Did the Religion of the Biblical Writers Evolve from Polytheism to Monotheism? A Paper and Response to Thom Stark
Posted By MSH on November 27, 2011
[Note: For other posts on Mike’s work on the divine council, click here for the archive.]
Here is my second ETS paper, entitled, “Does Divine Plurality in the Hebrew Bible Demonstrate an Evolution from Polytheism to Monotheism?” My answer is “no, and the question is somewhat misguided.”
The paper was an invited one; it was requested by the committee that planned a session on the Old Testament and Ancient Near East connections. I was grateful for the invitation, especially since I had the privilege of being on a follow-up panel discussion with Dan Block (OT professor at Wheaton) and Alan Millard (an Assyriologist from the UK, now retired after many years of teaching). I met Dan some years back (he’s a wonderful guy, honestly), but this was my first occasion to meet Dr. Millard, having benefited from his writing on numerous occasions. I really enjoyed meeting him. He was every bit the Englishman and scholar.
The paper was well received, and the panel discussion went well. There were some good questions as you might imagine.
I’m sort of well know for this topic (hence the invitation) since I have had some scholarly articles pertaining to the topic published in journals, and have given several papers at regional conferences relevant to the topic (they are referenced in the paper with links where they can be obtained). I’m also known on the internet for the issue. Some time ago (quite a while) a writer named Thom Stark posted a lengthy response to one of my papers. Stark takes the common view that the biblical texts witnesses to an evolution from polytheism to monotheism. I thought it a good idea to post a response to him once I posted this paper. Some comments are in order here, though, so readers don’t get lost in my response.
- Stark’s response was very long, as it included portions of my article. I didn’t want to produce something just as long that would require readers going back and forth between two documents. As such, my strategy was to append my replies to his responses to his posting as a PDF. When you read through this response of mine, the document consists of his posting (which I converted to PDF) along with 8 or so pages of my responses at the end.
- To facilitate reading the above PDF file, I have inserted LINKS enclosed in red boxes that lead from something Thom says directly to my response within the document. I have also inserted sticky notes when my reply could be briefer. The reader will see them floating at various places in the PDF. Hopefully this was a good strategy for helping you all navigate the discussion.
- At various points in my response to Stark, I refer the reader to my most recent ETS paper on the issue, the one linked to at the beginning of this post. You would do well to read that first, since my references back to it will make more sense that way.
Some of you might be wondering about why I’d bother to respond to Stark’s response. First, he put a lot of time into it, so I thought I owed it some attention. Although I think that he regularly misconstrues things and uses some startlingly poor logic in places, it was something that deserved not to be ignored. Second, a number of readers have requested it. It’s taken months to get to (it was posted back in July), since I didn’t find anything in there I hadn’t heard before. I don’t let such things dictate my schedule (I can’t, even if I wanted to). So, as promised, here it is — but read the paper first if you want to follow along well.
I should also note clearly for Thom Stark that this most recent paper and PDF response will be my reference point for any discussion from this point. Both my paper and the response make clear that there are specific items Thom needs to produce to make his case. Failure on his part to do so will not prompt me to waste any more time on this. I will merely point readers back to this post and the files herein. If Thom cannot produce the textual data — the stuff of philology (read the response for that term), then I will consider him unable to do so. For those new to the discussion, my position is simple: Israelites in the ancient world believed lots of things about God, the gods, and the nature of those beings, including polytheism. However, I do not believe a textual case can be made that the biblical writers would have embraced polytheism, or that “orthodox Yahwism” was at one time polytheistic. That is the standard academic view–one that I objected to and undermined in my dissertation. If my arguments were so misinformed and illogical as Thom wants to make out, I have to wonder how none of my readers caught those problems. Maybe Thom is just smarter than all of them, or maybe not. Every argument I have made in my dissertation I have also taken to wider peer review. I deliberately have published and delivered papers on all the key ideas in my dissertation. I have taken them directly to peers in the field for analysis. That is, I work without a net. I *want* to hear (from experts) if there are things I have overlooked with respect to the data. As of yet, I haven’t had anyone object to the data. The disagreement stems from the fact that one side (the mainstream) assumes certain ideas about how monotheism “worked” in the mind of the biblical writers, while the other side (me and those who have adopted my positions) are saying the emperor has no clothes — there are serious fallacies amid the assumptions that need to be owned and addressed. These fallacies are outlined and discussed in my paper and the response to Thom Stark.
Lastly, Mr. Stark may want to take some time to read the recent book (2009) by Benjamin Sommer, a well-respected scholar of biblical and Judaic studies, entitled, “Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel.” I’ve appreciated the book, as Sommer makes several of the points I made in my dissertation, though along different trajectories. Sommer’s book was broadly about the problems with how monotheism is talked about in scholarly circles. He developeda theory of “divine embodiment” to explain what he sees in the data (and which does not conform to the usual discussion). As several reviewers have explained it (my emphasis):
“Sommer’s central idea is that in both monotheistic Israelite and polytheistic Near Eastern thought, a deity could have many fragmented and/or overlapping selves, and that this “fluidity of divine selfhood” was manifested in the “multiplicity of divine embodiment. . . . He observes that this multiplicity was not simply native to polytheism (distinguishing the Near Eastern phenomenon from polytheism in Greece) and suggests that the classification of concepts of the divine in terms of fluidity will be more instructive for Israelite and Near Eastern religion than are the common distinctions between monotheism and polytheism or immanence and transcendence. . . . While some may not be convinced by his arguments on that front, his goal of showing that the monotheism – polytheism polarity is insufficient for describing Israelite religion is an important challenge. . . . This book will have serious implications for thinking about the nature of divine self and embodiment in the Hebrew Bible.” (Esther Hamori, Journal of Religion, University of Chicago Press)
“Sommer’s thesis is, as the title of the book implies, not that the God of Israel has a body, but that he has several bodies which have various locations. Hence, the two tasks he sets for himself are, first, demonstrating God’s multi-corporeality and, second, exploring its implications for religion associated with the Hebrew Bible (which is not to say only ancient Israelite, but modern religion as well). By way of introduction he lays out simply and effectivelythat the Hebrew Bible’s depiction of God is as a bodily being; the number of texts that casually make this point are too numerous to allow the reader any other conclusion. . . . The volume concludes with a lengthy Appendix on monotheism and polytheism in biblical Israel. Sommer includes this because the tendency in
recent years is to define the debate about Israelite religion as monotheism v. polytheism. This book proceeds from the position that the Hebrew Bible is monotheistic, and Israelite religion was not unusually monotheistic in the biblical period. That said, Sommer also recognizes that much of the recent discussion about these two concepts fails to capture the complexities of the divine portrait in the Hebrew Bible.” (Todd Hibbard, Journal of Hebrew Scriptures)
But to get it right from Sommer, here are some excerpts from his appendix “Monotheism and Polytheism in Ancient Israel” (all from p. 145, with comments and emphasis of my own):
“It is a commonplace of modern biblical scholarship that Israelite religion prior to the Babylonian exile was basically polytheistic. Many scholars argue that ancient Israelites worshiped a plethora of gods and goddesses, including Yhwh as well as Baal, El (if or when he was differentiated from Yhwh) , Ashtoret, and perhaps Asherah. Pre-exilic texts from the Hebrew Bible, according to these scholars, are not genuinely monotheistic; the first monotheistic text in the Hebrew Bible is the block of material beginning in Isaiah 40, which was composed during the Babylonian exile. Some scholars recognize the existence of a small minority of monotheists or proto-monotheists late in the pre-exilic period, but stress that the bast majority of ancient Israelites were polytheists before the exile. Another group of scholars, however, argue that the exclusive worship of Yhwh as the only true deity was widespread in ancient Israel well before the exile, perhaps even well before the rise of the monarchy.” [MSH: Note I am not alone here; I would only add that the debate proceeds along a faulty understanding of the word “elohim” — that this misunderstanding is what leads us as moderns to produce and perpetuate this debate; see my paper on that issue).
“In what follows, I hope to accomplish two tasks. I intend to show that the Hebrew Bible is rightly regarded as a monotheistic work and that its monotheism was not unusual for Israelite religion in the pre-exilic era. At the same time, I hope to explore the limitations of the term ‘monotheism’ in light of the discussion of the body of this book. . . . The polarity ‘monotheism – polytheism’ has some explanatory value, because it helps us notice something we might otherwise have missed. At the same time, its explanatory value has bee overestimated, because it obscures connections that transcend this polarity.
“In order to understand why we can rightly label the Hebrew Bible monotheistic and also in what specific ways doing so is important, we need first of all to address two issues: how the term ‘monotheism’ is best defined and the difference between asking whether ancient Israelite religion was monotheistic and whether the Hebrew Bible is monotheistic.” [MSH: Bingo. I would answer the first of these in the first half of my new paper, the material on a right understanding of elohim. Sommer flirts with the problems of the current (mis)definition but doesn’t quite get there. But it’s gratifying to see a reputable scholar acknowledge there is a problem. His second issue is spot on. Many biblical scholars fail to even think about making such a distinction in their questioning of monotheism. Thom Stark misses this distinction as well. Sommer has hit on a crucial item.]
I mention all this to let readers know that part of any response to Thom Stark mandates demonstrating that he needs top first acknowledge that scholars are aware of the sorts of problems I bring up. I am not the only one, and I am no idiosyncratic in this regard. Sommer is a scholar that cannot be ignored, and so Thom Stark must address Sommer’s criticisms of the consensus view of monotheism along with mine. Again, failure to do so will mean I’ll just direct readers back to this post in the future. I’m only going to spend further (internet) time on this issue if the contrary data to my views is produced from the text. Those who take the time to read my paper and my response to Thom will know exactly what I mean.