By: Nissim Amzallag
If we look for a parallel deity to YHWH in ancient Greece, we think immediately of Zeus, the patron of the Greek pantheon whose representation was introduced in the Jerusalem temple in the Hellenistic period. The shared ancestry of the two has been well accepted from antiquity, for example by Josephus Flavius (Jewish Antiquities 12.22), to modern times.
Troublesome evidence, however, reveals a much closer relation of YHWH to Dionysus than to Zeus. The first point is the broad diffusion and popularity of the cult of Dionysus in ancient Israel, the deity being worshipped even in priestly cities in the cult of YHWH, such as Sepphoris. The second is the identification of the Nabatean god Dushara (Dusares) with Dionysus. The appellation DuSara (ze seir = the one from Seir) coincides with the origin of YHWH from Seir in biblical poetry (Judges 5:4; Deut 33:2) and DuShara was probably a late Edomite version of the worship of YHWH.
The third is the syncretism observed in Thrace during the Hellenistic period, between the cult of YHWH and that of Sabazius (the Thracian Dionysus), in which Jews and pagans gathered in the same religious communities. Given the particularism of Jews, this singularity argues in favor of strong shared ancestry, if not identity, between the two gods. The fourth concerns the interdiction of the subversive cult of Dionysus-Liber in Rome as formulated by the Senate in 139 BCE. This edict led, in 133 BCE, to the persecution of the Jews, who were curiously accused of propagating the cult of Dionysus-Liber. All these observations plead toward an identification of Dionysus, Liber, and Sabazius with YHWH, extensively acknowledged both by Jews and pagans, during the last centuries preceding the Christian era.
Similarities between Dionysus and YHWH
The homology between YHWH and Dionysus is not as surprising as it may seem at first. Both deities exert the same subversive influence against the established pantheons and temples. Exactly as in the Exodus for the Israelites, Dionysus calls for deliverance from the tyranny of kings and gods who support their abusive authority. In Euripides’ Bacchae, Dionysus even calls on every one, slaves—freedmen and princes, young and old, and men and women—to partake of the ceremonies and musical processions of Dionysus-worship (verses 204-209):
Will anyone say that I do not respect old age, being about to dance with my head covered in ivy? No, for the god has made no distinction as to whether it is right for men young or old to dance, but wishes to have common honors from all and to be extolled, setting no one apart.
The same universal call for YHWH’s worship is expressed in Psalms 148:11–13:
Kings of the earth and all peoples, Princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and maidens together, Old men and children!
Let them praise the name of YHWH, for his name alone is exalted; His majesty is above earth and heaven.
This is not the only parallel between the two gods. Choral performance (dithyrambos) is an essential component of the cult of Dionysus; indeed, it is the first stage of his knowledge. The same feature is encountered in ancient Israel, where the importance of choral performance in the cult and knowledge of YHWH is extensively attested (e.g. Samuel 6.5; Psalms 25:12; 68: 26-27; 1 Chronicles 16.4-7; 25.7). The parallel is even reflected by the similar antiphonal mode of the choral performance that characterizes their worship.
Plutarch (Quaestiones Convivales iv, 6.2) observed many parallels between the Dionysian banquet and the Israelites’ cultic festivities. Again, this is not surprising, because YHWH, like Dionysus, displays an essential relation to wine, Israel being even likened to His vineyard (Isaiah 5:7; Jeremiah 6:9). Abundant wine production reflects YHWH’s blessing (Jeremiah 31:5; Amos 9:13-14; Micah 4:4) and wine libations and drinking were associated to his worship (Exodus 29:40; Leviticus 10:1-10; Numbers 15:5-10). The exudation of milk and honey from the Maenad’s staff (thyrsos) was regarded in Greece as a theophany of Dionysus, exactly as YHWH’s land of residence is termed a land flowing with milk and honey.
Beyond these observations, a similar subtle ethereal/windy nature is attached to both YHWH (see 1 Kings 19:11-12; Psalms 104:4) and Dionysus, the latter also called Bromius (= the rustling). They also act in similar ways. Dionysus has the capacity to modify human behavior in an ecstatic fashion defined as enthusiasm; this phenomenon finds a close correspondence with Saul’s experiencing the spirit of YHWH possessing him (1 Samuel 19:5-6). The epidemic character of such ecstatic possession constitutes another parallel between YHWH and Dionysus.
Perhaps the most intriguing similarity between the deities is the similar doubt or incredulity, chronically expressed in Israel and in ancient Greece, concerning their powers and their genuine capacity to intervene on the worshipper’s behalf. This is one of the most recurrent themes in the Bible, expressed even by sincere believers such as Abraham (Genesis 18:14) and Moses (e.g. Numbers 12:23). The anomaly recurs in ancient Greece, where Dionysus’ divine powers and even divine nature are chronically challenged until he reveals his supernal powers (e.g., Bacchae 330–336). These similarities are too important to treat as a random feature. A linkage between the deities probably exists.
The Canaanite roots of Dionysus
Several Greek testimonies trace Dionysus’ provenance to Canaan. Herodotus specifies (II, 49) that this god was introduced in Greece by Cadmus, the Tyrian founder of Thebai and the personification of the Phoenician colonization in the Aegean. This is confirmed in the seventh Homeric hymn, which reports the capture of Dionysus by pirates who wished to ransom his parents and friends in the Canaanite eastern Mediterranean for his freedom. Dionysus’ Canaanite origin is reinforced by the Dionysian cortege or retinue, constituted of couretes, corybantes, cyclopes, telchines, and dactyls, all of whom are daimones frequently considered in Greece as originating in the eastern Mediterranean.
The first Homeric hymn traces Dionysus’ origin to “Nysa, a mountain most high and richly grown with woods, far off in Phoenicia, near the streams of Aegyptus…” In the seventh hymn, he first appears “on a jutting headland by the shore of the fruitless sea.” The only “fruitless” that is to say, fishless, sea between Phoenicia and the Nile is the Dead Sea, and the tall forested mountain to its south is Mount Seir, the mountain of origin of YHWH. This transforms Dionysus into an Aegean version of YHWH, whose cult was probably propagated and adapted during the ‘Orientalizing revolution’ that followed the settlement in Greece of a population originating of east Mediterranean during the first half of the first millennium BCE.
Obviously, the cults of Dionysus and of YHWH also display important differences. These, however, seem to trace to the exclusivism that developed in the Israelite religion and, in diametric opposite, to the neutralization of Dionysus’ subversive power through his extensive association with wine, festivities, and other earthly pleasures. The syncretism among YHWH, Dionysus, Sabazius, and Liber (as well as another deities), however, reveals that this erosion process did not complete rapidly. This may help us to rediscover the subversive nature of YHWH, Dionysus, and the other commonly descended deities, beyond their “domestication” into official cults and festivities.
Nissim Amzallag is a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Bible, Archaeology and Ancient Near East, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheba, Israel
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