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The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic
Background and the Ugaritic Texts (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)

As a result of comparing biblical and inscriptional evidence with the Ugaritic texts, we can see how the worship of other deities lasted for quite a long time in Israel's pantheon.

By Mark S. Smith
Skirball Professor of Bible and Near Eastern Studies
New York University   

    For decades, scholars have tried to penetrate the Bible's story about Israelite monotheism. According to traditional interpretations of the Bible, monotheism was part of Israel's original covenant with Yahweh on Mount Sinai, and the idolatry subsequently criticized by the prophets was due to Israel's backsliding from its own heritage and history with Yahweh. However, scholars have long noted that beneath this presentation lies a number of questions. Why do the Ten Commandments command that there should be no other gods "before Me" (the Lord), if there are no other gods as claimed by other biblical texts? Why should the Israelites sing at the crossing of the Red Sea that "there is no god like You, O Lord?" (Exodus 15:11). Such passages suggest that Israelites knew about other gods and did not simply reject them. It seems that Israelites may have known of other deities and perhaps various passages suggest that behind the Bible's broader picture of monotheism was a spectrum of polytheisms that centered on the worship of Yahweh as the pantheon's greatest figure.

    In the past, the question of Israelite polytheism has been approached by looking for evidence of specific deities worshipped by Israelites in addition to Yahweh. These would include biblical criticisms of the worship of other deities, such as the goddess Asherah in 2 Kings 21 and 23, as well as apparent references to this goddess or at least her symbol in the inscriptions from Kuntillet 'Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom in the eighth century. In the Kuntillet 'Ajrud inscriptions, the symbol is treated respectfully as part of the worship of Yahweh. The gods Resheph and Deber appear in Habakkuk 3:5 as part of the military retinue of Yahweh. Other deities who gain some mention in the Bible include the "hosts of heaven" criticized in 2 Kings 21:5, but mentioned without such criticism in 1 Kings 22:19 and Zephaniah 1:5. Scholars have also noted that the god El is identified with Yahweh in the Bible, again with no criticism. The criticisms of Yahweh's archenemy, the storm god, Baal, also seem to reflect Israelite worship of this god. While many of these deities are not well known from the Bible, they are described sometimes at considerable length in the Ugaritic texts, discovered first in 1928 at the site of Ras Shamra (located on the coast of Syria about 100 miles north of Beirut). As a result of comparing biblical and inscriptional evidence with the Ugaritic texts, we can see how the worship of other deities lasted for quite a long time in Israel down to the Exile in ca. 586.

    This approach to the study of specific deities in ancient Israel was summarized in Smith's earlier book, The Early History of God (which is due to be published in 2002 in a revised version by Eerdmans), and it reached its apex in the valuable collection, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (edited by Karel van der Toorn et al.; second edition; Leiden: Brill; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999). On the whole, Smith's book -- following a number of other scholars-- shows how Israelite polytheism was a feature of Israelite religion down through the end of the Iron Age and how monotheism emerged in the seventh and sixth centuries. It is in this period when the clearest monotheistic statements can be seen in the Bible, for example, in the apparently seventh-century works of Deuteronomy 4:35, 39, 1 Samuel 2:2 (earlier?), 2 Samuel 7:22, 2 Kings 19:15, 19 (= Isaiah 37:16, 20), and Jeremiah 16:19, 20 and the sixth-century portion of Isaiah 43:10-11, 44:6, 8, 45:5-7, 14, 18, 21, and 46:9. Because many of the passages involved appear in biblical works associated with either Deuteronomy, the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua through Kings) or in Jeremiah (with its similar language and ideas as these other works), most scholarly treatments until recently have suggested that a deuteronomistic movement of this period developed the idea of monotheism as a response to the religious issues of the time. The question has remained: why in the seventh and sixth centuries?

    In his newest book, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, Smith tries to address this question, but from a different angle in regards to monotheism and polytheism. Beginning with the Ugaritic texts, Smith asks what is monistic about polytheism and how the answer to this question might help make the emergence of Israelite monotheism more intelligible. Ugaritic polytheism is expressed as a monism through the concepts of the divine council or assembly and in the divine family. The two structures are essentially understood as a single entity with four levels: the chief god and his wife (El and Asherah); the seventy divine children (including Baal, Astarte, Anat, probably Resheph as well as the sun-goddess Shapshu and the moon-god Yerak) evidently characterized as the stars of El; the head helper of the divine household, Kothar wa-Hasis; and the servants of the divine household, who include what the Bible understands to be "angels" (in other words, messenger-gods).

    This four-tiered model of the divine family and council apparently went through a number of changes in early Israel. In the earliest stage, it would appear that Yahweh was one of these seventy children, each of whom was the patron deity of the seventy nations. This idea appears behind the Dead Sea Scrolls reading and the Septuagint translation of Deuteronomy 32:8-9. In this passage, El is the head of the divine family, and each member of the divine family receives a nation of hi s own: Israel is the portion of Yahweh. The Masoretic Text, evidently uncomfortable with the polytheism expressed in the phrase "according to the number of the divine sons," altered the reading to "according to the number of the children of Israel" (also thought to be seventy). Psalm 82 also presents the god El presiding in a divine assembly at which Yahweh stands up and makes his accusation against the other gods. Here the text shows the older religious worldview which the passage is denouncing.

    By some point in the late monarchy, it is evident that the god El was identified with Yahweh, and as a result, Yahweh-El is the husband of the goddess, Asherah. This is the situation represented by biblical condemnations of her cult symbol in the Jerusalem temple (evidently) and in the inscriptions mentioned above. In this form, the religious devotion to Yahweh casts him in the role of the Divine King ruling over all the other deities. This religious outlook appears, for example, in Psalm 29:2, where the "sons of God" or really divine sons or children are called upon to worship Yahweh, the Divine King. The Temple, with its various expressions of polytheism, also assumed that this place was Yahweh's palace which was populated by those under his power. The tour given by Ezekiel 8-10 suggests such a picture. This picture of royal power was further developed with the monotheism of the eighth to the sixth centuries. The other gods became mere expressions of Yahweh's power, and the divine messengers became understood as little more than minor divine beings expressive of Yahweh's power. In other words, the head god became the godhead. Why at this time?

    Two major sets of conditions can be suggested. The first involves the changes in Israel's social structure of the family. At Ugarit, social identity was strongest at the level of the family. Legal documents were often made between the sons of one family and the sons of another. The divine situation followed suit. The divine family was expressive of Ugarit's social structure. The same was true in ancient Israel through most of the monarchy. Hence, the story of Achan in Joshua 8 suggests a picture of the extended family as the major social unit. However, the family lineages went through traumatic changes beginning already in the eighth century with major social stratification, followed by Assyrian incursions. In the seventh and sixth centuries, we begin to see expressions of individual identity (Deuteronomy 26:16; Jeremiah 31:29-30; Ezekiel 18). A culture with a diminished lineage system (deteriorating over a long period from the ninth or eighth century onward), one less embedded in traditional family patrimonies, might be more predisposed both to hold to individual human accountability for behavior (as suggested by the passages just cited) and to see an individual deity accountable for the cosmos (as suggested by monotheistic statements in this period). In short, the rise of the individual as a social unit next to the traditional family unit provided intelligibility to the rise of a single god rather than a divine family.

    The second major set of conditions apparent in forming this change involved the rise of the neo-Assyrian and neo-Babylonian empires. As long as Israel was, from its own perspective, on par with the other nations, it made sense to have a religious outlook that saw Israel on par with the other nations, each one with its own patron god. (This is the basic picture described above with Deuteronomy 32:8-9.) The assumption behind this worldview was that each nation was as powerful as its patron god. However, the neo-Assyrian conquest of the northern kingdom in ca. 722 altered this religious way of looking at the world, for, if the neo-Assyrian empire were so powerful, so must be its god; and conversely, if Israel could be conquered (and later Judah ca. 586), it would imply that its god in turn is hardly as powerful as Israel had traditionally taught. As a result, new thinking separated the correlation of heavenly power and earthly kingdoms. Even though Assyria and later Babylon were so powerful, the new monotheistic thinking in Israel reasoned that despite its own weakness, its god was not weak. Moreover, just as Israel's fortunes fell, those of Assyria and then Babylon rose; inversely, Israel's monotheists now reasoned that Yahweh stood at the top of divine power, and correspondingly, the gods of Mesopotamia were reckoned to be nothing. As a result, Assyria had not succeeded because of the power of its god; instead, it was Yahweh now directing all the nations. In short, the conditions of human empires provided the model for divine empire; the Assyrian and Babylonian empires pointed now not to their own power and the power of their divine patrons but to Yahweh’s guiding all the events of Israel's life. Their exile was not their shame from the power of other nations and their deities, but rather was seen now as Yahweh's plan to punish and purify the one nation which Yahweh had chosen. Accordingly, the notion arose that the new king who might help redeem Israel might not be a Judean as traditionally thought in older biblical literature (see Psalm 2). Now, even a foreigner such as Cyrus the Persian could serve as the Lord's anointed (Isaiah 44:28, 45:1). One god stood behind all these world-shaking
events.

See Mark S.Smith's Untold Stories: The Bible and Ugaritic Studies in the Twentieth Century (Peabody,MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001).