The Notion of God in Jewish and Etsako Traditions: A Comparative Study

Onimhawo, Prof John A. Ogah, Dr Clement A. Osakue Stevenson Omoera

Abstract Manifestations of God
Introduction God and Angelic Spirits
Conceptual Clarifications Monotheism
A Comparative Exploration of the Notion of God in Jewish and Etsako Traditions God and Man
The Holiness of God Worship of God
Problems of Evil in Relation to God Further Reflections and Conclusion


    This study examines the concept of God in Jewish and Etsako traditions, with a view to highlighting certain similarities and differences in their conception of the Supreme Deity–God. Deploying historical, comparative, interview and phenomenological techniques, this study unpacks some striking parallels and divergent views of the two ethnic groups, which culturally underscore their appreciation of the supremacy of God. It further contends that the two ethnic groups under investigation have similar conceptions of the Supreme Deity–God who is the creator of the entire universe. Consequently, the study posits that although the Jews and Etsako groups live in different continents with different geographical and ecological milieus their belief systems, worshipping of God indicate that human traditions and cultures are gifts from God which should be cherished, and used to improve the cause of humanity.


    Considering the notion of God in Jewish and Etsako traditions is quite a vast scholarly venture. However, for us to be able to do justice to the set task we choose to concentrate efforts on the main doctrinal points which bother us and then do a detailed comparative study of them. The doctrinal points that we are here to grapple with are: the Holiness of God, problems of evil in relation to God, manifestation of God, God and Angelic Spirits, monotheism, God and Man and the Worship of God. The foregoing points will centre on the concepts of the Supreme Deity (God), with a view to highlighting the many striking parallels between the Jewish and Etsako religious milieus. Also, attention will be given to some divergent views on the concepts under investigation in this study.

    When we talk of the Old Testament Jewish life, there is a sense in which the religion is ancient, though still subsisting. On the other hand, Etsako religion is very much a living one in the cultural dynamics of contemporary Edo society. It must also be borne in mind that when we talk of Etsako religion we are also talking of an aspect of African religion. It is hoped that this study will provoke further inquiries into the socio-cultural and socio-religious activities of the Jewish and Etsako groups, with a view to providing platforms for insightful analyses of similarities and differences between the races in terms of their notions of the Supreme Deity (God).

Conceptual Clarifications

A number of terms need some clarifications in this study. These include:

    (a) Concept: The term ‘concept’ has been aptly defined as “An abstract notion or idea… a thought or opinion” (The New International Webster’s Comprehensive Dictionary, 2004, p.270).

    (b) Etsako: The present area now known as Etsako was formerly known as Kukuruku in the colonial era. It was a derogatory connotation. However, the area was also later known and called ‘Afemai Division’. The occupants of the Kukuruku were people of Owan, Etsako and Akoko-Edo. The area that immediately concerns this study is Etsako, which, at present, is sub-divided into Etsako East, Etsako Central and Etsako West. The Etsako area in reference is located in the North Eastern part of Edo State of Nigeria in western Africa.

    (c) Tradition: The term ‘tradition’ is defined as: “The transmission of knowledge, opinions, doctrines, customs, practices, etc, from generation to generation, originally by word of mouth and by example” (The New International Webster’s Comprehensive Dictionary, 2004, p.1330).

A Comparative Exploration of the Notion of God in Jewish and Etsako Traditions

The Holiness of God

    “Holiness” whose biblical words are qáđòś in the Old Testament and Hagiasmos in the New Testament are words of uncertain derivation. If the Semitic origin qáđòś be accepted, it may come from a root expressing ‘separation’ or cutting off’, applied to the separation of a person or thing for divine use. Consequently, the Old Testament qáđòś and the New Testament Hagiasmos are probably from the same source, signifying ‘pure’ (Douglas, 1962, pp.529-30). Holiness is emphasized a great deal in the Jewish tradition. The Supreme Deity (God) is often spoken of as ‘Holy One of Israel’; Isaiah sees (The Holy Bible 6 (RSV)) the vision of the Lord and hears the angels singing his holiness. God demands a holy relationship between Himself and Israel, in the Sinaitic covenant. The whole theology of sin, beginning with the so-called fall of man in Genesis, surveying through the history of ancient Israel, is cast against the backdrop which regards God to be essentially holy and man to be constantly, if not incurably sinful.

    This question of God’s holiness versus man’s sinfulness is not there in the Etsako indigenous religion. God is simply other than man – the abode in his own place in the heavens or sky, creating and sustaining the universe and being practically part of what he has created. Man is not exonerated from sinfulness and guiltless in the sight of God – he is simply a creature who is likely to err and God knows his limitations. Etsako religious belief is stated as follows:

Text in Etsako

Ọghẹna lọrhi Ọkpo’kwi, Ọgbọ Ọkpọkhẹ!
Ọghẹna lọrhi’kh’ Ọghẹna, ọgbọ lọrhikh’ Ọgbọ
Ọgbọọgbọ Ọlanegbọrhi, Ọgbọọgbọ Ọla ayọrhi (Chief Eshiokhemele Okpi, aged 74 years, in Awuyemi-Okpella, personal communication, May 24, 2012).

English Translation

God is on high, man is below!
God is exclusively and uniquely God and man is man
Each to himself, each in his dwelling. 

    However, emphasis is laid on observing the appropriate procedure in ritual act performances, so that failure to follow these procedures correctly amounts to ritualistic grime. The breaking of many taboos is also regarded in Etsako religion as a form of impurity, which has to be removed ritually. Such impurity, which God frowns at, is directly against the community, tradition and customs of the land (ibid.).

Problems of Evil in Relation to God

    A more serious enigma is the one that attributes a form of duality to the activities and nature of Ọghẹna (God/Ėlóhim). This is invariably connected to the problems of evil, especially illness and death. We may illustrate this from a number of Etsako sayings about God. It is strongly held by Etsako people that Ọghẹna lọ lọ trhẹdrhe meaning “God takes/kills and brings alive” (ibid.); others accept disasters and misfortunes simply as aboghọrhi Ọghẹna meaning “the will of God” (ibid.)., some Ọghẹna Ọagbe Ọgboloa fuese meaning “God kills and saves(ibid.). A blind man once said agbọ orhimhẹle Ọghẹna Ọlẹsẹ meaning “nature has cheated me God knows” (Oduakhi Ogah, aged 81 years at Ogute, personal communication, May 24, 2012).

    As the biblical Job observes, so are Etsako people that God gives and takes away.

Manifestations of God

    Countless manifestations of God are mentioned in the Bible – the word of God. Some of the manifestations are simply anthropomorphisms while others are theophanies, and there is emphasis on the glory of God being manifested through fire (Ex. 24:17), Cloud (Ex.16:1-; Num. 16:24, and so on) and earthquake. Moses is privileged to see the glory of God, (Ex. 33:18f); “an angel of the Lord” appears to various people such as Hagar (Gen. 16:7-12); David at the threshing floor of Aruanah (I Chron. 21:16, 18, 20); Moses at Horeb (Ex. 3:2); Balaam (Num. 22:22), and so on.

    The above biblical manifestations of God as recorded in the Jewish tradition are either not known, or take on different forms, in Etsako religious view. Theophanies are unknown. But God’s manifestations in or through natural phenomena such as mermaid/merman/divinities called iritsa appearing in human figures at odd times of the day in specific areas in Etsako are widely acknowledged. In particular, celestial phenomena are interpreted to be manifestations of God. The sky is often associated with the Deity as His dwelling abode. The ovọ (sun) is the manifestation of God who sees all things, all shining nature, ikpetata (stars) are regarded as Imi Ọghẹna (children of God or fire) [Pa. Momodu Agbuduokhe, aged 79 years at Okobo, personal communication, May 24, 2012]. Again, the rain (amẹ) is a special blessing from God; thunder akphala (ibid.) is Interpreted to be God’s voice and lightening as God’s instrument of accomplishing His will in the universe. There are no references in Etsako religion to anything like ‘the angel of the Lord’. However, there is a belief among the Ijo ethnic people of Delta State, a neighbouring state of Edo State, that Temeaarau (God) (Awolalu and Dopamu, 1979, p.41) exists as a mother while in all parts of Edo State God exists in the form of father.

God and Angelic Spirits

    In the kingdom of God and angelic spirits both Jewish and Etsako traditions have numerous things in common. In the Jewish traditions there are angels as messengers of God and we have some names like Michael, Gabriel, and so on. There are different categories of angels, the Seraphim and Cherubim; and about the involvement of angels in human affairs or history under the command of God. Added to these are the others but malicious spiritual beings, commonly known as demons which according to Etsako tradition, were made by God, possibly the primordial, or ‘fell’ from glory (Pa Osumah Oshiorenua, aged 76 years at Jattu, personal communication, May 12, 2012.) or came out of sexual union between angels and beautiful human daughter (Mbiti, 1970, p.57). The role of demons is not clearly stressed in the Old Testament, however; and what Christians say about them emanates mainly from the New Testament account and extra canonical sources (ibid.).

    A handful variety of spirits is incorporated into Etsako religious system. Some are said to have been created by God in class of spirits; some are personifications of minor objects or phenomena, but the majority are simply the spirits of the departed, some of whom are still remembered by surviving family members known as family ancestors and deified ancestors. In most cases, God would not even use any of these spirits to communicate with man. There are some evil spirits (egbhọ) that do mischief to humans, but above all, the evil (egbhọ) depicts the character of human beings who are neither good nor bad people but may do both good and bad things to other people. Spirits also serve as one of the explanations of evil happenings in the world, even if they are not always responsible for them (ibid.).


    The Jewish monotheistic faith is embedded in the creed, Shamar Israel Deut. 6:4 - “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord”. It is clearly reinforced in the Decalogue - “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3.) There are other instances in the teachings of what we all Christians call the Old Testament. Worshiping Yaweh is a primary and fundamental command, which has become deeply rooted in the Jewish religious life. The making of images, adoration and observance of idols are strictly disallowed and any breach of this commandment is punishable.

    When we consider or think of Etsako religion, the notion of God is similarly basic. Although monotheism is not raised as an issue, it is assumed that God can only be one. His position as such is neither subject to debate nor questionable. Etsako’s traditional belief in the existence of God is consequently taken for granted because every Etsako person holds God’s supremacy corporately. There are no rules or laws to enforce this belief or to safeguard this monotheistic belief since it is never called to question. Anyone who fails to conform to this corporate belief is regarded as thinking in the reverse order or not in tune with the religious order of his community.

    J. S. Mbiti affirms that, ‘religious conformity is assumed but it is not punishable except when rituals or morals are broken’ (ibid.). In Etsako religion, worshipping God is not a legal practice. It is a community affair, which is often dictated by the needs of community as they may become necessary. Individuals may worship the Supreme Deity in a separate way, but they may also show regard to other religious divinities and objects without incurring the anger of the Supreme Deity and without feeling that they are unfaithful to Him in anyway. However, as far as research has shown (Chief Eshiokhemele Okpi, aged 74 years, in Awuyemi – Okpella , personal communication, May 24, 2012) , there are no idol representations of the Supreme Being in Etsako as it is in other traditional African societies. In fact, in the Etsako cultural milieu, anybody making physical representations or images of the Supreme Deity is completely ruled out. There is one prominent saying in some parts of Etsako concerning the Supreme Deity, which goes thus:

Text in Etsako

Nena’migbẹkẹle Ọghẹna Ọlaọne
Amo Ọghẹna,
Akọ Ọghẹna
Ọgwo Ọyam’oritsa nọkhi Ọghẹna,
Ọgbọa mi ọzeva Ọy’Ẹshi
Ẹshi’khỆshi (ibid.)

English Translation

In the pre-history was God (Ọghẹna)
Today is God,
Tomorrow is God
Who can make a God’s representative?
There is no Second God
God alone is God.

    In spite of the above, the emphasis on monotheism leaves a number of questions unanswered in both Jewish and Etsako traditions. It can be explained, at least by implication, that there are other divine spirit beings in the cosmology of ancient Israelites. The Holy Bible makes some references to ‘gods’ while Yaweh is shown as being a jealous God (Elohim). The “gods” of the nations that surrounded Israel are mentioned, but Israel is under strict prohibitions not to worship these “gods”. There are implications of an assembly or council of gods. For instance, the Psalmist says:

    God has taken his place in the divine council, in the midst of the gods he holds judgment…I say, “You are gods, sons of the most High, all of you: nevertheless, you shall die like men, and fall like any prince. (Psalm 82, verses 1, 6, 7, The Holy Bible (RSV))

    Obviously, there are several explanations of these and references that look alike. But the problems still remain. To these we may add the question of divine duality, which is implied in various ways in the Old Testament. For instance, Isaiah 45:7 reads: “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe…”, Jacob wrestles with the Lord who at the same time blesses him (Gen/ 32:24-30); it is God who both hardens the heart of Pharaoh (Ex. 9:12, 10:1 etc.) and consequently punishes the Egyptians so severely; it is the Lord who sends an evil spirit into King Saul and makes him mad (I Sam. 16:14, 19:9t).

    Etsako religion seems to wrestle with similar difficulties. It acknowledges categories of divinities that function at various levels and for various reasons. Some are thought to have been created by God, to fill up the ontological gap between God and man, and to be protectors of human beings. But by far the majority of divinities are simply personifications of natural phenomena and objects such as the Ise lake; inibiji forest, amovie rock, akphala thunder storms, earthquakes, death and so on. In this regard, they are, fixed divinities who pose no threat or competition to God since they are tied to a particular natural phenomena or objects. In addition, these divinities are acknowledged almost exclusively by rulers in the traditional Etsako society. This implies that the introduction of divinities into Etsako cosmology is also a reflection of the political structure of the Etsako people concerned. In most cases, if need be, are prayers offered to these divinities or sacrifices are directly made to them (Pa. Momodu Agbuduokhe, aged 79 years at Okobo, personal communication, May24, 2012).

God and Man

    A lot has been said about the relationship between man and the Supreme Deity, in both Jewish and Etsako traditions. There exist some parallel concepts about this, as well as others, which differ considerably. In the biblical tradition, man is created as the final and culminating creature and as a special creature since he is the image of God. Man’s early state is a paradise in the Garden of Eden. Thereafter the so-called fall of man, the expulsion from paradise, the dispersion of man, experiences of suffering arising from man’s insolent behaviour. Out of this situation, God establishes a covenant with Abraham, Noah, Isaac and Jacob. There and then, the notion of the chosen people of Israel comes up, and the formation of the nation with the special history from the Exodus onwards takes over the scene. God becomes the creator, the covenant maker, the God of the nation but also punishes it when it is unfaithful. 

    God speaks to this nation through the prophets and in later years, He commits a universal mission to the nation or its faithful remnant. This nation’s history is not simply secular; it is sacred, it is salvific – a history of salvation which Christians have taken over more than two thousand years ago. Attached to all these concepts are the expectations of Israel, especially messianic, apocalyptic, and eschatology which are tied to its history as a nation and divides time into two: this age hayolam hatze and the age to come hayolam habba. One age is evil, the other is glorious. History will culminate in the age to come – but the faithful would be resurrected, inherit the kingdom of God, enter paradise regained, and be restored to a state of eternal bliss. But the wicked will suffer a kind of endless torture or punishment, often pictured in form of fire and kindness. God will execute judgment on the last day, when everyone will be gathered before Him. Such is the Jewish structure of human relation with God. Obviously we have oversimplified it for the sake of brevity. 

    The African structure is very similar at the very beginning, namely the creation of man by God (but not in the image of God as such). According to a large number of myths in Etsako, the early state of man was one of bliss – God lives close to the early family (man), and provided them (him) with food and shelter. Death and diseases were not a threat. In these myths it is commonly said that if a man died he was to rise again; or if he grew old, he was to change and became young again. Immortality, resurrection and rejuvenation were basic gifts of God to early man. However, for various reasons these gifts got lost, the earth and sky separated, man and God separated; and evil, suffering and pain became the order of day for man. Ever since man keeps in touch only through worship – sacrifice, prayers, propitiations, rituals and so on (ibid.).

    According to Etsako religion this separation is not a moral separation and man is not depicted as a sinner in the presence of God. Consequently, there is no special calling on man by God, as was the case of Abraham and other patriarchs. There was no chosen or elect person – God equally creates everyone. God continues to work throughout human history, but not by any special acts of a covenant nature. There is no culmination of history at the last day nor is there any day of judgment. There is no future end of history as we know it and the beginning of a new earth, or regained paradise. Death cannot be resolved, since immortality is lost for good; the resurrection was a past possibility and man does not accept a change in the direction of history. The Supreme Being provides for the daily needs of people even if suffering and pain continue. The people make sacrifices; speak to Him and He responds by answering their prayers but not by speaking to them. The Jewish prophet who is the mouthpiece of God and who proclaims: “Thus says the Lord...” is completely unknown in Etsako religion. So also there is no messianic expectation, nor there are salvific hopes, since man is not a sinner in need of salvation. This does not mean that there are no ethics and morals in Etsako religion: to the contrary; corporate, community life, so characteristic of traditional Etsako, demands a very close observance of morals, taboos and customs. Reward from observing these morals, as well as punishment from breaking them, are meted out by the community itself -rarely would God come into the picture. Therefore, there is neither heaven nor hell in Etsako religion as it applies to other places in Africa except what the community may render to its individual members, and what they individual may deserve because of his conduct and actions as a member of his community.

    In this aspect of human history, Jewish and Etsako views about the beginnings of man are fairly similar and close. But their views about the future or finality of man are extremely divergent. Jewish religious insights have found the way for man to regain future. Etsako religious insights have opted for a pragmatic acceptance that puts up as much as possible, with the reality of a lost paradise. And between paradise lost and paradise – to – be regained we have a wide chasm, which only the Supreme Being can bridge and only religion can grasp.

Worship of God

    Worshiping God is a primary act in the religious life of the ancient Israel and a great deal about it is recorded in the Holy Bible. It is a command; a spontaneous expression of human soul, an expression of human commitment to God. God is pictured as being jealous in connection with worship being rendered to anything or anyone else (Mbiti, 1970, p.58). This worship takes on various forms of sacrifices, offerings, rituals, prayers, dedications, festivals, singing, dancing and ceremony. There are sacred places, altars, shrines, mountains and temples. Worship is the highest act that man could render to God. Indeed, the welfare of Israel as a nation is intimately linked with its worship life. Indeed, worship functionaries, especially the priests, have a leading role in the sentiment of the nation. Sacred positions are utterly different from other places.

    There are various similarities between the Jewish worship habits and Etsako worship life. However, in Etsako religion, God does not command worship. It is primarily out of necessity – man feels that he needs the Supreme Deity and this need is expressed deeply through worship. Much of Etsako worship is communal and corporate. It is said that in the past, people made sacrifices of animals, and even human beings at times of great distress, and made offerings of foodstuffs as well as other belongings (Pa. Momodu Agbuduokhe, aged 79 years at Okobo, personal communication, May 24, 2012). However, the world of the departed is more integrated into worshipping life of Etsako people than is the case in the Jewish tradition. Some symbolic offerings and sacrifices are destined for the departed, as also a few of the prayers. However according to J.S. Mbiti (1970, p.58):

    This does not mean that the departed are worshipped as such: they are simply acknowledged as part of the wider community and as belonging to the families concerned. For this reason, they have to be taken up in the acts of worship since they are part of the worshipping community. 

    There is no doubt in Etsako religion that if ever the people forsake the worship of Supreme Deity, the ill consequences shall follow. Worship has been so integrated into the life of the people of Etsako that it is almost impossible to stop it. Prayer known as Itromhi are central and pivotal acts of worship, and reveal man’s utter spiritual nakedness before the Supreme Deity; in fact, it is significant to note that prayers are a sine qua non in the people’s religious life.

Further Reflections and Conclusion

    Comparatively speaking, this study has revealed that both Jewish and Etsako traditions and religious practices have some similarities. Traditions and cultures are gifts from God, which can be used to enhance the cause of humanity. The researchers have no evidence to show that Etsako people borrowed or copied aspects of their religious and traditional notion of God from the Jews or vice versa. Consequently, the observable similarities can be accidental and may well vitalise further researches in comparative studies in religion and cultural dynamics among ethnic groupings in human society. It is also very evident that each of these communities investigated here exists separately or independently on its own. Indeed, God reveals Himself to each community in His own peculiar way. 

    Therefore, it is incumbent on both the Jews and Etsako people to respond to God reverently and tenaciously adhere to what He had handed down to them from generations to generations, provided those practices satisfy the religious and traditional needs of the people. This is because everything in heaven and on earth is God’s; all things come from Him and of His own do we give Him. In view of this, it will be profiting if the Jewish nation and Etsako ethnic group of people pursue synergic alliances aimed at promoting inter-cultural, inter-faith and even agricultural kinships and dialogues. There is but one Supreme God who revealed Himself to both the Jewish people and the Etsako people. Both races are very religious in their appreciation of the supremacy of God. The concepts presented in this study sprung independently out of Etsako and Jewish reflections on God. These reflections are influenced, naturally, by geographical, historical, traditional, cultural and social-political factors. The similar characteristics identified shows that, God can reveal Himself to any people through their own peculiar circumstances.


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