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Elements of animism in the Jewish Bible

 
Daniel O. McClellan
 
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Daniel O. McClellan
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29 December 2009 21:25
 
Bruce Burleson - 29 December 2009 08:13 PM

Wouldn’t it be more precise to say that some early Israelites were polytheistic, because they did worship more than one god.  But it appears that others, while believing in the existence of multiple gods, were jealous for Yahweh and worshiped him alone.  They would not be polytheistic.

Correct. The authors and redactors of the biblical text were monolatrous, and Israel, as far as the evidence indicates, was generally monolatrous. Polytheism is the root of Israelite worship, and many polytheists existed, but calling Israel polytheistic is reductive and inaccurate.

Bruce Burleson - 29 December 2009 08:13 PM

Of interest is Jesus’ understanding of Psalm 82:6, which he quotes and interprets in John 10:34-36.  He understood even men to qualify as “god” in a sense.  Certainly the angels were referred to as “gods.” Jews generally believed in angels (excluding the Sadducees of Jesus’ day). But only Yahweh was worshiped by the orthodox Jew.

Angels began to be conflated with deity through the בני אלהים, or “Sons of Elohim,” which were second tier deities that had to be accounted for during the post-exilic and Hellenistic period when monotheistic ideologies began to develop. Psalm 82 has a particularly interesting story. I’ve discussed these issues on my blog here, here, and here. A few good articles on the New Testament’s use of Psalm 82 are Anthony Hanson, “John’s Citation of Psalm 82 Reconsidered,” New Testament Studies 13 (1966-67): 363-67; Jerome H. Neyrey, “I said: You are Gods”: Psalm 82:6 and John 10,” Journal of Biblical Literature 108.4 (1989): 647-63.

 
hannahtoo
 
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30 December 2009 01:33
 
Daniel O. McClellan - 29 December 2009 08:25 PM

Correct. The authors and redactors of the biblical text were monolatrous, and Israel, as far as the evidence indicates, was generally monolatrous. Polytheism is the root of Israelite worship, and many polytheists existed, but calling Israel polytheistic is reductive and inaccurate.

So may I ask, if the authors and redactors of the OT were monolatrous, was there a shift to monotheism within Judaism that preceded the Bible’s assembly into its current form or did this occur later?

I guess I’m eating my former words as authors on this thread have taught me the difference between monotheism and monolatry. 

There are several stories that stand out in my mind as emphasizing the monotheist idea.  One is the non-Biblical, but traditional story of young Abraham breaking the idols in his father’s shop:

Abram tried to convince his father, Terach, of the folly of idol worship. One day, when Abram was left alone to mind the store, he took a hammer and smashed all of the idols except the largest one. He placed the hammer in the hand of the largest idol. When his father returned and asked what happened, Abram said, “The idols got into a fight, and the big one smashed all the other ones.” His father said, “Don’t be ridiculous. These idols have no life or power. They can’t do anything.” Abram replied, “Then why do you worship them?” (from http://www.jewfaq.org/origins.htm)

Then there is the story of Elijah on Mt Carmel from 1 Kings:

http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Kings+18&version=NIV

Basically, Elijah set up a god versus god challenge in front of a crowd of people up on Mt Carmel.  The test was which god could light a fire on the altar under a sacrificial bull.  450 prophets of Baal and Asherah implored their god all day, but nothing happened.  Then it was Elijah’s turn.  First, he had the people pour lots of water over the bull and the wood.  Then he called upon the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and of course, fire fell from heaven and cooked everything—the bull, the wood, even the stones and soil, and even dried up all the extra water in the trench around the altar.  Afterwards, the people were convinced which was the real God, and Elijah had all the false prophets put to death.  Oh and it started to rain, ending the terrible drought.

These stories seem to illustrate that the authors saw the Jewish God as the only real god, not just the most powerful among many.

 
Daniel O. McClellan
 
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Daniel O. McClellan
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30 December 2009 09:39
 
hannahfriend - 30 December 2009 12:33 AM

So may I ask, if the authors and redactors of the OT were monolatrous, was there a shift to monotheism within Judaism that preceded the Bible’s assembly into its current form or did this occur later?

Traditionally the rise of monotheism is seen as a response to the crisis of the Babylonian exile (manifested in Deutero-Isaiah), but in recent years this idea has come under criticism (see here, for example). My PhD dissertation will argue that the Hellenistic period is the more likely time period of the actual development of a philosophical monotheism, evidenced by the various pseudepigraphical texts that very clearly adhere to a monotheistic outlook and the manipulation of the Septuagint translation away from a monolatrous outlook. I believe the exposure to Greek ideologies was the catalyst that allowed the Jews to formulate an actual philosophical monotheism.

hannahfriend - 30 December 2009 12:33 AM

I guess I’m eating my former words as authors on this thread have taught me the difference between monotheism and monolatry. 

There are several stories that stand out in my mind as emphasizing the monotheist idea.  One is the non-Biblical, but traditional story of young Abraham breaking the idols in his father’s shop:

Abram tried to convince his father, Terach, of the folly of idol worship. One day, when Abram was left alone to mind the store, he took a hammer and smashed all of the idols except the largest one. He placed the hammer in the hand of the largest idol. When his father returned and asked what happened, Abram said, “The idols got into a fight, and the big one smashed all the other ones.” His father said, “Don’t be ridiculous. These idols have no life or power. They can’t do anything.” Abram replied, “Then why do you worship them?” (from http://www.jewfaq.org/origins.htm)

This is from the Apocalypse of Abraham, a first century CE Jewish pseudepigraphical text.

hannahfriend - 30 December 2009 12:33 AM

Then there is the story of Elijah on Mt Carmel from 1 Kings:

http://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Kings+18&version=NIV

Basically, Elijah set up a god versus god challenge in front of a crowd of people up on Mt Carmel.  The test was which god could light a fire on the altar under a sacrificial bull.  450 prophets of Baal and Asherah implored their god all day, but nothing happened.  Then it was Elijah’s turn.  First, he had the people pour lots of water over the bull and the wood.  Then he called upon the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and of course, fire fell from heaven and cooked everything—the bull, the wood, even the stones and soil, and even dried up all the extra water in the trench around the altar.  Afterwards, the people were convinced which was the real God, and Elijah had all the false prophets put to death.  Oh and it started to rain, ending the terrible drought.

These stories seem to illustrate that the authors saw the Jewish God as the only real god, not just the most powerful among many.

Actually Elijah makes clear that he is trying to prove that Yahweh is “the God in Israel” (v. 36). Baal was a Syro-Palestinian deity and was one of the primary opponents of Yahweh in Israel. This story illustrates that Yahweh was the God of Israel, not Baal. It makes no claims concerning the ontological existence of other deities, but rather the incomparability of Yahweh.

 
Andrew
 
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30 December 2009 09:59
 
Bruce Burleson - 29 December 2009 08:13 PM

Wouldn’t it be more precise to say that some early Israelites were polytheistic…

Daniel O McClellen - 29 December 2009 08:13 PM

Correct. (...) Polytheism is the root of Israelite worship…

(Andrew):  What I said.

 
 
Daniel O. McClellan
 
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30 December 2009 10:46
 
Andrew - 30 December 2009 08:59 AM

(Andrew):  What I said.

No, not what you said. Now you’re just flat out lying. If you put my entire post in there you would have seen where I said:

but calling Israel polytheistic is reductive and inaccurate.

Since your statements were:

The early Hebrews were polytheists.

they were polytheists.

The early Israelites were polytheistic.  By definition.

That makes them polytheists.

If you claim these all make reference to the pre-historic Israelites who were polytheists then you’re equivocating. If you claim the presence of some polytheism within a monolatrous worldview renders the whole polytheistic, then you’re just being dishonest. I don’t appreciate being lied to, patronized, and being misrepresented. I’m no longer interested in reading or responding to your posts.

 
Andrew
 
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30 December 2009 11:27
 
Daniel O. McClellan - 30 December 2009 09:46 AM

I’m no longer interested in reading or responding to your posts.

(Andrew):  Oh…zing!

 
 
GAD
 
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30 December 2009 16:11
 

Daniel, why so pedantic over the definition polytheism. The bible makes it clear that the Jews believed in other gods, and worshiped them even if some considered one to be prime. The bible is replete with other gods, hell, right out the gate Genesis even states “become gods like “us”“, implying not only other gods but that humans could transcend to godhood.

 
 
Daniel O. McClellan
 
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30 December 2009 16:32
 
GAD - 30 December 2009 03:11 PM

Daniel, why so pedantic over the definition polytheism.

Because opposition to the accurate use of the word is really just equivocation for the sake of an emotional need to antagonize. I see no reason to give that kind of motivation a wide berth.

GAD - 30 December 2009 03:11 PM

The bible makes it clear that the Jews believed in other gods, and worshiped them even if some considered one to be prime.

The Bible is also propaganda. Just because a Deuteronomic author claims the Northern Kingdom was worshipping Asherah doesn’t make it so. All the evidence needs to be considered. Taking the Bible straight at its word isn’t a good idea, whether you’re a Christian fundamentalist trying to support your dogma or an Atheist fundamentalist trying to support yours. Some Israelites were polytheistic, but that was far from normative. The vast majority of Israelites, as far as the available evidence shows, were monolatrous. I’ve explained this a number of times.

GAD - 30 December 2009 03:11 PM

The bible is replete with other gods, hell, right out the gate Genesis even states “become gods like “us”“, implying not only other gods but that humans could transcend to godhood.

I’m well aware of this, but it doesn’t support the assertion that early Israelites were polytheists. Polytheism had been all but subsumed by monolatry by the time Israel became an identifiable ethnic group. There was a brief struggle for superiority between El and Yahweh around the time Israel became a monarchy, but it was between rival monolatrous factions, and the solution was the conflation of the two. The time period represented by the biblical text is even further from actual polytheism.

 
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30 December 2009 17:08
 
Daniel O. McClellan - 30 December 2009 03:32 PM

Some Israelites were polytheistic, but that was far from normative. The vast majority of Israelites, as far as the available evidence shows, were monolatrous.

Yet, a large part of the bible, in fact a central theme, is the punishment of the Jews for following other gods. You believe that all this time and effort was spent to rein in a small minority? 

I’ve explained this a number of times.

The truth is a lie told a thousand times.  wink

 
 
GAD
 
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30 December 2009 18:45
 
Daniel O. McClellan - 30 December 2009 03:32 PM
GAD - 30 December 2009 03:11 PM

Daniel, why so pedantic over the definition polytheism.

Because opposition to the accurate use of the word is really just equivocation for the sake of an emotional need to antagonize. I see no reason to give that kind of motivation a wide berth.

I just got done reading the link you posted previously;

http://www.thedivinecouncil.com/MonotheismProblem.pdf

It was excellent, but I think it undermines your issue with the term “polytheism”. You act as if your view is set in scholarly stone, yet here is a 24 page argument that concludes with the “opinion” that “species-unique” is the best term.

 
 
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30 December 2009 19:21
 
GAD - 30 December 2009 04:08 PM
Daniel O. McClellan - 30 December 2009 03:32 PM

Some Israelites were polytheistic, but that was far from normative. The vast majority of Israelites, as far as the available evidence shows, were monolatrous.

Yet, a large part of the bible, in fact a central theme, is the punishment of the Jews for following other gods. You believe that all this time and effort was spent to rein in a small minority? 

 

Am I right in deducing that the Bible was compiled by monotheists, so they emphasized the rightness of their position?  Certainly, that’s the impression that’s come down to us through the ages. 

In the OT, Judaism is portrayed as a strict religion and the Jews as a wayward people.  While God kept reminding them that worshiping him and following his commandments was the only right path, they often fell away and did whatever they felt like doing, until disaster made them seek the straight and narrow again.  So I see the prescribed religion as one thing and the people’s behavior as another.

In many ways, the laws of Judaism seem designed to keep the Jews separate and therefore faithful to their God only.  Following the dietary rules made it difficult even to eat together with non-Jews.  But, human nature being what it is, Jews often failed to keep the laws and were attracted by other gods.  Assimilation is a major theme in the Bible because assimilation means the end of a distinct religion.  The book is filled with warnings about the dire consequences. 

In any case, whether it was a few of the Jews or the majority, the Mosaic law remained as written, but the people wavered.  The argument in this thread seems to hinge on whether the law or the people is “Judaism.”

 
Andrew
 
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30 December 2009 19:36
 
hannahfriend - 30 December 2009 06:21 PM

Am I right in deducing that the Bible was compiled by monotheists…

(Andrew):  Yes ma’am.

hannahfriend - 30 December 2009 06:21 PM

I see the prescribed religion as one thing and the people’s behavior as another.

(Andrew):  Right, again.

hannahfriend - 30 December 2009 06:21 PM

Jews often failed to keep the laws and were attracted by other gods.

(Andrew):  Yep.

hannahfriend - 30 December 2009 06:21 PM

The argument in this thread seems to hinge on whether the law or the people is “Judaism.”

(Andrew):  I thought the argument was about what “polytheism” is.  Daniel O McClellen wants to argue for a narrow, academic meaning so he can prove me wrong; I think most people understand the layman’s definition as presented:  the worship or recognition of more than one god.  The Israelites recognized other gods.

 
 
Daniel O. McClellan
 
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30 December 2009 20:04
 
GAD - 30 December 2009 04:08 PM

Yet, a large part of the bible, in fact a central theme, is the punishment of the Jews for following other gods. You believe that all this time and effort was spent to rein in a small minority?

 

This is primarily the concern of the Deuteronomic history, which comprises much of the Pentateuch and the history from Samuel to Kings. This corpus was largely composed and redacted by a single ideological group, and the object of their derision was primarily cultic worship outside of Jerusalem. They vilified non-Levitical priesthoods and all temples that existed outside of Jerusalem. One of the ways they did this was by accusing them of being dedicated to other gods. The archaeological and textual evidence indicates many of them were Yahwistic, however. I earlier made reference to the Kuntillet Ajrud inscriptions, which make reference to “Yahweh of Teman” and “Yahweh of Samaria.” These were likely cultic sites dedicated to local manifestations of Yahweh. This propaganda must be taken into consideration when interpreting the texts. That time and effort wasn’t spent to reign in a minority so much as centralize political and cultic rule under one monarch.

GAD - 30 December 2009 04:08 PM

The truth is a lie told a thousand times.  wink

Or it can just be the truth.

 
Daniel O. McClellan
 
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30 December 2009 20:08
 
GAD - 30 December 2009 05:45 PM

It was excellent, but I think it undermines your issue with the term “polytheism”. You act as if your view is set in scholarly stone, yet here is a 24 page argument that concludes with the “opinion” that “species-unique” is the best term.

No, it doesn’t. I explained that people are trying to find better terms, but that no consensus has been reached. Heiser’s “Species-Unique” idea is one idea, but it’s not widely accepted. “Monolatry” is the most commonly used word, and it usually precedes a discussion of the problems with the terms. My objection is to the motivation for the least acceptable word: “polytheism.” This is only used by people trying to promote a specific value judgment of ancient Israel. That’s not what the academy is about.

 
GAD
 
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30 December 2009 20:14
 

Didn’t the paper say that polytheism is the most common definition, even among mainstream scholars, and then argue for a better term, even over your preferred term which was implied to also be a minority view?

 
 
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