Did we make God up?

Make Prompt:

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!

 

Bibliography

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.

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7 thoughts on “Did we make God up?

  1. Great, very strong post, per usual Daniel. I am impressed by the amount of detail and thoroughness you evince in your posts. I came to the same conclusions as you, but as I read your reflection on the essential question about the necessity of context in order to King or Baldwin to “speak to” a reader, I want to push back. I think that context is a two-sided coin: the context of the period in which something happens (i.e. initial context), and the context of the present or comparison period (i.e. referent context). I think that having both contexts allows a reader (of King, for example) to better understand the historical situation of what was happening AND use that historical knowledge to more completely or more faithfully apply those lessons to her/his life. But I think that even without an initial context, one could read King and still intellectually come to similar understanding/conclusions about the legitimacy of King’s argument. Thus, referent context can be enough for a text/source to “speak to” someone, but maybe not as deeply as having the initial context could. Maybe there are examples where both contexts are vital? Thoughts anyone?

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    • Alex,

      First, thank you for your comment and THANK YOU for pushing back a little. Challenging is one way we support each other’s theological growth. Thank you for prompting me to think a little more deeply about this – and in such a respectful way to boot!

      Basically, I agree-ish 🙂

      I’ve heard Adam Hamilton describe some parts of the Bible as “timeless truths.” Perhaps he’s referring to verses like Joshua 1:9 – “Have courage! The Lord will be with you!” He then talks about some parts of the Bible that he believes never captured the heart of God. Wow, really? I think it’s here that context comes to the rescue. Why might the biblical authors have made a point that the Israelites wiped out an entire Canaanite culture? What was the context? And based on that, what does the text speak to us in our modern context? Because, let’s face it, it’s definitely not telling Christians to engage in genocide.

      In fact, as I write this, I am struggling to think of any instance where historical context is not relevant. For the Joshua verse above, wouldn’t it be helpful to know that it was finalized during the exiling period by the Deuteronomist as focus shifted from the Davidic dynasty to the Mosaic covenant? That really helps us understand 1:7, which talks about not straying from the Law and puts 1:9 in perspective (perhaps God will be with you wherever you go, if you obey God’s laws?). I think knowing the “why” behind the Scripture is essential to understand it for our own times.

      At the risk of going on too long about this, I had an interesting discussion in my Sunday School class yesterday. We’re reading Mere Christianity be C.S. Lewis. In the final chapter of the first part he makes the claim that humanity has gone wrong somewhere; that we’re on the wrong course and need a course correction. The class leader asked if we felt this was true. I asked when the radio program was broadcast (it started as a series of radio broadcasts and later became a book). Fortunate we have a history teacher in the class that knew it was during WWII. So, as Lewis was saying, “humanity has gone wrong somewhere,” the Nazis were dropping bombs on London. I can see how he might have arrived at such a conclusion. And that helps me as I think through how to apply the idea to our current situation.

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  2. Great post! You helped me make more sense of the reading. I’m easily distracted and the constant footnotes and parenthetical notations makes it hard for me to feel confident about what I just read. So…thank you for your effort.

    In regards to the development of divine understanding from pre-monotheistic versions of YHWH to our current (1+1+1=1) monotheistic notion, I wonder if early thinkers and theologians also did not feel a deep need to explain the unexplainable. They heard stories from surrounding cultures which offered new insights, so they incorporated them into their understanding. We do this today. The idea of guardian angels comes from Hinduism. This doesn’t make the idea a situation of right or wrong, but rather an idea that works within our own parameter of divine understanding. If scientists or theologians debunk the idea of guardian angels, we can further develop our understanding of divine knowledge.
    As the Hebrews moved through history, experience, exile, etc., they received new ideas and language to describe their experiences with YHWH. Maybe it’s that simple? Maybe not?

    I too would hope that my congregation would be open to discuss this article on the foundation of further developing our own understanding of this ancient story of an ancient people’s encounter and discussion of an ancient God. But…I’m not sure I’m ready to test the waters just yet.

    Alex,
    I think we must always begin with the context of the original speaker. An easy example to illustrate is the genre of apocalyptic literature. If you read this literature without any knowledge of the genre, you might find people who write books and create movies which depict the story as a literal truth (i.e. “Left Behind”). This leads to terrible theology and unnecessary fear-mongering.
    BUT…when you start with the context (social, cultural, historical, etc.) you come to understand how the story was written and received (as best as we can) which then allows someone to apply the main message/theme to our own circumstances. We hope that one day people will read Martin Luther King’s words in a world where racism is no longer a reality. We would further hope that people would apply his message/truth to whatever new way we have created to separate and discount each other.
    Good question!

    Great post. Thank you.

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  3. Great post, Daniel. I think the Rollston article is interesting, as well, but I have to agree with you that I’m not sure it has a practicality to it. The congregations I currently serve would definitely not be open to it and would view it as radical, but even if they were open to it, I am not sure it changes anything. We know the Bible was written by humans and is therefore flawed (although I once had an old man in a congregation tell me that I needed to preach from the KJV because “that’s the Bible Jesus wrote”). Regardless of the practicality, I do agree that it is interesting and leaves one searching the text for more.

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  4. Very insightful comments, Daniel. I enjoyed reading Rollston and his study of the roots of Jewish monotheism. It was interesting from a scholarly perspective but, like you, I don’t think it would change many hearts or minds. In most faith traditions, people who are believers are going to remain believers unless confronted with something major that shakes their belief system to its core. Learning interesting facts about the history of their religion is not likely to affect them greatly.

    I also agree with the previous comments regarding the importance of context in understanding scripture (or laws, political events, arts, etc.). Not only do we have to look at the context of the time in which it is written and the time in which it is read, we also have to consider the perspective of the person doing the interpretation. All work is fluid. Life is fluid. I might read Jeremiah differently than someone reading it at the time it was written. Reading simultaneously in 2016, you and I probably read differently. It might read differently for me a year from now than it does today. My point is that context is always individual and it is always changing.

    Thanks for another great post!

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  5. Thanks to Dr. Lester’s assignment for the week on the Rollston’s article, I had a chance to read you post and enjoyed it very much. You presented it in an exceptionally fascinating way, and I found it very interesting but challenging as well. It interested me to read and think critically. It challenged me to be more open to other critical ideas and documents of Christian and non-Christian scholars of biblical and or historical materials regarding monotheism, Yahwism, and polytheism in Israel and its vicinities or in its region—the ancient Near East.
    I agreed with you over most of Rollston’s arguments / reasoning on and critical analysis of the religion of ancient Israel, which he proved with evidence (facts and historically related documents) was developing and evolving through different stages of time and space. He provides enough substantial facts and information throughout his article in talking and proving his points about “the Rise of Monotheism.”

    Therefore, I have some burning questions: Supposedly, everything Rollston put out in his article was true. So, what would I respond to this proven truth? Would I continue to keep my Christian faith as it is or would I give it up and change my course of belief? Or Could I just extend it and include this new piece of truth to modify or adjust my current Christian belief? Or in opposition, I should find some facts and evidence apart from the Bible to support my belief and to counter Rollston’s standpoint at the same time. I hope it’s up to each and every one of us to answer to ourselves with the help of our seminar training.

    I was also very appreciative of your insight of the word that made all the difference and change in the evolving process of the early Israelite religion. That word is “edit.” Yes, this is a powerful action word or tool that has made changes in history and religions. I wonder how many changes had been added to the Hebrew Bible and later the Christian New Testament just with such a small but powerful word. I think it is always a good reminder for us to discover and consider the true context of “the world behind the text” as we read and understand the Bible in our biblical interpretation task.

    Through Rollston’s article and your related post, here I come with my own enduring thoughts / ideas: I think Israel has contributed significantly to humankind in respect of making up the complete “one true God” (monotheism) for predominant religions in the world such Judaism, Christianity and Islam. As always, I am so impressed with the Jewish people. They have had a great influence on the world as a whole and America as an individual in different areas of life (especially that of religion). Thanks to Israel (or later Jewish people), we have been through different stages of advancement or civilization (or progressive society). For me, they have led us through almost all of the religious evolving stages from polytheism, to monotheism, to atheism and finally back to humanism (original state or religion of mankind—everyone is his / her own god). Therefore, I think your post title question “Did We Make God Up?” is extremely worth sincere consideration to everyone in this class. Thank you very much Daniel.

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  6. I was also very appreciative of your insight of the word that made all the difference and change in the evolving process of the early Israelite religion. That word is “edit.” Yes, this is a powerful action word or tool that made changes in history and religions. I wonder how many changes had been added to the Hebrew Bible and later the Christian New Testament just with such a small but powerful word. I think it is always a good reminder for us to discover and consider the true context of “the world behind the text” as we read and understand the Bible in our biblical interpretation task.

    Like

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