Wednesday, May 22, 2013

From Gods to God

Secular scholars of the bible view the ancient people of Israel as a western Semitic group, emerging from a welter of other such peoples in the Middle East.  Gradually, something like an Israelite identity emerged, stressing the belief in one god to the exclusion of all others, and later, to the notion that there is only one God alone, the God of Israel.

This move toward one abstract God, who cannot be depicted or visualized, sought to separate early Israelite religion from its mythological elements.  Things we read about in the stories of the Greek gods: multiple gods, fights in heaven, gods and goddesses mating with human partners, were supposed to be expunged from the religion of Israel.

Avigdor Shinan and Yair Zakovitch do an excellent job of explaining these complex moves in their book, From Gods to God: How the Bible Debunked, Suppressed, or Changed Ancient Myths and Legends.  The authors show, in four parts, how the writers and compilers of the bible sought to minimize, transform, change, and shift, Israel’s pagan past. 

They also provide great nuggets that hardly a soul knows about.  Scholars have never been able to find historical evidence for the Exodus from Egypt.  The authors show in a passage from Chronicles how the tribe of Ephraim, one of Joseph’s sons born in Egypt,  never left Canaan!  This is perhaps a holdover from the time before the Exodus story became central to Israelite religion.  Somehow, it was never erased or changed from Chronciles.

Shinan and Zakovitch provide compelling evidence of how the biblical compilers struggled with a legacy they could not completely control, nor eradicate.  The outcome is jarring and illustrative.  Their reading of the bible shows us a culture and religion in the midst of upheval and transformation.

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