Where did God come from? We humans want to know the origin of everything in the world. The inquisitive mind keeps us asking. And as physicists ponder the origins of the physical world, scholars of the history of religion wonder about the origins of the idea of a monotheistic God.
When I think about this question, two obvious candidates arise.
1. From Abraham’s neighborhood, in the north near Ur Casdim or Haran.
2. From the south near Mt. Sinai
Interestingly, there are no biblical indications that the idea of God originated in Abraham’s region. There are, however, several mentions of God coming from the south. In Judges 5:45, God is described as coming from Seir, Edom, and the area of Sinai. And in Habakkuk 3:3 the prophet declares: God comes from Teman (the South), the Holy One from Mt. Paran (in the Negev).
The most important industry in the Negev region in antiquity was copper mining in Timna. This business was very important as copper is an esential component of bronze. Timna was controlled by the largest super-power in the area, Egypt. The Egyptians built a temple to the goddess of metallurgy, Hathor, to give thanks and to ask for success in their ventures. The god who controlled this process would also have been very important and worshiped by a wide range of peoples, not just the residents of the Negev, reaching even to the north in the area of Abraham.
The great empires imploded 3200 years ago and Egypt retreated back to the Nile, abandoning the copper mines in Timna. Nature abhors a vacuum and this lucrative industry was taken over by semi-nomadic tribes, who again mined but on a smaller scale. Archaeology shows us that they changed the temple worship, smashing the idols and converting the structure into a tent sanctuary. These semi-nomads did not worship Hathor, but they still needed a deity who would protect and guide their copper mining business.
We see in the Biblical text, the nature of the God of Israel. Interestingly, many of the images of God have to do with the process of mining and smelting. The revelation at Mt. Sinai as described in Exodus 19:16-19 mentions, fire, lava and billowing clouds, all volcanic descriptions associated with metalwork/smelting. Psalm 144:5 portrays God causing the mountains to smoke. Isaiah 63:19 portrays God melting mountains. In the desert, God moves with the Children of Israel with a pillar of fire and a column of smoke – both common sites for metallurgical processes. And, perhaps most famously, the Burning Bush which Moses encounters in the Sinai before he returns to Egypt to set his people free. There Moses declares the God of the Burning Bush, the God who controls metallurgical processes, to be greater than all other gods. Even the Midrash shows God associated with smelting in the story of Abraham being thrown into and saved from the furnace. Avraham himself undergoes “smelting” – he is purified, as copper ore is, by the furnace.
But the only constant of history is change; and copper and bronze were soon replaced with something else – iron – exactly at the time of the Exodus from Egypt and the formation of the nation of Israel. Other peoples in the Levant who worshiped the god of copper, abandoned their focus. God offers His Torah/Laws to the other nations and they reject it, according to the Midrashic account, as they reject the god of copper at this time. The one people who clung to this God was the Israelites who stopped seeing God through the lens of mining and smelting. Israel’s loyalty to this ancient God and their ability to see Him in other novel ways, leads to the survival of Israel and the flourishing of monotheism. Not only did the Children of Israel need to shake off their Egyptian ways to truly experience the exodus, but also God needed to free himself from the narrow sphere imposed upon Him by the Egyptians.