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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 (continued from page one)

   It is clear from consideration of these challenges that the field is moving forward on several fronts that include both the collection and assessment of new data as well as the consideration of theory from various quarters. History of religion work for ancient Israel remains largely in the stage of assembling and examining pertinent data, with steps having been taken toward satisfactory theoretical frameworks for specific topics within the larger enterprise. At this point, a more overarching theoretical framework for the larger enterprise still has yet to appear. Perhaps because of its historical roots in theology, the field of Israelite religion (not to mention biblical studies generally) remains one that does not generate its own general theoretical contribution to the humanities or social sciences. Yet the successes of the recent decade should not be minimized. Increasing complexity in the patterns of religious concepts and their development has clearly marked more recent research. The factors that go into the conceptualization of Israelite religion as an intellectual project have grown enormously.

4. Asherah/asherah Revisited

   I would like to take this opportunity to revisit briefly this area of the first edition of The Early History of God, first because the chapter on this subject received substantial criticism and because the field has maintained its ongoing interest in Asherah studies.101 In the meantime, the main base of data has changed in two respects. The first is the addition of the newer inscriptional material from Tel Miqne (Ekron).102 The second is the increase in iconographic evidence brought to bear on the discussion. At the forefront of this effort has been O. Keel and C. Uehlinger's important iconographic work in their book, Gods, Goddesses and Images of God, and in Keel's 1998 Goddesses and Trees, New Moon and Yahweh.103

   At this point the range of viewpoint about Asherah as a goddess in Israel is perhaps best represented on one side by S. M. Olyan's acceptance of the goddess in his important 1988 monograph, Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel and on the other, by C. Frevel's considerably circumscribed and extensive 1995 study, Aschera und der Ausschliesslichkeitanspruch YHWHs.104 (Keel and Uehlinger's Gods, Goddesses and Images of God,105 combines the two views, namely that the symbol of the asherah lost its associations to the goddess by the eighth century, only to regain them by the second half of the seventh century.)

    Since the first edition of The Early History of God, several other studies have appeared. S. Ackerman has also situated the issues against the larger issue of popular religion in ancient Israel.106 She has made a further case for a royal ideology paralleling Asherah and the queen mother in ancient Judah.107 S. A. Wiggins has surveyed the comparative evidence, and his work offers a critique of what he regards as the excessive claims made about the evidence for Asherah.108 There is also John Day's treatment of the issues in his book, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan. Additional Mesopotamian material has been supplied by P. Merlo's 1998 work, La dea Asratum - Atiratu - Asera.109 The field now enjoys the benefit of having J. M. Hadley's fine study, entitled The Evidence for Asherah: The Cult of the Goddess in Ancient Israel and Judah.110

   At this point most commentators believe that Asherah was a goddess in monarchic Israel (e. g., Ackerman, Binger, Day, Dever, Dietrich, Edelman, Hadley, Handy, Keel and Uehlinger, Loretz, Merlo, Niehr, Olyan, Petty, Wyatt, Xella, Zevit as well as NJPS at 1 Kings 15:13). Some do not (e. g., Cross,111 Frevel, Tigay; cf. Emerton's very cautious formulation, McCarter's asherah as Yahweh's hypostasis, Miller's nuanced position of secondary divinization of the symbol). The first edition of The Early History of God 112concluded that the evidence was insufficient to demonstrate that Asherah was a goddess in Israel during the monarchy and asked whether the symbol of the asherah lost its original association with the goddess at that point. I would not state categorically that there was no goddess in monarchic Israel, but would stress that the data marshaled in support of the goddess in this period are more problematic than advocates have suggested.

    The Early History of God offers arguments why Asherah may not have enjoyed cultic devotion in the period of the monarchy despite the apparently strong evidence from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and in 1 Kings 15 and 18, 2 Kings 21 and 23. Advocates for Asherah as a monarchic period goddess in Israel did not address sufficiently the idea that a cultic symbol may have been rendered in the likeness of an ’aserâ tree or pole, a view hardly impossible for passages such as 1 Kings 15:13 and 2 Kings 21:7 (so, too, 2 Kings 23:6). What could be involved is a more elaborate royal version of the ’aserâ.

   Some new objections to this view have been raised since the first edition of The Early History of God. It has been considered implausible that cultic devotion could be paid to the cultic item of the ’aserâ (as in 2 Kings 23).113 However, J. Tigay notes an example in a discussion that many commentators have overlooked.114 It is to be noted further that if the Jerusalemite temple tradition was aniconic or at least non-anthropomorphic for Yahweh (as many scholars argue),115 then it would be reasonable to entertain the possibility that the image of the asherah might be at least be non-anthropomorphic as well. It has also been suggested that the attestation of ‘astarôt as a generic word for "goddesses" demonstrates that its ancient users knew that the word ’aserâ stood for a divine name.116 However, this logic suffers from the etymological fallacy.

   It is dubious to argue that the reference to the prophets of Asherah in 1 Kgs 18:19 demonstrates an earlier awareness of the goddess Asherah, if this knowledge was the product of a polemical misidentification with Astarte. In other words, the symbol may have been misconstrued to pertain to some goddess because later tradents who added the reference to a putative Phoenician Asherah to 1 Kgs 18:19 conflated the Phoenician Astarte (there is no Phoenician Asherah attested) with the name of the symbol and assumed that it represented a goddess named Asherah (this explanation would comport with the textual variations between Asherah and Astarte117 and between ’aserôt and ‘astarôt 118). Accordingly, a misconstrual informs a claim made that my "explanation of surely still implies an awareness of the goddess Asherah in Israel."119 Later literary usage of ’aserâ implies only that at some time in the history of Israelite religion there was an awareness of Asherah as a goddess, not necessarily still in the time when the literary usage is attested.120

   The polemical nature of the Deuteromistic History has been raised as a powerful argument in favor of ’aserâ as a goddess. The history's handling of references (including the most crucial biblical attestation to ha’aserâ with "the baal" in 2 Kings 23:4 suggesting a deity), but it is unclear whether this is historical observation or polemic. There is an important, broader consideration in the discussion. Curiously, advocates such O. Loretz sometimes claim that those scholars who do not accept ’aserâ in the passages mentioned above as a goddess have been deceived by the ideological perspective of the Deuteronomistic History or are somehow psychological unprepared to deal with its outlook.121

    However, if it were true that the Deuteronomistic authors understand ’aserâ in the passages involved as a goddess (as the advocates maintain) and if their work is an ideologically charged polemic (as the advocates also claim, rightly in my view), why should its viewpoint regarding the nature of ’aserâ as a goddess during the monarchy be accepted as historically reliable? In short, the appeal to the ideological character of the Deuteronomistic History cuts as readily against those who accept ’aserâ as a goddess; it might be argued that advocates are the scholars taken in by the ideological perspective of the Deuteronomistic History. On the whole, I find this particular line of discussion unproductive.

    Furthermore, if one were inclined to draw psychological inferences about scholars (pace Loretz), one might make the counterclaim that the Zeitgeist of our age psychologically preconditions advocates to desire to discover a goddess in ancient Israel. In short, psychological arguments are tendentious, and barring clear evidence, implicitly ad hominem (or, ad feminam).

   Finally with respect to the biblical discussion, The Early History of God proposed that the demise of the goddess' cult would have begun by the end of the pre-monarchic period. However, this position too needs to be revisited and qualified. So much relies on an argument from silence especially where the tenth and ninth centuries are involved. Accordingly, one might see the duration of the goddess' cult later and situate the beginning of the symbol's career apart from the goddess by the end of the ninth century. It is hard to be precise on this point. Different rates of change may apply in different areas or social segments or movements, and so it is possible that the transition took place in some quarters even later. The discussion warrants considerably greater circumspection in the matter of the biblical evidence.

   The discussion of main inscriptional evidence from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud has continued to revolve around the grammatical interpretation of l’srth. Scholars continue to debate whether the name of the goddess can take a pronominal suffix.122 There seems to be a deadlock over this issue. For scholars wishing to obviate this difficulty and to see Asherah as a monarchic period Israelite goddess, they take refuge in the view that the word involved is instead the symbol of the ’aserâ which symbolizes the goddess. In addition to the important grammatical question, there are semantic issues affecting the interpretation of the noun as either the goddess's name or the symbol in its putative capacity of referring to the goddess.

    If l’srth in the inscriptions from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud refers to the goddess ("and by/to his Asherah"), then it is unclear what "his Asherah" means. Only by assuming an ellipsis of "his consort, Asherah" or the like does the word as a reference to the goddess' name make reasonable sense. If l’srth means "his asherah" referring to the symbol (surely the most reasonable view grammatically, as advocates generally hold), then "his asherah" should denote something that is not hers, but "his." On this point, Zevit correctly asks: "What would it have meant to say that the goddess belonged to or was possessed by Yahweh?"123 I would therefore remain partial to the answer proposed in the first edition of this book, namely that a symbol had earlier referred to the goddess by the same name, but it came to function by the time of the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud inscriptions as part of Yahweh's symbolic repertoire, possibly with older connotations associated with the goddess; in other words, the asherah was "his." Older connotations of the goddess may have continued in the literary record despite the demise of her cult.

   The contribution made by the Tell Miqne (Ekron) inscriptions to this discussion depends on their interpretation. The excavator of the site, S. Gitin, understood the words ’srt or qds in the inscriptions as the name and title ("Holy One") of the goddess.124 Given the Phoenician cognates for these words and the resemblances of the Ekron script with Phoenician writing, others have preferred to view these words respectively as "shrine" and "holy" (place).125 This is not to deny that the site knew at least one goddess. The goddess called "PTGYH, his lady," is attested in an important inscription from Miqne.126 The identity of this goddess is disputed; offered as options are Pidray known from Ugaritic texts, Pothnia (assuming a scribal error) or Pythogaia, both known from the Aegean.127 However, this figure may have no bearing on the references to ’srt and qds in the epigraphic evidence from Miqneh.

   In conclusion, I am not opposed in theory to the possibility that Asherah was an Israelite goddess during the monarchy. My chief objection to this view is that it has not been demonstrated, given the plausibility of alternative views. By the same token, the case has not been disproved, and I must concede that I may be wrong. It may be only a matter of time before superior evidence attesting to Asherah's cult in monarchic Israel is discovered.


5. In Retrospect

   As the preceding sections illustrate, the landscape of academic research has continued to develop mostly in ways that are intellectually challenging and refreshing. Despite the advances discussed in the first section above and the desiderata addressed in the second section, a new edition of The Early History of God may serve as an introductory work to Yahweh and other major deities in ancient Israel. In this second edition, I have been able to correct errors, prune some of the more dubious citations, and modify some of the larger discussion. I am also pleased to be able to update the most important bibliography and primary data. Readers interested in a more complete and recent discussion of the issues would benefit from perusing Zevit's important book, The Religions of Ancient Israel. If readers wish to know more about what I think, my views particularly on polytheism and monotheism are explored in my recent book, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism (published in 2001).

   In some ways, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism reads like a sequel to The Early History of God. The former builds on the latter in an effort to develop a more sustained analysis of the development of monotheism in the seventh and sixth centuries. In a sense, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism picks up where the discussion of monotheism in chapters six and seven of The Early History of God leaves off. (Accordingly, some of the processes prior to monotheism, such as convergence and differentiation, hallmarks of The Early History of God, are presumed in The Origins of Biblical Monotheism.)

    The new book also revisits the Ugaritic texts and early biblical evidence and makes a number of suggestions about how conceptual unity informing polytheism in the Ugaritic texts may help scholars to understand monotheistic formulations found in the Bible. The Origins of Biblical Monotheism also contains more theoretical considerations left aside in The Early History of God. In order to make the connections between the two books easier to follow, I have included numerous citations to The Origins of Biblical Monotheism in this second edition of The Early History of God. This has also given me the opportunity to fill out some points (such as the original home of Yahweh in Edom/Midian/Teman and his original profile as a warrior-god as well as the process leading to his assimilation into the highland pantheon, headed by El along with his consort, Asherah, and populated further by Baal and other deities). By the same token, I have advanced a number of further points in this second edition not found in the first edition or in The Origins of Biblical Monotheism. Despite their flaws, it is my hope that these two books will contribute toward future studies offering a more sophisticated history of religions analysis and synthesis for ancient Israel.

   I would like to close with some acknowledgements and thanks. In retrospect, the aid offered by those recognized in the preface to the first edition is all the more appreciated. Morever, I am grateful to the reviewers of the first edition of the book (G. Ahlström, L. Boadt, D. Edelman, D. N. Freedman, R. S. Hendel, L. K. Handy, T. J. Lewis, O. Loretz, N. Lohfink, S. B. Parker, J. G. Taylor and Z. Zevit), as well as other scholars who have commented on The Early History of God (among others, J. Day, D. V. Edelman, J. Hadley, T. N. D. Mettinger and K. van der Toorn). All of the responses have been extremely helpful, and I am very grateful for them.

    I wish also to express my thanks to Eerdmans for its interest in publishing a second edition of this work and for their help in producing it. Patrick Miller generously agreed to provide a forward to this edition, and I am very grateful to him for his reflections. I am also thankful for the learning I've received from my students and colleagues in the Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies as well as the Religion and Ancient Studies programs at New York University. I wish to "update" my thanks to my family, the joy of my life. My wife, Liz Bloch-Smith, has offered constant professional help and personal support (including suggesting improvements for this preface). Our three children, Benjamin, Rachel and Shulamit, have contributed in ways more wonderful than they will ever know. The two editions of this book mark their progress thus far in their lives: Benjamin, four years old at the time when the first edition was finished, is now sixteen; Rachel was two, but is now fourteen; and Shula is now ten. Finally, the first edition's dedication to my father, Donald Eugene Smith, feels even more true now than it did in 1990.

[1] For references, see below p. OOO.

[2] For references, see below p. OOO.

[3] For the Bethsaida stele, see below p. OOO; for the Tel Dan plaque, p. OOO; and for the medallion, p. OOO.

[4] For references, see the section III below entitled Asherah/asherah Revisited and Chapter 3.

[5] Loretz, Ugarit und die Bibel; Kanaanäische Götter und Religion im Alten Testament (Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 1990).

[6] Keel and Uehlinger, Göttinen, Götter und Gottessymbole, Questiones disputatae 134 (Fribourg: Herder, 1992).

[7] Keel and Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses and Images of God in Ancient Israel, trans. T. Trapp (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1998).

[8] Herrmann, Von Gott und den Göttern; Gesammelte Aufsätze zum Alten Testament, BZAW 259 (Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 1999).

[9] Wyatt, Serving the Gods (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000).

[10] Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, JSOTSup 265 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001).

[11] Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible (DDD), ed. K. van der Toorn, B. Becking and P. W. van der Horst (Leiden/Boston/Köln: Brill, 1995).

[12] Del Olmo Lete, La Religión Cananea según la liturgia de Ugarit; Estudio textuel, Aula Orientalis Supplementa 3 (Barcelona: Editorial AUSA, 1992).

[13] Del Olmo Lete, Canaanite Religion according to the Liturgical Texts of Ugarit, trans. W. G. E. Watson (Bethesda, MD: CDL, 1999).

[14] Del Olmo Lete, ed., Semitas Occidentales (Emar, Ugarit, Hebreaos, Fenicios, Arameos, Arabes preislámicos) by D. Arnaud, G. del Olmo Lete, J. Teixidor and F. Bron, Mitología y Religión del Oriente Antiguo II/2 (Barcelona: Editorial AUSA, 1995).

[15] Niehr, Religionen in Israels Umwelt; Einführung in die nordwestsemitischen Religionen Syrien-Palästinas, Ergänzungsband 5 zum Alten Testament, Die Neue Echter Bibel (Würzburg: Echter, 1998). Other important works include: J.-L. Cunchillos, Manual de Estudios Ugariticos (Madrid: CSIC, 1992); W. G. E. Watson and N. Wyatt, eds., Handbook for Ugaritic Studies, HdO 1/39 (Leiden/Boston/Köln: Brill, 1999). See also M. Dijkstra, "Semitic Worship at Serabit el-Khadem (Sinai)," ZAH 10 (1997): 89-97, which announces I. D. G. Biggs and M. Dijkstra, Corpus of Proto-Sinaitic Inscriptions (CPSI) (AOAT 41; in preparation).

[16] Pomponio and Xella, Les dieux d'Ebla; Étude analytique des divinités éblaïtes à l'époque des archives royales du IIIe millénaire, AOAT 245 (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1997).

[17] Lipinski, Dieux et déesses de l'univers phénicien et punique, Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 64, Studia Phoenicia 14 (Leuven: Uitgeverij Peeters & Departement Oosterse Studies, 1995).

[18] Albertz, Religionsgeschichte Israels in alttestamentlicher Zeit, Das Alte Testament Deutsch (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1992).

[19] Albertz, A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period, trans. J. Bowden, OTL (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox, 1994).

[20] Miller, The Religion of Ancient Israel (London: SPCK; Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2000).

[21] Zevit, The Religions of Ancient Israel; A Synthesis of Parallelactic Approaches (London/New York: Continuum, 2001).

[22] See also F. M. Cross, From Epic to Canon; History and Literature in Ancient Israel (Baltimore/London: Johns Hopkins, 1998).

[23] These include, by year: Ein Gotte allein? JHWH-Verehrung und biblischer Monotheismus im Kontext der israelitischen und altorientalischen Religionsgeshichte, ed. W. Dietrich and M. A. Klopfenstein, OBO 139 (Freiburg: Universitätsverlag; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1994); Ugarit and the Bible; Proceedings of the International Symposium on Ugarit and the Bible. Manchester, September 1992, ed. G. J. Brooke, A. H. W. Curtis and J. F. Healey, UBL 11 (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1994); The Triumph of Elohim; From Yahwisms to Judaisms, ed. D. V. Edelman (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996); Ugarit, Religion and Culture; Proceedings of the International Colloquium on Ugarit, Religion and Culture. Edinburgh, July 1994. Essays Presented in Honour of Professor John C. L. Gibson, ed. N. Wyatt, W. G. E. Watson and J. B. Lloyd, UBL 12 (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1996); "Und Mose schrieb dieses Lied auf"; Studien zum Alten Testament und zum Alten Orient. Festschrift für Oswald Loretz zur Vollendung seines 70. Lebenjahres mit Beiträgen von Freunden, Schülern und Kollegen, ed. M. Dietrich and I. Kottsieper, AOAT 250 (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1998); and The Crisis of Israelite Religion; Transformation of Religious Tradition in Exilic and Post-Exilic Times, ed. B. Becking and M. C. A. Korpel, Oudtestamentische Studiën XLII (Leiden/Boston/Köln: Brill, 1999).

[24] Niehr, Der höchste Gott; Alttestamenticher JHWH-Glaube im Kontext syrisch-kannanäischer Religion des 1. Jahrtausends v. Chr., BZAW 190 (Berlin/New York: de Gruyter, 1990). Cf. the response of K. Engelkern, "BA‘ALSAMEM: Eine Auseinandersetzung mit der monographie von H. Niehr," ZAW 108 (1996): 233-48, 391-407. An English summary of Niehr's work can be found in his essay, "The Rise of YHWH in Judahite and Israelite Religion: Methodological and Religio-Historical Aspect," in The Triumph of Elohim; From Yahwisms to Judaisms, ed. D. V. Edelman (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 45-72.

[25] De Moor, The Rise of Yahwism; Roots of Israelite Monotheism, Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium 91 (Leuven: Peeters/University Press, 1990; second edition, 1997).

[26] Wyatt, Myths of Power; A Study of Royal Power and Ideology in Ugaritic and Biblical Tradition, UBL 13 (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1996).

[27] Gnuse, No Other Gods; Emergent Monotheism in Israel, JSOTSup 241 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997).

[28] Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism; Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (Oxford/New York: Oxford, 2001). For further discussion of how this book relates to The Early History of God, see the end of this preface.

[29] Aspects of Monotheism; How God is One, ed. H. Shanks and J. Meinhardt (Washington: Bibical Archaeology Society, 1997).

[30] For example, by year: W. H. Schmidt, ">>Jahwe und...<<: Anmerkungen zur sog. Monotheismus-Debatte," in Die Hebräische Bibel und ihre zweifache Nachgeschichte; Festschrift für Rolf Rendtorff zum 65. Geburstag, ed. E. Blum, C. Macholz and E. W. Stegemann (Neukirchener-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1990), 435-47; M. Weippert, "Synkretismus und Monotheismus," in Kultur und Konflikt, ed. J. Assman and D. Harth, Edition Suhrkamp N. S. 612 (Frankfurt am Main: Surkamp, 1990), 143-79; G. Ahn, "'Monotheismus' - 'Polytheismus': Grenzen und Möglichkeiten einer Klassifikation von Gottesvorstellungen," in Mesopotamica - Ugaritica - Biblica; Festschrift für Kurt Bergerhof zur Vollendung seines 70. Lebensjahres am 7. Mai 1992, ed. M. Dietrich and O. Loretz, AOAT (Kevelaer: Butzon & Bercker; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1993), 1-24; T. L. Thompson, "The Intellectual Matrix of Early Biblical Narrative: Inclusive Monotheism in Persian Period Palestine," in The Triumph of Elohim; From Yahwisms to Judaisms, ed. D. V. Edelman (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996), 107-24; A. Schenker, "Le monothéisme israeelite: un dieu qui transcende le monde et les dieux," Bib 78 (1997): 436-48; W. H. C. Propp, "Monotheism and 'Moses'. The Problem of Early Israelite Religion," UF 31 (1999): 537-75.

[31] For further listings and discussion, see the review article of O. Loretz, "Religionsgeschichte(n) Altsyrien-Kanaans und Israel-Judas," UF 30 (1998): 889-907.

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