The actual origin of religion is a hotly debated topic in anthropoligical circles. We don’t know exactly when or how it happened. We know that it pre-dated the invention of writing, but not by how much. And we don’t know what the first religious beliefs were – do cave paintings represent a recording of a successful hunt, or a devotion to the aurochs spirits?
It is generally – though not universally – accepted that the ritualisation of death and burial, and the invention of the funeral, mark the earliest evidence of a belief in an afterlife or a spirit world. We know nothing of what was believed, but the care and attention which our ancestors paid to the arrangement of the dead, the things they buried with them and the markers left at gravesites – all of these imply a developing spirituality. We cannot say exactly where it happened, but somewhere in this process, the idea of God was invented.
So tired today. Spent the whole day working on one thing, man. My plan is that he’s like an animal, only intelligent, like me. So because he’s not an animal, I figure he doesn’t need a mate. I mean, I don’t have one and I’m intelligent. Anyway, it went according to plan: I woke him up, told him that he was basically in charge whenever I’m not around, and called it a day.
Stop me if you heard this one: so, a naive chick is tricked by some snake into eating something she probably shouldn’t have. Suddenly much less naive, she tricks her partner into seeing things her way. We’ve all heard it a million times, right? Except that in this case, the chick is Eve, the snake is better known as the Serpent in the Garden, and her partner, of course, is Adam.
It turns out that eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil tells you that it is evil to be naked, which is why when God (who is elsewhere desrcibed as both omniscient and omni-present) comes back, Adam hides from Him, so that God – who has seen him naked as often – if not more often – than any parent has ever seen their child, will not see him naked again.
Anyway, it’s all holy and ineffable, so quit your snickering.
It’s not clear exactly when Cain murdered Abel in any biblical chronology I’ve been able to find. Some of them even date it to 4004 BCE, the same year usually given for the Creation of the earth. Which implies that not only were Cain and Abel both full grown men in the space of a single year, but that their mother’s two pregnancies (Cain and Abel were not twins – Cain is the older), also took place in that same year.
Nevertheless, as brothers, they didn’t always get along. This may or may not have had something to do with the notoriously fickle and hard to please deity that they worshiped, or that deity’s changing of the rules on them – Cain presumably would not have made an offering that God (who is, according to the Gospel of Luke, Cain’s grandfather) that God found unacceptable had he known ahead of time that it would be rejected.
Cain responds to his rejection by God by hunting and killing his brother, Abel. (Which makes him sound a little older than >1 – about 16 or so, I would guess.) And then God, not done with the mind games, pretends not to know about it and questions Cain, leading to his infamous declaration that he was “not his brother’s keeper” (which is a rare concession to historical accuracy by the Book of Genesis – cricket had indeed not yet been invented). God curses Cain and exiles him, making him the earliest biblical figure to be set up and knocked down by God.
Imhotep was an Egyptian polymath who was what we would later call a Renaissance man. Of course, Imhotep had a 4000 year head-start on Leonardo. He served the Third Dynasty pharaoh Djoser as vizier, although the complete list of his titles ran: Chancellor of the King of Egypt, Doctor, First in line after the King of Upper Egypt, Administrator of the Great Palace, Hereditary nobleman, High Priest of Heliopolis, Builder, Chief Carpenter, Chief Sculptor and Maker of Vases in Chief.
His most notable work to modern eyes is the Step Pyramid of Saqqara, in which the pharaoh Djoser was buried. It was the first pyramid, and comparatively small and primitive, but for its time it was an engineering marvel.
After his death, Imhotep was deified, one of very few Egyptians to whom this occurred (other than the pharaohs).
Hundreds of years before the dawn of history
Lived a strange race of people… the Druids
No one knows who they were or what they were doing
But their legacy remains
Hewn into the living rock… Of Stonehenge!
Stonehenge was constructed out of massive slabs of bluestone, by persons unknown using means unknown for reasons unknown, on a field on Salisbury Plain, in Wiltshire, England.
Theories abound as to its purpose, although as the lyrics above suggest, it is generally believed to have been something druidic. Suggestions include it being a burial ground, a primitive observatory, or a place for human sacrifice. Less likely theories argue that it was constructed by Atlanteans or aliens.
So one day, God, in his infinite wisdom and mercy, got pissed off at basically everyone. I mean everyone.
Except for this one guy, Noah. And Noah’s family and their families. And all but two of each different kind of animal. God told Noah that he was planning to flood the entire planet and drown, well, everyone. He further instructed Noah to build an ark of the dimensions 300 cubits by 50 cubits by 30 cubits, to carry those whom God, in his infinite mercy, had deemed worthy of salvation.
Admittedly, no one’s quite sure exactly how big a cubit is – it’s based on the length of one’s forearm, but of course, no two forearms are exactly the same size either. What is fairly certain is that there’s no way that any such creation could be large enough to fit two of every animal, even allowing for excluding fish.
So God, in all his moodswingy glory, decided to wipe out the entire human race.
Except for this one guy, his wife, his three sons and his three daughters-in-law. So Noah gets told to engage in one of the world’s most unlikely acts of carpentry. He builds an Ark in which to place a breeding pair of every kind animal in the world – which, by the way, would totally not fit in the cubic volume of Ark, unless “cubit” is an ancient hebrew word for “mile” – and apparently successfully places them there.
And then God makes it rain for forty days and forty nights. Fortunately, the flooded Earth has a very low albedo, and all this water eventually evaporates into the vacuum of space, allowing the ludicrously small gene pool we are allegedly all descended from to not suffocate from the vast quantities of water vapour in the air. And there’s a rainbow.
The Tower of Babel was an attempt by the post-Deluge peoples – all of whom spoke a common language – to build a structure upon the plain of Shinar which would reach to Heaven. God took offense to this, and went down from Heaven to prevent the project from succeeding. Having a keen understanding of the importance of good communication, God’s method for disrupting the project was the change everyone’s language. He created an un-recorded number of languages that day, sundering families and friendships, and all to prevent people from reaching Heaven physically.
The traditional religious interpretation of this is that it is a warning against pride. However, God’s words, as recorded in the Book of Genesis, make it fairly clear that, not unlike with that unfortunate business with the snake and the fruit, God was once again acting from fear that mere humans could dethrone Him by equalling him in power.
When God first appears to Abraham – which, by the way, was what the big guy renamed Abe – his name was originally Abram – Abram is 75 years old, although that doesn’t mean much, since his father Terah has not long died of old age. Terah lived to be 205, so no doubt Abe anticipates a number of good years ahead of him yet.
God tells him a bunch of stuff – that he should move from where he lives (in what is now Iraq) to Canaan (or what is now Israel); that he will become the founding father of a great nation; that he should change his name; and that his wife, Sarai (also renamed as Sarah) will soon become pregnant. Sarah is old enough to be unable to bear children, so she laughs at this prophecy, although one assumes that it seems less funny after she conceives and delivers Isaac, as prophesied.
The story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah shows God’s mercy at its finest. After he threatens to destroy the cities, Lot, who resides in one of them, bargains with his god, finally convincing him to spare the cities if Lot can find five righteous men in them (apparently, righteous women aren’t good enough).
The bar is not set high: Lot himself is considered righteous, although he clearly suffers from the sin of pride (it takes a pretty big ego to bargain with god as an equal). However, he does have one virtue that god appreciates, that of shameless toadying. Indeed, Lot is so desperate to curry favour with god and his servants that he offers his virgin daughters to the baying mob to do with as they please if they will simply consent to leave god’s servants alone.
For this, god spares Lot and his daughters, allowing them to flee the city before he smites down upon it with great vengeance and furious anger – although Lot’s wife, whose only crime is to like watching explosions, is turned into a pillar of salt as a punishment – which is pretty harsh considering how few fans of action movies have ever been similarly afflicted.
One of the best known stories in the Bible, the Exodus or Exit from Egypt, is the escape of the Israelites from slavery under the Pharoahs. The particular Pharoah in question is not specified in the Bible (and speculation about who it is has been a scholarly pastime for centuries), but whoever it was, he was clearly cut from the same cloth as the most stubborn, stupid and self-destructive leaders of history.
It’s only after numerous plagues – which kill off a goodly portion of his subjects – that he agrees to let the Israelites go. And even then, he changes his mind once more, pursuing them with his army…
…only to be killed, along with his army, when Moses unparts the Red Sea and the Israelites make good their escape to the Sinai, where they spend the next four decades preparing to invade Canaan and begin the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has continued, intermittently, ever since.
No doubt you’re familiar with the story: during the 40 years that the Israelites spent wandering in the Sinai desert between fleeing Egypt and entering Canaan, they encamped for some time at the foot of Mt Sinai.
At one point, God summoned Moses, his chosen prophet and the leader of the Israelites, to the top of the mountain, and here he gave him stone tablets upon which were inscribed the Ten Commandments – one of the world’s earliest legal codes that is still known to us.
When Moses carried the tablets back down the mountain, he was sufficiently enraged by the conduct and reaction of his fellow Israelites that he broke them half. Fortunately, God had made a backup copy, and Moses was able to once more bring the tablets of the Ten Commandments.