Exalting Yahweh using Pagan imagery

(RiderOnTheClouds) #1

An interesting feature of the Old Testament is that Yahweh is frequently exalted using ANE pagan imagery.

Here are a few examples:

You created the north and the south;
Tabor and Hermon sing for joy at your name. (Psalm 89:12)

Tabor and Hermon were sacred mountains in Canaanite religion, interestingly, so were Zaphon and Yamin, the words used for North and South here.

Sing to God, sing in praise of his name,
extol him who rides on the clouds; (Psalm 68:5)

The phrase ‘rider on the clouds’ is also used by Baal Hadad in Ugaritic texts. I have seen some object by saying that it may just be both cultures remembering Yahweh from before Babel, but if this were true, we would see the epithet be used all across the world, not just amongst two geographically and culturally proximate peoples.

It was you who split open the sea by your power;
you broke the heads of the monster in the waters.
It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan (Psalm 74)

Once again, the psalmist is attributing acts of Baal Hadad to Yahweh. Baal battled the 7 headed (notice how both beings were multi-headed?) sea dragon Litanu, whose name is cognate with Leviathan.

What do you make of this? Is it wrong for Yahweh to steal, (given the Ten Commandments) or does exhalationary language need to be good, as opposed to original? I certainly find that it destroys any argument made by those who object to Fantasy books, or the holidays for using pagan imagery.

(Andrew M. Wolfe) #2

Is this any different from saying that the Big Bang happened, and Yahweh was its author?

Every culture where Christ enters upends its mythology and puts Christ at the center of it.

That happens linguistically, which is why we as Christians can use the words θεός (which certainly did not refer to Yahweh when first uttered) or God (similar) or الله (Allah, a name which certainly did not represent the Islamic deity when first uttered).

It happens culturally, which is why the popular first rendering of the creation story into the English idiom used Germanic tropes — read up on Caedmon’s Hymn, the oldest extant poetry we have in English (as well as the origin of Tolkien’s phrase “middle earth,” by the way). (While some scholars emphasize Caedmon’s Christian orthodoxy, others paint the picture of how he repurposed pre-Christian material in a specifically English Christian context.)

“Baptizing” non-Christian material is a time-honored tradition.


So where’s the line between “baptizing” and “adopting” (i.e., incorporating paganism inappropriately)?

(Mervin Bitikofer) #4

It’s impossible for God to steal since everything already belongs to God anyway.

Paul writes in Philippians 4:

“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

And I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have thought of any of these “excellent things” as being beyond the purview of Christ. It’s as good an endorsement of all great stories, literature, art, culture as I could imagine. If it’s good, use it to worship God. The rocks and trees themselves will cry out in praises even if you don’t.


Okay…does this still apply in principle:

“Do not learn the way of the nations,
And do not be terrified by the signs of the heavens
Although the nations are terrified by them;
For the customs of the peoples are delusion”

Jeremiah 10:2-3

In the New Testament context, Paul certainly seemed to care about refusing to identify with the paganism that new gentile believers had come out of.

So there’s a tension here. What are the criteria for decision making?

(Andrew M. Wolfe) #6

Do you have a specific modern concern in mind that we could discuss?

If I were cynical, I’d say that we tend to judge our own Christian culture to have baptized pagan forms, and we tend to judge other Christian cultures to have incorporated paganism inappropriately.

(Andrew M. Wolfe) #7

Is that why he quoted pagan philosophers in Acts 17:28, 1 Corinthians 15:33, and Titus 1:12?

Is it why he said that meat sacrificed to idols (in pagan rituals!) was okay for believers to eat?

Is that why he used the same title of θεός (a word previously used for Zeus et al.) for YHWH and κύριος (a word used of Caesar’s lordship) for Jesus?

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #8

This is a strange sentence. The Big Bang is the scientific theory of the Beginning. The Bible claimed the Big Bang for YHWH thousands of years ago long before science, which came up with the Beginning less than 200 years ago.

The Beginning is the place where science, theology, and philosophy come together and YHWH has it first and foremost, so science follows Genesis 1 in this basic fact of cosmology.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #9

The context for the above passage is Israel learning idolatry from their neighbors. So I think it a fairly safe interpretation here to conclude that “the way of the nations” is referring to their worshiping other human-made things as gods. Later in the same passage we’re told that all such gods (unlike the real Creator God) will perish from the earth. The nations were terrified by any and every big or not-understood thing that they saw in nature or the sky, but Israel is to rest in their faith that their God is in charge of all that stuff, so don’t fret it, like all the others who feel a need to appease this god or that.

I think Paul provides a good model for how to appropriate things. We’re told in Romans 14 that some people eat meat … but others don’t. Some set aside a special day, others don’t. Both are fine as long as they don’t despise the other. But they are all to do (or abstain from doing) as a way of giving glory to God. This isn’t license to do just anything of course, but it is a generous allowance that all cultures are invited to the foot of the cross with whatever treasure they have to bring. And if there are customs that can’t be made to fit into God’s kingdom, then that is challenged and brought into subjugation to Christ. All cultures will be challenged at points. But there doesn’t seem to be any culture that, in its entirety, is beneath the grace of Christ. Nor is there any that is so ready-made for Christ that it doesn’t need challenge and fundamental transformation.

So bring on the celebrations and pagan revelry! After any hurtful parts are disposed of (fornication or other abuses of each other body and soul) then the real revelry begins. Christians should be known as the real partiers when occasion demands. But they would also always respect another’s right to not be comfortable with any given or new ritual and would immediately desist from pushing somebody beyond where they are ready to go in the Spirit.

[Editing happens.]

(Andrew M. Wolfe) #10

I’m not anti-Big-Bang, Roger.

But as @Mervin_Bitikofer will remind you, having read Lesslie Newbigin even more thoroughly than I, science is a human tradition like any other. A particularly effective one, yes. One that we firmly believe closely approximates reality, absolutely. But a human tradition nonetheless.

So when we talk about appropriating other cultures’ beliefs about origins, and declaring that Jesus is what those beliefs are really talking about, does it matter whether we’re talking about Ugaritic myths or the Big Bang? In both cases, the culture in question (the people of Ugarit or modern Western scientific practitioners) firmly believes a particular thing, and people in the Judeo-Christian tradition say, “Yes… and YHWH is what that was talking about.” Of course, we modern Westerners tend to see more validity in scientific stories than in Ugaritic myths, but from an anthropological perspective, they are both stories that arose from within a particular culture.

I hope I’m making more sense this time.


The melody for Bach’s Passion Chorale was based on a secular love song!

(Peaceful Science) #12


Christians bearing the Gospel do not bring forward a specific worldview, but a person who reorders all world views.


Good observation. I’m thinking of two types of things: the critique of some Christians about the practice of things like Christmas and Halloween, and, in contrast, the potential “Christianization” of “the big three”: money, sex, and power. Probably most obviously money…?


I think that is a matter of using “pagan language” to assert the superiority of Jesus to pagan gods…?

:flushed: I don’t know why the quote feature is acting wonky…


Regularly, for me.

(Christy Hemphill) #16

Sounds like you should take a missiology class. That is the $10,000 question people are always duking it out over.

What is unhealthy syncretism and what is simply culturally contextualizing the gospel? I don’t think there is a formula. We need discernment and for every issue you can think of there are probably gray areas where a certain Christianized cultural practice or image would be unacceptable to one Christian and be neutral or even edifying to another.

(Roger A. Sawtelle) #17

Science rose out of a Christian culture, so even by your thinking science borrowed from Judeo-Christian tradition.

The Hebrews and the Canaanites shared a closely related language and culture. Evidence points to claim that they were ethnically different is false. Therefore the idea that the Canaanites have some sort of paten on the Semitic concept of God (El) is strange. See Psalm 82

On the other hand Christians have adopted Greek “pagan” philosophical thought as part of their faith without realizing how these ideas have corupted it.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #18

Not really! Of all the false gods, I think you’ve nailed a big three above. I’m not so sure though that our gods are all that different from the manufactured wooden idols made by other cultures. We have our own icons for those things … the shiny cars, the palatial mansions, monster entertainment centers. And any future archaeologists looking back at today’s architecture would probably say that our sacred temples (sports stadiums) mark us as one of the most religiously invested cultures of all history given the effort and expense we were willing to invest in erecting those. The decorated idol of bible times may have been moderately impressive workmanship. But it’s got nothing on the idols we build today. Of course we differentiate ourselves from the older sort by telling ourselves that (unlike theirs) our manufactured gods are real – so repeating the refrain that they and every culture has always sung through all history.

(Jay Johnson) #19

Hey, aren’t you the guy who changed his mind about Christianity when he realized that Genesis was not ripping off ANE mythology, but critiquing it? haha

I highly recommend Middleton’s book The Liberating Image to you. Right up your alley!

(Phil) #20

It is interesting to reflect on how we today use pagan imagery. It is almost harder to see it in ourselves than in other cultures as we have become accustomed to thinking how we do things is “right.” The most obvious thing that comes to mind is the common floor plan of most sanctuaries, which is based on Roman temples (and indeed many Roman pagan temples became repurposed churches post-Constantine, with pagan aspects incorporated into worship.