Monday, July 10, 2006

Hebrew Polytheism

John Loftus has now changed the goalposts of his argument a third time. At first, he asserted that the texts clearly state that God has a corporeal body. Then, having been answered on his own terms, he changed his argument in order to question whether or not the text clearly states that God is incorporeal. Now, he has changed to state that the text teaches that God is one of a Pantheon.

Now, to be fair, I usually see this kind of absurdity at or Outpost Gallifrey, from folks who just can't seem to understand that the fact that because the text uses several different names, it does not follow that there is more than one God. Even people go by more than one name or title.

Instead, John is arguing from texts like Ps. 86, 93 and others, as well as Jonathan Kirsch's work. However, where is his exegesis of these texts? Without that, we are left with an armload of assertions without arguments, and a new armload of caveats to his original argument that were not in the original. Moreover, nobody denies that the Jews were polytheistic in the Old Testament. This was the source of their problems. Moses and the faithful, and later the prophets were constantly at odds with the elders and rulers of the people. In 2 Samuel, Elijah tells the people to stop being of two minds, and later God tells Elijah that there are 7000 faithful to Him in the land.

Yes, the Bible does recognize the existence of other gods, in the Old Testament texts. However, Loftus seems to ignore everything that it says about them. The Bible does not state that these are true and living gods. On the contrary, they are cast as vain, destructive, heretical, and those who worship them are worthy condemnation. The exist not a living gods, but as idols and animistic totems without life, without personality. The New Testament seems to assert, as did Justin Martyr, that there were demons that may have existed behind them, but if that is the case, this is hardly a case for a polytheistic pantheon, any more than the existence of angels in heaven makes God the chief god of the many gods. They are God, they are angels, different orders of beings.

Now, if God is one among the pantheon, then does this infer that this is the way the text understands God? No, because that would depend on the point of view of the authors of the text. They would need to come from the kings, apostate priests, false prophets, and/or persons unfaithful to the covenant, not the prophets and others who were faithful to Yavhe alone. Do the authors of these texts come from those unfaithful to the covenant or not? If they come from the faithful, then where is Loftus' argument that the covenant itself is polytheistic?

Glenn Miller summarizes this well:

The Hebrew bible consistently portrays the seemingly ceaseless struggle between the true 'servants of Yahweh' (e.g., Moses and the biblical prophets) and the majority of Israelites--kings, court prophets, Israelite elite, common folk and even large groups of priests--who mixed paganism with true Mosaic religion. The Bible presents monotheism and polytheism as existing side by side in the nation Israel, with God constantly trying (generally unsuccessfully) to call the people away from worthless idols.

The Hebrew bible never hides this inconsistency within Israel from the reader. With this the case in the narrative of the Bible itself, we would fully expect to find inscriptions of a paganized system and syncretistic nature.

"It is in the period of the divided monarchy that the Asherah cult flourished both in Israel and Judah, though its existence before is documented by the command in Ex 34:13, the prohibition of Deut 16:21, and the incident at the threshold of Gideon’s life of service to God, Jud 6:25ff. Rehoboam’s career marks the beginning of this in Judah (I Kgs 14:23). In the north the cult received its greatest momentum from the incentive of Jezebel who was responsible for the presence of “four hundred prophets of Asherah” (I Kgs 18:19). Even a reform-minded king such as Asa (I Kgs 15:13) or later Hezekiah (II Kgs 18:4) was unable to liquidate the movement. It was knocked down, but not knocked out. There was an almost inevitable resurrection even in the wake of reform. Compare son Manasseh’s policy (II Kgs 21:7, even to the point of placing the image in the temple) on the heels of father Hezekiah’s reform (II Kgs 18:4). Apostasy and idolatry just behind revival! What one generation attempts to get rid of a subsequent generation may trot back in, however reprehensible it may be. All too frequently this has been the pattern in the human race. [TWOT, s.v. asherah]

"Asherah poles. One common feature of Canaanite worship and of syncretized Israelite worship on “high places” and in city shrines is the erection of Asherah poles (Judg 3:7; 1 Kings 14:15; 15:13; 2 Kings 13:6). There is some uncertainty about whether these were simply wooden poles erected to symbolize trees, perhaps containing a carved image of the fertility goddess, or part of a sacred grove. The reference in 2 Kings 17:10, which refers to Asherah poles beside “every spreading tree,” seems to indicate that these were poles erected for cultic purposes rather than planted trees. As the consort of El, Asherah was clearly a popular goddess (see 2 Kings 18:19), and her worship is mentioned in Ugaritic texts (1600–1200 b.c.). Her prominent appearance in the biblical narrative indicates that her cult was a major rival to Yahweh worship (see the prohibition in Ex 34:13; Deut 16:21). This explains the number of examples in which Asherah poles are erected and venerated, the strong condemnations of this practice and the depictions of these poles being cut down and burned (Judg 6:25–30; 2 Kings 23:4–7). [BBC, at Deut 12.3]

"We are thus led to the inevitable conclusion that between the foreign pagan practices and the pure monotheism of Yahwism there existed a cult that may be called pagan Yahwism or perhaps more accurately, Yahwistic paganism. Of course in the background was the central monotheistic cult practiced in the Jerusalem Temple by its priests and preached by the Biblical prophets. And some of the kings of Judah--especially Hezekiah and Josiah--made efforts to centralize the monotheistic cult in Jerusalem. But looking at the archaeological evidence, we must conclude that they were less than 100 percent successful. Indeed, until the Babylonian destruction of Judah and the end of the Israelite monarchy in 586 B.C.E., pagan Yahwism was common even in Jerusalem, to say nothing of the rest of Judah." [Ephraim Stern, "Pagan Yahwism: The Folk Religion of Ancient Israel", Biblical Archaeology Review, May/June 2001, vol 27, no. 3, p.28.]

The nation Israel could have produced such syncretistic records in almost any period of its existence. During the very Exodus, they worshipped a golden calf. When Moses was giving the people the great monotheistic law of the Great God, the people were still sacrificing to goal idols (Lev 17.7). The book of Judges is filled with Israel's idolatry--including with Astoreth (e.g.,2.13, 3.7, 6.25). Idolatry and syncretism was rampant--but, importantly, always condemned in the Scripture:

"Several passages in the historical books indicate that images continued to be made in Israel long after Moses’ time (Jgs. 3:19; 8:27; 17:3–6; 2 K. 21:7). These instances do not mean that idolatry had a legitimacy in early Yahwism. The period of the judges was one of blatant lawlessness, and much that cannot be considered normative for Israelite faith and practice occurred then. Solomon’s lapse into idolatry (1 K. 11:4–8) was clearly denounced (vv 9–13). The syncretistic religion of Manasseh cited in 2 K. 21:7 is depicted by the historian as contrary to the spirit of Israelite faith (vv 6–9). Even the bronze serpent that Moses fashioned in the wilderness (Nu. 21:9) became an object of worship (2 K. 18:4). In his reform Josiah removed both the high place at Topheth (2 K. 23:10) and the “horses … dedicated to the sun” that had been installed in the temple (v 11)…The syncretistic expressions of religion that run like a thread through the early history of Israel were ultimately given legitimacy by Jeroboam I, king of the northern kingdom of Israel. The division of the nation into the northern and southern kingdoms posed a serious theological crisis for the northern kingdom. The geopolitical rift brought to the fore the question of access to the cultic center at Jerusalem. Jeroboam understood that if he was to bring stability to his fledgling kingdom, he could allow nothing that would foster the loyalties to the Davidic dynasty that were so deeply ingrained in the minds of the people (1 K. 12:26f). The temple had been built by Solomon the son of David, and Jerusalem was rich with Davidic traditions. Clearly, a new form of religious expression distinct from any association with David would have to be instituted. This was done in a revival of the cult of the golden calf (1 K. 12:28)…The 8th cent b.c. witnessed a resurgence of Israel and Judah. Economic prosperity, unparalleled in their history except for the golden age of David and Solomon, fostered a growing class of wealthy, influential people whose loyalty to the covenant stipulations of Yahweh was at best questionable. The erosion of the strong core of covenant obligation marked the 8th cent and led to the dissolution of the nation. One of the most obvious violations of the covenant standards was the popular religion of the day, a strange syncretism of Yahwism and the symbols and mind-set of pagan idolatry…The situation in the northern kingdom seems to have been particularly dismal. Rites associated with the fertility cults of Canaan were practiced at a number of shrines in Israel (Hos. 4:11–19; Mic. 1:7) and may even have been widespread…The internal sickness affected the southern kingdom of Judah as well, although probably to a lesser degree. Isaiah presents a picture of Judahite syncretism that is remarkably similar to that of Israel (2:8; 57:4–10)." [ISBE, s.v. "idolatry"]

So, why should we be surprised to find this "documented-by-the-bible" paganism, now documented by archaeology? We shouldn't, obviously…

In other words, the revelation of God (as Mosaic monotheism) existed side-by-side with 'stubborn polytheism' among the Israelites. There was no "gradual progression" from polytheism to monotheism. In fact, the story of the bible from Moses to the Babylonian exile is one of degeneration, not 'evolution'--the nation got 'worse', and developed increasing amounts of idolatry, polytheism, and syncretism. For a theorist to assert the contrary (i.e., the position you mentioned of 'from polytheism to monotheism') requires them to explain away many things, including early prohibitions against these aberrations, such as Ex 34:13 and Deut 16:21:

But rather, you are to tear down their altars and smash their sacred pillars and cut down their Asherim 14 —for you shall not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God— (Ex 34.13f)

You shall not plant for yourself an Asherah of any kind of tree beside the altar of the Lord your God, which you shall make for yourself. 22 “Neither shall you set up for yourself a sacred pillar which the Lord your God hates. (Deut 16.21f)

The standard way of 'explaining away' such verses is to assert (without even semi-compelling evidence today, btw) that they are 'later polemic insertions' by later scribes, in their (later) battle to unseat polytheism. These late monotheists needed some ammunition against the polytheists (in their view) and hence invented these texts to give the appearance of ancient authority to their position. Such a reconstruction is quite unnecessary--given the biblical portrayal of an 'inconsistent Israelite populace'--and is based on questionable (today) source-criticism theories, and labor under the extra evidence requirements of all 'conspiracy and fraud' theories.

[But note that the polytheistic 'majority' doesn't show up after the Exile. The Exile was specifically designed to purge the nation of Judah of its polytheism, and it went a very long way towards doing that. Monotheism did not 'develop' at that point, but only became the majority belief of the returning Jews. Of course, syncretistic elements can still be found during this and later periods (cf. Hengel's documentation of "Hellenism" and studies by others on Jewish magic), but they are much more 'subdued', less vocal, and less pervasive. The pre-Exilic polytheistic/syncretistic majority became a post-Exilic minority after the Exile.]

So, even if the folks of Kuntillet Arjud believed Yahweh had a pagan goddess as a consort (and for that matter, in that same issue of BAR, Uzi Avner argues they that also drew a picture of Yahweh (!!!) and Asherah, with Yahweh portrayed with male genitals!)--quite an unbiblical pair of concepts--this would tell us very, very little that we didn't already know from the bible. But whatever historical positions it implies, that Israelite polytheism 'evolved' into monotheism is not one of them

As I pointed out to Mr. Loftus before, if he wishes to hold to the Documentary Hypothesis, that includes a specific dating scheme and it includes a set of authors-redactors who come from the exilic/post-exhilic period. On such a dating scheme, which POV would be the POV of those individuals. As Miller points out:

But note that the polytheistic 'majority' doesn't show up after the Exile. The Exile was specifically designed to purge the nation of Judah of its polytheism, and it went a very long way towards doing that. Monotheism did not 'develop' at that point, but only became the majority belief of the returning Jews. Of course, syncretistic elements can still be found during this and later periods (cf. Hengel's documentation of "Hellenism" and studies by others on Jewish magic), but they are much more 'subdued', less vocal, and less pervasive. The pre-Exilic polytheistic/syncretistic majority became a post-Exilic minority after the Exile.

So, in order to maintain his theory, Loftus has to push back the dating of the either the text's sources or the dating of the redaction. If he says that they were redacted, then he must state that they were redacted faithfully and not unfaithfully, in order to successfully sustain the assertion that the texts depict God as chief of a polythestic pantheon and made it past the most likely view of God by the redactors themselves, but this thesis of composition was asserted to attack the faithfulness of the text to its sources, not maintain it, and that the text is setting forth a view of God that is that of the redactors, not necessarily the source texts.


  1. Sure there was a fight. I don't deny it. But there must be a reason why the Jews could so easily switch allegiences every few years back and forth from Elohim to Baal and back. What finally convinced the Jews was the exhile and the prophetic denouncements of the other gods, since the worship of these other gods must've been the reason why they went into captivity. If, however, the Jews had believed in Elohim and followed his prophets when they were carried off into captivity, then they would've concluded that it was because Baal was the true god and he was angry with them. Their final history was written by the victors of the war, anyway. But we can still see evidences of what they believed in the available text, that's all. This is still just standard stuff here.

  2. I agree, that is a standard response Loftus. No-matter-what-the-Bible-must-be-wrong-therefore-we-will-interpret-it-the-way-we-want-in-order-to-make-sure-that-we-can-feel-good-about-our-apostacy.

    On the other hand, maybe Elohim is real and the reason for the exile was for the reason He said.

    But no, you can't even begin to allow that possibility to occur.

    By the way, I would further point out that it is you who is reading into the text here. The text claims that God warned in advance the punishment for idolatry and then He gave His judgement. The text does not state what you want it to say: That the exile just "kinda happened" and they decided that the reason it happened musta been because they were worshipping the wrong God.

  3. Loftus just keeps getting refuted time and time again, yet his unrighteousness will not allow him to see it. So embarrassing.

    Keep on tryin' John, you're just proving that Romans 1 is dead on.

  4. I don't believe you can refute me.

  5. The text claims that God warned in advance the punishment for idolatry and then He gave His judgement.

    Show me where this was predicted in advance. Show me. Oh, I know, you'll quote the Bible. But it was written and re-written from the perspective of the winners of this fight.

    That you'll refuse to consider.

    Take a higher level OT course, but first finish High School and graduate from college, Calvindude.


  6. The problem with the 'history is written by the winners' line, my dear John, is that it is possible to constrct all sorts of theories without one whit of truth, then reply that this is okay, as the truth was covered up by the 'winners' who write history.

    And beware of counter-factual history. That tends to be written by the mind of the writer.

    It was easy for the Children of Israel to 'switch back and forth' because they lived in close contact with Baal/Ashera worshippers. It's more or less why its easier now to add new age beliefs like channelling and reincarnation to Christianity. In truth, there is no evidence of 'switching back and forth' in the Scriptures, only of syncretistic worship versus pure worship.