Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible): Lecture 2
Professor Christine Hayes: I mentioned in the opening lecture that this course is going to examine the biblical corpus from a variety of different viewpoints and take a variety of approaches, historical, literary, religious, cultural. And today we are going to begin our appraisal of the first portion of the Bible as the product of a religious and cultural revolution. The Bible is the product of minds that were exposed to and influenced by and reacting to the ideas and cultures of their day. And as I suggested in the opening lecture, comparative study of the literature of the Ancient Near East and the Bible reveals the shared cultural and literary heritage at the same time that it reveals great differences between the two. In the literature of the Bible some members of Israelite society – probably a cultural religious and literary elite – broke radically with the prevailing norms of the day. They mounted a critique
of prevailing norms. The persons responsible for the final editing and shaping of the Bible, somewhere from the seventh to the fifth or fourth century BCE – we’re not totally sure and we’ll talk more about that – those final editors were members of this group. And they had a specific worldview and they imposed that worldview on the older traditions and stories that are found in the Bible. That radical new worldview in the Bible was monotheism. But why, you might ask, should the idea of one God instead of many be so radical? What is so different? What’s different about having one God, from having a pantheon of gods headed by a superior god? What is so new and revolutionary about monotheism?
Well according to one school of thought there isn’t anything particularly revolutionary about monotheism; and the classical account of the rise of monotheism, that has prevailed for a very long time, runs as follows, and I have a little flow chart here to illustrate it for you. The argument goes that in every society there’s a natural progression: a natural progression from polytheism, which is the belief in many gods – usually these are personifications of natural forces – to henotheism – “heno,” equals one, god – or monolatry, which is really the worship of one god as supreme over other gods, so not denying the existence of the other gods, ascribing reality to them, but isolating one as a supreme god, and onto monotheism, where essentially one believes only in the reality of one god. And in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries this progression was viewed as an advance, which is not very surprising because the whole theory was put forward by scholars who were basically western monotheists. And these scholars maintained that certain elements of biblical religion represented pure religion, religion evolved to its highest form, no longer tainted by pagan and polytheistic elements of Canaanite religion generally. So applying an evolutionary model to religion carried with it a very clear value judgment. Polytheism was understood as clearly inferior and primitive. Monolatry was an improvement. It was getting better. It was getting closer. But monotheism was judged to be the best and purest form of religion. And at first the great archeological discoveries that I talked about last time in the nineteenth century seemed to support this claim – that Israelite monotheism had evolved from Ancient Near Eastern polytheism.