Read the Rollston article from the recommended reading. What is Rollston trying to get across, using what evidence, and reasoning from it how? What differences emerge between the “world in the text” (the biblical narratives) and the “world behind the text” (the actual history that produces the biblical narratives)? How might a religious community of your own experience respond to Rollston’s piece…or to the discovery that the piece’s claims are not even slightly controversial in the field of biblical studies?
What is Rollston trying to get across, using what evidence, and reasoning from it how?
In the article, “The Rise of Monotheism in ancient Israel: Biblical and Epigraphic Evidence,” Dr. Christopher Rollston describes the evolution of Judaism from polytheism (or, perhaps, monolatry) to monotheism in three chronological stages. He draws his conclusions, which are treated in more detail below, by analyzing Biblical (based on the contextual meaning of the words found in the Hebrew Bible) and epigraphic (extra-biblical inscriptions from the ancient Near East) evidence. The three stages he describes are (1) Yahweh as a national deity of Israel, (2) Yahweh as the head of a pantheon, and (3) Yahweh as the sole deity, or monotheism.
The first stage of development of Israelite religion envisioned Yahweh as one god among many. This is not particularly surprising, since “polytheism was the norm in ancient Mesopotamia, Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt” (Rollston, 97). In fact, Stanley draws the conclusion that El, the creator god and the god of the sky in the Canaanite pantheon, was originally a separate deity that was merged with Yahweh early in Israel’s history (Stanley, 156). The early Israelites would have seen Yahweh as a member of the divine council, which is a council of gods presided over by one deity. This structure can be found in ancient Mesopotamian creation stories and is hinted at in Deuteronomy 32:8-9, which presents Yahweh as the national deity of Israel and not the head of the pantheon (Rollston, 105).
The second stage transitioned Yahweh from a member of the pantheon to the head of the pantheon. This shift can be seen in Psalm 29, verse 1, which reads:
Ascribe to the LORD, O heavenly beings,
Ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
Rollston translates ‘heavenly beings’ in this psalm as ‘sons of god,’ and interprets the phrase to be referring to other gods in a pantheon. This then, is evidence that Israelite religion acknowledged the existence of other gods, but viewed Yahweh as the supreme god. There is also evidence of this in the Book of Job, when Yahweh is depicted surrounded by His divine council.
At this point, Rollston also considers epigraphic evidence to support the second stage of development. Specifically, he points to inscriptions from ‘Khirbet el-Qom and Kuntillet ‘Ajrud. These inscriptions include Asherah as Yahweh’s divine consort, as well as suggesting that there may be more than one manifestation of Yahweh – one for the northern kingdom and one for the southern (Rollston, 108).
The final stage of development, which appeared in the late 7th and 6th centuries BCE, is pure monotheism – Yahweh as the one and only true God. This can be seen from biblical texts such as Jeremiah 10: 3-6 and Isaiah 44:14-20. There is also some evidence from the Apocrypha, specifically the narrative in Daniel about Bel (Rollston, 112).
Rollston also raises two important points to consider when integrating this information with a contemporary understanding of the Bible. First, “Christianity and Judaism have tended to dehistoricize the Hebrew Bible” (Rollston, 114). This has encouraged some to interpret even early Israelite religion as monotheistic. However, as demonstrated by the analysis above, monotheism was the product of gradual developments in the Israelite religion that were heavily influenced by the surrounding cultures as well as political events.
The second point is that “Jewish and Christian scholarship has tended to minimize Israel’s cultural connections to the countries surrounding it” (Rollston, 115). Rollston argues that giving attention to the cultural context in which Israel developed politically, socially and theologically, is fundamental for an accurate interpretation of the biblical materials.
So what is Rollston really trying to get across in this article? I believe that he is highlighting that the development of Israelite religion can be explained based on the cultural context in which it originated and flourished, and the socio-political events that took place in the region. He advocates for a scholarly study of Scripture, taking all this into account. And, as a final point, he says that the fact that this occurred does not have to detract from the sacredness of Scripture (Rollston, 115).
One of the Essential Question for the Prophets is:
How much does context mean for understanding? What should one know (e.g.) about slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and the Civil Rights movement for Martin Luther King’s speeches or James Baldwin’s novels to “speak to” one?
Based on the analysis presented above, the answer would seem to be “a lot.” Understanding the context in which Scripture was developed helps the modern reader understand why a particular piece of Scripture exists which in turn aids in interpretation both from the standpoint of the original audience as well as a modern audience. In the case of the development of Israelite monotheism, I think it is important to understand the context and developmental history if for no other reason than to appreciate the process. Religion as we know it today wasn’t just handed down from on high in a nice, tidy box. It was the result of centuries of development, which was influenced by all the same things modern ideology is influenced by today.
What differences emerge between the “world in the text” (the biblical narratives) and the “world behind the text” (the actual history that produces the biblical narratives)?
The word that jumped off the page to me was ‘editing.’ According to Rollston (and Stanley and Bandstra), the Deuteronomist of the 7th and 6th centuries BCE crafted much of the Torah and Prophets to tell a particular story. And we can see logically why it turned out the way it did. During that time, Israel and Judah had to contend with two significant threats: Assyria and Babylonia. Israel fell to Assyria and Judah to Babylonia, and the prominent members of society for both nations were forcibly deported. Amidst this backdrop, the Deuteronomist sought to explain how a people favored by God could be in the present situation. And, it makes sense that monotheism would rise both to provide hope for future redemption and to preserve a unique cultural identity for the Israelites living among foreigners. So, it’s not difficult to image how the message of the prophets was preserved because it proved to be true, thus validating Deuteronomic theology, and because it provided hope to an exiled people.
One of the Enduring Understandings for the Prophets is:
The Prophets aren’t talking to you: rather, they speak to their time and place, in order to make specific things happen in that time and place.
This is highlighted in the book of Isaiah, which indicates that Yahweh will judge the foreign nations that Yahweh uses to punish Judah (Isa. 10:5-19; 10:24-27; 31:8-9). While this may not come as a surprise to modern readers, it was an important claim in the development of Yahwistic theology. If Yahweh was to wield foreign nations against a rebellious Israel and Judah and then turn around and punish those same nations for the harm they inflict, then Yahweh must have power beyond just the land of Palestine. Stanley writes, “Yahweh’s mighty rule is not limited to the land and people of Israel and Judah; foreign nations, too, must do his bidding” (Stanley, 434). This would be at a minimum a move from the first stage, with Yahweh as a regional god, to the second stage, with Yahweh as the head of the pantheon, if not a move toward full monotheism. So, in this instance, it is important for the modern reader to understand that the prophet Isaiah is making an important theological statement in these passages, and one that the modern Christian might take for granted having been raised in a monotheistic tradition.
How might a religious community of your own experience respond to Rollston’s piece…or to the discovery that the piece’s claims are not at all controversial in the field of biblical studies?
My honest answer to this question is “I’m not sure.” I’d like to think they would be open to it. I’m inclined to think they’d be dismissive of it – and I’m not talking about the literal ideas, but rather the meaning. Rollston does an excellent job of laying out his process and reasoning; I think my congregation would accept that and his conclusions. But I’m not sure they would care. It might be like a piece of biblical trivia, a factoid that is interesting in and of itself but otherwise useless. And despite having written a rather lengthy blog piece on it, I’m struggling to find the meaning myself.
A minister recently told me, “the purpose of religion is not to explain the unexplainable.” I’ve found that to be a pretty useful idea during this course. Discovering that the development of ‘Yahweh’ was influenced by other cultures and religions doesn’t phase me because I’m not using Christianity to explain things that I don’t understand. If that were not the case (I mean, if I were to use Christianity to explain what I don’t understand), I think my faith would soon be shaken as science uncovered new explanations for the previously unexplainable. So bring on the context! Let’s talk about how Yahweh was actually adapted from a Canaanite god, that parts of the Hebrew Bible don’t ascribe the same elements of divinity (omnipotence, omnipresence, omniscience) to God as the New Testament, and that divinely-inspired books underwent (sometimes extensive) editing such that there are actually multiple editions – and they’re substantially different!
Bandstra, Barry. Reading the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 2008.
Rollston, Christopher. “The Rise of Monotheism in ancient Israel: Biblical and Epigraphic Evidence.” Stone-Campbell Journal 6, no. 1 (Spring 2003): 95-115.
Stanley, Christopher. The Hebrew Bible: A Comparative Approach. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009.