Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Invention of God by Thomas Romer

When we speak of the ‘invention of God’ [monotheism] we should not image that a group of Bedouins  met one day and huddled around an oasis to create a god for themselves, or that some scribes, much later, invented Yahweh out of whole cloth, so to speak, as their tutelary god. Rather this “invention” should be understood progressive construction arising out of a particular tradition. Think of this tradition as a series of sedimentary strata gradually laid down over the course of time, which is then sometimes disrupted by historical events that disturb the orderly sequence of layers, allowing something new and unexpected to emerge. If we try, then, to understand how the discourse about this god developed and how he eventually became “one God”, we can observe a kind of “collective invention,” a process in which the conception was continually revised in the light of particular, changing social and historical contexts.

Neither should we speak of “Jews’ or “Judaism before the end of the Persian era, or even before the Hellenistic period, because it was only towards the end of the fourth century that we find a religious system in place that is at all like what one designates today as “Judaism.” So it is better to avoid using the term “Jew” and “Judaism” for the earlier periods, but instead speak of “Israelite” or “Judean.”

Putting this in an archeological context, the beginnings of the history of Israel in the thirteenth century fall into the time of transition from the Late  Bronze to the Iron Age. In the middle of the second millennium (@1,500 BCE) the Levant was controlled by Egypt. It was organized politically into city-states whose minor kings were vassals of the pharaoh. There also existed some groups with minimal integration, notably the “apiru”, who lived on the margins of the political system, in conflict with one or another of the minor Canaanite kings or chiefs or serving as potential forced laborers for the Egyptians. Egyptian texts also mention “shasu” , nomads, and they sometimes use the term Yhw to characterize them. Scholars have often tried to connect this them – probably a toponym- with the name Yahweh, which was to become the name of the god of Israel.

[ Romer then states the classical explanation of the collapse of late Bronze Age civilization:] The end  of the thirteenth century was marked by upheavals during which the city-states collapsed. New populations, ‘the people of the sea” arriving from the Aegean Sea or from Anatolia, the Philistines as the Bible and we call them, established themselves on the southern coast of Canaan : Gaza, Ashdod, Ashkelon, and Ekron. At the beginning of the first millennium in the whole of the Levant there gradually came into being an exchange economy that replaced the previously existing subsistence economy.

[However, this old hypothesis has recently been challenged, by Eric Cline in “1177BC: The Year Civilization Collapsed”. The Palace cultures of the Mediterranean littoral in the Late Bronze  between whom there were intensive exchanges of luxury goods collapsed on their own weight due to the limited capacities of their agricultural base and the center of power shifted closer to the Fertile Crescent or continental , regions: Hittites, Assyrians ,Babylonians and Persians, nix the  ‘Sea Peoples’.]

[ The period between the collapse of late Bronze Age Civilization through the Assyrian and Babylonian ascendency the peoples of Israel and Judah practiced various and evolving forms of polytheism.]

IN 539 the Persian king Cyrus took the city of Babylon, putting an end to the Babylonian Empire. His religious policy was ‘liberal’ in that he permitted the reconstruction of destroyed temples and allowed populations deported to returned to their respective countries. Cyrus is celebrated as the ‘Messiah” sent by the god of Israel in texts that are appended to the scrolls of the prophet Isaiah, which are often called “Deutero-Isaiah.” The Persians granted the Judean community the same cultural and religious autonomy they accorded other peoples who were integrated into the empire. The Temple of Jerusalem was rebuilt at the end of the sixth or the beginning of the fifth century, and it is under the influence of the Golah, the Judean exiles in Babylon who returned to Judea, that a quasi-theocratic temple-centered organization of political and religious life was put in place. Many of the Judean exiles preferred to remain in Babylon, and various documents found there indicate that these Judeans belonged to the comfortable strata of that city and were fully integrated into its life. Until the arrival of Islam, Babylon was to remain an intellectual center of Judaism, as indicated by the Babylonian Talmud. In the same way the strong Judean presence in Egypt was in no way diminished. Thus Judaism from its very birth was a religion of the diaspora, and was to continue as such during the Hellenistic era around the whole of the Mediterranean basin.

To grasp the complexity of ancient religiosity- that is in the pre-Hellenic era before the conquests of Alexander (356-323 BCE)- we must distinguish three levels of analysis. First of all, at the level of the individual, the family, or the clan, one turned to divine protectors, personal gods, and deified ancestors, and others. There is no need for a sanctuary or temple here: the pater familia takes care of ritual acts. The grouping together of several clans brings forth a new level of religious activity that is practiced at a local level. There are local sanctuaries; these are not generally very important and are often in the open air. It is these local  sanctuaries against which certain biblical texts conduct a fierce polemic, calling them cults “on every hill” and “under every green tree.” Religion on the national level is expressed in a set of cult ceremonies of which the king is a mediator, and it is organized around a national god and other deities who are associated with him in one way or another.

Regarding the third level, one important question is whether, from the early part of the first millennium up until  the end of the eighth, with the ascendency of the Assyrians in Canaan, the official royal cult was the same in Israel and Judah. Some specialists in biblical studies think that the cult of Yhwh in Judah was in effect very different from that of Israel: the Yhwh of Israel was worshipped rather on the model of Baal, that is, as the god of storms and fertility, whereas in the south, he has incorporated the traits of the older sun god who was the tutelary deity of Jerusalem. This picture needs qualification – rather than strict opposition- it is more likely that there were differences in relative emphasis in the culst in the north, different constellations of gods associated with Yhwh. In Judah there seems to have been a conception of Yhwh that combined the traits of a storm god with the attributes of a solar deity. Human sacrifices were offered to Yhwh in times of military crisis. Towards the end of the eighth century he began to assert his superiority over the gods of the underworld.

 Representations of Yhwh in the north (statues, images on seals and so forth) have long been considered simply idolatrous and “deviant’. At first Yhwh was worshiped as a “Baal,’ a storm God, who resembled the god Baal of Ugarit. He was not the only god worshipped in Israel; probably he was subordinated to El. Under the Omrides two ba’alim were in competition with each other: the Phoenician Baal and the Baal Yhwh. Later Yhwh seems to have integrated the attributes of El and also some features of a solar deity. He became ba’al shamen, a “Lord of the Heavens. Up until the fall of Samaria in 722, the cult of Yhwh was not exclusive. At any rate El was often represented as a Bull  and was considered the father of many gods. There is plenty of evidence that the gods in both the north and south were represented in statues, stereotypically,  so it is hard to tell which  gods particular statues or other images represent.

To be the only true god means to have no partners. Thus, Yhwh is traditionally considered to be an “unmarried’ god, and the allusions to goddesses in the Bible, notably to Asherah, have been interpreted as referring to non-Yawhists cults. This is the way the editors of the Bible finally decided to present matters. For historians, however, the situation looks different . . . the goddess Asherah was associated with Yhwh as his patredros (assessor) and also worshipped independently of him, especially by women, in the form of the “Queen of Heaven’. It is only with the beginning of the reign of Josiah (640-609) we will find Yhwh alone without his Asherah, at least in the official cults of Israel and Judah.

No one knows for sure why the Assyrians failed to capture Jerusalem at the end of the eighth century. Whatever the situation was, in  the consciousness of Judeans this quasi-defeat was transformed into a triumphant victor.y These events of 701 are the origin of the symbolic importance of Jerusalem as the city of Yhwh. First of all, it is this intervention of the Assyrians in Judah that in fact caused a centralization of the cult and the administration in Jerusalem, the only city in Judah that the Assyrians did not conquer. The fact that Jerusalem was spared also gives rise to the “theology of the remnant” we find in Isaiah: this theological view asserts that in all the cataclysms of history Yhwh has always protected a “remnant’ in Jerusalem. The events of 701 signify a strengthening of the theology of Zion, the idea that Yhwh will always watch over his sacred mountain. It is this theology of the uniqueness of Jerusalem and the hill of the Temple that will later become the foundation for the centralization of the cult of Yhwh.

The period of reform between the decline of the Assyrian influence in Israel and Judah and conquest by the Babylonians- said to be the work of King Josiah- though not lastingly established- was one of the most important historical moments in the evolution of the cult of Yhwh. From that time on, Yhwh became “one” god (not unique, but singular) and Jerusalem became the only place in which his sacrificial cult could be legitimately practiced :’There is only the Yhwh of Jerusalem, there is no Yhwh of  Samaria, Teman, Bethel and so on’. The can be no other temples other than the Temple of Jerusalem and ‘one’ tribe (the kingdom) of Judah. A history written during the reign of Josiah may be the first version of the life of Moses . Paradoxically, it is the Assyrians, deeply detested as they are by the biblical authors, who furnished a large part of the material needed to construct this literature and who thus contribute to forging the new image of Yhwh.

The reforms of Josiah mark  in a broad sense the beginning of Judaism, because of the theologically central place given Jerusalem in his reforms, the affirmation of the unity of Yhwh, which is recited in Jewish prayers to this day, and finally, the monidolatric idea of the exclusive worship of Yhwh, which can easily mutate into monotheism.

After the death of Josiah in 609, the Babylonians quickly took control of the Levant, although the Egyptians tried to contest them for a short time. By surrendering in a timely fashion the complete destruction of Jerusalem was avoided  in 597 but the Babylonians instituted a policy of large scale deportations,. The king was exiled with the court elite: high officials, clergy, artisans. After a misguided revolt, the Babylonians completely destroyed the Temple, the city and the walls of Jerusalem, several other cities in Judah and organized a second deportation (587 BCE).

The events of 597 and 587/586 must have produced a major crisis in the collective identity of the Judeans, The destruction of Jerusalem and the movements of population were significant, but it is also true that they mainly effected the members of the elite, who were deported, rather than the rural population and the poor who remained in the country. The elites and particularly the royal officials and been cut off from their source of power, the traditional political and ideological pillars of a monarchial state in the ancient Near East had collapsed generally. The king had been deported, the Temple destroyed, and the geographical integrity of Judah was compromised by deportations and voluntary emigration. One way of explaining the situation was the the gods of Babylon were stronger, and had won a victory over the national god Yhwh, who had clearly been defeated. Another possible explanation was that Yhwh had abandoned his people.

Different groups in the Judean aristocracy tried to deal with and overcome the crisis by producing ideologies that endowed the fall of Judah with theological meaning. We can order these attempts according to a model proposed by Armin Steil. Steil, who was influenced by Max Weber, developed his model by analyzing the semantics  of crisis in the context of the French Revolution; however this model is very helpful for understanding the reactions to the fall of Jerusalem that we find in the Hebrew Bible.


 Steil distinguishes three types of attitudes towards a crisis: that of the prophet, that of the priest, and that of the mandarin.  The prophetic attitude consists of declaring the crisis to be the beginning of a new era. The main proponents of this attitude are members of marginal groups, who are nevertheless capable of formulating and communicating their convictions. Conservative representatives of the social structures that are collapsing are more likely to adopt a priestly attitude. For those who take this posture, the way to overcome the crisis is to return to the sacred origins of society, given by God, and to ignore the new reality. The mandarin posture expresses a choice by high officials, who are trying to understand the new situation and accommodate themselves to it in order to preserve their existing privileges. The “mandarins” try to objectify the crisis by giving a historical account of it that explains  the collapse of the old structures.


Instances of all three attitudes are clearly visible in the Hebrew Bible and its interpretations of the destruction of Jerusalem. These reactions were perhaps put down in writing during the period called “the exile” (587-539) but it is more reasonable to think that they date from the Persian period, when socioeconomic conditions had somewhat stabilized.


The mandarin position towards the crisis is the Deuteronomistic school. The sought an explanation for the exile by constructing a history of Yhwh and his people, from the beginning under Moses up to the destruction of Jerusalem. This is the story tells from Deuteronomy to 2 Kings.  They wanted to show that the Babylonians gods had in no way defeated the national god of Judah. The Babylonians were the instruments of Yhwh, the tools of his anger. This idea prepares for the monotheistic statements in the parts of the Deuteronomistic history that was revised and retouched last of all in the Persian period. Yhwh reigns over all nations but has a special relation with Israel.

The most highly developed set on monotheistic speculations in the Hebrew bible is to be found in the second part of the book of Isaiah ( chapters 40-55). It is a collection of anonymous oracles that was revised over and over again during a period of at least two centuries, the kernel of the text being a piece of propaganda celebrating the arrival in Babylon of the Persian King Cyrus the Great. It is inspired by the propaganda of the Persian king which itself was a reworking of the Assyro-Babylonian royal ideology.  Other parts of the texts of Deutero-Isaiah propose a ‘theoretical demonstration” of monotheism, the only place the the Hebrew Bible where such a thing can be found, a theological revolution. It makes serious attempts to compensate for the loss of the feminine ‘assessors’ that accompany the gods  in the polytheistic system and deal with the question of evil, which can no longer be attributed to other malevolent gods or demons  in a monotheism.

The third or priestly reaction to crisis is embodied  in what is traditionally called the ‘priestly document in the Bible, including texts  that today are part of the Pentateuch, that is, sections found in Genesis, Exodus and the first part of Leviticus. These texts were drawn up by a group of priests or persons very close to priestly circles in Babylon or Jerusalem at the beginning of the Persian period. The priestly narrative views all the most significant cultural and ritual institutions as have been given to the Patriarchs and Israel before the political organization of the tribes. This mean there was no need of a country or a king in order to worship Yhwh in the appropriate way.  This uncoupling of the cult of Yhwh from political institutions and from a connection with a particular country prepares the way for the idea of the separation between the domains of religion and politics.

The Hebrew Bible, in the form we have it today, presents itself in all three of its parts as a “monotheistic document,” but the authors and editors of the various texts of which it is composed also retain traces of polytheism – for instance, in Job and numerous psalms, where Yhwh appears surrounded by his heavenly court. Thus, there is at least a partial integration of the polytheistic heritage into the Bible’s monotheistic discourse. The authors of the New Testament and  also the Qur'an  were going to be confronted with the same difficulty, namely how to deal with plurality within the framework set out by the confession of a single, unique god. Biblical monotheism, therefore, is not really a closed philosophical doctrine – it is pluralist, and invites the reader of its texts to reflect on the difficult relation between unity and diversity.

For Judaism God reveals himself primarily through the 613 commandments of the Torah as transmitted to the people through the intermediacy of Moses. Therefore it is primarily the observance of these divine commandments and the search for their true meaning that characterizes Judaism and its God, whose name is not pronounced, but whose interaction with Israel is commemorated through the reading of the Pentateuch. And its is precisely the Pentateuch that had retained the memory traces of a god who at the beginning was completely different from the transcendent, one[-and-only god now professed by the monotheistic religions.





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