish God was Alexander the Great. He had defeated the Persian satrap and claimed the lands of Judea as his due. As he was journeying to the capital to meet with the High Priest and officials, he had a dream in which the Jewish God appeared and promised him victory in return for treating his people with kindness and justice. The next day Alexander met the officials, vowed that their ancestral traditions would be kept intact, and offered them great rewards if they would join his side against Darius. The High Priest, who had also had a divine dream, escorted the King to the temple, where Alexander sacrificed to the Jewish God in the traditional manner – a remarkable act, since foreigners were not normally permitted inside the temple – and afterwards a host of Jews followed him as he marched against Darius. These men served both in the military and as guides and translators, since the Jews of the diaspora had extensive knowledge and contacts within the former Persian territory.
After the death of Alexander the Great his Empire was split up into several different factions, each presided over by one of the Diadokhoi or Successors. Ptolemy would claim Egypt and much of its neighbors as his spear-won prize; although Judea originally lay outside of his territory, he fought several battles to claim and hold onto it.
According to Josephus (Antiquities 12.3–5) Ptolemy brought Jerusalem under his control through deception: knowing that the Jews would not defend themselves on the Sabbath, he marched against them on that day and took the city with minimal bloodshed.
Afterwards, he made offerings to the Jewish God and exported a sizeable portion of the captives to Alexandria, where they served as bureaucratic officials and part of the developing intelligentsia of the city. Ptolemy gave a whole quarter of the city, the Delta quadrant, to his Jewish settlers, and had synagogues built for them. He also took a keen interest in their religious practices and under his patronage several ethnographies of the Jewish people were written, with special emphasis on their history, religious practices, and philosophical ideas. Although only fragments of these books have come down to us, they helped bring exposure of the Jews to the wider Greek world. This curiosity about Jewish matters led the King to gather together 70 scholars to translate the Scriptures from Hebrew into Greek so that he could read them himself (Letter of Aristeas). This translation, the Septuagint, became the standard text in the Jewish diaspora, to the point where some Jewish communities even forgot how to read Hebrew.
The Jews found Egypt to be a very receptive home for their God. Under the Persians, they had built a temple to Yahu (an alternate form of the Divine Name) in the military outpost of Elephantine (PE 13495), and offered the traditional sacrifices there even though the authorities in Jerusalem had asserted the Solomonic temple was the only valid house of their God. Later on, under Ptolemy Philometor Onias, the High Priest built a temple similarly modeled after the Jerusalem one at Leontopolis in the ruins of an old Bast shrine. (Josephus, Antiquities 3.1-4) From Philo we learn that in the deserts of Egypt the Jews set up small monastic communities of men and women, similar to the one at Qumran, with daily prayers, offerings, and the singing of choral hymns during which the people would work themselves up into a Bacchic frenzy (On the Contemplative Life 2.32-33).
Nor were the Jews entirely insular in Egypt. They were involved in all levels of society, and had a great fondness for Greek culture, especially that surrounding the gymnasia. Several Jewish scholars worked in the Library or wrote books that were immensely popular, such as the tragedian Ezekiel, the ‘Jewish Homer’ Sosates, the historians Eupolemus and Aristoboulos, or the apocryphal author of Pseudo-Orpheus. We have letters from high-ranking Jewish citizens to the dioketes or Administrative Office in Alexandria as well as dedications of synagogues which mention participating in ceremonies for the deified Ptolemies and the other Gods including Zeus, Gaia and Helios (CPJ 1:125-6; 2.1440; 1: 690). The philosopher Philo was a Platonist and tried to reconcile Judaism with elements of Greek culture, going so far as to say that Orpheus had been a pupil of Moses, from whom he had learned the mystic arts and philosophy. Nor was this the only instance where that sort of reconciliation was attempted. The Jewish author Artapanus in his book On the Jews equated Moses with Musaeus and Thoth, and claimed that he was the originator of Egyptian civilization by teaching people to worship the Apis bull and the sacred Ibis bird.
Cleodemus claimed that two sons of Abraham accompanied Herakles in his expedition through Africa, and that the divine hero even married one of their daughters. Under Ptolemy IV many Jews participated in the worship of Dionysos, even having his ivy-leaf symbol tattooed on them, and Seleukid collaborators attempted to have an image of Zeus placed alongside that of Yahweh in the Jerusalem temple.
This adoption of Greek ways proved very troubling to some of the more conservative elements in Jerusalem. The author of Maccabees rails against those Hellenizers who worship Greek Gods, study Greek philosophy, spend all of their time in the gymnasia or libraries, and even refuse to have their children circumcised. Philo chastises those Jews who take the Bible too literally and scoff at its teachings which they regard as antiquated, and who observe nothing of their ancestral traditions except the holiday of Yom Kippur. The fact that so much time was spent attacking the Hellenizers shows just how popular this approach was, and that not all Jews recognized the absolute distinction between their culture and that of their neighbors.
Nor was the interest entirely one-sided, either. There were plenty of Greeks and Romans who showed a keen interest in Jewish ways. The most obvious example of this was the Theoseboi or ‘God-fearers’ who were Gentiles that were attracted to elements of Judaism – usually its strict ethical codes and its monotheism – supported the synagogues, celebrated the Sabbath and the important festivals, but didn’t go all the way in converting, usually stopping just short of circumcision. We also have evidence that individuals were strongly attracted to the Jewish God, but did not wish to abandon their ancestral faith, and therefore simply worshiped him alongside the others. In Asia Minor we find significant signs of this, where the deity is hailed as Hypistos Theos ‘The Highest God’ or Ta Hen ‘The One’ and is invoked in concert with a host of lesser divinities and angels who are subordinate to him and must carry out his will. Paul of Tarsus wrote vehemently against these individuals in his letters to the Collassians and Galatians. Another option was to equate the Jewish God with different pagan divinities. For instance, Tacitus claimed that the Jews had originally worshiped Father Liber (Histories 5); Celsus that he was the same as Zeus and Ammon (in Origen’s Contra Celsus 5.41); and Plutarch that the Jewish God was actually Typhon (On Isis and Osiris 363d).
Another area where we find the Jewish God in a pagan context is in the various magical papyri. The authors of these papyri were highly eclectic in their theology, and invoked whatever powerful names they could to aid them in their workings. Thus one will often find Greek, Egyptian, Persian, Babylonian and Semitic deities called upon in rapid succession. It’s questionable how much the magicians actually knew about the deity – often it sounds as if they had merely heard from the Jews that he was a powerful God, the king of the universe, and therefore figured that it couldn’t hurt to toss this mighty name in alongside all of the others. Though there are also instances that clearly imply a knowledge of Jewish cult practice and mythology, especially those that call upon Moses as the prototype of the magician and prophet.
Considering all of that, there seems to be a solid basis for his inclusion in the pantheon.
Q. Doesn’t Judaism frown on this kind of thing?
Judaism has never been a monolithic faith – flip through the Talmud some time and you’ll find dozens of different respected opinions on even the simplest point of tradition – but I think it’s pretty safe to say that most Jews today wouldn’t approve of what we’re doing, however else the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform communities may disagree with each other. And that’s fine. We’re not pretending to be Jews, and therefore do not have to abide by the Mosaic code. The Hebrew Scriptures make that pretty clear – at Sinai Yahweh made a covenant with the Israelites. He would make them his Chosen People, and in return they would forsake all other Gods and abide by his Torah, the oral and written laws handed down by Moses. These laws were binding only to the Jewish people, and were intended as a means of setting them apart from the rest of the world. According to Talmudic scholars, God had given different laws to different nations. Nethanel ibn Fayyumi said, “God permitted to every people something he forbade to others… God sends a prophet to every people according to their own language.”
The Gentiles were not expected to uphold the 613 mitzvot found in the Tanakh – only the seven universal or Noachide laws (refrain from murder, refrain from blasphemy, theft and adultery, establish just laws, etc.) which existed long before the Sinaitic revelation and could be found in various forms among all civilized people. As long as one upheld these, they would be considered righteous and “the righteous of all nations have a share in the world to come” (Tosefta, Sanhedrin 13).
Jewish tradition also makes it clear that one does not have to be a Jew to worship the Jewish God. For instance, there was Jethro, the Medianite priest (Exodus 18:1); Naaman the Syrian (II Kings 5:15), the Egyptian Pharaoh who received Abram and Sarai (Genesis 41:57) and the Ammonite Balaam who was even made a prophet of the Jewish God (Deuteronomy 23:3-6). Or, as it says in Numbers 27:16 God is “the lord of the spirits of all flesh.”
Q. If you are rejecting Judaism, then why are you doing this, and more importantly how are you doing this?
We are not rejecting Judaism in any way. It is a fine, noble, and beautiful spiritual tradition with thousands of years behind it. Anything that has lasted that long – especially under the extreme forms of persecution that it has suffered – isn’t something to be dismissed lightly. All that we are saying is that we do not regard the tenets of Judaism as having absolute authority over our lives, as we have our own customs and ancestral traditions. Part of our nomoi (to use the Greek phrase) include being respectful to all of the Gods and extending hospitality to them when they ask it. Our tradition is full of accounts of what happened to individuals such as Pentheus (Euripides’ Bacchae), Lycurgos (Homer’s Iliad 7), Akhenaten, and Kambyses (Herodotos 3. 2-4; 10-37) who spurned the Gods. In keeping with that, we thought it wise to offer the Jewish God a place in our pantheon if he should so desire it.
And there are other reasons, too. Religious exclusiveness – the belief that there is only one truth, one path to that truth, and everyone else is a damnable infidel – has caused untold heartache in the world. One has only to look at the headlines from the West Bank, Kabul, Darfur, and Iraq to see the bloody fruit wrought by that divisiveness. While you don’t generally hear about pagans strapping dynamite under their ritual garments and walking into a crowded night-club to wipe out the godless infidels, there is often an undercurrent of dislike and mistrust for the Abrahamic religions, which can even erupt into outright hate speech and anti-Semitism when left unchecked. I have joined plenty of e-mail lists I thought were intended to discuss pagan theology and practice only to find the conversations constantly focused on a deconstruction of Judeo-Christian beliefs and endless diatribes about how these people are responsible for every atrocity that has occurred in human history, often with our own Gods and religious practices treated as a mere afterthought. Individuals who go on about the equality of all people and the need for tolerance and acceptance will, with the next breath, spew vile rhetoric about their perceived enemies and dismiss the Jewish God as nothing but an evil, oppressive, patriarchal demon out to enslave the masses.
By our decision to include him in our pantheon we stand in direct opposition to these views. We are seeking to build a bridge between different faith communities, to establish a dialogue between people regarding the sacred. We are engaged in a process of questioning our own assumptions and rooting out our all-too-often subconscious prejudices. By claiming this God as one of our own, it demands that we look at things in different ways, to never be content with surface appearances but always seek the hidden, complex truth beneath.
But this process of radical wall-breaking and boundary-crossing does not necessitate a wholesale acceptance of Judaism. We approach it as interested outsiders, as friendly neighbors. We look at what it has to say and see what is compatible with our own tradition. Obviously, as polytheists we cannot accept monotheism – nor do we feel a need to maintain a strict adherence to halakha and kashrut in our everyday lives. However, when we are honoring this deity, we feel that it is only proper to observe the forms of worship which are traditional for him, and have been a part of Judaism down through the centuries. Thus, we may make offerings to this God on the festivals and holy days which the Jews have set aside for him.
The offerings that we give to him are those which are set down in Leviticus such as first fruits, incense, wine, and so forth. On the days that we are honoring him we try to maintain his codes of ritual purity – i.e., we abstain from eating pork or seafood, we avoid sexual contact, we pray with our heads covered, and so forth. An individual may choose to recite some of the traditional Jewish prayers, either in English or Hebrew, or compose some of their own. Some individuals may choose to attend their local synagogue if it is open to outsiders as a way to honor this deity, or include contemplative practices drawn from the Qaballah and other forms of Jewish mysticism, or research some of the ecstatic and agrarian traditions associated with primitive and folk Judaism. There are many ways to be engaged with Judaism without having to convert outright.
Q. But doesn’t the Jewish God deny all other Gods?
Absolutely not. The commandment to have no other Gods before me (Exodus 20:3) is a special case – it affirms the unique relationship between Yahweh and his Chosen People (Solomon and other authors would later describe it in terms resonant of the love of a groom for his bride) and served to distinguish the tribal Israelites from their neighbors, thus preserving their unique social identity. If Yahweh was the only God, why would he need to insist on this injunction? The mere act of doing so affirms the existence of other Gods. The philosopher Porphyry of Tyre (Against the Christians 4.20) offers some great insight on this:
“Let us explore completely this matter of the monarchy of the only God and the manifold rule of those who are revered as Gods. Your idea of the single rule is amiss, for a monarch is not the only man alive but the only man who rules… Take for example the emperor Hadrian: he was a monarch because he ruled over those who were like him by race and nature — not because he existed alone somewhere or lorded it over oxen and sheep… In the same way, the supreme God would not be supreme unless he ruled over other Gods. Only this sort of power would do justice to the greatness of God and redound to his honor.”
While Judaism may have eventually developed into a monotheistic religion, it’s clear that in its earliest forms it might more accurately be described as a henotheistic one, wherein a single divinity is worshiped to the exclusion of all others, without necessarily denying their existence. There are countless references in the Hebrew Scriptures which suggest that this was the view of the early Patriarchs, and which testify to the existence of other divinities. For instance, the term elohim (Genesis 1:1) is actually in the plural form and suggests a multitude of divine beings active in the creation of the world. Later on, when the Biblical author wishes to refer to a singular deity, he uses the name Yahweh (Genesis 2:4) This elohim or plurality of Gods was organized into a governing body or divine council, with Yahweh at its head, as one finds in Babylonian, Egyptian, and Greek religion as well. We find this notion most clearly elaborated in the Psalms of King David:
“God will stand in the assembly of Gods, he will judge in the midst of the Gods” – Psalms 82:1
“The heavens praise thy wonders, 0 Yahweh, thy faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones. For who in the skies can be compared to Yahweh? Who among the sons of Gods is like Yahweh, a God feared in the council of the holy ones, mighty and terrible above all that are round about him? Thou dost rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, thou stillest them. Righteousness and justice are the foundations of thy throne; grace and faithfulness go before thee.” – Psalms 89:5-7;9;14
But that is not the only place where we find it:
“Great is our God above all Gods” – 2 Chronicles 2:5
“God of Gods and lord of lords, a great God” – Deuteronomy 10:17
Yahweh even explicitly states that the other Gods are to be respected:
“Thou shalt not revile the Gods, nor curse the ruler of thy people.” – Exodus 22:28
Q. Does the inclusion of this God in your pantheon mean that everyone has to like and worship him?
Absolutely not! Greco-Egyptian polytheists are free – and encouraged! – to make up their own minds about issues such as theology and cult practice. All that we are doing by this is recognizing that Yahweh is a God and that he is to be counted as one of the official deities of our pantheon. This act in no way implies that every member is obligated to pay cultus to this divinity, or that they necessarily have to change their personal views on him simply because we have decided to give him a place. Most people have a select core of deities that they are close to and honor regularly through their devotions – the rest of the pantheon pretty much goes ignored by them, except perhaps on special occasions such as a festival they wish to participate in, or if the God has done something to get their attention. This was certainly the case in antiquity – with somewhere around 30,000 Gods running around, there’s no way you’d be able to remember every single one of them, let alone pay proper cultus to them all – and we see no reason why it should be any different today.
Similarly, there are Gods that may cause one some discomfort, e.g., a person who is especially devoted to Osiris may not have fond feelings for his murderer Seth; someone whose devotion to Athene inspires them to lead a life of balance, restraint, and intellectual pursuits may be ill-at-ease with the wild, ecstatic, liberating and orgiastic worship of Dionysos. Some people may have had bad experiences with Yahweh in the past or simply may not be able to get over how he is presented in modern Judaism and Christianity, and therefore will have no desire whatsoever to have any contact with him. And that is perfectly fine. The only thing that we ask of all of our members is that they show a basic respect, both to the other members of the group and to the Gods that they are devoted to. It is fine to say, “I don’t like Yahweh, and want nothing to do with him.” It’s quite another thing to say, “Yahweh is evil and malicious, and anyone who honors him is foolish and immoral.” This is blasphemy and a violation of Ma’at – order, harmony, piety – and when you offend one God in this way, it is as if you have offended them all. When we stand before the Judgment Seat in Amenti, we will have to proclaim, “I have not cursed any God or Goddess,” “I have not used evil thoughts, words or deeds,” and “I have not destroyed the property of any God or Goddess.” This is incompatible with such hateful words and actions.