The Old Testament can be read without any difficulty as a damning indictment of the faithlessness of that wanton harlot, Israel: forever backsliding into idolatry and worship of false gods the chosen people would seem then to have been a constant trial to the Lord of Hosts, a right pain in the omniscience.
It is necessary, however, as Madawc Williams has already pointed out in this issue, to read the Bible critically, taking account of the period and context in which particular passages were composed, edited and interpolated.
To take a pertinent example, it is clear from the Bible itself that the god who revealed himself to Moses on Sinai was not the god of the Patriarchs. In Exodus 6: 2-3; he both claims this and effectively denies it:
"And God (Elohim) said to Moses. "I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as God Almighty ('El Shaddai), but by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them."
Let us consider the names of God.
God's revelation of himself to Abraham is to be found in Genesis 17: 1-2;
"...when Abram was ninety-nine years old the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, "I am God Almighty ('El Shaddai), walk before me, and be blameless. And I will make my covenant between me and you, and will multiply you exceedingly."
The revelation to Isaac is not preserved but in Genesis 28: 3; we read his blessing of Jacob...
"...God Almighty ('El Shaddai) bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you that you may become a company of peoples."
In Genesis 35: 11; god, having appeared to Jacob, declared...
"I am God Almighty ('El Shaddai): be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall spring from you."
In Genesis 48: 3; Jacob reported that conversation to Joseph, saying:
"God Almighty ('El Shaddai) appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me, and said to me, 'Behold, I will make you fruitful, and multiply you, and I will make of you a company of peoples, and will give this land to your descendants after you for an everlasting possession.' "
So, the god of the patriarchs, El Shaddai, was not the god of Moses, Yahweh, but was later subsumed, overwritten, by him.
Matters are further complicated when we learn that Yahweh was not initially a creator god. Ancient Israel and its closest neighbours in Canaan shared the belief that Man and the world were created by Elohim. Where the Revised Standard Version uses the phrase LORD God, as in Genesis 2: 7; saying:
"...then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being."
this is a translation of the double name Yahweh Elohim. Again Yahweh is being written into an earlier account from which he had originally been missing.
The LORD God of Israel was not only a jealous god: he was a complex being who devoured his predecessors.
Further again to complicate matters empyrean-wards I must quote from the prophet Micah, who declared as a matter of course (Chapter 4: verse 5):
"For all the peoples walk each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the LORD our God (Yahweh) for ever and ever."
The point is that each of the peoples of the near east had its one national god in whose name it walked. Thus, the Moabites worshipped Kemosh and described themselves as, and were known to be, the people of Kemosh. Likewise, the Ammonites walked in the name of their god, Milcom: they were the people of Milcom. And the Israelites were the people of the one national god of Israel, who had been 'El Shaddai and became Yahweh.
There is no clear evidence concerning the origin and meaning of the divine name Yahweh. It is clear only that he was the god of Exodus, the god of Moses who delivered those of the tribes of Israel who had settled in Egypt from bondage.
Moses himself is hard to come to grips with. Moses is an Egyptian, not a Hebrew, name (from the common root Msi to bear or beget, as in Rameses, Ra is the one who begot him, and Thutmose, Thoth has given a child).
The story of Pharoh's daughter finding him in the Nile is an obvious attempt to explain this away. As it appears in Exodus the account follows, almost word for word, a similar story that was preserved of the Babylonian King Sargon of Akkad.
In Moses and Monotheism, Freud speculated, not unreasonably, that Moses was a survivor of the priesthood of the monotheistic Aton cult established by the Pharoh Amenhotep IV (Ikhnaton) and bloodily suppressed after his death. Thus, like the practice of circumcision, monotheism was initially borrowed by the Jews from the Egyptians.
Freud took it that the god Yahweh whose name was attached to the new cult was originally a Midianite volcano god. For what it is worth that element of his speculation seems now to be generally accepted by biblical scholars.
Reaching Canaan the refugees from Egypt succeeded, in the course of a long struggle against cults of ancestor-worship and worship of the Queen of Heaven, in having Yahweh accepted as the god of all the children of Israel.
Yahweh was unique. He was, in Canaan, a "stranger in a strange land", an interloper who had no place in the network of familial associations that linked the other gods and their peoples in a common history. Thus, even before the Jews became properly monotheistic and denied the very existence of his peers Yahweh was pre-eminently a lonely, a proud and a jealous god.
The circumstance of Yahweh's denial of all other gods was the Babylonian destruction of his city and temple at Jerusalem and the exile and dispersion of the Jews. Of which, perhaps, more later.