The Human Faces of God: polytheism in pre-exile Israel

Review: The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It)
Author: Thom Stark
Wipf and Stock, 2010
Chapter 4: “Yahweh’s Ascendancy”

Stark describes this chapter as an overview of “how Israel’s theology mirrored the various theologies of their neighbors, and how it was adapted over time in order to accommodate the changing socio-political fortunes of Israel” (p. 86).

He brings out the best wine first with a part of the payoff promised in chapter 2, the tantalizing bit about Yahweh as “son of a mountain god”. Stark begins by describing indigenous Canaanite religion contemporary to early Israel, a system that will seem familiar to most of us acquainted with Greek or Roman mythologies: a pantheon of gods and goddesses, all of whom were under the authority of a kingly chief deity who was the father of most of them, and many of whom were claimed by inhabitants of certain regions. Inerrantists will say, “Yes, the Bible is quite clear that there were practitioners of those pagan cults in Israel. But they were condemned by followers of Yahweh.” That is true, but it’s not so simple as that: the question is, when were the indigenous Canaanite religious ideas and practices condemned by followers of Yahweh?

Stark’s answer: not nearly so early as inerrantist and other conservative Christians are taught to think. This chapter attempts to demonstrate that early Israelite Yahweh-worship shows itself to be an “orthodox” subset of Canaanite religion within our own Bible, even within those writings that formulate standardized Israelite religion par excellence, the Pentateuch/Torah: enter the Song of Moses.

We know from other ANE texts that in early Palestine the deity over their pantheon was the mountain god suitably named God Most High, or Elyon. Stark shows how the original of Deut 32.8-9 was literally glossed over in the surviving copies of the Septuagint and the Masoretic Text in two quite different ways so as to remove traces of this passage’s polytheistic pedigree; one or the other of these obscured readings is all too naturally what we find in our modern English translations. But in the earlier Dead Sea Scrolls, the original situation is transparent: El Elyon divvied up the earth and gave each of his sons a portion:

When Elyon divided the nations,
when he separated the sons of Adam
he established the borders of the nations
according to the number of the sons of the gods.
Yahweh’s portion was his people,
Jacob his alloted inheritance.

Stark provides details as to how this sort of polytheism is precisely what we find in other Canaanite religions of the time. To my mind, there is nowhere to hide from this analysis.

He takes some pains to answer typical objections, such as an appeal to the first commandment, or to the statement, “I am Yahweh; there is no other god besides me,” which he demonstrates to be a claim of superiority, not exclusivity of existence (cf. Babylon in Is 47.8, Nineveh in Zeph 2.15).

Here let me point out that this chapter has by far the healthiest – and most needed – set of footnotes in the book so far. Helpful explanation of many background concepts and terms are joined by references to sources and suggested further reading.

I found his section on the famously mysterious “Sons of God and the Daughters of Men” passage of Genesis 6 to be immensely satisfying. After briefly describing the weakness in three competing explanations of the identities of the sons of God (angels, the kings of the earth, and the sons of righteous Seth), Stark lays out an infinitely more plausible explanation. The key phrase, usually read as “sons of God”, is the same we saw in Deut. 32.8 and should here again be read as ‘sons of the gods’. Why? “The same phrase appears in Ugaritic, Phoenician, Akkadian, and Aramaic inscriptions, and in all these cases it means, unequivocally, ‘junior deities’ ” (p. 78). The nephilim, their offspring with human women, were “heroes of old, men of renown”: in short, they were demigods, much as Hercules, Perseus, etc. Despite the discomfort such a reading will produce in inerrantists, there can be little doubt that this makes the most sense of the passage on its own terms, once we stop imposing upon it the interpretive constraints gained by our beliefs on topics such as monotheism or the Bible’s historical accuracy. This is not to say that this passage cannot be analyzed in ways that downplay anything controversial about it (in fact, the bizarre sons of Seth and daughters of Cain interpretation is championed because it happens to support another sparsely substantiated traditional Christian doctrine, which I won’t get into here), but can we truly say that we are treating the text with honor if we do so?

The Mesha stele as photographed circa 1891. Th...

The Mesha Stele, the Moabite king's commemoration of his defeat of Israel's King Omri in a battle through the "wrath" of his god Kemosh. Although the timeline is off (Jehoram was actually Omri's grandson) the event celebrated in this stele is likely to have been the basis of the story in 2 Kings. (Image via Wikipedia)

Another example of a polytheistic mindset alive and well within our Scriptures is found in 2 Kings 3.4-27, a narrative that unsurprisingly doesn’t make it to many felt boards: the great prophet Elisha’s failed prophecy promising a victory over the Moabites. Israel, Judah, and Edom join forces to oppose King Mesha of Moab. Elisha assures Israel’s King Jehoram that Yahweh would fight for their side. And things were looking good, until Mesha in desperation sacrificed his firstborn son to Kemosh, causing “wrath” to come upon Mesha’s enemies and overpower Yahweh’s forces. This is troubling under a view that recognizes God as the supreme deity, let alone the only deity, but it makes perfect sense as an artefact of historical Canaanite religion and a stage in which Yahweh was the “god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”, the god to be favored and worshiped by his local devotees, but not the only existing God.

So how did we get from there to here? Stark highlights several waypoints on the erstwhile war god Yahweh’s march from tribal deity to only existing God, traced through differing snapshots in Psalms primarily, progressing past his merger with Elyon as God Most High, a promotion to chief deity of the pantheon. Eventually, “just a few decades before the Babylonian exile,” Yahweh emerges as the only God. “Perhaps conveniently,” Stark suggests, this came about the same time as the reforms of Josiah, “in which the high places of worship (which were normative from at least the time of David on) are torn down, their priests are slaughtered en masse by Josiah and his military, and strict religious centralization (a novelty in Judean religion) is imposed” (pp. 82-83). Jeremiah 10.1-16’s satirical polemic against pagan gods and their idols reflected an early, if not the first, conception of Yahweh as so transcendent above all gods that they were denied the dignity of divinity — and even existence. With such conceptualizations, monotheism finally arrives, and it’s there to stay. Stark outlines several compelling historical reasons for this shift, which I won’t spoil for you here.

Readers like myself unaware of the underlying timeline of Old Testament writings would benefit the most from this chapter if a table roughly outlining different writings’ relative dates were provided. Indeed, even as someone more or less convinced by this sketch of the history of Israel’s theism, I found the passage hopping necessary to illustrate the posited stages of development to be bewildering at times. When was Deuteronomy 32 written relative to Exodus? to the rest of Deuteronomy? Where was the author of 2 Kings exactly in the process? If even I, a like-minded reader, struggled to put it together, I strongly suspect that the passage citations will look like cherry picking, clever proof-texting to those more predisposed to be skeptical. No, the whole of scholarship on the dating of OT authorship and redaction history would be neither possible nor necessary, but a table that at least charts out where modern critical scholarship is coming from in the passages cited strikes me as not only preferable, but perhaps nearly indispensable.

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  • A very valid criticism. Thanks, Stephen. As I pointed out at the outset, the hymn in Deut 32 is dated earlier than most of Deuteronomy. Frank Cross dates it as late as the ninth century, but no later, while others such as David Noel Freedman dates it no later than the early eleventh century. Mine was a slightly more conservative estimate, but “roughly” is the key word there. Point is, it’s dated no later than the early monarchical period, and probably hails from before that time. Much of the poetic material in the Pentateuch hails from this period, in addition to the Song of Moses, also the Song of Mariam and the Song of Deborah. Many of the Psalms are of course mid-to-late monarchical, and we have no trouble dating Jeremiah and Second Isaiah. 🙂 But it’s still a valid criticism: I could have laid out the timeline more clearly, rather than just narrating the timeline as I did.

    Thanks for the great engagement!

    • Yes, that’s helpful, thanks. Print! 🙂

      And to clarify, I didn’t mean to imply that it was impossible to figure out,
      but that it took enough effort to redate these things in my mind that it
      would be hard to expect someone wholly unfamiliar with anything other than
      the conservative dating patterns to do so.

      • Right. A valid and constructive piece of criticism!

      • I’ll have you read my next book before it’s published! 🙂

        • I’ll hold you to it — it sounds like a real rip-roarer!

  • Oh and Exodus is of course divided up between J, E and P, the former two of which are about mid-monarchical and P being exilic.

  • I agree that a textual timeline graphic would be helpful indeed. Even if locating texts on a “range” of dates is required.

    I’m very interested to see how christianity(ies) and judaism(s) are formulated given the suggestion that a continuous monotheistic connection from the “start of the world” is not what the historical investigations are discovering. I suppose guys like Marcion would probably have a quick answer to that 😉

    • Paul D.

      Phil, I’m curious to know what devout Jews make of this scholarship as well. As a Christian, I actually find it kind of a relief, knowing that the Old Testament is more of a journey in search of God (and making many missteps along the way) rather than the inerrant account of a cruel and capricious tribal deity whose favour or wrath depended on what genes you were born with.

  • Pingback: Hurtado on Jesus-Devotion : Stark on Polytheism in Pre-Exile Israel « austinjalexander:blog()

  • definitely agreed that some sort of graphic showing the relationships between these texts would be helpful

  • I, too, found Thom’s treatment of Genesis 6 to be the most satisfying I’ve come across so far. Was always a “sons of God = angels” proponent, but his analysis takes me one (necessary) step from “Scripture interprets Scripture” to “use all means necessary inside and outside of Scripture to understand what the Bible is saying.”