The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel

Written by Mark S. Smith Reviewed By Richard S. Hess

Smith sets out to study the history of Israelite religion, using both biblical and extra-biblical evidence and applying the methods of critical scholarship. His presuppositions include a consensus found among some American biblical critics and archaeologists: (1) the Deuteronomists present a history in which they have rewritten the polytheistic origins of Israel so as to make them appear monotheistic, therefore the ‘true’ history of Israelite religion is recoverable by assuming that monotheism did not appear until late and rereading the earlier texts in conformity with this view; (2) the Israelites were Canaanites and are understood within the broad Canaanite culture as represented in the Ugaritic and Phoenician texts and in the archaeological discoveries of Canaan and nearby lands; and (3) the comparative method, which argues that Israel’s history is best understood by examining neighbouring cultures and assuming that the Israelites were similar at any given moment in history, is more reliable than the Israelites’ own historical discussion of their past. Thus there was no Mosaic monotheism. Instead, Israel began with a variety of deities. Some deities, such as the various Els, combined into a single figure, Yahweh. Others, such as Baal, separated from Yahweh and became rivals. These are lengthy processes whose result, monotheism, does not appear until the sixth century bc.

The argument of a common culture leads Smith to observe common cultic terms and divine names in Ugaritic, Phoenician and Israelite literature. El, Baal and Asherah are all seen to be part of Israelite religion from the beginning, therefore their presence is not properly designated as syncretistic. El was the original god of Israel as the name ‘Israel’ is itself composed with El rather than Yahweh. Smith argues that Deuteronomy 32:6–9 demonstrate a distinction between El and Yahweh and that the Ugaritic epithets of El are applied to the deity here. The problem with all such discussions is that the Canaanite deity El is not distinguished from the generic word for ‘deity’, ’ēl, in biblical Hebrew. Thus there is no certain reference to an El deity distinct from Yahweh in any of the early biblical texts discussed. The term may refer to any deity, and in these particular cases to Yahweh. Smith finds the evidence regarding Baal to point in a different direction. On the basis of personal names and early Israelite poetry (Jdg. 5; Ps. 29), he concludes that Baal was an accepted Israelite deity during the period of the judges who became an enemy of Yahweh during the monarchy.

Several concerns regarding this work should be addressed. First, the assumption which constantly recurs is that similar imagery in the Bible implies that the deities represented by this imagery at Ugarit or elsewhere were worshipped by the Israelites. But this involves an unproven leap, for surely imagery functions not unlike language, in that the same symbols can be applied to different deities in different cultures. If El and Baal were worshipped, the evidence should be clearer. Smith assumes a massive Deuteronomistic revision. But assumptions of large-scale revision can be used to argue any position.

This leads to a second point. I had trouble finding and following a consistent argument or thesis in the book. In reading the huge amount of data which appears within these pages, one is left with little in the way of tools with which to piece it together. The models which are used draw upon the above assumptions, but the chapters cluster the biblical and extra-biblical information around a particular deity or religious aspect, e.g. Baal, Asherah, sun worship, and Yahweh and the cult of the dead.

Third, although I can appreciate the assimilation and divergence principles which Smith applies, there still remains the problem of arguing an evolutionary development in the history of Israelite religion from many deities to one God. Surrounding cultures may have worshipped fewer deities in the first millennium bc than they had in the second, but this is different from a reduction to the worship of a single deity. Is it really convincing to argue such monolatry from a politics of nationalism? Would there not more likely be a return to or at least an acceptance of the many deities of the earlier period? Does the model for such a progress of monotheism exist anywhere else? Even the Greek philosophers were unable to persuade their audiences of such a view.

A fourth concern is the attempt to banish Asherah from the period of the monarchy. While it is probably true that Baals and Asherahs became generic terms for male and female deities other than Yahweh, it is not necessary to hold that all allusions to Asherah in the books of Kings and the prophets should be read as symbols of Yahweh, or that feminine imagery of Israel’s God should be seen as the assimilation of Asherah imagery. Even if Deuteronomistic revision were accepted as the reason for Asherah in 1 Kings 18:19 and elsewhere, and even if the Kuntillet Ajrud inscriptions were understood to describe a Yahwistic cult object instead of a goddess, the problems remain as to who the goddess is on the Taanach cult stand (which is within Israelite territory and therefore cannot be dismissed as Canaanite and not at all Israelite in tradition), and what does one do with the Tel Miqne ostraca dedicating oil as ‘sacred to Asherah’?

These concerns should not devalue the importance of Smith’s work. Nowhere is such a comprehensive collection of the extra-biblical data relevant to OT religion available. It is a considerable achievement and one which deserves to inform future research in OT religion, theology and exegesis.

Richard S. Hess

Denver Seminary, Denver