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Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel
(Second Edition and New Introduction)

Preface to the Second Edition

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By Mark S. Smith
Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies
New York University

I. Recent Research on Deities

   It has been over a decade since The Early History of God first appeared, many new developments have taken place that have altered the landscape of research on deities. Many new inscriptional, iconographic and archaeological discoveries pertinent to research have been made. Important new epigraphic finds bearing on deities include several inscriptions from Tel Miqneh (Ekron),1 and the yet to be published Phoenician inscription from the southwestern Turkish village of Injirli.2 Some of the more dramatic discoveries of iconography would be the Bethsaida stele depicting the horned bull-deity, the Tel Dan plaques representing a seated-god figure and a standing deity depicted in an unusual fashion, and the Ishtar medallion from Miqneh.3 Finally, archaeology has further furnished students of Israelite religion with a new arsenal of data to ponder and integrate. As a result of more recent inscriptional, iconographic and archaeological discoveries, many standard hypotheses are fading and new syntheses are emerging in their wake.

   The rate of new discoveries has been more than matched by the pace of secondary literature. over the last decade the subject tackled in that book has enjoyed a high profile in the academic world of biblical studies. Many new articles and books have appeared, treating all of the deities discussed in The Early History of God. Indeed, hardly a year has passed by without the appearance of a new volume on the goddess Asherah,4 and many other deities have received substantial treatments in their own right. Offering broad coverage specifically on deities in ancient Israel are works by well-known European scholars (listed in order by year): O. Loretz, Ugarit und die Bibel; Kanaanäische Götter und Religion im Alten Testament5 ; the iconographically oriented synthesis of O. Keel and C. Uehlinger6 which was appeared in English in 1998 under the title, Gods, Goddesses and Images of God in Ancient Israel7 ; W. Herrmann, Von Gott und den Göttern; Gesammelte Aufsätze zum Alten Testament8 ; N. Wyatt, Serving the Gods9 ; and J. Day, Yahweh and the Gods of and Goddesses of Canaan.10 The apex of this line of research is the landmark volume, Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (DDD),11 which appeared in a revised, expanded edition in 1999.

   Complementing these works are studies devoted to West Semitic religion. These include G. del Olmo Lete, La Religión Cananea según la liturgia de Ugarit; Estudio textuel,12 which was published in English as Canaanite Religion according to the Liturgical Texts of Ugarit13 ; a volume edited also by del Olmo Lete, Semitas Occidentales (Emar, Ugarit, Hebreaos, Fenicios, Arameos, Arabes preislámicos) with contributions by D. Arnaud, G. del Olmo Lete, J. Teixidor and F. Bron14 ; and H. Niehr, Religionen in Israels Umwelt; Einführung in die nordwestsemitischen Religionen Syrien-Palästinas.15 F. Pomponio and P. Xella have produced Les dieux d'Ebla, a resource treating deities not only in texts from Ebla, but also in later corpora.16 Wide coverage for Phoenician sources has been nicely provided by E. Lipinski in his volume, Dieux et déesses de l'univers phénicien et punique.17

   Some histories of Israelite religion have also appeared, including R. Albertz's 1992 work, Religionsgeschichte Israels in alttestamentlicher Zeit18 (which was published two years later in English as A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period).19 A more recent entry in this venerable genre is the 2000 volume of P. D. Miller, The Religion of Ancient Israel.20 The 2001 volume by Z. Zevit, The Religions of Ancient Israel; A Synthesis of Parallelactic Approaches embodies history of religion research, but this work vastly extends the traditional genre by the depth of its textual, iconographic and archaeological synthesis as well as its theoretical discussion.21 By the time this second edition of The Early History of God appears in print, the field will be benefiting from the long awaited survey of Israelite religion by T. J. Lewis published in the Anchor Bible Reference Library (Doubleday).22 Conference volumes and other collections on Israelite religion in its West Semitic milieu also have made their impact.23

   New investigations of polytheism and monotheism include H. Niehr's Der höchste Gott24 ; J. C. de Moor's substantial yet controversial volume, The Rise of Yahwism; Roots of Israelite Monotheism 25; N. Wyatt's Myths of Power; A Study of Royal Power and Ideology in Ugaritic and Biblical Tradition 26; R. K. Gnuse's combination of ancient religion and modern theology, No Other Gods; Emergent Monotheism in Israel 27; and my study, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism; Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts.28 There has also appeared a popular work on the subject, with essays by D. B. Redford, W. G. Dever, P. K. McCarter and J. J. Collins.29 A number of substantial essays have also addressed this topic.30

   As all of the new discoveries and research indicates,31 it is impossible to do justice to the progress of the past decade or so on the topic of deities in ancient Israel. In what follows, I would like to offer an idea of some of the main trends and ongoing problems bearing on research on deities in ancient Israel.

 

2. Important Trends since 1990

   Looking beyond specific works on deities to the wider disciplines informing the study of Israelite religion, several new trends have emerged over the last decade. Apart from new discoveries, I would mention three trends in the study of religion.

   First, the study of iconography and its relevance for Israelite religion has come to the fore with particular force. Already mentioned above is the tremendously important synthetic work by the team of O. Keel and C. Uehlinger, Göttinen, Götter und Gottessymbole (English translation: Gods, Goddesses and Images of God in Ancient Israel). The field has also benefitted from the many important studies on iconography by many figures, including (the late lamented) P. Beck, I. Cornelius, E. Gubel, T. Ornan, B. Sass and S. Timm.32 A major "event" on the specific question of Israelite iconography and aniconism was T. N. D. Mettinger's 1995 book, No Graven Image? Israelite Aniconism in Its Ancient Near Eastern Context.33 This work spawned a tremendous amount of discussion, epitomized by the essays in The Image and the Book; Iconic Cults, Aniconism, and the Rise of Book Religion in Israel and the Ancient Near East,34 and an important review article by T. J. Lewis35 as well as the overview by N. Na'aman.36 As a result of this work, iconography has emerged as a third major set of data in addition to texts and archaeological realia in the study of Israelite religion.

   Second, synthetic archaeological research has reached a new level of sophistication. Examples of important work by archaeologists interested in situating biblical texts in their larger cultural contexts include studies by L. E. Stager37 as well as J. D. Schloen,38 D. M. Master,39 and E. M. Bloch-Smith, including her monograph, Judahite Burials Practices and Beliefs about the Dead 40. In addition, three prominent accessible syntheses produced by senior members of the archaeological field appeared in 2001: a beautiful volume by P. J. King and L. E. Stager, Life in Ancient Israel 41; W. G. Dever's all too often venomous book, What did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel 42; and the somewhat one-sided work of I. Finkelstein and N. Silberman, The Bible Unearthed.43 Already cited above is the monumental 2001 volume by Z. Zevit, The Religions of Ancient Israel; A Synthesis of Parallelactic Approaches.44 Yet it deserves to be mentioned in this context because of its massive synthesis of archaeological sources. Another recent entry among archaeological syntheses of Israelite religion is B. Alpert Nakhai's Archaeology and the Religions of Canaan and Israel.45

   Underlying the efforts at synthesis is the theoretical discussion about the relationships between primary texts and other remains in the interpretation of ancient cultures. Over fifteen years ago, F. Brandfon wrote a probing piece in which he addressed some of the theoretical difficulties.46 Yet until relatively recently this critical reflection has not informed the mainstream of the discussion. For example, W. G. Dever has long been known for his important archaeological research and sustained interest in the social sciences.47 However, in his theoretical stance toward the historically pertinent material embodied in the Bible and archaeological record, Dever shrinks back to an entrenched position of what he himself characterizes as "common sense."48 Why is this? I would only offer my suspicion that Dever's difficulties stem from a pragmatism (he characterizes his model as one of "neopragmatism"49 ), which evidently eshews philosophy and more specifically philosophy of history. In contrast, in 2001 two well-known figures moved this discussion to center stage. Zevit devotes the first eighty pages of The Religions of Ancient Israel to the subject. J. D. Schloen has offered his philosophical prolegomenon on archaeology and historical research in his book, The House of the Father as Fact and Symbol.50 Schloen senses a great theoretical need where Dever assumes a posture of "common sense." Schloen comments: "Tempting as it may be to avoid explicit theorizing, the fact remains that contestable choices are embedded in even the most 'obvious' and innocent-looking of 'common sense' interpretations in archaeology and socio-economic history."51

   Third, and related, the impact of social sciences has been felt in a stronger way over the past decade. Anthropology and sociology have informed the work of archaeologists and other scholars working in religion. Following older studies by R. Albertz on personal religion and drawing on the classic work of the sociologist Emile Durkheim, K. van der Toorn has emphasized the basic structure of the family for understanding Israelite culture and religion as a whole. His work on domestic and gender issues in religion deserves special note here, especially his impressive 1996 book, Family Religion in Babylonia, Syria and Israel52 and his simpler yet useful 1994 monograph, From Her Cradle to Her Grave.53 Van der Toorn is continuing the analysis of religion from the vantage point of specific social segments.

    At present, he is preparing a study of intellectual religion which examines the understanding of divinity and the world in scribal circles in Israel and ancient Mesopotamia. Influenced by Max Weber, J. D. Schloen offers some initial suggestions about applying the concept of the patrimonial household to the pantheon.54 I have applied this line of inquiry in order to explore conceptual monisms within Ugaritic and early Israelite polytheisms, and in turn to understand better the background for the emergence of Judean monotheism in the seventh-sixth centuries B. C. E.55 Similarly, studies of Anat by P. L. Day56 and N. H. Walls57 have looked at family structure in order to enhance the understanding of one specific deity, namely the goddess Anat. Another area where social sciences has been influential in the study of religion of Israel and Ugarit involves ritual studies (developed by figures such as Catherine Bell). As only three works informed strongly by this area, I would mention G. A. Anderson's A Time to Mourn, A Time to Dance, S. M. Olyan's Rites and Rank, and D. P. Wright's Ritual in Narrative.58 Finally, studies of Israelite ethnicity have been applied to both archaeological data59 and biblical texts.60

   As a result of studies drawing on social sciences, texts whether biblical or extra-biblical have been situated more within the different segments of societies which produce them. This agenda is hardly new,61 but the research has become more influential. Accordingly, the perspectives offered in the texts may not represent the cultures as wholes (as presupposed by the long used constructs "Israelite" and/or/versus "Canaanite"). Instead, texts have been taken as representations of the overlapping perspectives of various social factions, strata and segments: so-called official versus popular; domestic versus public; elite versus peasant; male versus female. J. Berlinerblau has discussed sociological refinements in these categories.62 He has also criticized the use of the long-used categories, "popular" and "official" religion.63

    How research uses and nuances these categories and their dynamic interrelationship remains to be seen. Scholars in biblical studies will continue to compare and contrast as well as critique the construction of these categories in other academic fields.64 As a corollary of these refinements, syntheses in archaeological and textual research have further attempted to situate religious practices or notions known from texts within specific architectural locations as attested in the archaeological record. In addition to Z. Zevit's massive study cited above, I would mention in this vein T. H. Blomquist's 1999 book, Gates and Gods,65 and a very recent article by A. Faust on doorway orientation and Israelite cosmology.66

   On the whole, news vistas offered by iconographic and archaeological data have been accompanied by advances in theoretical considerations. Inclusion of a wider range of primary data has been matched by an increase in theoretical considerations and efforts at synthesis. With these changes have come several serious challenges.

 

3. Theoretical Challenges

   While the turn of the millennium has witnessed strong research on Israelite deities and religion,67 several older difficulties remain. Despite many gains, the basic task remains largely a matter of interpreting and integrating small pieces of evidence drawn from rather disparate sources. In studying biblical texts in particular, scholars are often dealing with literary vestiges of religious practices and worldviews. The larger works in which these older vestiges appear have so refracted the earlier religious history that their recovery requires disembedding them from their literary contexts. This may seem counterintuitive to many readers of the Bible because such an operation often runs against the grain of the Bible's claims. In my opinion, what vestiges we have, provide barely enough material to write a proper history of religion for ancient Israel.

    In general, it is very difficult to garner little more than a broad picture, and at times the theses offered seem conjectural. Readers missing a clear societal context (or, set of contexts) for the wider developments discussed in this book will be largely disappointed. More specifically, the vestiges of early Israelite religion point to a development which I labeled "convergence" in this book, but these vestiges all too often do not, in my opinion, provide sufficient information to illuminate their social and political background, apart from a circumstantial case made for royal impact. As for the phenomenon which I called "differentiation," I did note some of the ancient players (specifically, priestly lines as well as the writers and tradents behind the book of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History) in this development, but here too the vestiges offer only a partial view of their larger historical context.

   The fundamental difficulty lies in the nature of textual evidence. Because mythic images (but not mythic narratives) have been incorporated and refracted through the textual lens of the various genres, these genres offer only a glimpse of the larger understanding. Furthermore, the texts have been written so much after the fact or have undergone such long redactional histories that the situation with the various deities is very difficult to gauge. This situation is particularly acute with the Iron I period, but it also affects our understanding of Iron II. Archaeology and iconography, while central to the enterprise, can alleviate only some of the difficulty. Both require interpretation all too often in the face of little or no aid from roughly contemporary textual sources (apart from Judges 5 and perhaps some other small number of texts).

    As a result, it is generally not possible to recover how premonarchic Israel fashioned its own narrative about its religious identity (reflected in the early archaeological and iconographic evidence).68  Instead, scholars combine a number of approaches into their syntheses: they rely heavily on the small number of early texts, they add interpretations drawn from the contemporary archaeological or iconographic sources, and they work from later texts that seem (at least, to them) to reflect the earlier situation (Zevit's work is a good example of this situation). The work remains highly inferential. This shortcoming may be overcome in the future by new discoveries, more extensive examinations of the data and their incorporation into more theoretically sophisticated frameworks.

   Recent developments have complicated the task as well. First, newer research has altered longstanding axioms of biblical studies. For example, the older source theory of the Pentateuch (often called the "Documentary Hypothesis") had already come under serious fire when The Early History of God first appeared (this is the reason why the conventional sigla for the Pentateuchal sources were given quotation marks). The newer redactional model developed by E. Blum69 and extended by D. M. Carr70 on the one side, and the studies of redaction in Gilgamesh by J. H. Tigay on the other side,71 have complicated source-theory without abolishing it.72 While the death knell for source theory was sounded often over the course of the 1980s and 1990s, it has not been supplanted by a more persuasive model.

    Tigay's work in particular suggests that source-criticism comports with what is known for the composition and transmission of ancient texts outside the Bible. Moreover, old-fashioned source-criticism and redaction criticism could be combined and modified to order to provide a satisfactory range of models of textual composition that would attend to the interrelated processes of memorization and reading, writing and interpretation (addressing among other questions, Israelite practices of commemoration and memorization, both by scribes and in the wider culture).

   Several valuable points about orality and scribalism have been made recently by S. A. Niditch and by R. F. Person, Jr.73 Studies also stress literacy, for example the otherwise widely varying treatments by M. D. Coogan, J. L. Crenshaw and M. Haran.74 M. Fishbane has nicely noted the role of interpretation in scribal practice.75 It is the intersection of literacy, orality, interpretation, collective memory and modes of memorization that underlay scribal praxis. Indeed, the ingredients insufficiently represented in the discussion of the praxis of ancient Israelite textual composition, are, to my mind, cultural memory and memorization. The former has been addressed increasingly in recent years,76 while the latter continues to be largely neglected.

    In contrast, memory and memorization are nicely noted in C. Hezser's work, Jewish Literacy in Roman Palestine 77 and beautifully emphasized by M. Carruthers in her two studies of medieval culture.78 The constellation of scribal practices, including memorization, are attested for Israel in the Lachish letters.79 As only one working model, it might be assumed that such a scribal praxis informed late monarchic Judean (and perhaps later) textual production that underlies those narrative works regarded later as biblical (Pentateuch and Deuteronomistic History). From the eighth century (Isaiah) through the sixth century (Jeremiah), prophetic accounts suggest a further range of models combining reading, writing and interpretation,80 while some sixth century prophecy (Second Isaiah) shows an orientation around reading, interpretation and writing.81 Liturgical models combining memory and writing perhaps in yet other modes can be discerned in the diachronic reuse of texts, such as Psalm 29:1-2.82

    An example of priestly reading, writing and interpretation of prior tradition and texts may be found in Genesis 1:1-2:3.83 In addition to these models, multiple editions of biblical works proposed through text critical analysis offer further perspective on the practices underlying some aspects of scribal compositions and transmission.84 Well beyond the scope of this discussion, ultimately a successful history of religion will have to include working out a history of models of textual production in ancient Israel (along with criteria for assessing them), locate the witnesses to those models within their social settings, interrelate those witnesses and settings, and synthesize what information they provide about Israelite religion .

   Second, literary study with little or no interest in diachronic development (coupled with a de-emphasis on ancient languages apart from Hebrew) has tended to minimize the significance of ancient Near Eastern contexts of Israelite culture, not to mention Israelite history in general and the history of Israelite religion specifically. To name only a handful of sub disciplines applied to the Hebrew Bible,85 structuralism, reader-response theory, ideological criticism and postmodern readings have contributed to a devaluation of diachronic research, including the history of the religion of Israel. While each wave of atomism within the biblical field seems to be met by an opposing wave of interdisciplinary research (which often reintegrates what has been become atomized), the sustained disassociation of the study of biblical literature from Israelite history complicates the situation. However, the neglect has cut in the other direction at the same time. The full impact of literary study, which has all too often been neglected in history of religion research (including my own),86 has yet to be felt in syntheses of Israelite religion.

   Third, and related, the study of Israelite history in particular has become more problematic over the last decade. Refined analyses reveal data which do not fit into traditional large-scale syntheses. The common models for the origins of Israel in the land (conquest, infiltration and peasant-revolt) have all been inundated by evidence derived from surveys and excavations. Regional variations call into question the viability of a single master thesis to explain the situation on the ground. The discussions of the Late Bronze-Iron I and the Iron I-Iron II transitions have grown in complexity.87 Serious doubts as to the historicity of the biblical descriptions of the United Monarchy have been increasingly voiced by I. Finkelstein and others; and despite strong efforts by archaeologists such as Stager and Dever in the United States and A. Mazar and A. Ben-Tor in Israel, defending the historicity of biblical events purporting to date to the tenth century has become a more difficult proposition. Pertinent studies largely from the textual side include two recent books bearing on the figure of David, produced by B. Halpern and S. L. McKenzie.88 These attempt to sift the myth from the life of the historical David; no simple task. Despite the challenges, these works are remarkably sane, and they would suggest the plausibility of historical reconstruction based on critical analyses of biblical texts.

   The historical questions remain problematic, even without introducing the further issues involved in responding to the challenges posed by figures such as P. Davies, N. P. Lemche and T. Thompson.89 Their efforts to locate biblical texts generally in the Persian or even the Hellenistic period pass over many linguistic and historical difficulties of their own. A recent entry in the discussion of the Iron Age is the recent dissertation of K. Wilson directed by P. K. McCarter.90 Wilson disputes the historical value of the Shishak list which he argues does not provide evidence for a specific campaign by Shishak; instead, the list represents a compilation of sites designed to represent Shishak as a world-conqueror. Wilson's argument does not speak to the issue of the biblical evidence concerning Shishak's campaign, which could well have taken place as 1 Kings 14:25 claims, but his argument would preclude using the Shishak list in the discussion of correlating destruction levels at archaeological sites with the Shishak list itself. As a result, a major linchpin in tenth century chronology falls.

   More fundamental questions surrounding the definition of "history" and the Bible underlie these discussions. Biblical historians agree that the biblical narratives of the past constitute history, but their disagreement over the definition of history raises serious problems. For example, both B. Halpern and M. Brettler treat the Deuteronomistic History and Chronicles as history,91 but they strongly differ in their understanding as to how these biblical works constitute history. Brettler rejects Halpern's view of the biblical historians as having an antiquarian interest in using sources to recover a past that they believed was the case. Instead, Brettler prefers a broader definition of history as a narrative about the past. Brettler further notes the didactic function of these works, not to mention the literary tropes that help to advance their teaching goals.

    Given the difference between Halpern and Brettler over what constitutes history, one may ask if a basic problem afflicts their operating assumption that biblical narratives about the past works are history. Without exhausting the considerations that go into whether these works are history, it seems worthwhile to examine the degree to which biblical presentations of the past shape the past to conform to present concerns, or in other words, how cultural memory is expressive of present vicissitudes. Brettler nicely explores this function of collective memory, and his definition does not distinguish between history and a narrative about the past produced by the collective memory of a tradition.

   Where biblical scholars such as Halpern and Brettler maintain that biblical works such as the Deuteronomistic History (Joshua through Kings) and the Books of Chronicles constitute history, I have my doubts about the scope of this characterization. Even in the case of the Books of Chronicles, where the use of sources is clear, their author(s) may have inherited such source material from religious tradition and used that source material not simply to create a narration presenting the past, but one whose primary function was to celebrate the past as an antecedent to the present. The historical-looking work of Chronicles seems to lack some assessment of sources, and it shows a deeply commemorative function in its narrative of the past, specifically in structuring the past in terms of the present.92 Unlike Brettler, I would probably put history and collective memory in narrative forms on a spectrum, perhaps with the crucial distinction lying not simply in using prior sources or an interest in the author's interest in the past as such (pace Halpern), but in an author's work being informed by some sense of what goes into the representation of the past as past.93 In any case, this discussion indicates that these theoretical questions impinging on the Bible and its representations of the past necessarily involve a number of critical issues which have yet to be assimilated into the discussion (with the partial exception of Zevit's The Religions of Ancient Israel).

   Fourth and finally, use of the Ugaritic texts for the study of Israelite religion has evolved since the first edition of The Early History of God. Since 1990, comparison of Ugaritic and biblical texts has come to be viewed in more complex terms. Scholars are well beyond the situation of "pan-Ugariticism" in biblical studies derided in earlier decades. The high-water mark of Ugaritic-biblical parallels was reached with the three volumes of Ras Shamra Parallels 94and the trend ebbed around 1985. Simplistic drawing of Ugaritic and biblical parallels has passed from fashion. Moreover, a certain disjunction has taken place between Ugaritic and biblical studies, while more attention has been paid to locating Ugarit within its larger societal and ecological context. The French archaeological team has produced a whole new awareness of ancient Ugaritic culture. Wider interests of industry and society have been treated by the French team, and by other scholars.95 A related development involves situating Ugaritic and Ugarit within their larger ancient Syrian context, as known at other sites, some known for decades (Mari), others more recently (Emar, Munbaqa/Tel Ekalte, ‘Ain Dara, Suhu).96 The field will also continue to be aided by Amorite material.97

   The field of Ugaritic studies no longer holds, nor should it hold, to an unilinear focus aimed toward ancient Israel or the Bible. All these discoveries have forced scholars interested in situating the Bible in its wider West Semitic context to take a longer (perhaps more scenic) route in traveling the historical and cultural distances between Ugarit and ancient Israel.98 Such an intellectual situation will in no way diminish the important and deep cultural and linguistic relations between the Ugaritic and biblical texts; instead, such relations are now understood more richly.

    Commenting on the comparison of the Ugaritic texts and the Bible, Keel and Uehlinger are, technically speaking, right to state that the Ugaritic texts "are not primary sources for the religious history of Canaan and Israel,"99 but such a view hardly precludes seeing the Ugaritic texts as providing some of the larger background behind the development of Israelite religion. Although it is quite correct to note the temporal, geographical and cultural distance between the Ugaritic and biblical texts,100 it is precisely the differences within their larger similarities that sharpen scholarly understanding of Israelite religion, in particular its differentiation from the larger West Semitic culture of which the Ugaritic texts constitute the single greatest extra-biblical textual witness. Again this issue, like the others mentioned above in this section, stands in need of further investigation and refinement.

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