Thursday, June 14, 2012

The Early History of God

Mark Smith’s The Early History of God: Yah--- and Other Deities in Ancient Israel is meant to be survey of early Israelite religion for non-specialists.  Smith marshals the biblical text, extra-biblical inscriptions and written records, and the archeological record to reconstruct what early Israelite religion might have looked like. This is not quite a book for beginners in the subject, but for those with some background in the area.  Smith covers a great deal of ground, and his writing is often like the professional shorthand.  His main thesis is that early Israelite religion was formed from the matrix of Canaanite religion, and was indistinguishable from it.  Only by a long process of adoption and dissociation, did a sense of Israelite separateness evolve. 

Smith makes many interesting assertions, but like so much work in the field of early Israelite religion, when you take a close look at the evidence for his conclusions, most rest on conjecture and guesswork.  Just take a look at the widely held assertion that Asherah was not a goddess worshiped by the Israelites.  Rather, her symbol, the pole or the tree, had been incorporated into the cult of Yah---- and divorced from the context of the goddess.  So, we are told, Yah--- did not have a female consort.  The evidence for this is slim, and also makes little sense.  Did people really separate the symbol of the well-known Near Eastern goddess from the Goddess herself?  It would be like certain groups divorcing the cross from Christianity and grafting it onto another tradition and giving it an completely different meaning.  Is this done at all?  If it is, it is minor cases, and not the mainstream use of the cross.

There is also the larger issue of the role of the Biblical text in these kinds of studies.   There is the presumption that the text is not always an accurate transmitter of early Israelite religion, yet it is also an indispensable source of material for the study of early Israelite religion.  So which is it?  This difficult dilemma leads to a great deal of cherry picking.  If a portion of the Biblical text supports a theory, it is used.  If it does not, it is a later corruption.  Confusion abounds.

Unfortunately, this goes with the territory of early Israelite historical study.  There is not much evidence outside the Bible, and what  evidence exists is highly equivocal.  Smith’s book is not poorly written because of these flaws.  It is simply endemic to the discipline.

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