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Rise of God

Introduction to Biblical Archaeology 5:
The Rise of God

by Joel Ng (2005)


The Judaeo-Christian faith and the study of God within this faith has long been a central question in Western culture. Yet a single God as the omnipotent ruler of the universe is in fact a relatively late tradition in the history of society. The Bible itself depicts the history of exclusive monotheism as emerging at Mount Sinai, with the declaration that "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Even then the following centuries were depicted as alternations between lapses and revivals of faith, a model that has taken on greater meaning within theological expositions.

The Enlightenment moved the emphasis toward critical study of religion as the product of human agencies and structures, as successive philosophers questioned or attacked the concept of God and the religious institutions whether in the traditions of Feuerbach, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, Durkheim, or others. In more conservative circles, the essence of monotheism remains intact, while in departments of religious studies, the idea of God has become increasingly problematic. What has often been lacking in discussions of the God of the Judaeo-Christian tradition is the origins from which he emerged as the identifiable and distinct God he is today. While it may seem irrelevant or marginal to the questions raised by philosophers, theologians, and sociologists, it is helpful to be mindful of the history of God.

In this piece, we will depart somewhat from archaeology per se and move more into textual analysis, as ancient texts and their interpretation shed a great deal of light on the early history of God. I am greatly reliant on Mark S. Smith's two works on the subject, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel and more importantly, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. A summary of his views can be found here.

The tentative nature of interpretation should provide a warning for the readers of atheistic or conservative Christian or Jewish inclinations. This piece only seeks to place a context on the emergence of Yahweh, who would become central figure in so much of Western thought. Unfortunately, because of the history of interpretations of religion, this piece may appear strident in the constant warnings given to the reader, but it is only there in the hopes that greater care will be taken than what has come before. In reading texts, we develop theories of explanation to account for them, and these theories must be understood as susceptible to our preconceived notions, and so we must tread carefully.

Some Preliminary Remarks on Divinity

Understanding the term "god" in today's context will always be influenced by our modern understanding of "God" as a supreme ruler of the cosmos (or at least prime mover). But when we examine what it meant to be a "god" in Ancient Near Eastern societies, this understanding often leads to anachronistic reading. When we examine those things known as "divine" (ilu in Akkadian, 'il in Ugaritic, 'el in Biblical Hebrew), we find a multitude of figures that do not relate necessarily to our ideas of god:

[M]onstrous cosmic enemies; demons; some living kings; dead kings or the dead more generally; deities' images and standards as well as standing stones; and other cultic items and places. In addition to words for "divine", Akkadian uses a special sign (called a "determinative") to mark divinity. The special sign for divinity applies not only to deities but also to many other phenomena such as demons, stars, the images of monstrous creatures, the determined order (šimtu), and legendary human heroes of old, such as Gilgamesh and Enkidu.

Mark S. Smith, 2001, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts, Oxford: Oxford University Press, p.6

"Divine" for Smith is "not to be human" as Erra, the Mesopotamian god is chided, "You changed your divine nature and made yourself like a mortal" (cf. Hosea 11:9). If this is so, it then follows that the very ideas of monotheism and polytheism as understood today are anachronistic and not especially applicable to understanding the early beliefs of the Israelites. Indications in the Bible that (when read neutrally) show awareness of other gods (e.g., Exodus 15:11) reinforce this point and we will return to this idea later. We find instead that monotheism was not always in conflict with polytheism as portrayed in the Bible, but that it emerged as a rhetoric to support the monolatrous practices of later Israelites or Judaeans. Arguing for monotheism prior to the seventh century B.C.E. is extremely difficult, as I hope to demonstrate later.

The Texts

Where do we begin in such a vast array of texts to consider? Chronologically speaking, the earliest mythologies belong to Egypt and Sumer, though their influence on the religions of Israel are debatable. Indirect influence also arrives from the Ebla texts, a hoard of writings found at the ancient site of Tell Mardikh in Syria. Unfortunately, these were discovered fairly recently, and not all of them have been published, let alone studied and debated. Much more work has focused on the texts found at Ras-Shamra (ancient Ugarit) and Tell Hariri (ancient Mari), dating to the last half of the second millennium B.C.E., which are themselves influenced by earlier Sumerian and Akkadian accounts. These are perhaps the closest in time and space that we have to early Israelite beliefs, though their relevance has again been questioned. Babylonian parallels in their creation myths are now well-known, suggesting that the two had some influence on each other, or else a common influence dating to an earlier time. Elsewhere, attempts have been made to compare early Greek and Egyptian myths with Hebrew ones.

Drawing parallels between ancient sources will always be contentious, and perhaps illustrate the preconceptions of the theorist rather than really-existing parallels in the texts. We can be sure that there was contact between these civilisations through trade, wars, diplomatic communications and such, and so we cannot also go in the opposite direction to overemphasise the uniqueness of these myths. However, it would also be wrong to think that contact implied understanding between cultures. One need only look at the relations between followers of Judaism and Christianity for nearly two millennia to realise that at a deep level, few people from one side really understood much of the other. In working with external influences, it is important first to understand the religions on their own terms, as close as possible to the way the people who believed in them might have seen them, and likewise, how they would have viewed people belonging to groups they classified as "others".

One concept to introduce here is "syncretism", which can be understood as the merging of beliefs from different sources, such that those holding these beliefs view them as their own. As such, we will draw on such similar texts when they can help enlighten our look into the ancient beliefs, always aware of the potential pitfalls in this exercise. In looking at syncretism, we will note that it is a long and complicated process, with little evidence of easy transplantation (or co-option) from one group to another. We must forget about trying to get at the "real" situation, but rather construct theories to help us understand their societies and what they might help to tell us about our own beliefs.

Mendenhall and Gottwald Again: Early Theories of the Development of Monotheism

Initially, archaeologists and biblical scholars largely assumed that the history of biblical beliefs was accurate, recalling the optimism of W.F. Albright, or else that there was insufficient information to challenge the biblical account. However, as information from Ras-Shamra and other places began to filter out, a new direction opened up to study the history of Israelite religions.

If we recall the earlier "Peasant Revolt" theories of George Mendenhall and Norman Gottwald, we see these theories tied to explaining the origins of monotheism. Mendenhall argued that the newly discovered form of religion, monotheism, was the impetus for a revolt against the old polytheistic order, permitting a unification of the previously acephelous tribes (that is, with no governing heirarchy). Its break with previous forms of religion necessitated a break with the old social order, and the common covenant with Yahweh provided the shared interests necessary for the development of a theocratic state.

Religion furnished the foundation for a unity far beyond anything that had existed before, and the covenant appears to have been the only conceivable instrument through which the unity was brought about and expressed.


What happened at Sinai was the formation of a new unity where none had existed before ... a real elevation to a new and unfamiliar ground in the formation of a community took place—a formation based on common obligations rather than common interests—on ethic rather than on covetousness.

George Mendenhall, 1973, The Tenth Generation: The Origins of the Biblical Traditions, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, p. 16,21.

Though not as sophisticated archaeologically, the great sociologist Max Weber argued similarly that Moses' monotheism created a new perspective of confronting social problems that would prove to be radically successful.

While Gottwald accepted the revolt, he argued instead that the social revolution which brought about a more egalitarian society resulted in mono-Yahwism. The people did not have a common commitment to or covenant with Yahweh, but instead a commitment to removing feudalism and maintaining a new egalitarian society. For Gottwald,

the fundamental intention of Israel to limit the exercise of power by any one group ... in order to ensure egalitarianism ... enhanced the probability that the community would adopt or, as necessary, create a religion that did not usurp communal resources or communal power, but rather legitimised the egalitarian impulse.

Norman Gottwald, 1980, The Tribes of Yahweh: A sociology of the religion of liberated Israel, 1250-1050 B.C.E., London: SCM Press, p. 617.

Whatever the case, they both postulated an early development of monotheism around the time of the Judges (since neither subscribed to a literal Exodus), and both saw it in functional terms.

The case for early dating is somewhat backed up by the study of "theophoric names"—names that bear reference to a deity (my name is a classic theophoric name: "Joel" is literally Yah + El to mean "the Lord is God"). Jeffrey Tigay's study of theophoric names has shown that of 738 Israelite names found on inscriptions, 351 are Yahwistic, 48 have 'el, which may refer to Yahweh, and 339 make no known reference to deities. That leaves 48 bearing theophoric names to others, including Baal (however, Baal also meant "lord" so it is not necessarily a sign of Baal-worship). We should note of course that this may attest to the popularity of Yahweh, but says nothing about monotheism per se. We also realise that there are a variety of reasons for naming a child as something, which may not be religious in nature (today, the situation is clear where many non-Christian parents will name their children after characters in the Bible, so common are names like John, David, Mark, and so on, though these examples are not theophoric except for John).

The Artifacts and the Hunt

When we examine the artifacts left by people of the Iron Age, we firstly must note that the land called Israel was an extremely diverse place. Although the Bible leaves plenty of hints of this, for the most part many of us would have grown up thinking of Israel as a "nation" akin to our modern understanding of what nations are. As we saw earlier, the Late Bronze (Amarna) Age had been one of city states and petty rivalries, similar to the Greek model prior to Alexander. The centralisation of the Israelite kingdom never fully occurred, nor did such a system get introduced in the later Judah. As discussed before, the United Monarchy, if it existed at all, never matched the Biblical portrait in the splendour of the Biblical David or Solomon.

During this period, the Philistines, Edomites, Aramaeans, and Israelites all shared the land we now think of as "Israel". Within Israel proper, the Bible tells us of the continuous falling away of the Israelites to foreign gods, so it is little surprise then that cultic artifacts abound throughout these lands, from small personal altars to large temples. In fact, the earliest definite cult sites of the Iron Age come from Tel Miqne, Tel Qasile (both Philistine), Qitmit (Edomite), and Bethsaida Geshur (Aramaean). What is perhaps surprising instead is that so few artifacts relate to Yahwistic worship, though this is mitigated by the Bible's explanation that Judaism was an aniconic religion, prohibiting graven images (idols) except perhaps for cherubim on the ark of the covenant and suchlike. Unfortunately, the religious beliefs of other cultures has not sustained the interest that the ones relating to Judaeo-Christian beliefs have, but in recognising the rich interplay between many of them, the subject can be understood on its own terms.


An intriguing discovery, mostly associated with Tel Dan, has been found at various entrances to the city. Standing stones called massebot, usually in fives, are found along the paths of the gates to the city. Nearby each had a basin which would have contained water. This sort of public cult place has some similarities to the Aramaean Bethsaida-Geshur, where a basin is found alongside undecorated stelae. Avraham Biran has suggested that this practice is indirectly hinted at in 2 Kings 23:8b, "he broke down the bamot (pl.) of the gates (pl.) in the entrance of the gate of Joshua, officer of the city, that is on a man's left in the gate of the city." (Biran's translation) The phrase bamot hasse'arim, "bamot of the gates" had a fixed form, suggesting a common well-defined phenomenon. Similarly it has been suggested that the five stones represented five deities, without disagreeing with Biran's explanation. Although it does not add directly to our story, it attests to the heterogeneity of religious practice in Israel, exactly what the prophets decried.

In this case, we can see further that without texts, we are left to reconstruct the significance of various finds, based on linking seemingly disparate clues together, and leaving us with only tentative reconstructions. Thus it will be the ancient texts and inscriptions that are the key artifacts, because only so much can be speculated about images and icons. The comparison between Hebrew myths and other Semitic and Mesopotamian myths is an intriguing journey, but beyond the scope of this article, though I hope to cover it in a later piece. What we will explore now is a key series of finds, and how they lead to questions (and hopefully some answers) about the emergence of monotheism from a thoroughly polytheistic context.

Yahweh and Asherah

The most important artifacts relating to our exploration are some discoveries that relate to Yahweh and Asherah. At the ancient site of Kuntillet 'Ajrud, a large pottery jar dating to 8th century was discovered with the inscription brkt 'tkm lyhwh šmrn wl'šrth, which has been transliterated to mean "I bless you to Yahweh of Samaria [or Shomron] and his a/Asherah" (this is the ancient equivalent of "I'm praying for you"!). A pictorial scene beside the first depicts two standing figures, with another playing the lyre. Another inscription there states almost the same lines (brktk lyhwh [šmrn] wl'šrth) to someone else. Here, plenty of inscriptional artifacts have been found, linking Baal with El, Yahweh with Asherah/Asherat/Asheratah), or referring to Yahweh's location at Teiman or else Samaria/Shomron. At another site, Khirbet el-Qom, an 8th century eulogy on a tomb reads "May Uriyahu [Uriah] be blessed by Yahweh for from his enemies he has been saved by his a/Asherah." At Khirbet Beit Lei, a 7th century image of two figures making a petition to Yahweh with another figure identified as Asherah playing has also been found, though the interpretation is more circumstantial.

Some debate exists about whether this referred to Asherah the goddess, or asherah poles, cultic objects said to even have been erected at the temple in Jerusalem. Though some believe the pronominal suffix (the ending of 'šrth which denotes "his asherah") indicates that this did not refer to the proper name for Asherah, and thus denotes asherah the wooden object. However, while divine names with pronominal suffixes do not appear in Hebrew, many divine names are in fact bound in a form that can be read as a pronominal suffix. Another argument by Ziony Zevit is that the extra "h" at the end is simply an additional feminine ending. What "his Asherah" means is problematic though, since it doesn't make sense without an interjection like "his consort Asherah", whereas "his asherah" makes sense as an object. The crux may well be at Beit Lei, where the understanding that Yahweh had a consort named Asherah is likely, if the figures are correctly identified.

Yahweh and El

Many scholars have noted the complete absence of polemics in the Bible against El, the chief god of the Canaanite pantheon, reserving the most polemic against other Canaanite gods like Baal, Mot (Death), and Yamm (Sea), or the deities of other ethnic groups such as the Philistines. This should be surprising considering that we know of El being recognised as a Canaanite deity well into the 7th century by Israel's neighbours and possibly even into Roman times. The transformation of El in Phoenicia and Aram was likely done through renaming him as Baal Shamayin, "Lord of the heavens" or Baal Hamon "Lord of the mountain". In fact, in the Bible, El in various manifestations is himself identified as Yahweh, and rarely ever distinguished.

Similarly, Asherah is missing from the polemics, with the only reference being to tearing down the "asherah poles" (the translators of the King James Version referred to these as "groves"), though the goddess herself receives no critique. We might say that she has been written out of the story through depersonification, but some clues remain. The Yahwist reformer Jehu, for instance, leaves the asherah poles alone, only to be condemned by later prophets for this negligence. Similarly, the "prophets of Asherah" who appear alongside the prophets of Baal in 2 Kings 23:4 may be a later interpolation of guilt-by-association, since Baal had no relation to Asherah (his consort was Baalat, which coincidentally was used in the names of some Israelite settlements). Other interpretations spurred by the 'Ajrud discoveries see them as neutral parties, since Elijah neglects to take any action against them, but the former hypothesis of interpolation is probably the more likely (though a good conspiracy theory would no doubt be lost).

From the Ugaritic texts however, the evidence of their relationship begins to unravel. We find that El and Atherat (a cognate with Asherah) were the chief god and goddess of the Canaanite pantheon respectively. If Yahweh had taken over El's role syncretistically (since his origin is likely from the south, whether in Sinai, Paran, Edom, or Teiman, associated with the Shasu nomads of Arabia that we saw earlier), then it explains how he would similarly have taken over the partnership with Asherah as supreme god. Certainly, the majority view is that Asherah once existed as an Israelite goddess related to Yahweh or El.

Despite the lack of polemics against El in the Bible, it is not wholly silent on the matter. C.L. Seow has pointed out the strong association of the cult of Shiloh with El language (particularly in Psalms 78), as well as God's abode as a "tent" originating from Ugarit. Similarly, at Shechem the god associated with that location is El Berit "El of the Covenant", and several scholars have pointed out that the Ugaritic 'ilbrt was another title for El. Similarly, Exodus 6:2-3 directly states the transference of one name (El Shadday) to another (Yahweh), claiming them as different titles for the same god. More generically, Gensis 49:24-26 represents a confusion in the attribution of titles known to other Canaanite gods being given to El. "Bull (of Jacob)" was the animal associated with El and can be read as a direct metaphor for him (think of the Golden Calf story). The "blessings of the deep" tehom are associated with Yamm, while the strange inclusion of "blessings of breasts and womb" are more likely to be associated with a fertility goddess such as Asherah or Astarte (who are essentially the same goddess in different spaces). As Smith concludes,

This record illustrates the old transmission of West Semitic/Israelite traditions. Israelite knowledge of the religious traditions about other deities did not only reflect contact between Israel and her Phoenician neighbors in the Iron Age. In addition, as a function of the identification of Yahweh-El at cultic sites of El, such as Shiloh, Shechem, and Jerusalem, the old religious lore of El was inherited by the priesthood in Israel. At a variety of sites, Yahweh was incorporated into the older figure of El, who belonged to Israel's original West Semitic language heritage.

M.S. Smith, 2001, p. 140

The question that follows then, is whether El, not Yahweh was the original god of Israel. On the face of it, the biggest clue is the name Israel itself, since we don't call it yisra-yahweh or yisra-yah. However, the name "Israel" itself is extremely old, probably as old as the god El (since it means "fighter of/for/with El" as Genesis 32:28 points out) and attested at Ebla and Ugarit, and therefore this evidence is not conclusive. We have already seen that Yahweh, whenever associated with a physical place (Sinai, Edom, Paran, Teiman), was always to be found originating in the south where the Shasu nomads lived.

However, the biggest clue comes from Deuteronomy 32:8-9, part of Moses' farewell assembly:

When Elyon apportioned the nations,
when he divided humankind,
he fixed the boundaries of his peoples
according to the number of the sons of El;
Yahweh's own portion was his people,
Jacob his alloted share.

The Masoretic text revised the fourth line to read "sons of Israel", glossing over this rather uncomfortable line, but it disagrees with our earlier Septuagint and Dead Sea Scrolls texts. Targum Pseudo-Jonathan goes even further to insert "70" as the number of sons of El, which coincides with the number of sons of El in the Ugaritic pantheon, and was also believed to be the number of nations on the earth. The tradition of Elyon being the father of the gods reappears in Psalms 82:6, where the term bene elyon is used. What the text above represents is an older tradition, with the aetiological device of explaining Yahweh's foreign entry into the Canaanite pantheon, thus supporting the notion that El was the original god of Israel.

The Road to Monotheism

With these ideas in mind, we can now attempt to trace the trajectory from the polytheistic milieu at Ugarit to the fully-fledged monotheism of Second Temple Judea. As noted before, the terms "monotheism" and "polytheism" have their limitations, and the understanding of these as categorical terms must not overlook the fact that these concepts were foreign to the people themselves.

Mark Smith's summary is very useful and worth quoting:

  1. El was the original god of early Israel. As noted, the name Israel points to the first stage. So do references to El as a separate figure (Genesis 49, Psalm 82).
  2. El was the head of an early Israelite pantheon, with Yahweh as its warrior-god. Texts that mention both El and Yahweh but not as the same figure (Genesis 49, Numbers 23-24, ..., Psalm 82) suggest an early accommodation of the two in some early form of Israelite polytheism. If Psalm 82 reflects an early model of an Israelite polytheistic assembly, then El would have been its head, with the warrior Yahweh as a member of the second tier (...). Yet the same psalm also uses familial language: the other gods are said to be the "sons of the Most High." Accordingly, Yahweh might have been earlier understood as one of these sons.
  3. El and Yahweh were identified as a single god. If El was the original god of Israel, then his merger with Yahweh, the southern divine warrior, predates the Song of Deborah in Judges 5, at least for the area of Israel where this composition was created. In this text Yahweh, the divine warrior from the south, is attributed a victory in the central highlands. The merger probably took place at different rates in different parts of Israel, in which case it is relatively early in the area where Judges 5 was composed, but possibly later elsewhere. Many scholars place the poem in the pre-monarchic period, and perhaps the cult of Yahweh spread further into the highlands of Israel in the pre-monarchic period infiltrating cult sites of El and accommodating to their El theologies (perhaps best reflected by the later version of Deuteronomy 32:8-9). The references to El in Numbers 23-24 (...) and perhaps Job appear to be further indications of the survival of El's cult in the Transjordan. Beyond this rather vaguely defined pattern of distribution, it is difficult to be more specific.
    M.S. Smith, 2001, pp. 143-144

At Ugarit, El presided over a divine council or family, whose characters included his consort Atherat, the storm god Baal, the bloodthirsty anti-authoritarian Anat, and a host of others. Many of the stories there will trace back to Sumerian myths, but that is beyond the scope of this piece. Mark Smith has suggested that the divine council should be better understood as originating from a divine household, with all the familial squabbles thrown in. He proposes a four-tiered structure, with El and Atherat as the heads of the household. Below them are the seventy sons of El, including Baal, and to whose number Yahweh was to eventually be included. Below them are the chief helper, Kothar wa-Hasis, and then below him, his helpers (akin to angels). However, the power of the royal metaphor took over, and El became equivalent to the king, in effect reducing the power of the other gods beneath him. With this metaphor, the stage for the rise of national identities was set, with nations adopting their god as the national god, and his supernatural contests with others as manifestations of their physical contests with neighbouring nations.

Thus, the idea of "henotheism" developed, where many gods were believed to exist and hold real power, but only their god was to be worshipped for that locale. With henotheism, the conditions for polemics against other gods were in place, to the extent of denying any powers of those other gods. The aniconic practices of the Israelites perhaps allowed people the ability to see that they could destroy the sacred places of other gods with impunity, while their god remained untouchable. During this stage then, the presence of Asherah, who was represented by her symbol, could have become uncomfortable, despite the deep-rooted tradition of her worship in Israel. Alternatively, it has been hypothesised that a collapse in the familial structure in Israel resulted in a similar collapse in the structure of the divine family presiding. Certainly later texts like Deuteronomy 24:16, Jeremiah 31:29-30 and Ezekiel 18 renege on the claims that the children may be punished for the sins of their fathers (e.g. Exodus 34:7) and some scholars have taken this to be indicative of a social change. However, it is possible that a "ditheism" existed at some point, where Yahweh and Asherah existed as the two deities looking after Israel.

Finally, as revisions and perhaps extraneous political factors led to the removal of Asherah and the destruction of her symbols, a fully-fledged monotheism could now develop. It is in this period that Yahweh finally replaces El fully, as the ruler of the divine family (for example, Habakkuk 3:5 relates to the gods Resheph and Deber being part of his forces, though these are unfortunately translated into "pestilence" and "plague" in most translations).

The story does not end there, however. The Assyrian and Babylonian dominance (and the resultant elevation of their gods Assur and Marduk) from the 8th centuries onward would have forced a deep reflection as to the nature of the deity, while at the same time introducing ideas about the cosmos that had not been thought of to that point. This view coincides with Karl Jaspers' "Axial Age", wherein revolutionary new understandings of the universe began to emerge. The exile would have caused a move from identity based on territorial ownership to one of unique belief and practice, that would later prove to be an enduring cultural safeguard against the aliens around them. Smith again points out that, "As Judah's situation on the mundane level deteriorated in history, the cosmic status of its deity soared in its literature" (M.S. Smith 2001, p. 165). Thus Israel's view of equality with the other nations could no longer be sustained, but instead of lapsing into despair, they elevated their god further, viewing him as punishing them for their sins, and it followed then that he must control the fates of all nations.

Others have linked the emergence of monotheism with the encounter with Persian monotheism in the form of Zoroastrianism. However, as I have suggested, the social conditions for a trajectory toward monotheism was already in place prior to the encounter, though it would be undoubted that some direct influence played a role in reinforcing the move. The Jewish sectarianism represented by the Qumran group, Pharisees, Samaritans, and early Christians all had a root in the Persian period, illustrated by the exclusivist impulses recorded in Ezra and Nehemiah (in contrast to protest books like Ruth and Jonah). Similarly, Zoroastrian beliefs in purity laws, cosmic struggles between a good god and an evil one, and a final apocalyptic battle all bear semblance to later Jewish beliefs.

However, a number of problems arise in this comparison, not least related to the dating of various Hebrew scriptures. The language of the Hebrew texts, even the monotheistic ones, are representative of a rhetoric of praise that certainly predates Zoroastrianism. In fact, as shown above, much of the Yahwistic imagery bears import from other older religions. A further argument is that the emergence of the evil manifested by Belial, Beelzebub, or Satan is a relatively late development in Judaism, certainly of the Hellenistic period and not the Persian period (most people's first glimpse of them comes in the New Testamentha-Satan, "the Accuser" in Job is hardly the Satan of later theology), where contact would have been most certain. Furthermore, a good deal of the subjects of eschatological writing were clearly local in origin (whether it was Leviathan or tannin), and with only a shift from placing their battles in primordial history to end times. Thus we must be careful in drawing parallels without regard to the nuances.

To conclude, in this piece I have tried to give a brief overview of the development of Jewish monotheism. It is an extremely complicated affair, and spans centuries, with conflicting interpretations and many differences in explanation and hypothesis, which is why I have tried to stick to Mark Smith's overview as closely as possible so as not to confuse the reader, while introducing two earlier views as background. While we can trace the path, we must not fall into the Whiggish practice of determining that this had to be this way, or that there was only one route for the Jews to take. We saw how other Yahwists like Jehu were turned against as the practices of one age became the heresies of a later age. Perhaps this is a lesson for our own views on religious beliefs. Being conscious of our religious heritage and the beliefs of those who came before may prevent us from elevating our beliefs above all else into an intolerant and stultefying dogma, for the practices and beliefs that did survive were those that could adapt to the rapidly changing conditions of the late Iron Age. An introduction to Hebrew mythology, which has only been hinted at it in this piece, will follow shortly.


[1] More circumstantial evidence has emerged from Tel Miqne (ancient Ekron). The discovery of 15 inscriptions recording the phrases l'šrt and lqdš have been proposed by Seymour Gitin (the excavator) to represent "Asherat" and her epithet "Holy One". If this is so, then a seventh century medallion depicting a figure praying to a goddess on a lion may refer to Asherah, and associate her with the lion. This could then lead to questions of the imagery of the "Lion of Judah" associated with King David, but again it is very circumstantial. Ziony Zevit has suggested that a goddess similar to the Greek Hestia was probably worshipped there.

[2] Lawrence Stager has postulated that the Roman emperor Elegabalus' name is a Latinised form of El Jebel, "El of the mountain". He brought a statue of Tannit to Rome, married a Vestal virgin whom he identified as Tannit, replicating the union of Baal Hamon (which is arguably another title, probably Phoenician, for "El of the Mountain") and Tannit.

[3] The difficulty with spotting the god is that literally, "El" appears as 'l in inscriptions, Baal as b`l, and the necessity of identifying the text as reading "El" is not always certain. "El" was a generic term for "god" or "divine", and "baal" a generic term for "lord". A possible confusion of exactly this sort is found in Deuteronomy 33:26-27, where Baal imagery (Baal was a storm god) has been overlain by elohe qedem.

[4] Plentiful examples abound in the Bible of this stage, certainly Deuteronomy 32:8-9 as discussed already, but an interesting story is related in 2 Kings 3:27, where Mesha's sacrifice of his firstborn son results in wrath falling upon Israel. This idea is most fully developed in Psalm 82, where Yahweh appears before the divine council, exhorting the other gods to action and criticising their ineffectiveness. From henotheism comes "monolatry", which is the exclusive worship of one of the gods of the pantheon throughout the adherent's life. When this emerged in early Israel is unclear, except to state it is somewhere between henotheism and monotheism.

[5] However, Jaspers uses the term in reference to Ancient Greece especially, and Jewish contact with the Hellenic world would have been indirect initially (most likely through Phoenicia) until the Hellenistic period with Alexander's conquest. His identification of any Jewish developments coincident with his Axial Age are being revised towards the later end of his scale. Later Greek influence on Judaism is undoubted, as exemplified by Philo of Alexandria.

[6] The clearest example of how the myths are continuations of older themes (and not necessitating Zoroastrian influence) is a comparison of Psalm 74:12-17 with the proto-apocalyptic Isaiah 27:1. While the Psalmist demonstrates God crushing Leviathan (lotan in Ugaritic literature, who was a serpent), Yamm (usually translated as "sea" or "waters" but was actually an Ugaritic god), and tannin (Tunannu in Ugaritic literature, described as seven-headed dragons/serpents) in the primordial past, Isaiah 27 transposes the defeat of Leviathan and tannin to a battle that is to come—end times (and it is completely forgotten who Yamm is, or at least the significance of Sea). The diminishing esteem of Yamm and tannin finds a nice intermediary in Job 7:12, where their significance is acknowledged, but their equality with Yahweh is not. The interesting point of convergence with these three is that in Ugaritic literature, they were all enemies of Baal, though by the time of the Bible, they had transfered over to Yahweh.

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