Monday, August 24, 2009

Mark Smith: Monotheism and the Structures of Divinity

In Chapter Three of The Memoirs of God, "Biblical Monotheism and the Structures of Divinity," Mark Smith attempts to explain the development of monotheism in Israel, a process which we have touched upon repeatedly in this examination of Israelite religion. As Smith observes in his introductory remarks, a major difficulty in dealing with this aspect of Israelite religion is that "monotheism was a development in Israelite religion that was read back into its earlier religious tradition." Briefly, monotheism developed within an elite segment of the Israelite population during the late monarchy. However, from the perspective of these relatively late thinkers, monotheism was read back into earlier times, although the writings of the Israelite scriptures clearly preserve important information that shows that earlier Israelite religion was not monotheistic. As a result, the Israelite scriptures must be approached with caution in order to separate out genuine early traditions from later interpretative developments based on Judaic monotheism. Later Christians unfortunately adopted late Jewish interpretations of the early traditions uncritically, as well as reading Christian meanings back into the Israelite scriptures. Smith's approach to this issue views the development of monotheism as part of a "survival strategy" for Israel, one intended as a response to historical challenges to Israel's continued survival--in particular, the fall of the dual kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

Structures of Divinity: Deities versus Divine Monsters

Smith begins his analysis by comparing categories of divine beings in Israelite religion to those in earlier Canaanite or Ugaritic religion. As a preliminary matter, he notes that the abodes of the gods may be classified into "home/center" regions and peripheral or "outback" regions. "Home" regions are characterized by the human touch: they are cultivated or are near to human habitation. Thus, the gods are seen as dwelling on mountain tops, often in a garden where they feast. The Garden of Eden is an obvious parallel, as well as the references to Yahweh dwelling on various mountains to the south of Israel. The primary "outback" or peripheral regions are the Sea and the Underworld of the dead. The gods of the home regions are anthropomorphic and generally friendly to man, whereas the gods or divine beings of the peripheral regions are portrayed as monstrous (multiheaded snakes/dragons) and hostile, enemies of cosmic order.  (Obviously, the "home" gods correspond to the young gods of the cosmogonic myths and the "outback" gods correspond to the olden gods of the theogonic myth, who are defeated and replaced by the young gods.)

Smith identifies three basic features (93ff.) shared by "the Ugaritic traditions and the comparable material in the Bible." In the first place, "ancient Israel inherited the actual names of the cosmic enemies" from the broader West Semitic culture, best known to us from Ugarit: Sea (River), Leviathan, Tannin (the multiheaded sea serpents) and Death. In Ugaritic mythology Sea and Death are ongoing enemies of the warrior god Baal.

In the second place, these enemies of Baal are, in Israelite mythology, enemies of the warrior god Yahweh. This is clearly seen in Psalm 74:
Yet, O God, my king from of old,
maker of deliverance throughout the world
you are the one who smashed Sea with your might,
cracked the heads of Tannin in the waters;
you are the one who crushed the heads of Leviathan,
left him as food.
In Psalm 74, as commonly in the Israelite scriptures, the defeat of the chaotic powers of Sea and the monsters that dwell there was a prelude to the creative establishment of cosmic order by Yahweh. In the prophetic writings of Isaiah, however, Yahweh's victory over Leviathan (Isaiah 27:1) and Death (Isaiah 25:8) are recast as future events that will usher in an age of security for Israel and of humiliation for its enemies--a new creation or establishment of cosmic order in accordance with divine archetypes. The image of Yahweh "swallowing up" Death is paralleled in Ugaritic myth by Baal doing the same. This fluidity of imagery is of interest, for we see order and meaning as the primary characteristics of divine power, over against the chaos of forces in revolt against Yahweh's plans. The myth of origins is easily translated metaphorically to the future: renewal of Israel's fortunes is seen to be a new creation.

In the third place, we can see in Job that Yahweh plays, with regard to Sea and Tannin/Leviathan, roles that were separated out for El and Baal in Ugaritic myth. In Ugaritic myth, Sea and its monsters were the playthings of El, but the enemies of Baal. In Job, the imagery of Yahweh treating these divine monsters--after the fashion of El--as domestic pets is recurrent, in contrast to the imagery that we find (in Isaiah and elsewhere) of Yahweh as the divine warrior who fights these monsters, reminiscent of Baal. Smith sees this collapsing of divine roles into an omnipotent and omnicompetent Yahweh as part of the development of monotheism. The Ugaritic myths live on but, as we shall see, they change to reflect a new view of divinity.

Having pointed out the features that Ugaritic and Israelite mythology share, Smith next points out a significant difference which bears upon the development of monotheism. In Ugaritic myth there is a real element of struggle in the battle between Baal and Sea. In the later Israelite mythic material, at least in the form that it has come down to us, that element of true struggle is missing. God simply shows up and rebukes the monsters, causing them to fold up and flee. By the time of Genesis 1 not only is there "no hint of conflict or even hostility" but there is no personification of the cosmic waters of Sea (97). The cosmic force of Sea is now a part of God's "wise plan," rather than a threat of chaos. And the same is true of the celestial bodies (especially the sun), which are transformed from divinities to divinely created parts of the cosmic order that is subject to the one God.

The Divine Council and the Divine Family: From Polytheistic Ugaritic through Polytheistic Israel to Monotheistic Israel

The Levels of the Divine Assembly and Family at Ugarit

In Ugaritic mythology the pantheon of gods in the home region was seen as "a large multifamily or joint household headed by a patriarch with several competing sons" (101-103). (For a parallel, consider the Olympian gods of Greek mythology.) The pantheon was organized on four levels:
1. The elderly god El and his wife Athirat (Asherah);
2. their children, including Baal, the warrior/storm god;
3. Kothat the craftsman god, and
4. divine workers: messengers/angels, gatekeepers, servants.
The Levels of Divinity in Israel

It is possible, Smith maintains, to see in the Israelite scriptures the same type of four level pantheon that we find in the Ugaritic myths. However, he offers the important caveat that the Ugaritic texts appear more systematic than Israelite religious thought and practice.

The Pantheon of Premonarchic Israel

Smith sketches out the following four level schema for premonarchic Israel (106):
1. El and Asherah;
2. Baal, Astarte, Shahar, Shalim, Resheph, and Deber; also, Yahweh, the outsider from Midian/Edom/Paran/Seir/Sinai;
3. ?
4. Messengers/angels and servants.
As evidence for this schema, Smith points to the very name "Isra-El" as an indication that El was originally the god of this people. As we have seen, the fact that the Exodus account of Yahweh's revelation to Moses specifically notes that, up to that time, the Israelites had worshiped god as El and did not know Yahweh by name, is a sure sign that El was in fact the original god of Israel. We have already cited at length the evidence that Yahweh was introduced to the Israelite highlands from areas to the southeast, in northwest Arabia. "Like Baal ... Yahweh seems to be an outsider warrior god who makes his way to the top of the pantheon ... somewhat overshadowing the older, level one, gods." While there does not appear to be any level 3 god in Israel, the level 4 messenger gods, angels, are common in early Israelite religion.

Our main interest lies in the relation between the top two levels. To illustrate this situation Smith turns to Psalm 82. To understand this psalm it is necessary to realize that in West Semitic religion the divine council or assembly was presided over by the patriarchal El, sitting, while another god would stand in the assembly. In this psalm, the mass of second level gods, presumably tutelary gods of various nations, are indicted for injustice and Yahweh (God) is elevated to be the sole judge over human affairs. Here are the relevant portions:
God [elohim] stands in the divine assembly [of El],
among the gods [elohim] he pronounces judgment:
"I said you are gods,
Sons of the Most High [Elyon],
Yet like men you shall die,
As princes fall, so shall you."

[a new voice speaks] "Arise, O God, judge the world,
for all the nations are your possession."
Although God is presumed in this psalm to be Yahweh, implicit within the structure of the psalm is the earlier view that Yahweh was a level 2 deity, a son of Elyon, who now takes over the inheritance of the other sons of Elyon. This view is also reflected in Deuteronomy 32:8-9:
When Elyon allotted nations their inheritance,
when He divided up the sons of men,
He fixed their bounds according to the number of the sons of God:
For Yahweh's portion is his people,
Jacob his own inheritance.
Smith's interpretation of these poems--as they have come down to us--does not assert that they actually date to the premonarchic period. Rather, they reflect traditional ideas, but reject this older worldview: Psalm 82 by explicitly making Yahweh Lord of all nations and blurring any role for Elyon, Deuteronomy by later editing. In this way they illustrate the tendency of development in Israelite thought toward monotheism.

The Pantheon of Early Monarchic Israel

According to Smith, the first half of the monarchy saw a shift toward "Yahweh-El" as the head god of Israel. We have already seen that El was the original god of Israel. The shift toward Yahweh, possibly under Midianite influence, is justified in Exodus by God's apparition to Moses in Midian, in which God reveals the divine name to Moses as Yahweh--prior to that, the text states, the Israelites had known god as El. That Yahweh had become the head god is seen clearly at 1 Kings 22:19, where the prophet Micaiah relates his vision of Yahweh, in which Yahweh is portrayed as presiding over the heavenly host, seated on the throne rather than standing in the assembly, as previously. Isaiah 6 similarly portrays Yahweh seated on the throne presiding over the hosts of heaven. These hosts correspond to El's astral family, but now under the headship of Yahweh.

What is not clear is whether Yahweh also inherited El's consort, Asherah. What is clear is that in the late monarchy the cult of the Queen of Heaven was widespread and popular (possibly as the result of Mespopotamian influence). Jeremiah's description of this cult (cf. 7 and 44) is extensively confirmed by archaeology. Thus, at this stage we see an Israelite pantheon which features Yahweh-El as the head god, possibly with a consort. The second level are the gods who were part of El's family, but the tendency--seen in Habbakuk 3--is for the second level deities to slide lower until they are on a par with the fourth level, the messenger/angels in the hosts of heaven. Once again, the third level appears to be lacking.
1. Yahweh-El and Asherah;
2. Sun, moon and stars;
3. ?
4. Messengers/angels and servants.
Israelite Pantheons in Conflict in the Late Monarchy

In contrast to the Israelite pantheon as just presented for the early monarchical period, by the late monarchy, after the fall of the Israel, the northern kingdom, a radically different pantheon was advanced in what were probably Deuteronomistic circles. In this scheme Yahweh-El reigns supreme with no consort--Asherah may have been "transmuted into more acceptable forms, such as personified Wisdom." Thus, like the asherah (the goddess was rendered as a tree or trunk/pole in iconography), Wisdom is rendered as a tree in Proverbs 3:18: 'She is a tree of life to those who grasp her." Another difference is that the second level deities are demoted in this schema, and are now on a level with the astral hosts. A third level deity also appears now, the satan, a sort of prosecutor in the presence of Yahweh.
1. Yahweh-El;
3. The satan
4. Messengers/angels and servants.
Monotheism: From Crises to New Religious Vision

Smith views this movement in Israelite religion toward a true monotheism--in which not only the female consort but also the various deities who were previously on the second, third and fourth levels of the pantheon are gradually demoted until they are no longer even regarded as deities--as a response to the crisis of Israel's existence. As Israel and Judah's political importance became ever more marginal Yahweh, the god of Israel, assumed greater stature than ever before. No longer was Yahweh merely the god of the nation, under the headship of El. Gradually Yahweh usurped El, and the national god of Israel became the head god, the god over all other gods--even over the gods of Assyria. Israel might be increasingly powerless, but the god whom Israel alone knew and worshiped became omnipotent, giving Israel hope for the future when the future, in worldly terms, appeared bleakest.

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