The Early History of God
by Prof. Mark S. Smith
The Early History of God
by Prof. Mark S. Smith
Early Israelite culture cannot be separated easily from the culture of “Canaan” - Mark S. Smith (The Early History of God)
Biblical evidence is similarly problematic. Though it contains much historical information, the accuracy of this information is complicated by centuries of textual transmission and interpretation.
Moreover, in some cases the biblical record complicates interpretational matters. The difficulty of distinguishing between Israelites and Canaanites is exacerbated by biblical references references to several groups besides Israelites and Canaanites. Gibeonites (Josh. 9:15; cf. 2 Sam. 21), Jerahmeelites (1 Sam. 27:10; 30:29), Kenites (Judg. 1:16; 4:11; 1 Sam. 27:10; 30:29), the descendants of Rahab (Josh. 6:25), Caleb the Kenizzite (Josh. 14:13-14; 21:12), and the Canaanite cities of Hepher and Tirzah became part of Israel (cf. Exod. 6:15).
Presumably other groups and places were absorbed into Israel as well...other groups are mentioned as being dispossessed of the land by the Israelites: “Hittites, Hivites, Perizzites, Girgashites, Amorites, and Jebusites” (Josh. 3:10; 9:1; 11:3; 12:8).
The highlands of Israel in the Iron Age (ca. 1200-587) reflect continuity with the “Canaanite” (or better, West Semitic)
...although Israelite and Canaanite societies cannot be distinguished on the basis of archaeological evidence,184 archaeological features do not constitute all the criteria for making historical distinctions;
the Israelites may have perceived themselves as a people different from the Canaanites. Separate religious traditions of Yahweh, separate traditions of origins in Egypt for at least some component of Israel, and separate separate geographical holdings in the hill country contributed to the Israelites’ sense of difference from their Canaanite neighbors inhabiting the coast and the valleys.
The Canaanite character of Israelite culture largely shaped the many ways ancient Israelites communicated their religious understanding of Yahweh.
the people of the highlands who came to be known as Israel comprised numerous groups, including Canaanites, whose heritage marked every aspect of Israelite society. In sum, Iron I Israel was largely Canaanite in character.
Israel inherited local cultural traditions from the Late Bronze Age, and its culture was largely continuous with the Canaanite culture of the coast and valleys during the Iron I period.
...Canaanite and Israelite material culture cannot be distinguished by specific features in the judges period.
The evidence of the similarities between Canaanite and Israelite societies has led to a major change in the general understanding of the relationship between these two societies.
Rather than viewing them as two separate cultures, some scholars define Israelite culture as a subset of Canaanite culture.
Though Hebrew and Canaanite are the linguistic labels applied to the languages of the two periods in this region,160 they cannot be easily distinguished in the Iron I period.
Canaanite and Hebrew so closely overlap that the ability to distinguish them is premised more on historical information than linguistic criteria.
The Canaanite (or, West Semitic) background of Israel’s culture extended to the realm of religion.
This is evident from the terminology for cultic sacrifices and personnel.
...separate geographical holdings in the hill country contributed to the Israelites’ sense of difference from their Canaanite neighbors inhabiting the coast and the valleys.
Polytheism not Monotheism
Israel’s major deities in the period of the Judges were not numerous. Genesis 49:25-26 possibly point to an early stage when Israel knew three deities, El, Asherah, and Yahweh. In addition, Baal constituted a fourth deity in Israel’s early religious history.
...the oldest stages of Israel’s religious literature exhibit some limited signs of Yahweh having assimilated the imagery of the primary deities.
The convergence of titles and imagery of deities to the personage of Yahweh appears to have been part of a wider religious development of conflation of religious motifs in Israelite tradition.
...according to the available evidence, Israelite religion in its earliest form did not contrast markedly with the religions of its Levantine neighbors in either number or configuration of deities. Rather, the number of deities in Israel was relatively typical for the region.
First God of Israel
The original god of Israel was El...the name of Israel is not a Yahwistic name with the divine element of Yahweh, but an El name, with the element, ’ēl. This fact would suggest that El was the original chief god of the group named Israel.
El was not a threat to the cult of Yahweh in ancient Israel.
Son of EL
Yet early on, Yahweh is understood as Israel’s god in distinction to El. Deuteronomy 32:8-9 casts Yahweh in the role of one of the sons of El, here called ‘elyôn:
...the old religious lore of a deity such as El was inherited by the Yahwistic priesthood in Israel.
Yahweh, a tribal god of the highlands, emerged as the national god of Israel (1 Kings 20:23).
In the period of the monarchy, the male titles of El as well as Baal were regarded as epithets of Yahweh,
imagery regularly applied to El and Baal in Northwest Semitic literature was attributed to Yahweh at a relatively early point in Israel’s religious history.
“And God said to Moses, ‘I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as El Shadday, but by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them.’” (Exodus 6: 2-3)...This passage reflects the fact that Yahweh was unknown to the patriarchs. Rather, they worshiped the Canaanite god, El.
In time, El and Yahweh were identified, while Yahweh and Baal co-existed and later competed as warrior-gods.
At an early point, Israelite tradition identified El with Yahweh or presupposed this equation.
The author of Exodus 6:2-3 perhaps did not know of or make this distinction; rather, he identified Yahweh with the traditions of the great Canaanite god, El.
The names with the element of the name of El historically reflect the identification of Yahweh and El by the time these names may appear in the attested inscriptions.
In Israel the characteristics and epithets of El became part of the repertoire of descriptions of Yahweh.
El is an elderly bearded figure enthroned, sometimes before individual deities, sometimes before the divine council, known by a variety of expressions.
...the motifs associated with Baal in Canaanite literature are widely manifest in Israelite religion.
...worship of the Phoenician storm-god Baal at the expense of Yahweh’s cult occurred during of the reign of Ahab, yet that does not appear to have been the case in the time of the Judges.
The evidence may point to a more complex picture, in which the cult of the old Canaanite god Baal was deemed tolerable by some Israelites.
...the characteristics of Baal and Yahweh probably overlapped. There is indirect evidence for this conclusion in what is considered Israel’s oldest poetry.
The inclusion of traditional language of the warrior-god suited Yahweh, the patron deity of a newly emerging nation-state.
While the cult of Yahweh continued in the northern kingdom, Baal perhaps was elevated as the patron god of the northern monarchy, thus creating some sort of theopolitical unity between the kingdom of the north and the city of Tyre.
From the cumulative evidence it appears that on the whole Baal was an accepted Israelite god, that criticism of his cult began in the ninth or eighth century,
Despite royal attempts at reform, Baal worship continued...Finally, Josiah purged the Jerusalem temple of cultic paraphernalia designed for Baal.
Phoenician Baal, on the contrary, represented a threat in the ninth century and onward, especially thanks to the efforts of Ahab and Jezebel to elevate him in the northern kingdom...In Israel during the Judges period, however, Baal was probably no more a threat than El. Later tradition did not view the figure of Baal in these terms; indeed, later sources treat Baal as a threat to Yahwism from the era of the Judges down to the period of the monarchy.
Jeremiah 2:27 has been understood as a reference to Asherah as the consort of Yahweh.
In recent years it has been claimed that Asherah was an Israelite goddess and the consort of Yahweh.
The asherah is erected next to the altar of a god (Deut. 16:21; Judg. 6:25-26).
The asherah was a religious symbol within Yahwistic cult in both northern and southern capitals.
Jeremiah 2:27 may indicate that Asherah was a goddess in Israel and the consort of Yahweh during the waning decades of the Judean monarchy.
...it might be inferred that many other quarters of Israelite society either accepted the asherah or at least did not oppose it...Olyan observes that no prophet opposed the asherah until the eighth century.
Just as there is little evidence for El as a separate Israelite god in the era of the Judges, so Asherah is poorly attested as a separate Israelite goddess in this period. Arguments for Asherah as a goddess in this period rest on Judges 6 and elsewhere where she is mentioned with Baal.
Yet the story in Judges 6 focuses much more attention on Baal worship and none on Asherah. Only the asherah, the symbol that bears the name of the goddess, is criticized.
If this interpretation of Genesis 49:24-26 is correct, then El and Asherah were Israelite deities distinguished from Yahweh, Yahweh, who is invoked separately in verse.
The asherah was a wooden object symbolizing a tree.
...perhaps influenced by the phenomenon of sacred groves in Hellenistic religion.
Various pieces of iconography indicate that the tree was the Canaanite symbol of the goddess and represented her presence.
...the image of the tree in Hosea 14:10 is unique in describing Yahweh as the tree - MS
Yahweh of the Amorites
Not only can the imagery and titles of Yahweh as storm-god be found in the Ugaritic texts; the political background of these descriptions of Yahweh can also be traced to the second-millennium West Semitic material from the city of Mari on the Euphrates River.
That Anat was not a goddess in Iron Age Israel seems clear. Apart from proper names, evidence for her cult is virtually nonexistent...her imagery also became part of the repertoire of martial descriptions for Yahweh.
The bloody imagery of Yahweh seems to have reflected a complex dependence on imagery for Anat.
Egyptian texts of the New Kingdom period used the names of Anat and Astarte to dramatize pharaonic prowess.
“Behold, the name of Yahweh comes from afar, burning with his anger, and in thick rising smoke, and his tongue is a devouring fire” - Isaiah 30:27
Yahweh as Androgyne
While from the perspective of the ancient Near East, Yahweh constituted a male god, nonetheless some female features or traits, perhaps traceable to the assimilation of the goddess Asherah, were ascribed to him.
Just as some features of El and Baal can be perceived in the nature of Yahweh, it is possible to trace some female images for Yahweh to the goddess Asherah or at least her symbol, the asherah.
The attribution of female roles to gods was by no means an Israelite innovation...Yahweh was described in both male and female imagery.
The amount of solar language used for Yahweh is quite limited in the Bible.
Solar worship in this early period is likewise difficult to establish. Solar imagery for Yahweh developed during the period of the monarchy, perhaps through the influence of monarchic religious ideology.
The eastern orientation of the Jerusalem temple has led to speculative theories regarding the solarized character of Yahweh.
solar language for Yahweh apparently developed in two stages. First, it originated as part of the Canaanite, and more generally Near Eastern, heritage of divine language as an expression of general theophanic luminosity. Like Ningirsu, Assur, and Marduk, Yahweh could be rendered in either solar or storm terms or both together. Second, perhaps under the influence of the monarchy, in the first millennium the sun became one component of the symbolic repertoire of the chief god in Israel just as it did in Assur, Babylon, and Ugarit.
The Canaanite/Israelite tradition of the divine council derived from the setting of the royal court and evolved in accordance with the court terminology of the dominant royal power.
During the Israelite monarchy, the imagery of the divine council continued from its Late Bronze Age antecedents.
Concern for the dead and belief in the dead’s powers derived from Israel’s earliest Canaanite heritage, as reflected in the Ugaritic texts.
Prior to 750 BC, Israelites engaged not only in necromancy but probably in other practices pertaining to the dead...During the Iron Age, other practices associated with the dead were conducted without conflicting with the cult of Yahweh; not even later criticisms recorded in the Bible suggest otherwise.
It would appear also that prior to the seventh century, feeding the dead and funerary practices of mourning and veneration for the dead flourished in various social strata and quarters of Israelite society.
Necromancy and prayer to the dead for help likewise continued for a long time in Jewish society. Communication with the dead is discussed also in a number of Talmudic passages and in intertestamental literature.
Later Jewish literature points to communication with the dead and belief in their powers.
These passages indicate that in the seventh century child sacrifice was a Judean practice performed in the name of Yahweh...It would appear that Jerusalemite cult included child sacrifice under Yahwistic patronage.
...descriptions of child sacrifice in Canaan and Israel specify their largely royal character, as undertaken in moments of crisis.
Philo of Byblos describes the royal setting of child sacrifice: “Among ancient peoples in critically dangerous situations it was customary for the rulers of a city or nation, rather than lose everyone, to provide the dearest of children as a propitiatory sacrifice to the avenging deities. The children thus given up were slaughtered according to a secret ritual.”
Child sacrifice appears also in condemnations against high places. Was child sacrifice an element in the religion of the high places?
Child sacrifice likewise belonged to the traditional religion of high places, assuming the historical veracity of biblical polemics.
Canaanite Influence Acknowledged
The cult of Baal, the symbol of the asherah, the high places, and the cultic practices involving the dead all belonged to Israel’s ancient past, its Canaanite past.
A number of descriptions of El and Baal are highly conspicuous in some biblical depictions of Yahweh.
...the varied forms of Yahwistic cult reflected Israel’s Canaanite background. Similarly, the asherah, high places, necromancy and other practices relating to the dead belonged to Israel’s Canaanite heritage, enjoyed Yahwistic sanction in Israel, but were later condemned in Israel as non-Yahwistic.
This process of convergence continued down through the monarchy until the powers and imagery of Baal were fully assimilated by Yahweh, and it anticipates the later development of monolatry. The incorporation of divine attributes into Yahweh highlights the centrality of Yahweh in Israel’s earliest attested literature.
Second Isaiah (Isa. 45:5-7) gave voice to the monotheistic ideal that Yahweh was the only deity in the cosmos. Not only are the other deities powerless; they are nonexistent.
Like Jeremiah 10, Second Isaiah (Isa. 40:18-20; 41:6-7; 44:9-20; 46:1-13; 48:3-8) stresses the uniqueness of Yahweh in marked contrast with the lifeless, empty idols who represent lifeless, nonexistent deities.
Like Marduk, Yahweh became an “empire-god,” the god of all the nations but in a way that no longer closely tied the political fortunes of Judah to the status of this god.
Many commentators attach great importance to the Exile739 as the formative period for the emergence of Israelite monotheism.