The Gods Must Be Choosy

Paul Dana suggested a few weeks ago that I should look into the concept of chosen people in religion, and how common that was. Nowadays, it’s mostly used to refer to the Jewish people, or sometimes to other religions that got it from Judaism. The idea is that the Jews were chosen for a covenant with God, and that gives them a special status, but also means they have to follow rules other people don’t.

The Wikipedia page on the topic mentions that it’s often not seen as a sign of superiority, but of responsibility. With great power comes great responsibility, in the words of a superhero who isn’t Jewish, although his co-creator Stan Lee was. It was an idea among early Christians, and still sometimes today, that the Church basically replaced the Jews as the Chosen People, due to the rejection of Jesus by mainstream Judaism.

Christianity began as a sect of Judaism, but kind of changed into its own thing when it caught on more with gentile converts. The book of Revelation is interesting in this respect, as it clearly refers to the people it’s addressing as Jews, but also as followers of Jesus. The group of 144,000 people who are saved early on in the narrative are all descended from the Twelve Tribes of Israel, although it’s not entirely clear how literal this is meant to be, and the list of the tribes doesn’t really match up with earlier ones.

In some of the letters to the churches in Asia Minor, John writes of what he calls “the Synagogue of Satan” and “those who claim to be Jews but are not,” although it’s not clear whether he meant all non-Christian Jews, just a particular subset of them who were persecuting the church, or even Christian Jews with doctrinal differences. It’s worth noting that his stance on whether it’s okay to eat food sacrificed to pagan gods is much stricter than Paul’s. The belief that Christians became the new Chosen People is called supersessionism, and it was pretty common for much of Christian history, although the Holocaust and reestablishment of Israel as a nation caused some shifts in this. Interestingly, the only non-Abrahamic religion mentioned on that page is that of the Maasai people, who supposedly use it to justify stealing cattle. While likely true as far as it goes, the way it’s written seems rather dismissive.

Another related question is whether polytheistic societies believed that they were chosen by their gods, and I’m not really sure what the answer to this is. Paul mentioned the Greek gods as being more capricious towards humans, and not the type to make covenants like Yahweh’s. Of course, Yahweh Himself was once one of several gods worshipped in Israel and Judah, then became the only one worshipped in that country but still not the only god, then finally the sole existing god. There are Bible passages suggesting that the Israelites saw the gods of neighboring nations as real at one point. A possible example of this is in 2 Kings 3, when King Mesha of Moab rebelled against Israel, of which they were presumably a vassal state at the time. The Kings of Israel and Judah joined forces to fight Mesha, and it sounds like they were winning until the Moabite King sacrificed his own son to his people’s god Chemosh, causing the Israelites and Judahites to retreat.

It’s not exactly clear WHY they retreated, but one possible interpretation is that the Moabite god accepted the sacrifice and granted Mesha a victory. According to the Mesha Stele, Chemosh had been angry at the Moabites and allowed Israel to subjugate them (basically the same thing the Jews would say about their own conquest by the Babylonians), but he changed his mind during this war. I don’t think there’s enough information to tell whether the Moabites considered themselves the chosen people of Chemosh, but it fits into the general idea of other countries’ gods being able to affect events just as Yahweh could.

I recently read this post about gods and belief. It’s a modern trope that gods require human belief to survive, or at least to thrive. The author cites Neil Gaiman’s American Gods as a key example, and his occasional collaborator Terry Pratchett used the same basic idea in the Discworld books, especially Small Gods and Hogfather. The post indicates that, at least in the ancient Mediterranean area, the general belief was that gods did what they wanted, but people could earn their favor through worship and sacrifice. Exactly what the gods got out of this isn’t entirely clear, as they could presumably cook animals themselves (and, indeed, gods are often described as having way more and better food than people do), but it was definitely something they desired.

There’s a Mesopotamian flood myth that describes the gods as hungry for sacrifices after most of the people die. But anyway, if the gods mostly just thought of humans as providers of sacrifices, I don’t know that they were choosing particular nations or tribes as more worthy than others. I know many ancient Greeks in particular believed in their own superiority, and pretty much every society had its own myths involving local cultic sites and their importance to the gods. Different places had their own patron deities, and the existence of a story about Athena and Poseidon competing for patronage of Athens suggests that the human devotion that would come from this was something desirable to both of them.

But it seems like these same societies believed the gods were active all over the world, suggesting there were other cultic sites in other lands, and it was common for polytheistic cultures like the ancient Greeks to equate their gods with those of other countries. Certain people, particularly kings and heroes, were often described as particularly favored by specific gods (and frequently descended from them as well).

I guess that also applies to messiahs, or anointed ones, in Judaism. So the gods definitely played favorites, but whether there was a similar concept of Chosen People in these cultures, I couldn’t say.

This entry was posted in Authors, Christianity, Comics, Discworld, Greek Mythology, History, Judaism, Mythology, Neil Gaiman, Religion, Semitic, Terry Pratchett and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Gods Must Be Choosy

  1. Pingback: Winners and Choosers | VoVatia

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