Is Morgan Freeman God? The human Morgan Freeman performed in the role of the Almighty in Bruce Almighty. The audience accepted him in that role based on his stature, mien, and voice. To the best of my knowledge, at no time did the audience ever think that Morgan Freeman actually was God. As far as I know, the audience knew he was a human being performing in that role.
What will American historians three thousand years from now think? To some extent any analysis will depend on the data available. Ironically, three thousand years from now a Mesopotamian tablet may be more accessible than an Apple tablet. Exactly what information will be retained about Freeman from both on and off the screen cannot be known. There is more to a person’s life than the official record. Of course, we will never know what people three thousand years from now will think about Morgan Freeman being God and what they interpret that to mean for the values and beliefs of the American people.
With biblical scholars we do have the opportunity. We can examine what biblical scholars today and in the recent past think about the values the ancient Israelites had. We can examine what biblical scholars have said and written about the beliefs of those people. What do biblical scholars today claim about ancient Israel’s “Bruce Almighty” being god or what they think the Israelites believed about the deity?
The answers come from the consensus scholarship about certain events in the biblical narrative where the Lord appears to have a human form. These passages include:
1. The Garden of Eden where the deity walks in the garden in the cool of the day and speaks to the human man and woman as if he is right there with them (Gen. 3:8)
2. The Flood story which ends with the Lord smelling the savor of the sacrifice offered by Noah (Gen. 8:21)
3. The Tower of Babel story where the Lord descends from heaven after conversing with his heavenly colleagues (Gen. 11:5-7)
4. The Abraham stories where God joins him in his tent for a meal and later walks and converses with him before rendering a decision on what to do about Sodom (Gen. 18)
5. Jacob wrestling with the Lord (Gen. 32:24-30).
These episodes among some others have caused biblical scholars to postulate that early Israel had an anthropomorphic religion. In other words, much as we imagine the way ancient Greeks thought of Zeus, the biblical scholars propose that early Israel thought of Yahweh. The god had a physical form in the shape of a male human being. Only in time according to this view did Israel, like the Greeks, evolve to a more cosmic and less physical belief in God. Therefore these incidents like the ones cited above are vestiges from an early primitive time of Israelite belief.
The missing ingredient in this interpretation is performance, the recognition that human beings performed in the role of the Lord or as the voice of the Lord in ancient times. It is not as if biblical scholars are unaware that performances did occur then. The annual Mesopotamian new year festival called the akitu frequently appears in biblical scholarship especially in connection with the beginning of the Book of Genesis. This eleven-day festival of thanksgiving involved the king, a female either a high priestess or a queen who also might be a high priestess, a statue of the deity (not an ark), a temple, and a procession. During the course of the celebration the statue was moved about to represent its triumph over the forces of chaos and the restoration of order for the coming year when it was returned to its sacred setting.1
As one might expect, Egypt was a society of public performances, too. They included the king, a statue, and processions as well. The word for “read” in Egyptian, šdj, refers to oral performance. Even when statues of deities were involved it is presumed that divine speech was pronounced by a human priest of the deity. The lector priest was regarded as the mouth or voice of the deity but was not a god himself. He remained human. As part of the performance, priests wore masks, human kings and queens dressed in divine regalia, and people danced. In addition, there were storytellers who educated and entertained local populations. Of course, if someone were too good a speaker, the individual might be considered a threatening rabble-rouser who needed to be punished!2
One should recognize that although these performances may be the distant ancestor to Bruce Almighty, they served a different purpose. Once upon a time, theater was sacred.
The oldest theatres are all situated in the vicinity of a sanctuary, and in the temenos of it…In each theatre an altar was set up in the middle of the orchestra, on which a sacrifice was made before and after the ceremony. The performance took place…only once a year, on the festival day of the god worshipped in the temple….The theatre was a sacred place, the actor were sacred persons, their action was sacred action, and it was performed at a sacred time.3
Typically, these performances involved the king, a priest, and possibly a sacred marriage of some kind ensuring the fertility of the land for the coming year.
It’s not as if biblical scholars are unaware of the concept in the Israelite religion of a human being speaking in the name of deity without actually being divine. For example, David inquiries of the Lord and hears the answer through the mouth of Abiathar.
1 Samuel 23:9 David knew that Saul was plotting evil against him; and he said to Abiathar the priest, “Bring the ephod here.” 10 Then said David, “O Yahweh, the God of Israel, thy servant has surely heard that Saul seeks to come to Keilah, to destroy the city on my account. 11 Will the men of Keilah surrender me into his hand? Will Saul come down, as thy servant has heard? O Yahweh the God of Israel, I beseech thee, tell thy servant.” And Yahweh said, “He will come down.” 12 Then said David, “Will the men of Keilah surrender me and my men into the hand of Saul?” And Yahweh said, “They will surrender you.”
1 Samuel 30:7 And David said to Abiathar the priest, the son of Ahimelech, “Bring me the ephod.” So Abiathar brought the ephod to David. 8 And David inquired of Yahweh, “Shall I pursue after this band? Shall I overtake them?” He answered him, “Pursue; for you shall surely overtake and shall surely rescue.”
How would the audience have understood how Yahweh spoke to David? It wasn’t through a dream. There should be no doubt that the audience understood Abiathar as the one speaking the words of the Lord to David in his capacity as the high priest of the Levites, as the keeper of the ephod who brought it into the presence of David when he wished to inquire of the Lord.
Indeed, the prophet tradition in the Israelite religion is of prophets speaking in the name of the deity without being divine themselves. Generally these prophetic utterances are to the king. In the biblical narrative, it begins with Moses speaking to a foreign king. It resumes once Israel has its own king with Saul and includes such luminaries as Samuel, Abiathar, Ahijah, Elijah, Elisha, and Micaiah before prophets begin to get books of their own in the 8th century BCE.
With this background in mind, let’s consider another way how the prophets may have communicated the words of the Lord to audiences larger than the king alone. Two primary methods are oral storytelling and a staged performance. Oral storytelling involves one person, the prophet alone, speaking to an audience of the people through the telling of story. A staged performance as defined here involves multiple people at a set occasion, set time, and set location like a New Year festival with the king at the capital. The examples of an alleged anthropomorphic deity in the above passages include both methods. For the remainder of this post, let us see what a prophet in an oral storytelling mode did. I will save the staged performances for a subsequent post.
The Tower of Babel
The Tower of Babel is a finely constructed literary masterpiece. Of all the supplemental or “son stories,” in the first cycle (sons of Cain, of Seth, of God, of Noah, of Cush, and of men), the Tower of Babel is the one which is a full story in its own right. It was written from scratch and connects to previous stories. As a story, it can be analyzed as a single unit as the product of one mind in a specific point in space and time. The Tower of Babel as story affords the reader today an opportunity to go inside the mind of politically-active prophet storyteller.4
The artist has chosen to end the performance of the first cycle of stories with this story of his creation. It alludes to the sons of Cain who build cities (Gen. 4:17), the men in the time of son of Seth who call the name Yahweh (Gen. 4:26), and the post-Nimrod world of proper-noun peoples (Gen. 10). This new ending depicts a world of a collapsed Mesopotamian empire and the not the exalted one of Nimrod. It reminds me of Hudson River Art school founder Thomas Cole’s The Course of the Empire paintings (1833-1836). He painted them just after New York State proclaimed itself the Empire State and just before the Panic of 1837, the first great economic collapse of the still new United States. This painter of biblical scenes like the garden and the flood, turns out to have been a pretty good prophet in the Jacksonian Age. Now think of the 12th century BCE empire of Nebuchadnezzar I with his ziggurat, creation of Enuma Elish story of origins, and the akitu festival.5 Was his kingship a model to emulate or a warning of what was to happen? Different political priesthoods had different views and used the story form to express what we would say in a blog, op-ed piece, or essay using abstract language.
Here, the prophet-artist-storyteller paints a picture at the conclusion of the first cycle of men being scattered over the face of the earth.
Genesis 11:9 and from there [Babel] Yahweh scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.
The word choice is important. The author of the Tower of Babel story uses the term eretz “earth,” while a different author in the garden story uses adamah “ground.” Both phrases appear in the Flood story. Different authors have their preferred terms for the same thing. Even words like “soda” and “pop” carry different meanings today not in their literal sense but culturally. One imagines ancient audiences also were attuned to the differences between “ground” and “earth” or “ish” and “adam” for man in ways we don’t really understand today. A skilled storyteller would know which word is the right one for his audience.
A good storyteller engages the audience. When the biblical storyteller said these words to whom was he speaking?
Genesis 11:5 And Yahweh came down to see the city and the tower, which the sons of men had built. 6 And Yahweh said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.”
The scholarly consensus is that the character of Yahweh in the story was speaking to fellow divine beings, perhaps a council of gods. Such a council was considered appropriate for the pre-monotheistic early religion of Israel where divinities had human form. Indeed, if this passage had been written by a Canaanite Jebusite now part of Israel, the attribution of a council to this passage would make sense. Such texts do exist in the biblical narrative and psalms.
Now suppose instead of the writer being of Canaanite Jebusite background, it was an Israelite prophet telling the story. In this instance, we have a scenario where the prophet storyteller is doing exactly what prophet storytellers do – speaking to his audience. He and the audience are the “us” in the story. In the previous verses, the prophet storyteller had been regaling his audience with the activities of these anonymous men. Remember those men from the time of Enosh:
Genesis 4:26 To Seth also a son was born, and he called his name Enosh. At that time men began to call upon the name of Yahweh.
Where was this name-calling happening? Traditionally at a structure called a temple or so the story implies without stating. The audience of that story was expected to be able to figure it out without that storyteller directly stating it. Now in this story, the prophet storyteller is inviting the audience to come and join him and see what these men had been doing: building a temple in the Mesopotamian and not simply Canaanite tradition: think of a Benjaminite/Yaminite priest foe and not Canaanite-Jebusite one. To put the scene in perspective, imagine a parent or teacher who has turned his back on wayward youths now saying to his audience, “let’s go see what those little boys were up when they thought no one was looking.” Surprise! Surprise! There goes your empire! This prophet storyteller no more admired the Nimrod storyteller than he did the Enosh storyteller. “Games up” is the message this prophet storyteller is delivering in the name of Yahweh; the empire has run its course.
The focus on the presumed council of gods and primitive anthropomorphism detracts from understanding the political purpose of the story. The prophet story-teller is calling his audience to action. He does so in the name of Yahweh. One can easily imagine such a prophet storyteller roaming the stage (threshing floor theater?) with robust physical gestures (even more so in the story of Jacob wrestling!). This vigorous performance was not simply for entertainment purposes. It was a time do something.
The battle was engaged. And another empire would bite the dust, scattered to the four winds. In ancient Israel, people voicing the word of the Lord weren’t just entertainers, they were political activists who wanted to change something in their world and expressed themselves in the story form. There is nothing primitive about their stories and the only thing anthropomorphic is the storyteller himself. Next post, let us look at staged performances involving multiple performers and see what they were up to.
1. For the akitu, see Julye Bidmead, The Akitu Festival: Religious Continuity and Royal Legitimation in Mesopotamia (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2014); Thorkild Jacobsen, “Religious Drama in Ancient Mesopotamia,” in Hans Goedicke and J. J. M. Roberts, eds, Unity and Diversity: Essays in the History, Literature, and Religion of the Ancient Near East (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1975), 65–97; Jacob Klein, ‘Akitu’, in ABD I: 138–140; W. G. Lambert, “The Conflict in the Akītu house,” Iraq 25 1963: 189–190; Svend Aage Pallis, The Babylonian Akîtu Festival (København, ovedkommissionaer: A.F. Høst, 1926); Benjamin D. Sommer, “The Babylonian Akitu Festival: Rectifying the King of Renewing the Cosmos,” JANES 27 2000: 81–95; Karel van der Toorn, “The Babylonian New Year Festival: New Insights from the Cuneiform Texts and their Bearing on Old Testament Study,” in J. A. Emerton, ed., Congress Volume Leuven 1989 (Leiden: Brill, 1991), 331–344.
2. For the theatrical experience in Egypt, see John Baines, “Public Ceremonial Performance in Ancient Egypt: Exclusion and Integration’, in Takeshi Inornata and Lawrence S. Cohen, eds, Archaeology of Performance: Theater of Power, Community, and Politics (London: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006), 261–302; Ed Bleiberg, “Historical Text as Political Propaganda in the New Kingdom,” BES 7 1985–1986: 5–13; Henri Frankfort, Kingship and the Gods: A Study of Ancient Near Eastern Religion as the Integration of Society and Nature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 123–139; Robyn Gillam, Robyn, Performance and Drama in Ancient Egypt (London: Duckworth, 2005); Antonio Loprieno, “The King’s Novel,” in Antonio Loprieno, ed., Ancient Egyptian Literature: History and Forms (Leiden: Brill, 1996), 277–295; Donald B. Redford, “Scribe and Speaker,” in Ehud Ben Zvi and Michael H. Floyd, eds, Writing and Speech in Israelite and Ancient Near East Prophecy (SBLSymS 10; Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2000), 145–218; Anthony Spalinger, “Königsnovelle and Performance’, in Vivienne G. Callender, L. Bareš, M. Bárta, and J. Janák, eds, Times, Signs and Pyramids: Studies in Honour of Miroslav Verner on the Occasion of his Seventieth Birthday (Prague: Czech Institute of Egyptology, Faculty of Arts Charles University, 2011), 350–374; Arlene Wolinkski, Arlene, “Egyptian Masks: The Priest and his Role,” Archaeology 40 1987: 22–29. The extensive references to performances at Edfu in Ptolemaic times are excluded here.
3. B. H. Stricker, “The Origin of the Greek Theatre,” JEA 41 1955: 34–47, here 36.
4. For the Tower of Babel, see Peter Feinman, Jerusalem Throne Games: The Battle of Biblical Stories after the Death of David (Oxford: Oxbow Publishing, 2017), 103-121, 341-361.
5. Nebuchadnezzar I is an unsung figure in biblical scholarship. At the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, archaeologists had yet to reveal who he was in contrast to such figures as Gilgamesh, Sargon the Great, and Hammurabi. These other personages were incorporated into various hypotheses related to the history of Israel and the writing of the Hebrew Bible. Nebuchadnezzar I missed out on this formative period of exegetical formulation. For Nebuchadnezzar I, see J. A. Brinkman, A Political History of Post-Kassite Babylonia 1158–722 BC (Rome: Pontificium Institutum, 1968); W. G. Lambert, “The Reign of Nebuchadnezzar I: A Turning Point in the History of Ancient Mesopotamian Religion,” in W. S. McCullough, ed., The Seed of Wisdom: Essays in Honor of Th. J. Meek (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1964), 3–13; Tremper Longman, III, Fictional Akkadian Autobiography: A Generic and Comparative Study (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1991); Patrick D. Miller, Jr. and J. J. M. Roberts, The Hand of the Lord: A Reassessment of the ‘Ark Narrative’ (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977), 10–16, 77–85; J. J. M. Roberts, “Nebuchadnezzar I’s Elamite Crisis in Theological Perspectives,” in Maria deJong Ellis, ed., Essays on the Ancient Near East in Memory of Jacob Joel Finkelstein (Hamden: Archon Books, 1977), 183–187, reprinted in J. J. M. Roberts, The Bible and the Ancient Near East: Collected Essays (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2002), 83–92; D. J. Wiseman, “Assyrian and Babylonia c. 1200–1000 BC,” in I. E. S. Edwards, ed., History of the Middle East and the Aegean Region c. 1380–1000 BC (Cambridge Ancient History 2/2; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), 443–481. For the legacy of Nebuchadnezzar I into Assyrian and Persian times, see John P. Nielsen, “Marduk’s Return: Assyrian Imperial Propaganda, Babylonian Cultural Memory, and the akitu Festival of 667 BC,” in Martin Bommas, Juliette Harrison and Phoebe Roy, eds, Memory and Urban Religion in the Ancient World (London: Bloomsbury, 2012), 3–32; John P. Nielsen, “’I overwhelmed the king of Elam’: remembering Nebuchadnezzar I in Persian Babylonia,” in Jason M. Silverman and Caroline Waerzeggers, eds, Political Memory in and After the Persian Empire (ANEM 13; Atlanta: SBL Press, 2015), 53–73. I have not yet had time to read the new book by Nielsen entitled The Reign of Nebuchadnezzar I in History and Historical Memory.