Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Scripture and Deities & Demigods

For many years now, I have pointed out that D&D's explicit rendering of the various gods of pagan pantheons into creatures and monsters by giving them hit points and other stats in Supplement IV: Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes as well as the various editions of Deities and Demigods mirrors the Christian world-view. Up to this point, however, I have largely used inferences and implications based on the pre-suppositions of Orthodox Christianity. Recently, I have been reading The Religion of the Apostles: Orthodox Christianity in the First Century by Fr. Stephen De Young, a book I highly recommend to anyone, especially non-Orthodox and non-Christian. 

I can now express my opinion of Supplement IV: Gods, Demi-Gods & Heroes and Deities and Demigods with Scripture.

Before we get to quoting the Good Book, however, we need to take a look at the opening lines of what is known as The Baal Cycle — an Ugaritic cycle of stories about the Canaanite god Baʿal that is approximately contemporaneous to events of the Old Testament:
Now Mighty Baal, son of Dagon, desired the kingship of the Gods. He contended with Prince Yam-Nahar, the Son of El. But Kindly El, Father Shunem, decided the case in favour of His son; He gave the kingship to Prince Yam. He gave the power to Judge Nahar.
Note that there are three characters here: Baal, who wants to be king over the gods, El (the Father), who has the power to grant this kingship, and his son Prince Yam-Nahar who is made king by El. 

Note also the meaning of the three names: 
  • El is a generic term for god in the Semitic languages, including Hebrew. The root of Elohim is El- and the various angelic names, such as Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, etc., all end in -el because they are named after an attribute of god — Michael means "Who is like unto God," for example. 
  • Yam-Nahar means "Judge of the River" and is an 'ilhm, or son of El or simply "god." It is the root of the second part of the name Elohim pluralized. In other words, the name Elohim can be translated as "God-gods" — one of the ways God has revealed Himself as a Trinity. 
  • Baal means "lord" and is a title and honorific of local pagan gods, especially the fertility god Hadad. 
This all parallels with Deuteronomy:
When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. — 32:8
In other words, El — the Most High God — divided humanity into nations and set up 'ilhm to watch over each nation. These sons of God, however, rebelled and took upon themselves the worship due only to the Most High God:
God stood in the assembly of gods; He judges in the midst of gods saying, "How long will you judge unjustly, and favor the persons of sinners?" — Psalm 82 (81 LXX)
The one who is given kingship and who judges is El's Son:
The court was in session, and the books were opened...and behold, One like the Son of Man was coming with the clouds of heaven, until He came to the Ancient of Days and approached Him. Then dominion, honor, and the kingdom were given to Him — Daniel 7:10, 13-14.
The title Son of Man is the one Christ most often uses to refer to Himself. Thus, Scripture acknowledges the existence of these pagan gods who are part of a divine council overseen by Christ in a position granted by the Father. These pagan gods, however, are mere creatures who rebelled against God the Father and turned their back on their original mission of watching over the nations. 

Now we come to the crux of this whole argument. Psalm 82(81) declares to these gods their fate:
I say, "You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like men, and fall like any prince."
There you have it. The pagan gods are not only creatures, but doomed to die like any man. Thus, in terms of D&D, they have hit points and stats like any other monster. To put it another way, PCs are free to try to be the instruments of Christ's judgement and kill the gods.


JasperAK said...

Consider this printed and glued inside my copy of Deities and Demigods. Thank You.

Geoffrey McKinney said...

"The pagan gods are not only creatures, but doomed to die like any man. Thus, in terms of D&D, they have hit points and stats like any other monster. To put it another way, PCs are free to try to be the instruments of Christ's judgement and kill the gods."


JB said...

Good stuff, Padre.

The only question I have is with concern to the alignment of the gods (and their worshippers): if these godlike beings know (because of their higher perspective) that they have willfully turned away from God and/or attempted to supplant/usurp his worship among the people, does that not make them all “evil” in nature? Or are the “good” gods (as defined by alignment) more like archangels in this cosmology, acting as intermediaries on behalf of God?

FrDave said...

If one accepts that God is the source of all good (as I do), then, yes, all of the pagan gods are evil because they turned their back on the source of all good. Just because a pagan god is evil in the strict sense the word, however, does not mean they cannot be benevolent. For example, one of the first policies instituted by the Nazi Party was universal health care and Al Capone ran soup kitchens that fed thousands of Chicagoans. Remember: “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light” — 2 Corinthians 11:14.

So, from the perspective of the OT, the angels fulfill the role of the sons of God in the protection of the nations. One of the two major roles the Orthodox Church attributes to angels is that of protection, with Archangel Michael being the exemplar. The second would be that of a messenger with Gabriel being the exemplar.

From a NT perspective, however, the role that was originally given to the sons of God has been given to the saints through the crucifixion, death, resurrection, ascension, and enthronement of Christ. Indeed, the saints are enthroned with the Son of Man:

Jesus said to them, “Truly I say to you, that in the regeneration, when the Son of Man sits on the throne of His glory, you who have followed Me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” — Matthew 19:28

This is one of the reasons we see the tradition of patron saints. Just as there were pagan gods of blacksmithing (Hephaestus, for example), there are now a number of patron saints of blacksmithing (St. Clement of Rome, for example).

So, the blueprint for running a D&D world with Domains, etc. is to assign each one to a saint. If you want evil clerics, then each could also have a corresponding pagan god. My personal inclination is to see arcane magic as the means by which the pagan gods appear as angels of light.

Geoffrey McKinney said...

What are your thoughts about the ideas put forth by C. S. Lewis in his two novels, Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra? Therein a good and holy angel oversees the planet Mars, and a good and holy angel oversees the planet Venus. Fallen mankind mistakenly ascribed foolishness and wickedness to these two faithful servants of the holy Trinity.

FrDave said...

This sounds very Orthodox to me.

Matt P said...

As a sidenote, I've been interested in picking up Religion of the Apostles for a while but have always been troubled by the apparent (from looking at reviews) lack of sources and attribution, specifically for some of the more novel-seeming claims. Have you found this to be the case, or are those reviewers looking over something?

FrDave said...

This is not an exhaustive academic work, but something intended for a general audience. Despite this, there are plenty of footnotes and sources for you to follow up on (which I have done for a few things and have found him quite accurate). It does go to the very core of some of our presuppositions about Christianity, Judaism, and Western Culture, so I am not surprised that there is push back. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his conclusions, it is still a very interesting and inspiring read. I can't recommend it enough.

pi4t said...

One difference between the picture Lewis portrays and what you describe here is that in Lewis' novels, the angels overseeing the other planets are still good, and haven't turned against their creator, and the planets' inhabitants are without sin. Whereas the angel assigned to oversee Earth was Satan. (IIRC Earth was essentially quarantined to prevent the infection of sin from spreading, hence being called the "silent planet".)

Of course, Lewis wasn't intending to make a doctrinal statement about what the spiritual world is actually like, any more than he was claiming that Jesus actually incarnated as a lion in another world when he wrote his more famous series.

FrDave said...

I was reacting from the Orthodox perspective that holds that places — buildings, cities, states, provinces, countries, etc. — all have angels assigned to watch over them. In this sense, C.S. Lewis is correct.

pi4t said...

As a Christian from a tradition which doesn't have that perspective, I'm curious. Are these angels the same rebellious beings that become known as the pagan gods which you wrote about in the blog post? Are they the good ones who didn't rebel, perhaps? Or are they some kind of "replacement" for them (or an intermediate step until there's a saint to do the job)? Or is the Orthodox position that we don't know?

Also, does this idea tie in with the letters at the start of Revelation, which are addressed to "the angel of the church in [place]"? If so, why (from the Orthodox perspective) are the letters addressed to the angels watching over the churches, rather than to the churches themselves?

FrDave said...

Noting that the Orthodox Church does not read Revelation in context of worship (though we do use its imagery in our iconography), I don’t have the kind of liturgical foundation I do with some other parts of Scripture. Nonetheless, I’ll give it a go.

In this particular case, the word “angel” can mean several things:
1) guardian angels assigned to watch over these communities
2) the pastoral leadership of these communities (we are called to be like angels)
3) a personification of the personality of these communities (cities are living organisms unto themselves)
4) a human messenger (the word άγγελος literally means messenger)
For the purposes of this post, the first option is the one I find most interesting, the last is most practical, and the real answer is probably a bit of all of the above.

Note that Adam’s job was to tend the Garden of Eden, which was across from the Land of Nod (the land of wandering, or the place of no place). Gardens grow. Therefore, Adam was to extent the Garden into the Land of Nod (no place) and claim it for God. When God reveals himself at pagan places of worship (like the Oaks of Mamre in Genesis 18), the verb used for God “standing” has militaristic connotations of claiming that place of worship as His own.

This all suggests that there is a territorial dispute over all of creation of which we are God’s instruments. We claim territory either for God or make it into a no-place. The churches in Revelation that are prophesied to be destroyed were — they became no-places. Rather than working with the angels sent by God, they invited fallen angels into their midst.

Also note, John was writing prior to the mass persecution and the martyrdoms of the second to fourth centuries. Christians gathered around the places where martyrs were buried and churches were subsequently built over their graves. This is where we get the tradition of naming parishes after saints. Thus, this may very well be a prefigurement of that particular practice. These letters could have easily been addressed to the church of Saint (…) in later generations.

porphyre77 said...

You might also draw a parallel with Tolkien's work. The Ainur are like angels and archangels in charge of the material world. They can assume a physical form but are not bound to it.
Only those who rebelled and tried to dominate the world (Mlekor, Sauron, and later Saruman) ended up "trapped" in a physical form which could be hurt and slain.