As you may know, members who join the blog at the Platinum level are allowed to write posts for Platinum members, and the members periodically vote on one of the submissions to go on the blog at large — and on all my social media.  It’s a great way to get your views widely disseminated.   Are you interested?  Check out the perks of the Platinum level (click on Join and see the various tiers and what each entails).

Our most recent winner in this endeavor was Platinum member Dan Kohanski, who has written on an intriguing and, well, rather world-shattering/history-changing topic!  Please feel free to make comments!

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The early Israelites were polytheists — worshipers of many gods — just as all the nations of the Ancient Near East were, though their pantheon may have been smaller than some. We know of El, Yahweh, Astarte (Asherah), and Baal for certain. Possibly the oldest god in the Israelite pantheon was El — the very name “Israel” can be translated as “he who strives with (the god) El.”[1] Belief in the god Yahweh — who would eventually become the only god of the Israelites — may have originated in Edom or Seir to the southeast of Canaan. Sometime early on, El and Yahweh achieved a common identity, but Baal and the other gods whom the early Israelites worshiped came to be seen as competitors with Yahweh.[2]

 

Scripture (the Hebrew Bible) is filled with stories of the Israelites worshiping different gods. But the pattern that emerges is not, as the theology would have it, one of Israel backsliding from a covenant they had made with Yahweh at Sinai. Over and over, from sacrifices to a local Baal in the book of Judges to Jeremiah’s complaint about worship of the Queen of the Heavens a half-millennium later, the Israelites didn’t behave at all like a people who had made a covenant they had momentarily forgotten. They behaved exactly like all the other peoples of the Ancient Near East around them: they had a number of gods and goddesses, and prayed to whichever one they favored or was likely to help them in their current troubles.

 

Some scholars believe that cult of Yahweh first took hold in the northern kingdom of Israel (notwithstanding Yahweh’s origin in Edom). The Biblical record shows that Yahweh-worship made less headway in Israel than in the southern kingdom of Judah — though we have to bear in mind that Israel and Judah were rivals and that the book of Kings was written by Judahites who had nothing good to say about their northern relatives. More to the point, Jerusalem was not only the capital of Judah but the site of Yahweh’s Temple and the headquarters of Yahweh’s priesthood. It’s not clear when the Yahwists first decided they wanted to eliminate all competing gods and their priesthoods from among the Israelites, but for much of the history of Judah, the Levitical priests of Yahweh tried to get its kings to get rid of all traces of other gods in the kingdom.

 

They had only intermittent success. King Hezekiah, who reigned from the late eighth to early seventh century BCE, took away the “high places” where the local gods were worshiped. His son Manasseh not only put them back, he also set up altars to other gods in the very Temple. In 622 BCE, Manasseh’s grandson Josiah embarked on a campaign to wipe out any trace of other gods whose worship his grandfather had encouraged. He threw the “vessels made for Baal and Asherah” out of the Temple and burned them. All around Judah he tore down pillars and poles dedicated to local gods and killed their priests. He smashed altars to Ashtoreth and Khemosh and Milcom that had stood on the hills around Jerusalem since Solomon’s day (2 Kings 23:4-13).[3]

 

Josiah’s reforms mark a high point in the Yahwist cult’s domination of the kingdom, but they didn’t last. Pharaoh Neco killed Josiah in battle in 609 BCE and put Josiah’s son Jehoahaz in his place. Three months later, Neco deposed that king and replaced him with Jehoiakim, who reigned for eleven years, during which time he too “did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord as all his fathers had done” (2 Kings 23:37). To put it in more neutral language: “Down to the Babylonian captivity, Israelite religion tolerated some cults within the larger framework of the national cult of Yahweh.”[4]

 

The Babylonian captivity was the consequence of Judah’s rebellions against its vassalage to the Babylonians. Judah lay in the pathway between Babylonia and Egypt and was from time to time vassal to each. In 597 BCE, the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar besieged Jerusalem, took much of the elite of the city off to exile in Babylon, including some of the Yahwist priests, and installed a new king, Zedekiah, as his vassal. In 586, Zedekiah tried to switch his allegiance to Egypt (against Jeremiah’s advice), and this time Nebuchadnezzar had had enough. He burned Jerusalem and the Temple of Yahweh to the ground, killed Zedekiah’s sons in front of him and then put out Zedekiah’s eyes, and sent the king and the rest of Jerusalem’s elite into exile.

 

The Yahwists in Babylon probably lived a comfortable material life in exile, but they struggled with an existential theological problem. Their god, Yahweh, had sworn a covenant to protect and sustain them, and yet for all their worship of him, they had been deported from the land Yahweh had given them. Worse than that, the Babylonian worshipers of the god Marduk had burned down Yahweh’s own house, his Holy of Holies, and Yahweh had done nothing to stop them. How could El Elyon — the Most High God, the chief of all the gods — let this happen to him?

 

Their first answer was that, clearly, all previous efforts to persuade the Israelites to give up their other gods and worship Yahweh alone had not been enough. The prophets had issued warning after warning, Yahweh had inflicted plagues and famines and defeats in battle, for centuries, and they hadn’t listened. Ezekiel, a priest who had been part of the first wave of exiles, blasted the Israelites for their refusal to be faithful to Yahweh: “You . . . spread your legs for every passerby and multiplied your whorings. And you played the whore with the Egyptians, your big-membered neighbors, and multiplied your whorings to vex Me” (Ezek. 16:25-26).[5] A variation on that answer is that Yahweh had been so angry specifically at Manasseh — who had placed idols in the very Temple — that he was going to “wipe out Jerusalem as one wipes a bowl clean, wiping and turning it on its face” (2 Kings 21:13). (Explaining the sixty-year gap between Manasseh’s death and the destruction of Jerusalem was left as an exercise for the Chronicler.)

 

But this argument still leaves open the question of why Yahweh had let Marduk’s Babylonians punish Judah instead of doing it himself. Their solution is that Yahweh hadn’t “let” the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem; he had ordered them. Marduk had not defeated Yahweh; Marduk did not even exist.[6] Yahweh was God, the God of the Babylonians as much as of the Israelites, the only God for everyone. “I am the first and I am the last, and apart from Me [וּמִבַּלְעָדַ֖י] there are no gods” (Isa. 44:6, my translation), wrote Second Isaiah as the Persians were conquering Babylon.

 

Nebuchadnezzar, whether he knew it or not, was acting on the orders of God. Same with Cyrus of the Persians: when he let the Israelites go home to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple, it was not because that was general Persian policy (which it was), but because, in Isaiah’s words, Cyrus was God’s messiah, his anointed one.

 

Powerful rulers who did not believe in or even know of Yahweh acted not on their own volition but because Yahweh the god of Israel was also the God of all, and he had willed their actions. A new idea had now taken shape: Yahweh was the One and Only God who rules everything on Earth and in the heavens.

[1] See Mark Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel, 2nd ed (Grand Rapids MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 32.

[2] See Smith (32-43, 43-47, 65-91). On Yahweh’s probable origin point in the south, see, e.g., Nadav Na’aman, “Out of Egypt or Out of Canaan? The Exodus Story between Memory and Historical Reality,” in T.E. Levy, T. Schneider, and W.H.C. Propp, eds., Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective: Text, Archaeology, Culture, and Geoscience, 527-33 (Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing),  529-30.

[3] All translations from Robert Alter’s The Hebrew Bible, except as noted.

[4] Smith (192).

[5] גִּדְלֵ֣י בָשָׂ֑ר (“big-membered”) literally means “great of flesh.”

[6] This argument relies on Thomas Römer, “Le Problème du Monothéisme Biblique,” Revue Biblique Vol 1 124:1, (2017), 12-25, and Christos G. Karagiannis, “The Time of the Establishment of Biblical Monotheism,” International Journal of Orthodox Theology 10:2 (2019),  184-98.