God has a history, too (and that’s O.K.)

Posted by PeteEnns on August 9, 2016 in nature of the Bible Old Testament 37 Comments

Mark S. Smith’s book The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel opens with a quotation from the 6th c. AD writer on Roman antiquity, Lydus.

There has been and is much disagreement among theologians about the god honored among the Hebrews (De mensibus 4.53)


For the next 200 pages, Smith looks at the “role of Yahweh within Israelite religion” vis-a-vis older Canaanite deities like El, Baal, and Asherah (also known to us from the Bible).

Ferreting out how the ancient Israelites came to worship Yahweh and what that meant in an ancient polytheistic cultures has been a huge topic ever since modern biblical scholars/archaeologists began learning new things about (1) ancient Israel and (2) ancient polytheistic cultures.

The bottom line, mainstream view—I shudder even to attempt to summarize it in one sentence—is that the Hebrew scriptures reflect Israel’s later beliefs (i.e., after the return from Babylonian exile), further along on their spiritual journey, though their writings also preserve earlier, more diverse religious stages, that attest to the belief in the existence of many gods (monolatry).

God, in other words, has a history—or better, how God was understood has a history.

This mainstream view does not rest well with the biblical progression of events, namely: Israel knew Yahweh as the/their only God from the time of Abraham, and how well they did as a people/nation depended on remembering that and worshiping/obeying Yahweh alone.

For biblical scholars of the last century or so, this picture is complicated by

(1) the Bible’s own hints and nods at a more complicated “early history of God” (hence Smith’s book), and

(2) our considerable and growing understanding of religion in general in the ancient Near East, especially Canaanite and Ugaritic religion, which are closest to Israelite religion.

I’m used to this sort of thing, but I know many are not. That’s fine. The point, though, is that the modern study of the Old Testament has irrevocably affected what we can expect from the Bible in terms of “brute information” about God.

The modern study of the Old Testament doesn’t tell you what to believe, like a bully, but it has placed the Old Testament firmly in its culture moments—so firmly, in fact, that a well rounded view can’t just make believe the last hundred or so years of thinking on this subject didn’t happen.

Here’s my take-away from all this—and I’m asking you (or at least humor me) to believe me when I say that this is not a last minute frenzied punt from my own end zone before the sack. My life, such as it is, is about synthesizing my own spiritual life with what I’ve been trained to do and what I do for a living, which is to say I’ve thought about this a good bit and hang out with others who have done the same.

Studying the Bible and Israel’s past is a regular reminder to me that my ultimate object of trust is God, not the Bible (or how I understand the Bible). That’s not knocking the Bible. It’s acknowledging that the Bible—even where it talks about God—is a relentlessly contextual collection of ancient literature that takes wisdom and patience to handle well, and in doing so drives us toward further contemplation of God here and now.

God is bigger than the Bible. I see Jesus and Paul already sounding that note when they began reshaping traditional expectations of God.

I haven’t come to this place quickly or casually, though from my vantage point today, it feels rather commonsensical to me—though I don’t impose that on anyone, at least not until I gain supreme, ultimate power, which is the plan.

One last point, to anticipate a common response: “But how can you know anything about God other than what the Bible tells you?” Fair question, but when you get too close to the Bible, prepare to have your view of the Bible reoriented. The irony is that it is the study of the Bible that has led me down this path.

And it’s a nice path, at least for me. God is more outside of my control this way, which I can’t help but think is as it should be. As Lydus said over 1400 years ago, Yahweh isn’t easy to get your arms around—for Israelites or for those who have followed in their footsteps.


***An earlier version of this post appeared in September 2013. I talk more about the nature of the Bible and Christian faith in The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, 2014), The Sin of Certainty (HarperOne, 2016), Inspiration and Incarnation (Baker 2005/2015), and The Evolution of Adam (Baker, 2012).***

[Comments are moderated so please be patient until they appear. It can take me several hours or even a day before I can get to them. It all depends on my Netflix schedule.]



        • At an even more fundamental level, I sometimes struggle mapping the believed-in and articulated God of friends and family with a Triune God, one of the Incarnation, one of the Hypostatic Union.

          Honestly, I’m not that sure what it is that most Christians I know worship. I know they label the thing “God” but I’m not sure how that label maps to anything of historically substantial Christian theology.

          But Chemosh would be OK.

      • Maybe we need not exclude the middle. Maybe we could just cover some Gods. Maybe we could start with the ones that more so weave into the El, YHWH, and related traditions.

        Forgive my boldness, but to say “God has *a* history” misses among the most substantial aspects of understand the history(/-ies) of this [now one] God.

        I think prior I had such an atomic conception of God (and of Gods too). I know some of the backstories, but only quite limited. While I do now see a network of related and non-exclusive conceptions of Gods, I think I would enjoy learning more about various Gods and all the messiness of same names for different Gods, different names for same Gods, merging of Gods, splitting up of Gods, etc.

  • I think the older stories of El and Yahweh add interesting threads to the tapestry. The bull imagery, El’s Baratheon-like episodes – it’s all part of our theological history. It’s sort of like finding out your accountant grandfather used to run a motorcycle gang.

  • I’ve been following some of Michael Heiser’s discussions along these lines. Particularly, about the relationship Israel had with the Canaanite and Ugaritic deities. I find it fascinating. But, for me the main takeaway, like you, is to see the text in the cultural context that it was written. This has freed me to worship the God of the Bible, not the Bible itself.

  • Hey Pete you stated: “..though their writings also preserve earlier, more diverse religious stages, where exclusive worship of Yahweh was not a given.”

    Can you please give me some biblical references to support this please?

    • Good catch, Derek! I meant to write “exclusive believers in Yahweh” –or more clearly, “belief that Yahweh was the only God.” In other words, monolatry rather than monotheism. I’ll change the wording.

      • Pete, can it not be argued that believers acknowledged the existence of other gods in name, but not in reality – Ps. 96:5 – for example? In regards to the “divine council”, “host of heaven”, etc. can it not likewise be argued that these beings/phenomena were not thought of as gods on par with Yahweh, but were rather angelic/demonic beings and/or celestial phenomena; and the believers drew upon ugaritic and other ANE mythic imagery to make that point?

        • For the most part, I am not persuaded by arguments that offer hypothetical, ad hoc, readings of texts to tame them. For your reading to stick, you’d have to demonstrate the plausibility (not simply possibility) your demon/angel reading and put it side by side with the fact that the ANE was ubiquitously polytheistic.

          • “Literal” readings often seem to involve substantial reimagining. To appeal to an original/early understanding of meaning can even be framed as “liberal.”

            “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.” “The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”

        • Demons and angels don’t really exist as separate categories of beings in ancient Israelite/Canaanite religion. Angels (especially named ones) enter Jewish theology around the time of the book of Daniel (2nd century BC) after centuries of influence from Persia, which practiced a monotheistic religion unlike that of Palestine and Mesopotamia.

          Consider what Jephthah says when negotiating territorial claims with the Ammonites in Judges 11:24:

          “Should you not possess what your god Chemosh gives you to possess? And should we not be the ones to possess everything that Yahweh our God has conquered for our benefit?”

          Here we see the belief that Chemosh holds the same position with regard to the Ammonites that Yahweh does for the Israelites, which only holds on the assumption that both are actual gods. This is clearly reinforced by the old poem in Deut. 32:8-9:

          “When Elyon apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods; Yahweh’s own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.”

          This fits well with the Ugaritic texts that describe the high god El and his wife Asherah as having 70 sons associated with the various nations of earth, and it is no coincidence that Genesis 10 also describes the world as containing 70 nations. Yahweh seems to be the Israelite equivalent to the Ugaritic Baal in this context, since the biblical El was certainly the same deity as the Ugaritic El, but Yahweh was not known at Ugarit.

            • 2Kings 3:27 is very interesting. Pete, is your interpretation here that, from the vantage point of the biblical author, the King of Moab sacrificed his son and this pleased/appeased the very real god Chemosh, who therefore inflicted his wrath and terror upon Israel which caused them to retreat?

          • Thank-you Paul. In regards to Judges 11:24, I read it as “What Yahweh is to us, Chemosh is to you”. Again, the Israelite’s refer to other gods in name, but not in reality.

            Deut. 32:8-9 along with Deut. 32:43 seems much stronger, but there are significant variant readings here across the LXX, DSS, and MT. Can you please tell me why ‘sons of God’ or ‘angels of God’ are to be rejected in favor of ‘gods’? And Peter, can you please inform me as to whether you believe the MT was intentionally altered to promote “correct theology”?

            • Our DSS manuscripts are over a thousand years older than the oldest Masoretic Text, and there is no doubt among OT scholars that the DSS and LXX reflect the original reading — which was later changed for fairly obvious reasons.

              • Right, and the “sons of God” variant seems to be the best-attested reading in the manuscript tradition for Deut. 32:8-9. “Sons of God” seems quite vague and can be interpreted in a number of ways that doesn’t necessitate the existence of other divine beings or literal gods.

                • Privately and hypothetically yes, but when the broader evidence and the scholarship are engaged, axles picture emerges.

    • he he – ‘make man in OUR image'(only recently interpered as some trinity reference ha ha) “you shall have no other Gods before me” (only recently been re -interperated as putting God first above material things)
      Able and Cains offering’s are to what God? If this story is very old most likely those were offerings to all the spirits that governed the world the most ancient forms of belief, if the story is projected from a time of Jehovah worship, it is a projection. Abraham’s cutting of animals in half and having a flaming torch pass down the middle is him using his cultures techniques to “connect with the spirits” or the moon God. Of course its written as him talking to the more modern concept of One God. But Abraham had none of that theology. It seems Abraham most likely was just a renegade theologian from a moon worshiping people… he may or may not have been the one to move to one God…. any how monotheiesm is fantastic for some purposes: seeing the consistansy and casual reason for events points to a single point of Control, instead of competing forces making stange ‘dooms’ befall us.

      Any how more polytheiestic references here (even with a timeline of gradual change!) http://www.patheos.com/blogs/crossexamined/2013/02/polytheism-in-the-bible/

      It takes a long time for jewish faith to get to a point in history where they see the idols/temples/icons being just materials having no real power.

    • The entire story of Israel, as recorded throughout OT, points to them having a syncretic view of deities in which YHWH was but one of many gods among their household worship, and in many cases their national worship (golden calf(s), high places, asherah, Baals, etc) right along side of YHWH??? That story line is pretty much in your face in the OT. (See Andrew’s reply below.) Asking for some references is like asking for some references to support that Israel is of Abraham: that IS the story – not just a reference here and there. It’s a major reason given in the OT for the northern kingdom’s downfall at hands of Assyria, and then later for Judah. The contrast is often made wrt pre and post exilic Israel that it was only after the exile that Israel stopped the worship of the idol gods as part an parcel of their religious practice leading through the inter-testimental period up to the NT era. (Me thinks somewhere along the line something has gotten missed.)

  • Peter, I have taken the liberty of quoting you and sharing this article on FB (“Studying the Bible and Israel’s past is a regular reminder to me that my ultimate object of trust is God,
    not the Bible (or how I understand the Bible). That’s not knocking the
    Bible. It’s acknowledging that the Bible—even where it talks about
    God—is a relentlessly contextual collection of ancient literature that
    takes wisdom and patience to handle well, and in doing so drives
    us toward further contemplation of God here and now.”)

  • I agree with your basic premise as I see the Bible as a progressive revelation where each text had an original audience and over time and accumulation of texts, Israel was led more and more into revelation. And this idea of progressive revelation continues into the NT from the OT.

    • Did each text have an original Audience tho? Check out Brendan’s book Nomadic text. Some texts took a while to form so how can we say there was an original audience?

      • Well, there was an original audience whenever the form we have was achieved. They had to understand the text in some way.

    • I can see the value of progressive revelation/understanding in science but how can Truth get Truthier? I find the history of God(s) very interesting and am grateful for the scholarship here, but it often feels like one’s theology is more Wheel of Fortune or a national motto – out of many, one – than anything there’ll ever be consensus on. But is consensus more important to God or to us?

      • Truth can be and was partially revealed, as I see it. For example, the idea of shadows is relevant, a shadow is a partial truth, a 2 dimensional form of a 3 dimensional object and by examining the shadow one can learn truths about the 3 dimensional object, but not all truth about it.

  • You ask:
    “But how can you know anything about God other than what the Bible tells you?”
    Me? I go by changed behavior. If I am influenced to be kind and have processed my trauma, overcome violence itself with the help of a friend’s kindness & lovingness, (BTW essential to who I am becomming)who is present, always & emotionally available via the holy Spirit, then I both know God and am known by god. As Haggar said in her little corner of the wilderness, ‘he’s the one who sees me.’
    As you say;
    ‘Yahweh isn’t easy to get your arms around—for Israelites or for those who have followed in their footsteps.’
    Yes? One has to make the effort to step into the holy of holiest through that rip in the curtain.

    • Charles, changed behavior seems a tenuous hook to hang faith on. Do not radicalized ‘Christians’ or ‘Muslims’ also experience changed behavior? Or are atheist incapable of suddenly acting for the greater good? I often wonder if good behavior is intrinsic or just as forced as bad. Can humans be good for goodness sake or are our actions indelibly tied to a wished for future outcome? Now that my works are no longer tied to a particular transcendent hope, it can be difficult to see them as more or less meaningful and I find myself much more reliant on grace. Agnosticism is a hard mistress and a harder mattress!

      • Lars,
        changed behavior seems a tenuous hook to hang faith on to you? I needed a changed behavior in my life to survive alcohol/drug addiction. A whole program, in fact, comprehensive, a total acceptance of life on life’s terms, and introduction to myself as clean & sober citizen & support of spiritual recovery community (90x meetings X 90 days PLUS!), detoxification, grief & loss of drinking/using itself & all my addict buddies.
        Twas well worth it! I have a life of hope because I met higher power on the 3rd step whom I can relate to, loves me, will never leave me. I know this story of mine is totally subjective! I am a last stage alkie. I should be dead but the miracle of losing the craving happened for me & not everyone gets that in a 12 step program. I got graced & grateful and changed all in a progressive period of time (13yrs) my life hinges on maintaining good behavior & faith in God, (BTW I call him jesus) a present help in times of triggers is a matter of dire importance to my total wellbeing.

        You ask:
        “Do not radicalized ‘Christians’ or ‘Muslims’ also experience changed behavior?”and
        “Or are atheist incapable of suddenly acting for the greater good?”
        Dunno. Maybe. What does it matter? What about you?
        I too often wonder if good behavior is intrinsic to human nature or is it nurture or both? as to
        “forced”(imposed by coercion or physical power?) An assumption on your part is think.
        “as bad”(?) I don’t understand what you meant here.
        I also wonder;
        “Can humans be good for goodness sake or are our actions indelibly tied to a wished for future outcome?”
        Dunno for sure, man, but somethings Ken kesey said makes sense to me:
        “People think love is an emotion. Love is good sense.” & “if you’re hostile you’ll live in a hostile world. If you’re loving you’ll live in a loving world”.

        I’m not sure what you are telling me here or want to do with this;

        ‘Now that my works are no longer tied to a particular transcendent hope, it can be difficult to see them as more or less meaningful and I find myself much more reliant on grace.”

        That’s got meaning for you I expect. not for me though.

        “Agnosticism is a hard mistress and a harder mattress!”

        Makes me think of a cartoon I saw where the guy has tears running down his face saying “hurt me more baby!” And the dominatrix behind him says “now I’ll get my whip and my chain!”

        The answer is never the answer. What’s really interesting is the mystery. If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you’ll always be seeking. I’ve never seen anybody really find the answer. They think they have, so they stop thinking. But the job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.~KEN KESEY

  • But the Yah is just a conceptualized god just like all the gods are. “God” is a concept of man. “God” – the god of the bible – is not the Creator and the Creator is not a god. The Yah, a conceptualized god adopted by Yisra’el, does not actually talk; it is Yisra’el’s (whoever the authors are) words attributed to and made to be as if the Yah were advising, laying out his rules/commands/orders, covenants. The bible is written by Yisra’el for Yisra’el, the history of their adopted god and how they set their own rules and sacrifices, etc., giving credit to have come from their god.

  • I really appreciate this. It makes sense that Israel’s concept of God did not fall out of the sky into the tribal lap. We see development in their understanding of Yahweh in the pages of the Old Testament, so why not prior historically? I also find ancient near eastern myth fascinating in that it seems to dovetail with what you’re arguing for here. An example: https://mythologymatters.wordpress.com/2014/10/06/yahwehs-divorce-from-the-goddess-asherah-in-the-garden-of-eden/

    What are your thoughts here?

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