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The Big Other. The Guy Upstairs. The Top Dog. The Power That Be. Creator. Judge. Father. Whatever it is that comes to your mind when you think of "God," chances are Genesis will offer you a few surprises. There's plenty to uncover when it comes to the Big Kahuna's role in the first book of the Bible, so let's see if we can start the digging process.
God or Lord—who cares? It's all the same, right?
The name of the deity changes from story to story, and as the name changes, so does the character. Let's take a look.
First, we've got 'elohim (in Hebrew), which is conventionally translated as "God" throughout Genesis and the rest of the Bible. Actually, the word itself is plural—"gods"—but it's the subject of verbs in the singular. This will make your English teachers cringe. It's like writing, "gods creates the world," which would earn you a big red check mark. So 'elohim is plural in form, but singular in concept. Loaded, right?
The other biggy is in Hebrew YHWH, which is usually translated as "the Lord" throughout Genesis and the rest of the Bible. YHWH is God's proper name or nickname. Like how you call us Shmoop, instead of "those brilliant people who always make me laugh."
In a polytheistic world—that is, a world where people believe in many deities—YHWH distinguishes Israel's God from all the other gods for sale in the ancient Mesopotamian world. The question is which of the gods is Israel's god. If you ask an Israelite—is it El or Nanna or An or Enlil or Zeus or Dionysus? No, the Israelite will respond: it's YHWH.
Want some other names for the Israelite deity? How about El-roi (16:13), El Shaddai (17:1), and, our favorite, "the Terror of Isaac" (31:54). Can you find any others?
Let's get ready to rumble! Oh, sorry, we got carried away. We just meant let's get ready for some big words.
Big word number one: polytheism. This is a fancy word for the simple phenomenon of people accepting the existence of many gods rather than just one. Greeks did it. Romans did it. Ancient Mesopotamians did it. And, believe it or not, some characters in Genesis do it, too.
Just think of Laban, who has household gods (31:19, 30); Rachel, who steals Laban's household gods (31:19); and even Jacob, who promises to serve YHWH as his god if and only if YHWH does better things for him than the other deities (28:20-22).
Big word number two: henotheism. This is a highbrow word for accepting the existence of many gods over whom one deity in particular rules as the strongest, best, and by far the most supreme. This might in fact be what we get for the most part in Genesis, where God is portrayed as the chief of a whole cosmic hierarchy.
That means YHWH is the god of the gods. Who are these other gods? We're not sure, but we know they're out there:
Big word number three: monotheism. This more familiar term describes people who believe in one god and one god only. There are no other divine competitors in existence. In traditional Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, this is what eventually emerges. But the trick is to see that in Genesis we're not quite there yet.
Okay, just one more big word: anthropomorphism. Now we're thinking about God like a human being. God has the same kinds of actions, feelings, and thoughts that humans have. If humankind is made in God's image (1:26-27), then humankind must mimic at least some of God's traits or vice versa, right?
Check this out. The stories that use the name YHWH for God in the early chapters of Genesis tend to show God as human-like. YHWH walks in the garden (3:8), converses with mortals directly (3:8-10; 4:9; 6:13), regrets and grieves in "His heart" (6:6 NRSV), and smells Noah's fragrant sacrifice (8:21). Contrast this with the portrayal of the deity in the early 'elohim stories, where the deity does nothing that's this human-like.
So is God like us or not?
Here's the big question: does the character of God change as the story of Genesis progresses? Think about it: in the opening chapters, God is talking with mortals directly (3:8-19; 4:9-14); but in the end, God is speaking to people in obscure dreams that require a skilled interpreter to untangle.
One thing's for sure: God is not consistent as a character. Does this make him hypocritical? Or just dynamic?