Chapter Six

The High God

THE “HERETIC PHARAOH” whom history knows as Akhenaten was born Amenhotep. He was the fourth of his family to bear that name, the tenth pharaoh of the Eighteenth Dynasty, the line that inaugurated the New Kingdom (c. 1570–1070 B.C.E.), a period of peace and prosperity that propelled ancient Egypt to its cultural and political peak.

Akhenaten, whose reign began sometime around the year 1353 B.C.E., was, by all accounts, an odd-looking pharaoh. Tall and long-limbed, with a narrow face, pointed jaw, and droopy eyes, he presents such a curious physical appearance in the statues and reliefs that have survived the ages that scholars do not know what to make of it. In some statues, he is sculpted as sinuous, almost androgynous; in others he has plump breasts and feminine hips—features that would have been as strange and scandalous to the ancient Egyptians as they may be to the modern viewer. In those reliefs in which the pharaoh is portrayed with his famous wife, Queen Nefertiti, it is sometimes difficult to tell the two apart.1

Akhenaten’s peculiarities did not end with his physical appearance. Even as a young man, he seems to have expressed what can only be described as an unconventional devotion to the sun. Solar worship had always been an integral part of Egyptian spirituality. Like the Mesopotamians before them, and the Indo-Europeans after, the ancient Egyptians deified the sun, giving it an exalted place among the Ennead, the nine original gods of creation. There, the sun god was known as Shu. But Egyptians worshiped the sun in many other incarnations, the most popular of which was as the god Re (pronounced “ray”), the local deity of the southern city named Heliopolis, or Sun City, by the Greeks. (Re is also the standard Egyptian word for “sun.”)2

At the start of the Eighteenth Dynasty, as Egypt was rapidly expanding its borders into new territories, a more universal deity was required to keep pace with its imperial ambitions. It was around this time that the god Re, which dominated the southern region of the empire, merged with a god known as Amun, the local deity of the capital city of Thebes, in the north of Egypt. Together, these two gods became one new and all-powerful national deity called Amun-Re (“Amun, who is Re”).3

By the time Akhenaten became pharaoh nearly two hundred years later, Amun-Re had been elevated to the head of the Egyptian pantheon. He was now known as the king of the gods, not just in Egypt but in all of its vassal states and colonized territories. His temple complex at Karnak in Thebes was the most lavishly adorned in all the land, his priesthood the wealthiest and most powerful in Egypt.4

Akhenaten, however, never expressed much devotion to Amun-Re, despite the god’s solar origins. The young pharaoh worshiped the sun in an altogether different form, as the ancient yet relatively obscure deity known as the Aten, or Sun Disc, the dazzling orb in the sky whose rays were thought to shine upon all people in every corner of the world. The Aten was already an important deity in Akhenaten’s family; his father, Amenhotep III, was associated with the god both before and after his death. But Akhenaten’s relationship with his god was unique; it was intimate. Akhenaten claimed to have “found the Aten.” His hymns to his god describe what can only be called a conversion experience—a theophany, or visible manifestation of god, in which the Aten spoke to him and revealed its nature. This experience left an indelible mark. For not long after his ascendance to the throne of Egypt, and at his god’s behest, Akhenaten single-handedly transformed the Aten from a minor deity of whom most Egyptians would have been only nominally aware to the chief god in the Egyptian pantheon, and then, a few years later, to the sole god in the universe. “Living Aten, there is no other except him!” the young pharaoh decreed.5

It was not unusual for a pharaoh to favor one god over the others by, for instance, diverting resources to that god’s temple or employing more priests to tend to the god’s needs. But the exclusive worship of one god was unprecedented in Egypt, and the denial of the other gods’ existence was unfathomable. Yet that is precisely what Akhenaten proposed with his worship of the Aten. As a result, the young pharaoh from the Eighteenth Dynasty of the New Kingdom in ancient Egypt became the first monotheist in all of recorded history.

Akhenaten’s monotheistic revolution did not happen all at once. First, he changed his name from Amenhotep IV to Akhenaten I: from “Amun is pleased” to “beneficial to Aten.” Next, he abandoned his dynasty’s traditional seat of power in Thebes, where Amun-Re’s temple at Karnak stood, and moved the imperial capital to an undeveloped and barely inhabited region of Egypt revealed to him by the Aten. He christened the new city Akhet-Aten (Aten’s Horizon), known today as Amarna. From there, he began a massive temple building project for the Aten across the whole of Egypt. Although he allowed the temples of the other gods, especially Amun-Re’s temple at Karnak, to wither and decline for lack of resources, at this stage in his movement, he did not actively persecute the worship of other gods.

But then, in the fifth year of his reign, Akhenaten’s monotheistic revolution morphed into full-scale religious repression, an unparalleled effort to impose his monotheistic vision upon an entire empire. The worship of any god but the Aten was declared illegal in Egypt. All temples, save those of the Sun Disc, were shut down and their priesthoods disbanded. A massive military force marched from temple to temple, city to city—from Nubia in the south to Sinai in the east—smashing the idols of the other gods, chiseling their images from public monuments, erasing their names from documents (because ancient Egyptians believed that a name reflected the essence of a thing, erasing a god’s name meant wiping out the god’s existence). This was nothing short of a pogrom against the gods of Egypt. It was violent, destructive, unforgiving, and ultimately unsuccessful.

Almost immediately after Akhenaten’s death, his religion died with him. The zeal with which the pharaoh had destroyed the idols of other gods was directed back at the pharaoh’s own god. Monotheism was labeled a heresy, a sacrilege forced upon an unwilling people. The Aten’s temples were demolished and thousands of new statues depicting Amun-Re commissioned across the empire. Most of Akhenaten’s statues were either destroyed or buried facedown in the desert—a deliberate act of defilement. His tomb was desecrated, and the sarcophagus housing his mummified remains was hacked to pieces. His image was chiseled off public monuments, his name erased from the official list of Eighteenth Dynasty pharaohs. In fact, it is a miracle we know anything about Akhenaten. His son and eventual successor, Tutankhaten, meaning “the living image of Aten,” changed his name to Tutankhamun, “the living image of Amun”—the King Tut of legend—in an ostentatious attempt to wipe away any last memory of his father and the heresy of the Atenist years. Thus history’s first attempt at monotheism was buried in the sands of Egypt and forgotten.

Stele of Akhenaten and Nefertiti adoring the Aten from Tell el Amarna (c. 1340 B.C.E.) Wikimedia Commons

A LITTLE MORE than two hundred years later, around 1100 B.C.E., monotheism arose once again, this time through the teachings of the Iranian prophet Zarathustra Spitama.6

The man the Greeks knew as Zoroaster was born in the fertile plains of northeastern Iran to one of a number of Indo-Iranian, or Aryan, tribes that had branched off the Indo-European tree to settle across the Central Asian steppes. Aryan society at the time of Zarathustra was strictly stratified into three distinct classes. There were the warriors who protected the tribe from attack, the farmers and herders who fed the population, and the priests—generally known as the Magi—who presided over its highly ritualistic religious system.

The religion of ancient Iran was populated by a pantheon of gods, many of them Iranian versions of Vedic deities (Indra, Varuna, Soma, Mithra). However, in contrast to other ancient civilizations, Iran’s gods had their origins not in the deification of natural elements, but in the personification of abstract notions such as Truth, Virtue, or Justice. The preeminent scholar of Iranian religions, Mary Boyce, describes the process whereby these abstractions became divinized, acquiring a personality and distinct physical traits, as resembling the making of a pearl, “with layer upon layer of belief and observance being added around the grit of the original concept.”7

By most accounts, Zarathustra belonged to Iran’s priestly class, a hereditary position into which he would have been initiated at the age of seven. His youth was spent diligently memorizing every syllable and caesura in the sacred hymns and mantras (known as yashts) meant to please the gods and encourage them to shower their favors upon the people. At age fifteen he completed his training and was fully initiated into the Iranian priesthood.

Priests in ancient Iran were usually attached to individual families who would pay them to perform the time-consuming and rigidly defined rituals and sacrifices on their behalf. Yet Zarathustra unexpectedly abandoned these priestly obligations and, at the age of twenty, began a life of wandering through the steppes and valleys of Iran, searching for a deeper knowledge of the gods than he had discovered in the memorized mantras and routine rituals of the priesthood.

One day, while attending a sacred spring festival near the Sabalan mountains in northwest Iran, Zarathustra waded into a river to fetch some water for a dawn ceremony. When he turned to head back to shore he was struck by a blinding white light. In a vision, he was brought into the presence of an unfamiliar god, one that was not a part of any known pantheon of the time.

According to Zarathustra’s account of this experience written in the Gathas—the oldest of the ancient scriptures of Zoroastrianism, the religion he would ultimately found—this obscure deity revealed itself to be the sole god in the universe: “the very First and the Last.” This was the god who had made the heavens and the earth, the night and the day, the god who had separated the light from the darkness, who determined the paths of the sun and the stars and who caused the moon to wax and wane.8

This god was unique in that it was not a tribal deity who had climbed to the top of a pantheon of other gods; there were no other gods. It was not connected to a particular tribe or city-state. It did not live inside a temple; it existed everywhere, in all creation, and beyond time and space. Although Zarathustra would come to call this god Ahura Mazda, meaning “the Wise Lord,” that was merely an epithet; this god had no name. It could be known only through six divine “evocations” that it brought forth into the world from its own being: wisdom, truth, power, love, unity, and immortality. These are not so much Ahura Mazda’s attributes as they are the six substances that make up its essence. They are, to put it another way, the reflections of Ahura Mazda in the world.9

The encounter between Zarathustra and Ahura Mazda marked a pivotal moment in religious history, not just because this was only the second recorded attempt to introduce a monotheistic system but because it augured a new kind of relationship between god and human beings. That’s because Zarathustra did not merely encounter Mazda; he brought forth a revelation from this god. Mazda spoke to Zarathustra, and then Zarathustra wrote down those words for others to read. In doing so, Zarathustra Spitama became the very first human being in history to be characterized as what we now term a prophet.

As with most prophets who would follow in his footsteps, Zarathustra was rebuffed by his own community for his monotheistic message. During the first ten years of his preaching, he converted exactly one person to his new religion—his own cousin. Zarathustra’s countrymen were generally unwilling to disavow their tribal gods, but they seemed particularly reluctant to accept this one god as the source of all the abstract notions upon which they had formulated the Iranian pantheon: darkness and light, virtue and vice, truth and falsehood. How could one god be the source of both good and evil?

Recognizing this dilemma (and indeed sharing it himself), Zarathustra proposed an ingenious solution. He argued that evil is not an extraneous, created force, but merely the byproduct of good. Mazda did not create evil; Mazda created good. But good cannot exist without non-good (evil), just as light cannot exist without non-light (darkness). Good and evil were therefore opposing spiritual forces that were born from Ahura Mazda’s positive creation and its negative opposite.

Zarathustra termed the “good” or “positive” spirit Spenta Mainyu, and the “bad” or “negative” spirit Angra Mainyu. Although he called these the “twin children” of Mazda, they were not separate from Ahura Mazda; they were the spiritual embodiment of Truth and Falsehood. In this way, Zarathustra preserved his monotheistic system by supplementing it with a dualistic cosmology.

Despite this clever innovation, however, Zarathustra’s religion failed to spread among his people. Although he had some success later in life, Zoroastrianism, like Atenism before it, fell into obscurity after its founder’s death.

CHAK CHAK, IRAN - JUNE 14: Zoroastrian engraving is seen on the door at the shrine in the mountain cave in Chak Chak, Iran on June 14, 2014. Adherents of the Zoroastrian religion from around the world visit the holy shrine this week to celebrate their Persian roots, praying in remembrance of a princess who fled the 7th century Arab invasion. (Photo by Kuni Takahashi/Getty Images)

Zoroaster/Zarathustra depicted in relief on the door of an Iranian shrine (fifth century C.E.) Kuni Takahashi / Contributor / Getty Images

Unlike Atenism, however, Zoroastrianism was unexpectedly revived centuries later, when it became the imperial religion of the Achaemenid Empire—the world-conquering dynasty founded by Cyrus the Great in the sixth century B.C.E. Yet the Magi of Cyrus’s royal court who revived Zarathustra’s theology completely reimagined it, first by transforming Ahura Mazda’s six divine evocations into six divine beings who, along with Mazda, became known as the Amesha Spentas, or “Holy Immortals,” and second, and most dramatically, by transforming Zarathustra’s two primordial spirits—Spenta Mainyu and Angra Mainyu—into two primordial deities: a good god named Ohrmazd (a contraction of Ahura Mazda), and an evil god named Ahriman. Zarathustran monotheism became Zoroastrian dualism. Belief in one god that inhered both good and evil in itself became belief in two gods—one good, one evil—battling against each other for the souls of humanity. And once again the experiment with monotheism failed.10

IT IS ASTONISHING that in the hundreds of thousands of years in which humanity’s religious impulse has expressed itself through belief in the soul, the worship of ancestors, the creation of spirits, the formation of gods and pantheons, the construction of temples and shrines, and the establishment of myths and rituals, what we today recognize as monotheism—that is, belief in a sole, singular God—has existed for barely three thousand of those years. It is not that monotheistic systems didn’t sporadically arise throughout the history of religions; the movements of Akhenaten and Zarathustra are proof that they did. It’s just that when they did arise, they were routinely rejected and denied, sometimes violently so. What was it that kept monotheism at bay for so much of religious history?

Partly it has to do with its exclusivist connotations. Monotheism, it must be understood, is not defined as the sole worship of one god: that is called monolatry, and it is a fairly common phenomenon in the history of religions. Monotheism means the sole worship of one god and the negation of all other gods. It requires one to believe that all other gods are false. And if all other gods are false, any truth based on belief in those gods is also false. Indeed, monotheism rejects the very possibility of subjective truth, which explains why, as we saw with Akhenaten, monotheistic systems must often be brutally enforced in order to overcome people’s natural beliefs and assumptions.

Akhenaten wasn’t satisfied with merely forcing his subjects to worship his god and no other. Under his reign, the plural form of the word “god” was excised from the Egyptian vocabulary. That is, the very word “gods,” depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphics by three pennants or “staff-flags,” ceased to exist as a word in Egypt. By eradicating polytheism as a category of thought, Akhenaten was proclaiming that there was now only one true way to conceive of the nature of the universe.11

Zarathustra did not have the military might of the pharaoh and so could not physically coerce people into accepting his exclusive claim to truth. But he did present his god as the sole source of human morality—“the veritable Creator of Truth and Right.” He vowed that Ahura Mazda would judge every individual on earth by their thoughts, words, and deeds, and then either reward or punish them accordingly after they died. This was an extraordinary idea. The concept of a heaven and hell—for that is what Zarathustra was essentially promoting—was without precedent in human spirituality. Up until this point, most ancients simply accepted the idea that the world of the dead was a continuation of the world of the living: a warrior in this life would continue to fight battles in the next; a farmer on earth would continue plowing fields in the heavens. Morality played no part in how one experienced the afterlife. Zarathustra overturned that notion by suggesting that one’s ethical actions on earth—as judged exclusively by his god alone—would carry consequences in the next life in the form of eternal reward or eternal punishment.12

But while the exclusive nature of monotheism may explain people’s reluctance to accept it, the primary reason monotheism failed to take root in our religious imagination for millennia has to do with the ways in which the concept of one god conflicts with our universal compulsion to humanize the divine.

In sophisticated polytheistic systems, such as those we have discussed in Mesopotamia, Egypt, Iran, and Greece, our innate, unconscious desire to project our human attributes onto the gods can be distributed among a host of divine beings, until there is a god for each virtue and vice. Thus we have gods who reflect our various views of love and lust (Ishtar in Mesopotamia, Kama among the Indo-Europeans, Eros and Aphrodite in Greece); gods who reflect our penchant for war and violence (Innana, Anhur, Indra, Ares); gods who represent our maternalistic (Hathor and Hera) and paternalistic (Osiris and Zeus) qualities; and so on.

However, the notion of a single god who encompasses within itself all of our virtues and vices, all of our qualities and attributes at once, simply made no sense to the ancient mind. How could one god be both mother and father? How could one god create both darkness and light? The ancients were perfectly willing to acknowledge the presence of such conflicting qualities in human beings. But they seemed to have preferred their gods to be neatly compartmentalized according to their distinctive attributes; all the better to beseech them for particular favors or needs.

Akhenaten’s response to this sentiment was to argue that all the other “gods,” and the attributes attached to them, were nothing more than reflections of the Aten and his attributes. “Though alone,” the pharaoh sang to his god, “you overflow in your forms…you rise and you shine, you depart and approach; of yourself you make millions of forms.” But that explanation did not seem to satisfy his subjects.

Zarathustra constructed a more creative solution to this problem by transforming the ancient gods of polytheistic Iran into religious history’s first expression of “angels” and “demons.” Those gods who reflected humanity’s virtuous attributes became angels, while those who reflected our negative attributes became demons. But this, too, left the Aryans unsatisfied, which is why, hundreds of years after Zarathustra’s death, the Magi were able to successfully reintroduce nearly all the gods of ancient Iran into their revived form of Zoroastrianism.

What the ancient mind seemed willing to accept was the existence of one all-powerful, all-encompassing “High God” who acted as the chief deity over a pantheon of lower gods who were equally worthy of worship. This belief is called henotheism, and it quickly became the dominant form of spiritual expression, not only in the Ancient Near East but in nearly every civilization in the world.13

The reasons for henotheism’s success can be traced to one of the inevitable consequences of our unconscious impulse to humanize the divine: Conceiving the divine in human terms compels us to imagine the world of the gods as an exalted reflection of our own. The heavenly realm becomes a mirror of the earth and its social and political institutions. And as our earthly institutions change, so, too, do those in heaven.

When we organized ourselves in small, wandering packs of hunter-gatherers united by blood and kinship, we envisioned the world beyond ours to be a dreamlike version of our own, bursting with hordes of tame animals, shepherded by the Lord of Beasts for our spirit ancestors to stalk with ease. When we settled down in small villages and began growing our food instead of hunting for it, the Lord of Beasts surrendered to Mother Earth, and the celestial realm was reimagined as a place ruled by a host of fertility gods who maintained an eternal harvest. When those small villages expanded into independent city-states, each with its own tribal deity, in perpetual conflict with each other, the heavens made room for a pantheon of distinct martial deities, each a divine protector of its respective city back on earth. And when those city-states merged into massive empires ruled by all-powerful kings, the gods were rearranged into hierarchies reflecting the new political order on earth.

There is a term for this phenomenon—politicomorphism, or “the divinization of earthly politics”—and it is, to this day, one of the central features of nearly every religious system in the world.

A brief look at Mesopotamian history will illustrate precisely how politicomorphism works, and why it so often leads to henotheism. In the fourth millennium B.C.E., during the early development of Mesopotamian civilization, earthly authority was not wholly vested in the king. It resided instead in a “general assembly” that included all free male members of the city-state: “the colony young and old,” it was called. This assembly acted like a court of law, settling both civil and criminal cases. It had the power to negotiate disputes with other city-states, and if negotiations failed, it could declare war on its neighbors. It even had the authority to choose and depose the king.14

The remarkably democratic nature of early Mesopotamian civilization was, as we saw in the previous chapter, perfectly reflected in early Mesopotamian renderings of the celestial order. Take the Atrahasis epic. There, the gods are quite clearly organized along “democratic” lines. They, too, have an assembly—a “divine assembly”—in which they gather in Enlil’s sheltered courtyard to consider both earthly and celestial matters. Being “lofty persons,” first, they spend some time catching up with their fellow gods. They chat and embrace each other. They grab a bite to eat, fill their cups with wine, and then, when the small talk is over, they settle down to discuss the matters of the universe. No single god has authority against the will of this divine assembly, though the gods do occasionally foil the assembly’s decisions, as when Enki secretly saved Atrahasis from the flood.

Then, in the middle of the third millennium B.C.E., in what is often referred to as the Early Dynastic Period (III), large despotic powers emerged across Mesopotamia. The major city-states of Lagash and Umma launched a century-long border conflict. The legendary king Sargon of Akkad conquered most of the Sumerian city-states in the south to construct Mesopotamia’s first empire. The collapse of Sargon’s Akkadian Empire ushered in the rise of the Babylonian Empire in the south and the Assyrian Empire in the north. At the same time, marauding bands of nomads from the deserts in the south and the mountains to the north began raiding the settled city-states. Across the region, overpopulation and lack of resources led to a near-permanent state of war.

The paranoid state of affairs in Mesopotamia was expertly exploited by a handful of autocrats who sought absolute authority to protect their people and crush their enemies. Political power became centralized, and a new, despotic conception of kingship arose, as all trace of the general assembly—“the colony young and old”—vanished into history.

The new political reality would be reflected in the Mesopotamian myths written after this period. So we read in the Enuma Elish, the great Babylonian epic of creation, composed some time in the middle of the second millennium B.C.E., of a completely different celestial order, one dominated by a Babylonian god who, in Sumerian times, was barely known and utterly unimportant: Marduk.

According to the epic, the gods of heaven have come under attack by the primordial sea monster Tiamat. They call a meeting in the divine assembly in which they establish a kind of state of emergency. There, the young god Marduk volunteers to fight Tiamat on behalf of the gods, but only if they name him king of the gods and give him absolute authority over the heavens and the earth. “If I should become your avenger, if I should bind Tiamat and preserve you, convene an assembly and proclaim for me an exalted destiny,” Marduk demands. “Whatever I instigate must not be changed. Nor may my command be nullified or altered.”15

Frightened and desperate to reestablish peace and order in the heavens, the gods comply. “Marduk is king!” they shout as they enthusiastically dissolve the divine assembly. “Whatever you command, we will do!” The gods then bestow upon Marduk a scepter and throne to denote his new status atop the Mesopotamian pantheon, and off he goes to defeat Tiamat.

The exact same mythology was developed by the Assyrian Empire, which was facing a similar threat in the north as the Babylonians were facing in the south—only in the Assyrian version it was their local god Ashur, not Marduk, who is crowned king of the gods. At the very same time, in the Isin kingdom, situated twenty miles south of the city of Nippur, the god An was transformed from his original role as the supreme sky god into the undisputed king of heaven.16

In each case, in every empire, and throughout all of Mesopotamia, as the politics on earth changed, the politics of heaven changed to match. Just as in the face of fear and terror, the free citizens of Mesopotamia’s independent city-states abandoned their primitive democracy and voluntarily handed absolute power to their kings, so, too, did the citizens of heaven make one or another of the gods the unchallenged ruler over the rest. Theology shifted to conform to reality, and the heavens became an amplified projection of the earth.

In such a world order, henotheism—the belief in a High God who rules over all the other gods—makes perfect sense. As more authority is vested in a single individual on earth, more authority is given to a single god in heaven, be it Marduk in Babylon, Ashur in Assyria, An in Isin, Amun-Re in Egypt, Khumban in Elam, Khaldi in Urartu, Zeus in Greece, Jupiter in Rome, Odin among the Norse, Tian in the Zhou Dynasty of China, and so on.

The problem is that the higher a deity climbs within its pantheon, displacing other, lower gods, the more it has to take upon itself the attributes traditionally ascribed to those other gods, until eventually the contradictions and inconsistencies in the High God’s character reach a tipping point. Take the Hindu god Shiva, the High God of Shaivism, who, along with Brahma and Vishnu, also forms the triumvirate of supreme gods that make up the so-called Hindu Trinity, or Trimurti. Shiva began its existence as a relatively minor deity who is not even mentioned by name in the Rig Veda. But in the post-Vedic literature, especially the Upanishads and the great Indian epic of the Mahabharata, as Shiva climbs higher and higher in the Hindu pantheon, it begins to absorb the attributes and qualities of the gods it displaces, so that today, Shiva is known as creator and destroyer, healer and afflicter, ascetic and hedonist, the god of storms and lord of the dance.17

This tipping point is precisely why henotheism rarely evolves into monotheism. It is one thing for a High God to steadily take on the qualities and attributes of lower gods, regardless of whether or not those qualities are at odds, or even in full-blown opposition. It is something else to conceive of a singular god who takes upon itself all of those attributes and qualities at once.

There is, of course, a simple and fairly straightforward way of dealing with this dilemma: Dehumanize god—strip the divine of any human attributes and redefine god as Xenophanes, Plato, and their fellow Greek philosophers did, as the creative substance underlying the universe. That is in fact what both Akhenaten and Zarathustra attempted to do. Zarathustra presented Ahura Mazda as pure animating spirit—without shape or form—utterly transcendent and apersonal. The Gathas use poetic language to describe Mazda’s rewarding hands and all-seeing eyes, but these are nothing more than metaphors. Indeed, human traits ascribed to the divine are rarer in the Gathas than in nearly every other holy scripture.

Akhenaten not only destroyed the idols of the other gods; he forbade his artisans to carve the Aten into a statue or cast it as an idol. Officially, the Aten could be depicted only as a featureless disc with rays of light descending upon the earth like divine hands blessing all creation (the hands being the sole humanistic feature Akhenaten would abide). Although the great hymns written in Akhenaten’s time use the masculine singular pronoun “he” to speak of the Aten, the god displays no human qualities, exhibits no human attributes, and has no human emotions or motivations in these poems. And that, as much as anything else, explains why Akhenaten’s monotheistic movement, like that of Zarathustra, ultimately failed.

The difficulty Akhenaten and Zarathustra faced is that people generally have a hard time relating to a god who, having no human features or attributes, also has no human needs. If a god has no human form, attributes, or qualities, then how are human beings supposed to connect and commune with it? The very notion of a dehumanized god contradicts the cognitive process whereby the conception of god arose in the first place. It would be like trying to imagine the unimaginable, like conjuring up an image of a being that has no image. It is too slippery and unreal to work.

To accept the proposition of a sole, singular god without human form, attributes, or qualities would require either an enormous cognitive effort on the part of the worshipper or a profound disruption in a religious community’s spiritual evolution—a spiritual crisis so great that it would force people to overlook all the contradictory traits inherent in the idea of a singular god and override their natural inclination to fashion that god in their own image.

As it happens, it was precisely such a crisis that—eight hundred years after Akhenaten and six hundred years after Zarathustra—led a small Semitic tribe from the land of Canaan that called itself Israel to fashion what would become history’s first successful experiment with monotheism.

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