Polytheism, the Religion of Ancient Israel
The Hebrew Bible—what Christians call the Old Testament—records a memorable experience that the prophet Elijah had on Mount Sinai. God had told Elijah to stand there and wait for an encounter with the divine. Then “there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.” These last few words—“a sound of sheer silence”—are sometimes translated as “a still small voice.” But, either way, you get the picture: the Hebrew god, Yahweh, for all the atmospherics surrounding him, was elusive.
This episode, from the first book of Kings, is often cited as a landmark in the history of religion. In “primitive” polytheism, the forces of nature may be inhabited by the gods, or loosely equated with them. But in the monotheism that was taking shape in the Middle East, there would be more distance between nature and divinity. “Unlike the pagan deities, Yahweh was not in any of the forces of nature but in a realm apart,” wrote Karen Armstrong about Elijah’s peak experience in her book A History of God.
The Bible’s classic pagan deity was Baal, worshipped by the much-derided Canaanites and, at times, by deluded Israelites who had strayed from devotion to Yahweh. Baal, as a fertility god, was sometimes called the Lord of Rain and Dew. Yahweh, in contrast, was the Lord of nothing in particular—and of everything; he was the ultimate source of nature’s power, but he didn’t micromanage it; he was as much chairman of the board as chief executive.
This kind of god is often described as more modern than pagan, Baal-like gods, more compatible with a scientific worldview. After all, looking for mechanistic laws of nature wouldn’t make much sense if, as the pagans of Elijah’s day believed, nature was animated by the ever changing moods of various gods. There’s more room for scientific principles to hold sway if there’s just one god, sitting somewhere above the fray—capable of intervening on special occasions, maybe, but typically presiding over a universe of lawful regularity.
“Transcendent” is a term some scholars use to describe this god, while others prefer “remote” or “hidden.” In any event, this is a god that, while less conspicuous than the pagan gods, is more powerful. As the biblical scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann put it in his monumental eight-volume work History of Israelite Religion, “Yahweh does not live in the processes of nature; he controls them.”
Kaufmann, writing in the middle of the twentieth century, saw this and other distinctive traits of Yahweh as evidence that the Hebrew god had been more revolutionary than evolutionary. He rejected the idea that Israelite religion was “an organic outgrowth of the religious milieu” of the Middle East. Rather, the religion of Yahweh was “an original creation of the people of Israel. It was absolutely different from anything the pagan world ever knew.”
Whether Yahweh indeed took shape in such splendid isolation—and whether he took shape as early as Kaufmann and other traditionalists would have it—is an issue to which we’ll return. Meanwhile, it’s important to stress that, however “modern” this “transcendent” god may have been, the Yahweh of Elijah’s time still didn’t possess what many people would call a modern moral sensibility. For example, he wasn’t very tolerant of alternative theological perspectives. In that episode in First Kings, God uses his “still small voice” to instruct Elijah on how to get every Baal worshipper in the vicinity killed. Then, a chapter later, after some Syrians express doubt about the Hebrew god’s power, Yahweh underscores their confusion by producing 127,000 dead Syrians. This god may have spoken softly, but he carried a big stick.
This is of course a common complaint about the monotheism that emerged in the Middle East—that its theology bred belligerent intolerance. Some even see this as an intrinsic property of monotheism; whereas polytheism leaves room for the validity of other peoples’ gods, ardent monotheists, according to this indictment, are allergic to peaceful coexistence.
If that’s true, it’s momentously unfortunate. Christians and Muslims, like Jews, trace their god back to the god that, according to the Bible, revealed himself to Abraham in the second millennium BCE. These three Abrahamic religions have more than three billion adherents, a little over half of the world’s population. And, though all three groups claim the same lineage for their god, they don’t always see each other as worshipping the same god. This perception seems to have lubricated a certain amount of Yahweh-on-Yahweh violence (Crusades, jihads, and so on) that has only reinforced Abrahamic monotheism’s reputation for belligerent intolerance.
So is it true? Is violence part of the character of the Abrahamic god? Is there something about this god—or something about monotheism generically—that has been conducive to slaughter through the ages? The first step in answering that question is to see how the Abrahamic god’s character took shape.
You might think this is impossible. If, like me, you grew up with a Sunday school understanding of the scriptures, then you think of God as not having “taken shape” at all. He was there in the beginning, fully formed, and he then gave form to everything else. That’s the story in the Bible, at least. What’s more, serious scholars, including Yehezkel Kaufmann and many he influenced, have analyzed the Bible and come away with a similarly dramatic account of Yahweh’s birth.
But, this isn’t really the story in the Bible, or at least not the whole story. If you read the Hebrew Bible carefully, it tells the story of a god in evolution, a god whose character changes radically from beginning to end.
There’s a problem, however, if you want to watch this story unfold. You can’t just start reading the first chapter of Genesis and plow forward, waiting for God to grow. The first chapter of Genesis was almost certainly written later than the second chapter of Genesis, by a different author. The Hebrew Bible took shape slowly, over many centuries, and the order in which it was written is not the order in which it now appears. Fortunately, biblical scholarship can in some cases give us a pretty good idea of which texts followed which. This knowledge of the order of composition is a kind of “decoder” that allows us to see a pattern in God’s growth that would otherwise be hidden.
Meanwhile, archaeology has supplemented this decoder with potent interpretive tools. In the early twentieth century, a Syrian peasant plowed up remnants of an ancient Canaanite city called Ugarit. Scholars set about deciphering the Ugaritic language and combing the earth for Ugaritic texts. These texts, along with other vestiges of Canaanite culture unearthed in recent decades, have allowed the assembly of something notably absent from the Hebrew scriptures: the story from the point of view of those Baal-worshipping Canaanites. And, over the past few decades, archaeology has brought another check on the story as told in the Bible. Excavations in the land of the Israelites have clarified their history, sometimes at the expense of the biblical story line.
When you put all this together—a reading of the Canaanite texts, a selective “decoding” of the biblical texts, and a new archaeological understanding of Israelite history—you get a whole new picture of the Abrahamic god. It’s a picture that, on the one hand, absolves Abrahamic monotheism of some of the gravest charges against it, yet on the other hand, challenges the standard basis of monotheistic faith. It’s a picture that renders the Abrahamic god in often unflattering terms, yet charts his maturation and offers hope for future growth. And certainly it’s a picture very different from the one drawn in the average synagogue, church, or mosque.…