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The concept of a national god was common in the Ancient Near East during the Late Bronze Age. In western culture the concept is closely associated with the God of Israel (JHVH), who is described as the sole God to be worshipped by the nation of Israel in the Bible. This understanding is expressed in the Book of Micah, which states:
- "For all people will walk every one in the name of his god, and we will walk in the name of the lord our God for ever and ever." (Micah 4:5)
This understanding of divinity was common in the Ancient Near East during the Late Bronze Age. Deities were geographically localized by association to their main cult center, ultimately as tutelaries of their respective city-states. In Egypt, Horus came to be interpreted as the national god, identified with the currently ruling pharaoh. Horus was in competition with Amun, who became the national god of Egypt under the Theban dynasties. The first of the national gods to aspire to universal supremacy was probably Marduk, the national god of Babylon, with the rise of Babylonia from the time of Hammurabi. Marduk's claim was later imitated by Aššur, the national god eponymous of the Assyrian capital, from the 10th century BC.
During the Iron Age, the notion of national gods began to give way to emerging monotheism, by the process of individual national gods beginning to claim universal validity. Smith (2008) interprets this process in terms of a loss of "translatability" between deities, reflecting the essentially monopolar political landscape in the Near East during the Iron Age, the Assyrian Empire linearly succeeded by the Achaemenid Empire and later the Seleucid Empire, a process that also gave rise to the concept of translatio imperii.
In this interpretation, the development of a "one-god" worldview in 7th century BC Kingdom of Judah was a response to the claims to hegemony of the Mesopotamian (Assyrian) "one-god" ideology of the time. Some parts of the Torah which predate the 6th century BC preserve vestiges of the theology centered on a national god during the monarchic period.
In antiquity, each national god was usually also considered the original progenitor of his people, as for example in pre-Islamic Arabia Almaqah was the national god of Saba`, Wadd of Ma`in, Shams of Himyar, etc. Examples from Canaan include Milcom of the Ammonites, Chemosh of Moab, etc.
Beginning in the Hellenistic period, and fully developed by the Roman era, the theological view of the mainstream of Greco-Roman culture was monotheistic or monistic, with national gods remaining as little more than national allegories, such as Athena as the tutelary goddess of Athens.
From the point of view of Greco-Roman ethnography, it was the barbarian nations who retained a genuine tribal polytheism with a different national deity worshipped by each, such as Zalmoxis of the Getae, the "Mercury" of the Celts and the Germanii, etc.
Christian missionaries have repeatedly re-interpreted national gods in terms of the Christian God. This fact is reflected in the names of God in various languages of Christianized peoples, such as Shangdi or Shen among Chinese Christians, Ngai among a number of tribes of Kenya, etc.
In a modern context, the term of a "national god" addresses the emergence of national churches within Christianity. This tendency was of "nationalizing" the Christian God, especially in the context of national churches sanctioning warfare against other Christian nations during World War I, was denounced as heretical by Karl Barth.
Carl Jung in his essay Wotan (1936) identifies the Germanic god of the storm (leader of the Wild Hunt), Wotan, as the national god of the German people, and warns of the rise of German nationalism and ultimately the then-impending catastrophe of Nazism and World War II in terms of the re-awakening of this god:
- "But what is more than curious — indeed, piquant to a degree — is that an ancient god of storm and frenzy, the long quiescent Wotan, should awake, like an extinct volcano, to new activity, in a civilized country that had long been supposed to have outgrown the Middle Ages. [...] I venture the heretical suggestion that the unfathomable depths of Wotan's character explain more of National Socialism than all three reasonable factors [viz. economic, political, and psychological] put together. [...] This is a tragic experience and no disgrace. It has always been terrible to fall into the hands of a living god. Yahweh was no exception to this rule, and the Philistines, Edomites, Amorites and the rest, who were outside the Yahweh experience, must certainly have found it exceedingly disagreeable. The Semitic experience of Allah was for a long time an extremely painful affair for the whole of Christendom. We who stand outside judge the Germans far too much, as if they were responsible agents, but perhaps it would be nearer the truth to regard them, also, as victims."
- Constitutional references to God
- Ethnic religion
- God and the State
- Imperial cult
- Religious exclusivism
- Mark S. Smith, God in translation: deities in cross-cultural discourse in the biblical world, vol. 57 of Forschungen zum Alten Testament, Mohr Siebeck, 2008, ISBN 978-3-16-149543-4, p. 19.
- Mark S. Smith, The origins of biblical monotheism: Israel's polytheistic background and the Ugaritic texts, Oxford University Press US, 2003, ISBN 978-0-19-516768-9, 155-163. "The national gods of the peoples surrounding Israel were not seen as heads of the Pantheon. The OT is still conscious of the fact that Yhwh, the national god of Israel, originally was one of the gods in the council of El" K. van der Toorn, Bob Becking, Pieter Willem van der Horst (eds.), Dictionary of deities and demons in the Bible (DDD), 1999, ISBN 978-90-04-11119-6, p. 485 (s.v. "king").
- Wendy Doniger (ed.), Merriam-Webster's encyclopedia of world religions, Merriam-Webster, 1999, ISBN 978-0-87779-044-0, s.v. "Arabian religions".
- Barth, Ethnics, ed. Braun, transl. Bromiley, New York, 1981, p. 305.
- First published in Neue Schweizer Rundschau (Zurich) (March, 1936), 657-69. Republished in Aufsätze zur Zeitgeschichte (Zurich, 1946), 1-23. English translation by Barbara Hannah, Essays on Contemporary Events (London, 1947).