Fire on the Mountain

If thou would’st hear the Nameless, and wilt dive
Into the Temple-cave of thine own self,
There, brooding by the central altar, thou
May’st haply learn the Nameless hath a voice,
By which thou wilt abide, if thou be wise...

-- Lord Alfred Tennyson, “The Ancient Sage”

The God that Moses and his people encountered in the wilderness of Sinai evidently thought the way to make a good first impression was to scare everybody half to death.  His arrival was signaled by thunder, lightning and a loud trumpet blast.  He descended on Mount Sinai in fire and smoke, and the whole mountain shook.  The people were threatened with death if they came too close, although there was little danger of that.  They were as frightened by this God who had delivered them from slavery in Egypt as by the Egyptians who had pursued them with their chariots.

Sigmund Freud had a theory that the God of the Old Testament was descended from a local Midianite volcano god named Jahve that Freud describes as an “uncanny, bloodthirsty demon who walks by night and shuns the light of day.”  The fireworks display that accompanied the Lord’s grand entrance at Sinai would seem to fit, although there are no volcanoes there or anywhere else in Egypt.  The bloodthirsty part also fits.  After wandering around in the wilderness for 40 years, the Hebrew people entered the Promised Land and, on orders from the Most High, massacred the locals.  The Gnostic religious movement that briefly flourished during the early Christian era explicitly identified the Old Testament God with the Demiurge, a demonic ruler of the material world.

Admittedly, the fire-breathing monster who terrorizes friend and foe alike throughout much of the Old Testament is a bit hard to reconcile with the more benign deity worshipped by Christians.  Freud was among those subscribing to philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach’s view that we create gods in our own image, rather than the other way around.  So if the God of the ancient Hebrews came across as a bloodthirsty demon, what does that say about them?  What army has not gone into battle believing that God was on their side?  And if they wound up slaughtering every man, woman and child in their path, surely it was on orders from the Most High.

If indeed we remold God in our own image, then there was clearly a shift in our understanding between the time of Moses and the time of Jesus.  A pivotal figure in this regard may have been the prophet Elijah, who like the other two had his formative encounter with the divine after he had been driven into the wilderness.  Like Moses, Elijah had tangled with higher-ups and was seeking refuge there.  He made his way to the same place where God had once thundered from the mountaintop, and he took shelter in a cave.  The biblical account of this event notes that Elijah encountered wind and earthquake and fire but found the Lord in none of these things; instead, there was only a still, small voice.  Where was this voice coming from?  The narrative does not say, but Elijah appears to have still been within in the cave and perhaps within himself has found a surer pathway to God. 

Exodus 19:16-20
1 Kings 19:9-18
Sigmund Freud,
Moses and Monotheism

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