Sunday, June 6, 2010

How Many Gods?

The religion of ancient Israel was rather different from the Jewish religion of today (or of Jesus's day). This is clear to anyone who actually tries to read the Old Testament without imposing their own theology on it.

For example, the famous First Commandment (Exodus 20:2-3) reads:

"I am Yahweh your God ... you shall have no other gods before me."

Note what this verse does not say: it doesn't say that no other gods exist, and it doesn't say that you can't believe in other gods (though it goes on to say you can't make any idols or bow down to or serve them). It just says that Yahweh is to be the primary god, and the only one worthy of worship.

Likewise the famous Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4:

"Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one."
This has often been taken as a fundamental declaration of monotheism. But recall what we learned last time: Israelite religion was the result of combining Yahweh worship and El worship. So the original meaning of this verse might have been quite different: it might have been a declaration of identity, Yahweh = El.

The Old Testament often makes mention of other gods. Some of the time, of course, these are foreign gods and are to be shunned. But in some places, the "gods" are mentioned in a positive way:

Exodus 15.11:
Who is like you among the gods, Yahweh?
Daniel 11:36

...God of gods...
 Psalm 29:1

Ascribe to Yahweh, sons of gods,
Ascribe to Yahweh, glory and strength...

This, as we have already seen, shows the influence of the Canaanite religion from which Israelite religion developed. But it also shows that other gods were not absolutely denied or forbidden. So ancient Israelite religion is sometimes called monolatry rather than monotheism: only one god is worshiped; more than one may be acknowledged.

One must realize, though, that the texts that survive as the Old Testament only represent one version of Israelite religion. This is, in some sense, the "official" Israelite religion: it was the version supported by the educated elite - or at least some subgroup of that elite. What actual Israelites were doing might have been quite different from what their leaders wanted them to be doing. And, in fact, it was.

There are two different routes to this conclusion: the texts themselves, and the archeological evidence.

Throughout the Old Testament we see the Israelites "turning away" from Yahweh to worship other gods. No sooner has Moses brought the Commandments down from Sinai than he discovers the people making an idol (Exodus 32). Again and again the people turn to other gods and are punished for it. Clearly, this is a theme that many of the Old Testament authors agreed on: worship other gods and you will be punished, worship Yahweh alone and you will be saved. But even though many (or most) of these incidents are not historical, they must reflect a historical reality at least for the time of the author, or the theme would not keep appearing.

(There is a maxim in historical studies to the effect that if you want to know what people were doing, look at what was being prohibited. This seems counter-intuitive at first. Surely if there is a command "Do not kill," then (good) Israelites didn't kill, and if one says, "Don't worship other gods," then they didn't worship other gods, right? But imagine this: you go into an unknown church on a Sunday and find in the bulletin, written in large print at the bottom, "Please turn off cell phones during the service." That wouldn't be there unless people were leaving cell phones on, would it? Now imagine finding instead, "Please do not run naked in the aisles during the service." Your reaction, no doubt, would be, "What kind of crazy church is this???" In other words, you assume that, if it is prohibited, it must be something that sometimes occurs. Most churches don't have a written prohibition on nakedness - not because it's allowed, but because it just doesn't ever happen.)

The case of Asherah is particularly interesting. As we saw in the previous post, Asherah was the consort of El in Canaanite religion. In Judges 6:25 we find some sort of Asherah symbol associated with Baal,

That same night the LORD said to Gideon, "Take the second bull from your father's herd, the one seven years old. Tear down your father's altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah pole beside it..."

Again we find the theme of Israelites turning away to other gods, and then returning to Yahweh. But archaeology tells a different story. Inscriptions found at Quntilat 'Ajrud and at Khirbet el-Kom read

"Blessed be [someone] by Yahweh and his Asherah."
Here, instead of being a foreign god, Asherah appears as part of the cult of Yahweh. Combine this with the fact that references to Asherah are found in Judges, Deuteronomy, and 1 and 2 Kings, and it is clear that the cult of Asherah was a long-running affair among the Israelites.

Possibly related are the large numbers of female figurines that have been found in excavations at Israelite sites, even in the royal palace at Ramath Rachel! Such idols, of course, were explicitly forbidden by the "official" religion. Their prevalence shows that, whatever common Israelites were doing, it was not limited to the officially sanctioned forms.

I can't do better than to end with a quote from archaeologist William Dever (from the Wiki article):

We do not know for sure what the belief in the god Yahweh meant for the average Israelite. Although the biblical text tells us that most Israelites worshipped Yahweh alone, we know that this is not true... The discoveries of the last fifteen years have given us a great deal of information about the worship of the ancient Israelites. It seems that we have to take the worship of the goddess Asherah more seriously than ever before.

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