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By David Sullivan

Deity in the ancient world

Interest in and worship of deity are probably as old as humanity itself. The ancients had stories about their various understandings of the deity, stories which have been powerfully influential on communities and cultures right down to the present day. I suggest that the constancy of the interest in deities and their stories in history, however, suggests a deep need within humanity for something transcendent that will help people make sense of the world as it is.

Deity of the ancient world was most commonly understood in terms of multiple gods or goddesses. The ancients also believed that the origins of the deity and of the cosmos were closely connected. The sun and moon and stars, for example, were often depicted as gods. In one well-known creation myth of ancient Babylon, the Enuma Elish, deities emerged out of the primordial waters, and the heavens and the earth were ultimately formed out of the carcass of one of the deities slain by another.

Ancient cultures understood the origins of the cosmos in what is best described as functional terms. People in the ancient world believed that something existed not be virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function within an ordered systems (John Walton). (In our modern world, because of the huge increase in scientific knowledge, we tend to think of existence primarily in material terms.) The author of Genesis, being an ancient, was no different from his or her contemporary world in having a functional understanding of what it meant for something to exist.

The ancient deities were not unlike human beings, with similar daily routines, desires, needs, and moods. Their anatomy was also similar, being equipped for sex and childbearing. Human beings in almost all of the ancient creation stories were made by the gods to be slaves for the gods, in which their role was to satisfy the needs and whims of the gods. Humanity, then, was not highly valued, and sacrifices to appease the gods often included human sacrifice, including sacrifice of children.

The Deity of the Bible

In the book of Genesis and the books that follow in the Old Testament we find a very different story from other ancient texts about the deity. Whilst the cosmology of Genesis is very similar to that of other ancient texts (e.g. flat earth with a dome over the earth to hold the waters), Genesis has a very different understanding of deity. Genesis 1 describes the construction of the cosmos as a temple. The deity, whilst deeply and lovingly involved in the running of the cosmos, remains separate. In the Genesis creation account, the cosmos, whilst not divine, is sacred.

It was common amongst the religions of the ancient world to place an image of the deity in the temple to represent the deity. Genesis is no different. The deity places an image in the cosmic temple, but in this case the image is the human person, whether male or female. The role of human beings as image bearers is to have dominion over and care sacrificially for the world.

In being made in the image of the deity each human being is exalted by the deity. Humans are not made as slaves to meet the needs of the deity, for the deity has no needs.

What is the deity of the Old Testament like?

It is clear from the foregoing that the deity of the Old Testament is unlike the deities of other ancient religions. The fundamental characteristic of this deity is goodness. Everything this deity has created is good, in fact very good, implying that the deity is also good. The goodness of this deity is manifested in blessing, particularly in the blessing of humanity (Genesis 1:28). The goodness of this deity is also manifested in steadfast love (psalm 36:5), compassion, as rescuer of humanity, and wrath against injustice. Some, like the atheist Richard Dawkins, may describe the deity of the Old Testament in negative terms, for example, as genocidal, or as a bully, but this does not square with the descriptions of the Old Testament itself.


Stories have a powerful influence on communities, nations and cultures. The stories of deities are no different. The question of deity addresses questions about the world, why it is like it is, who we are, and what our role in the cosmos is. We owe it to ourselves to take the subject of deity seriously. The question will be, then, which story makes the most sense to us, offers the most satisfying explanation for the world as we know it, and offers hope for the future. And perhaps not knowing where all that might take me, am I willing to take the chance of going down that road?