The Oedipal Conflict in the Ancient Canaanite Pantheon and its Influence on Later Judaism and Christianity

The Oedipal Conflict, as I will use it in this essay, involves three principal players, the son, the mother and the son's principal rival for the mother's attention, either the father or a brother. The conflict is seen from the son's perspective reflecting repressed sexual attraction and unresolved love-hate feelings toward the other family members.

This conflict has been observed within the culture of the ancient Greeks, taking its name from the title character in Sophocles play "Oedipus Rex" (5th Century B.C.).

In this essay we will look at how this conflict appears in the the culture of ancient Canaanites, the pre-Hebrew inhabitants of what is now Israel, Lebanon, and parts of Jordan and Syria.

In this essay we will look briefly at the history of the earliest parts of the Old Testament as revised in light of modern archaeology and Biblical research.

I will also give arguments that the Israelites were a direct sub-group of the Canaanites and practiced the Canaanite religion. This will be done by looking at peculiar early religious articles and rituals in the Old Testament as well as the Old Testaments' names for God and the absorption of Canaanite deity names into the Hebrew language.

In examination of the Canaanite pantheon, we will observe that it is divided into two major divisions, the celestial (or heavenly) deities and the chthonic (or nature centered) deities probably reflecting a tolerant merger of a religion of a conquering royalty and a religion of the local peasants.

As a result of these two tiers, the Oedipal conflict in the Canaanite pantheon took the form of sibling rivalry between brother gods on the lower tier, as we will see in their literature, and not a conflict between the son in the lower tier and the father in the upper tier.

It is my conclusion that this predisposed Judaism to the sibling rivalry form of the Oedipal conflict rather than the more common father-son form. Further that this influenced the formation of Christianity in which this conflict is acted out (i.e.. the Christian sees the loving parent (God) push the older perfect son (Jesus) out of the way (by having him rubbed out) in order to turn full attention and affection to the Christian).

I believe this influence represents one of three primary sources for Christianity, the other two being Persian Zoroastrianism and Greek culture, which I will not address in this essay.

In this essay I will try to give adequate reasons for the following viewpoints based on recent analytical Biblical research. First that the Hebrews were Canaanites and second that they practiced the Canaanite religion up until at least the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C. and that the Old Testament was sanitized after the influence of Zoroastrian monotheism during the Persian period to remove any references to polytheism.

The Canaanite model of the Oedipus conflict instead of pitting the son against the father for rights to the mother, leaves the father completely passive and outside of the conflict. At the first hint of rebellion a brother deity attacks the son and kills him. He is restored to his original position only by intercession of a sister deity (symbolically the mother?). He either does not attain the mother or, in later mythology attains her only when the father discards her in preference to younger goddesses, there is no direct conflict between father and son.

It appears that at some point in the very distant past, a group following the more ancient Amorite or 'Old Babylonian' celestial religion conquered the locals in Palestine who were following a chthonic or nature oriented religion. It appears the celestial religion was representative of the ruling class and the chthonic religion of the peasant farmers. This would explain the unacceptability of having the chthonic gods in conflict with the celestial gods. There would be no existing mythology since they had two different origins and certainly the new ruling class would not allow any new mythology that did not help keep the peasants and their gods in line, certainly not a mythology that even hinted at a threat to their power.

As centralized authority broke down in Palestine we see a rise in the chthonic religion and an erosion of the celestial religion. However the conflict between the two seems to come mostly from the celestial sides efforts to stay in power.

In Palestine specifically, as central authority waned, the peasants mounted a revolution, tossed out the Canaanite royalty in favor of charismatic peasant leaders (the Judges) and presumably restored their chthonic religion.

As the monarchical form of government was reasserted under Saul, David and Solomon, the celestial side of the religion was stressed again (at least officially).

With the breakup of Solomon's empire by revolution, the northern group reasserted the chthonic religion.

The fact that the Northern and Southern Kingdoms bounce back and forth from the celestial and chthonic, indicates that they both must have been reasonably acceptable to the people as a whole, perhaps two aspects of the same religion.

With the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyrians in 721 B.C. the chthonic religion was discredited as it had not saved them. This resulted in strict legalism (the Deuteronomist Reform) and the first big rewrite of the Old Testament as part of Josiah's Reform. Of course this didn't save the Southern Kingdom either as it fell to the Babylonians shortly there after in 587 B.C.

With the restoration under the Persians (the only Gentiles the ancient Jews ever liked) and in light of Persian Zoroastrianism Monotheism the second big rewrite of the Old Testament began, which removed any hint of polytheism. The celestial father god was idealized, the other gods as a group became angels, the principal chthonic god's good elements were incorporated into the celestial father god and all the rest became cast as demons. In this way the god/anti-god dualism of the Zoroastrian was artificially pressed into a much more pluralistic pantheon.

The best source of texts for the ancient Canaanite religion come from Ras Shamra in Syria which is the ancient Canaanite city of Ugarit. These texts span the period roughly equivalent to from Joseph the Patriarch in Genesis to about King David. While local colorization is a factor, we should be able to accurately extrapolate the religion in Palestine.

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(c) 1999 Thomas F. Swezey All rights reserved.