I found some jewels in my reading yesterday of Mark Smith’s The Origins of Biblical Monotheism:
1. Smith talks about how certain gods in Ugaritic literature are said to have a large physical size. Smith sees a biblical parallel to this in Isaiah 6:1, in which the skirt of the LORD’s robe fills the temple. I was discussing the issue of “How big is God?” with a relative a few weeks ago. Keep in mind that Armstrongism actually believes in a corporeal God.
2. I’ve written a lot on this blog about the parallels between ancient Israelite religion and the religion of the ancient Near East. But there are some differences between the two, at least when one looks at particular strands of ancient Israelite religion, as it is manifest in the Hebrew Bible. Unlike the religion that we encounter in Ugaritic literature, Yahweh of Israelite monotheism didn’t have a large pantheon or family of gods, and he appears to have had no sex. There also isn’t much in the Hebrew Bible about him defeating death, in contrast to Ugaritic legends about Baal. Smith sees remnants of this kind of mythology (i.e., a pantheon, YHWH wrestles with death, etc.) in the Hebrew Bible, but he believes that priests edited a lot of that stuff out.
3. Smith posits three stages of development in ancient Israelite religion. In the first stage, El was the god of Israel. After all, Smith points out, “Israel” has the name of El! In the second stage, El was the head of the Israelite pantheon, and YHWH was his warrior god. Smith cites Genesis 49, Numbers 23-24, Deuteronomy 32:8-9, and Psalm 82 as evidence that there was a stage of Israelite religion that viewed El and YHWH was two separate figures. According to Smith, YHWH was a god in the south—in Edom, Midian, Teman, Paran, and Sinai (see Deuteronomy 33:2; Judges 5:4-5; Psalm 68:9; Habakkuk 3:3)—-whereas worship of El occurred more in the north. At the same time, Smith also argues that the Israelites who left Egypt brought El-worship with them—into the sanctuary at Shiloh. He notes that the stories about Shiloh in the Hebrew Bible appear to have a preference for the name of “El” (Judges 18:31; cf. 17:5; Psalm 78), and that the “tent tradition associated with Shiloh (Psalm 78:60; Joshua 18:1; I Samuel 2:22) conforms to the Ugaritic description of El’s abode as a tent” (140). And from where did the priesthood of Shiloh come? For Smith, the answer is “Egypt,” for the “various Egyptian names in Shilohite lineage (Moses, Phinehas, Hopni, and Merari) may point to the Egyptian background of the Levitical Shilohite priesthood” (147). So Smith believes in some sort of Exodus.
In the third stage, El and YHWH were merged into one deity. Smith sees this process as gradual, but he believes that it took place as early as Israel’s pre-monarchic period, for Judges 5 (which probably dates to that time) appears to combine the two. Moreover, Exodus 6:2-3 explicitly identifies El Shaddai with YHWH, perhaps indicating that it was responding to the view that the two were separate deities.
Do I agree with Smith? I’m not too convinced that there was a Stage 2, in which El and YHWH were deemed to be separate. Perhaps the passages that Smith cites for that stage are using “El” and “YHWH” interchangeably, to refer to the same God.
4. On page 164, Smith offers sociological explanations for the shift from polytheism to monotheism in ancient Israelite religion. In the eighth-sixth centuries B.C.E., Smith points out, the traditional family structure declined in ancient Israel. Royal power had a deleterious effect on traditional patriarchal authority, a growing upper class purchased family lands, warfare devastated the countryside, and exile resulted in a loss of land, and with it the “traditional strength of family and inheritance.” As the family declined in ancient Israel, its religion ceased to believe in a family of gods, Smith contends.
Some of this makes sense to me. Scholars have often cited a shift from rural to urban in ancient Israel to explain certain changes in Israelite religion. For example, Smith refers to the belief that children would no longer be punished for the sins of their fathers (Deuteronomy 24:16; Jeremiah 31:29-30; Ezekiel 18), which contrasts with the earlier view that divine punishment could be passed on to the sinner’s children and grandchildren (Exodus 20:5; 34:7; Numbers 14:18). With the decline of the land-based traditional family in ancient Israel, there was a tendency to see people as individuals, not as members of a group. And a professor I once met in Israel said that the shift from rural to urban also illuminates Proverbs 18:24, which concerns the importance of making friends: with the decline of traditional communities (the family, the clan, the tribe), people in the cities were lonely and needed friends to survive.
I still have a question, though. Whenever I read commentaries about Zelophehad’s daughters (Numbers 26-27, 31), I come across the argument that other ancient Near Eastern cultures were more egalitarian than ancient Israel in their inheritance laws because they were urban, whereas ancient Israel was rural and patriarchal. Ancient Israel wanted to keep land in the family, so it only allowed men to inherit property, since women who inherit could marry someone outside of the tribe and the tribe would lose its land; when Numbers 31 allowed daughters to inherit whenever the father had no sons, it tried to address this concern. Other ancient Near Eastern cultures didn’t have this problem, however, for they were more urban and didn’t focus on tribes. My question is this: if other ancient Near Eastern cultures were urban yet believed in a pantheon of gods, why couldn’t Israel when she was becoming urban? There doesn’t seem to be a necessary connection between being rural and believing in a pantheon, or being urban and embracing monotheism. At the same time, what people do can’t always be determined by sociological laws, for people are messy.
5. Smith discusses the “dying and rising gods.” He doesn’t particularly care for that term, but he does cite Ugaritic texts in which Baal is missing and people are looking for him (cp. I Kings 18:27), or Baal actually dies. Smith ties this to nature and to politics. Baal was needed for agriculture, since he was the storm god, so his return or resurrection were desired. And, whenever a king died, people wanted assurance that the dynasty would go on, for it was continually under threat from rebels and foreign aggressors. The death and resurrection (if you will) of a god addressed this sort of concern. I like this chapter because it interacts with data about the “dying and rising god.” I’ve long wanted to address that topic on this blog because some have sought to connect it with the death and resurrection of Jesus. But I knew that there are plenty of scholars who deem such a comparison to be misplaced, so I didn’t comment on it because I didn’t know that much.
6. Isaiah 9:5 calls the Davidic king “mighty God,” and Psalm 45:7 refers to the king as Elohim. This is significant in debates between Jewish and Christian apologists, for Christian apologists have argued from such texts that the Messiah would be God (cp. Hebrews 1:8), a view that Jewish apologists deny.
Smith points to Ugaritic passages in which a king is portrayed as a representative of the divine, with divine characteristics (159). And he refers to a comment by J.R. Porter, who states: “[A]t 2 Sam. xiv.17, David is called the Angel of God because he is able to [hear good and evil]: this recalls Gen. iii. 22 [to know good and evil], and it was precisely this knowledge which placed Adam among the [gods]” (161). Are Isaiah 9:5 and Psalm 45:7 saying that a future Messiah would be God, or is there a way to understand them within their ancient Near Eastern context: they mean that the Davidic king is a representative of God, who executes the divine mission to defeat evil and bring forth justice, and who also possesses certain divine attributes (e.g., the ability to distinguish good from evil)?
7. On pages 171-172, Smith interacts with Ezekiel 28, which likens Tyre to a beautiful figure within the garden of God who gets expelled. The figure wears precious stones, and v 14 refers to a cherub.
My church background assumes that this is talking about the fall of Satan, an angel who turns to the dark side. Historical-critics I’ve read, however, apply it to the fall of Adam in Genesis 3.
Smith discusses a third option: it refers to a bad priest. Smith refers to parallels between the Garden of Eden and the temple: cherubim, trees, the divine presence, and rivers. Plus, the high priest wore precious stones on his breast-piece. So could the bad guy of Ezekiel 28 be the high priest? Ezekiel often criticizes the establishment (e.g., Ezekiel 22:26 lambastes the priests).