The Isaiah Scroll is the only complete biblical book surviving among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Found in Cave One at Qumran in 1947, it dates from about 120 BCE / Shrine of the Book, Israel Museum, Jersualem
Introduction: The Bible and Babylonian Captivity
Babylonian Empire c.600 BCE / Wikimedia Commons
Early efforts to establish the historical authenticity of stories in the Bible have long given way to a far more objective examination of the biblical period. Some of the resulting discoveries show that many of these stories cannot be read as straightforward historical testimony. The Exodus . . . is not just about people leaving Egypt but is, more importantly, a powerful mythic event signaling the birth of a new faith and a new nation. The conquest of the Promised Land is not about a rampaging band of desert nomads wiping out everyone in their path but serves rather as a powerful political metaphor for profound social transformation in Canaan, during which the walls of Jericho never actually came tumbling down. (Peter A. Young, Archaeology, 2005)
Ancient Israelite religion is a form of worship not practiced anywhere in the world today. For instance, the animal sacrifices so central among the rituals outlined in the Old Testament—if the habit can be broken, it would be better to call these texts ancient Hebrew scriptures—cannot now take place in the Temple in Jerusalem, where the Bible says they must occur. That building no longer exists.
Standing in the place of the ancient Israelites’ belief system are three very different major religions today: modern Judaism, Christianity and Islam, all of which are extensions of that age-old faith but none its exact representation. Thus, the theology and devotional practices of the Hebrews who lived during the first millennium BCE are discernible primarily in and through the Old Testament, the principal record of ancient Israelite religion. To this, however, may now be added some recovered history, provided mostly by the archaeological discovery of evidence pertaining to early Hebrew civilization.
Over the course of the last two centuries, historians have carefully scrutinized the Old Testament and their investigations have shed important light on its nature and origins, in at least three respects:
- CHRONOLOGY. First, by close examination of the Hebrew text, scholars have produced compelling evidence that these ancient scriptures are, in fact, a collation of texts written over the course of hundreds of years. Some parts were composed perhaps as early as 1200 BCE, while others did not reach the form in which we have them until 200 BCE.
- ANCIENT NEAR EASTERN LITERATURE. Second, we now understand that the Old Testament was not written in a vacuum but is, in fact, the only surviving remnant of a large corpus of ancient texts spanning millennia and coming from all corners of the ancient Near East. This literature originally included the written records of the Sumerians, Babylonians, Hittites, Assyrians, Egyptians and—especially relevant to the study of Hebrew language and culture—the Canaanites who were the ancient Israelites’ close neighbors in the land of Canaan. With the recovery and decipherment of Mesopotamian, Canaanite and other texts from antiquity has come a new understanding of the Bible in its historical context.
- LOST WORKS. Finally, from references found in the Bible itself to chronicles and writings which no longer exist, it is clear that there was at one time a much larger body of Hebrew writings now lost. In other words, the documents now enshrined as “Old Testament books” are merely those works which somehow survived destruction and were passed down to us across the ages. That is, the Bible almost certainly falls far short of the total body of literature written in ancient Israel and, as we must do with so many other ancient civilizations, it is imperative always to remember how fragmentary the evidence is upon which we build any conclusion about biblical scripture.
The real question is, then, why we have the books we do when others vanished. There’s no obvious answer, though some are clearly wrong. For instance, these works cannot have been selected for content, style or authorship because the Bible entails a wide array of topics, ranging from creation stories (Genesis) to historical chronicles (First and Second Kings) to law codes (Leviticus) to wisdom literature (Proverbs) to genealogies (Numbers) to hymns (Psalms) to romances (Ruth) to heroic epics (Daniel) and even erotic poetry (Song of Songs). Moreover, the literary style of the Hebrew Bible varies as well, from image-based poetry to no-nonsense prose. And because these works were written over a long period of time, it’s impossible for them to have had a single author. All in all, if the Old Testament is anything, it’s an anthology.
The Babylonian Captivity
Building Inscription of King Nebuchadnezzar II, 604-562 BC. During the excavations of Babylon, in the immediate vicinity of the Ishtar Gate, numerous fragments of bricks with remains of white-glazed cuneiform characters have been found. These fragments obviously belonged to a building inscription of Nebuchadnezzar II at the gate. Their exact location is unknown but there is no doubt that the text refers to the construction of the gate. The text was restored by comparison with another complete inscription on a lime stone block and gives three excerpts of this main inscription of the king. Abridged excerpt: “I (Nebuchadnezzar) laid the foundation of the gates down to the ground water level and had them built out of pure blue stone. Upon the walls in the inner room of the gate are bulls and dragons and thus I magnificently adorned them with luxurious splendour for all mankind to behold in awe.” / Wikimedia Commons
What, then, was the selective force which brought all this disparate material together and packaged it as a single work? The pressure that drove the Hebrews to assemble such dissimilar writings into one collection—and in the process also lose a number of texts—must have been very great, arguably cataclysmic. That force alone reduces the number of possible events in the recorded history of Israel to a limited number of crises, catastrophes which caused such stress and turmoil that a textual holocaust of this magnitude could have occurred. And of those few critical junctures, one clearly stands out, both in terms of its ferocity and its timing, a trauma that later came to be known as the Babylonian Captivity (586-537 BCE).
In the late 590’s and early 580’s BCE, the Hebrews made a decision they would quickly come to regret. They sided with the Egyptians, who were attempting to cast out their Babylonian overlords, and in doing so the Hebrews incurred the wrath of the powerful King of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar (r. 605-562 BCE). When the Jews betrayed him as he was leading his army through Judea into Egypt, the Babylonian monarch turned back in fury on them and ordered the siege of their capital city Jerusalem. Hebrew forces proved no match for the mighty army of Babylon and Jerusalem fell, turning this assault into the wholesale destruction of the Jewish state. During the sack, the city was despoiled and its holy precinct razed, spelling the end of the First Temple, as it came to be called in the wake of its destruction.
But before Nebuchadnezzar’s men could reduce it to rubble and march the surviving Israelites into slavery in Babylon, someone—or perhaps some group of people—salvaged certain sacred texts from the Temple’s library archives. Although these documents hardly represented all of Hebrew scripture, and almost certainly nowhere near a majority of it, they preserved at least a portion of the culture’s literary heritage. Without this death-defying rescue mission, it’s unlikely we would have Genesis or any of the early books of the Bible—or if we did, certainly not in the form they are now.
The next fifty years—the so-called Babylonian Captivity—were so trying on Hebrew life and culture that they might well have witnessed the utter collapse and extermination of Hebrew civilization. However, from the ashes of destruction and displacement arose a new spirit, a new nation and, most important, a new religion. No longer centered on the physical structure of the Temple itself and the regimen of sacrifices mandated there, the ancient Israelite religion was now to be housed in the heart of each worshiper, focusing more on intention than ritual, that is, the observation of morality rather than the performance of ceremony.
With that, detailed study of the surviving scriptures and careful analysis of the Hebrew text verbatim—the words themselves that made up the Old Testament were now seen as “immutable,” that is, sacred and unchangeable—became a matter of supreme importance among the ancient Israelites. When the Persian king Cyrus conquered Babylon and finally allowed the Jews to return to the Holy Lands, their religion had come to be text-based in a way it hadn’t been before and probably never would have, had the Babylonian Captivity never occurred. But it was also a religion built on a literary corpus riddled with gaps and missing key scriptures for which there was all but no hope of salvation.
While neither we nor the ancient Israelites who lived in the wake of the Babylonian Captivity have ever had access to all that was lost amidst the destruction of the First Temple, reconstruction of early Hebrew culture and theology is possible, at least in part, through close examination of biblical scripture aided by archaeological investigation of the remains of both ancient Israelite civilization and the general Near Eastern cultural matrix in which it evolved. Archaeologists have, in fact, recovered a number of new texts dating to very early times and, though none are biblical scriptures as such, the documentary remains of other civilizations inhabiting ancient Canaan and its vicinity have shed much light on the language and history informing the Old Testament. Despite how few and broken they are, these rare and fractured “recovered histories” tell a tale that’s veritably biblical in scope and message, reminding us that great truths and true greatness can be found even in the smallest of trinkets rescued from ancient garbage.
The Texts: J, E, P, D
The Ashkar-Gilson Manuscript is a seventh- or eighth-century C.E. manuscript that sheds light on the formation of the Hebrew Bible in the period between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the later codices. Photo by Ardon Ben Hama, The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
The last century and a half of biblical scholarship has witnessed a growing consensus among experts that several distinct voices speak through the Bible. Although the names of the original authors lying behind the various personas visible in biblical scripture are now lost to us, their differing interests and views on life ring out clearly through their words. It is readily apparent, for instance, that the first five books of the Bible, the so-called Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy), are actually a patchwork of what were once different texts that were later sewn together into a semi-cohesive narrative. The Hebrew “rhapsodes” who stitched together this quilt are a mystery at present, though it’s all but certain they were connected in some way with the Temple priesthood during the period following the Babylonian Captivity. Indeed, a strong interest in centralizing ancient Israelite religion in Jerusalem runs throughout the Pentateuch, an attitude traceable to the Jerusalem priesthood during its entire history.
The result was a composite text—meaning that its components were originally composed as separate works whose authors did not necessarily intend them to be read together—and because they were written undoubtedly over the course of centuries, it’s impossible to date them firmly. Moreover, there’s a real possibility they were assembled and revised several times before reaching us in the state we have them. Indeed, only when one part of the Bible references another directly can we speak with any assurance about dates of composition, for only then is it certain that one text predates another. So, for instance, when the Book of Lamentations cites the Book of Job, it’s clear that the former, or the version of that passage handed down to us, was composed later. But even this provides only a relative chronology, not absolute dating. To set the composition of various parts of the Bible at specific moments in time exceeds the grasp of modern scholarship, except in a very few instances.
“Composite” also implies texts that don’t always cohere fully and sometimes exhibit “weak joins”. A good example of this comes at the very beginning of the Bible. Careful scrutiny of the opening chapters of Genesis shows two distinct versions of creation. Genesis 1:1-2:3 focuses on how God created man (“in his own image”), while the second narrative which follows immediately thereafter (Genesis 2:4) elaborates what He used (“the dust of the ear “). While these are clearly not incompatible stories, the attitude each demonstrates toward what matters about creation—that is, where their varying emphases lie—is quite distinct. And that’s exactly the point. As a composite text, the Bible interweaves analogous narratives drawn from discrete texts which originally had different themes, approaches that didn’t so much contradict as complement and balance each other.
J, or the Jahwehist
Around 586 B.C. King Nebuchadnezzar destroyed Jerusalem and the temple built by Solomon. After the destruction of the city, he took more of the Jews into captivity. / Wikimedia Commons
The name given today to one such “author” of the Bible, that is, one of the voices or, better, schools of thought visible in the Pentateuch, is J. So called because this text refers to God as Jahweh (or Yahweh), J carries with it a unique outlook on the divine. JHWH in ancient Hebrew, a language which was originally written using consonants only—derives from the Hebrew verb “to be,” and implies something along the lines of “he causes to exist” or “he always exists.” Jahweh is the name revealed to Moses when he encounters God at the burning bush in Exodus (3:2).
J also stands for “Judean,” since its author looks at life and culture from the perspective of the southern half of the Holy Lands, Judea (or Judah). The prominence of places in Judea is a clear feature of J’s style. J also displays overtones of bias against those Hebrews who lived in Israel proper, the northern counterpart to Judea in Palestine.
Though scholars dispute its chronology, J appears to be the oldest of the sources of the Bible, dating back possibly as far as the tenth century (ca. 900 BCE). Some evidence suggests a date of composition around the time of Solomon who is usually seen to have reigned from 940-900 BCE. But if so, later hands have intruded upon J and reworked it, adding prophesies of things to come centuries down the road, events the author—or authors—of J simply couldn’t have foreseen. All in all, J is both old and very old, having undergone revision several times before being written down in the form we have it.
The vision of God in J is fairly simple. He tends to appear, speak and leave, with relatively few discussions, explanations or angels in attendance. Also, he is called by several names, among others, “God of my father” (Genesis 32:9)—”father” here refers to Abraham—a patriotic, family-oriented designation attesting well to J’s primitivity.
This stands in stark contrast to other authors preserved in the Bible, whose complex theologies and attention to the international scene leave an impression of cosmopolitan sophistication. J, to the contrary, exhibits language much less elaborate, at least by comparison, reveling in puns and exciting narratives, hardly the tone typical of priests or bureaucrats. Inhabiting what one scholar calls an “uncluttered world,” J is in many ways the Herodotus of Hebrew culture.
As such, J provides some of the best reading in the Bible. Many of the most well-known and best beloved biblical stories come from J—Adam and Eve, Joseph, Moses, Exodus, the Burning Bush, to name but a few—or at least one version of those stories goes back to J, since Joseph’s and Moses’ histories, in particular, are retold several times in the Bible, each time somewhat differently.
Finally, if any general theme emerges from J, it is that the Hebrews will someday triumph in glory over all other peoples, clear evidence that the author of J did not know about the Fall of Israel in 722 BCE to the Assyrians, much less the far more disastrous Babylonian Captivity that followed a century later. And like its counterparts in Greek culture, J also presumes that study of the past leads to the explanation of things in the author’s world. So, for instance, the story of the Tower of Babel serves to explain why there were different languages in the ancient world. Likewise, the remains of Sodom and Gomorrah explicate the topography of the Holy Lands. This optimism, especially the view that history teaches important and comprehensible lessons, combined with a ready zeal to tell a good tale, characterizes the authorship of J and distinguishes it from other sources that contributed to the Hebrew Bible.
E, or the Elohist
Elohim symbol / Institute for Religious Research
E, also called the “Elohist,” has a voice quite distinct from J but equal in clarity and probably close in age, too. E stands for Elohim, the name for God most often used by this author. Elohim is a variation on the Semitic root *el– meaning “god,” a word-base seen in place names like Beth-el, “House of God,” and the Arabic name for the principal deity in Islam, Allah. E also refers to Ephraim, another name for Israel where the text most likely originated.
In E, manifestations of God tend to be more complicated than in J. In addition to operating through angels and dreams as channels of communication, God discourses with humans more often and at greater length. However, that E involves sophisticated features such as these doesn’t necessarily imply that it’s later than J—linear evolution involving steady progress forward isn’t the only, or even the best, model for history of this sort—besides, at various junctures, J seems to be responding to E, as if the author of J had E in mind when he wrote. The truth is E and J were most likely contemporaneous in both composition and development. What distinguishes them is not time but perspective, that is, different views of God, history and especially geography, in this case, north versus south.
But the northerners—commonly referred to as “Israelites” in contrast to their southern brethren known as “Judeans”—were ultimately the losers in the greater concourse of events in the ancient Near East. As the Assyrians rose to supremacy and perpetrated their infamous savagery across the known world, Israel which was closer to them than Judea caught the brunt of their wrath first. Conquered, despoiled and displaced, the northern Hebrews lost their homeland, heritage and ultimately their claim on history, too. This is because in the confusion following the northerners’ fall the version of the past they embraced, their take on what-really-happened, had to be entrusted to their sibling rivals in Judea, and as the Bible’s poor relative, its first lost tribe, the Israelites’ vision of history fared poorly in the quilting process that formed the Pentateuch. E, in the end, got considerably less press and stage time than J.
Nevertheless, ancient and important histories find a home in E. In particular, it includes evidence of the cultural exchange between the Hebrews and their close relatives and neighbors, the Canaanites whose main cities lay nearer Israel than Judea and thus made a greater impact on northern as opposed to southern Hebrew culture. For instance, the name of the principal Canaanite deity is El (“God”), a name used for God in the Bible several times, especially in those parts of Genesis which derive from E.
However, in the Canaanite religious tradition as early as 1200 BCE, El was displaced by another god, his son Ba’al (“Lord”) who stole center stage from his father and eventually became the principal deity of the Canaanites. That timing coincides remarkably well with the use of El as a name for the Hebrew God in E. In other words, El was what the central god was called in early Canaanite culture, a world which the northern Hebrews shared intimately with their immediate neighbors, and so “El” was used as the name of their principal god, too.
This would seem to confirm the antiquity of E’s text, whose author would probably not have employed this name after the thirteenth century BCE when El was beginning to be displaced by Ba’al and was losing visibility in the local religion. Of course, as some scholars note, the use of the name El could also be a later fabrication added into certain Hebrew texts to give them the false ring of being genuinely ancient, in the same way that using “thou” and “thee” can make modern English seem archaic. But “El” is so pervasive and deeply entrenched as a name used by E that the evidence seems to point toward its authenticity, and thus the genuine antiquity of E.
P, or the Priestly Tradition
Oldest Hebrew Bible scroll since the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Ein Gedi / Wikimedia Commons
If E and J can be hard to discriminate at times, among the easier voices to identify in the Pentateuch is P, which stands for “the priestly tradition” and whose author views history from the vantage point of the cultic sector of Hebrew society. As can be expected of one trained in the Temple, P describes ritual in detail, but rarely explains the reasons behind the practice. This part of the Bible is responsible, for instance, for the injunction to circumcise male babies, but nothing in biblical text ever says why it’s necessary to do so. It is clearly not a rite of passage since it’s performed on infants and never associated with the bar mitzvah, the Jewish ritual inducting a teenage male into manhood. Instead, whatever purpose circumcision was seen to serve—and there must have been one originally—it’s left unstated, perhaps because the author himself didn’t know, inasmuch as he was a functionary and not a formulator of policy, without any direct insight into the reasoning underlying the regulations he recorded and enforced.
This is seen even more clearly in the litany of laws found in Leviticus, that complex “forest of detail” designed to ensure the purity of Hebrew society through a multitude of dietary, sexual and other restrictions. One scholar calls them a “jungle of lists and rules.” While many of these laws may seem at first glance haphazard—why can one eat locusts but not lobsters?—close investigation reveals a significant pattern in what is and isn’t permitted.
According to one scholar, the principle guiding this code of behavior is the ancient Israelites’ perception that the world is divided into “realms of existence”: land, sea and sky. As the by-products of God’s creation, these divisions were seen to be inviolate and thus should never be confused. So, when God says “Let the waters under the heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear” (Genesis 1:9), it seems very clear that it is His will for these divisions to remain unbreached.
Logic dictates, then, that those creatures which appear to span different realms must live in defiance of God’s discrimination and should not be ingested since they behave contrary to holy creation. Lobsters, for instance, have no scales or fins, few of the sorts of things most sea creatures do and are obviously designed for moving though water. Instead, lobsters sport legs which are clearly an apparatus designed for life on land. Thus, endowed with a body type which apparently transgresses God’s natural boundaries, they were pronounced abominations (Lev. 11:9-13). Likewise, many birds of prey walk on legs but can fly too, and because of that are also forbidden fruit (Lev. 11:13-19).
The same logic extends into other spheres of life. A taboo against straddling “realms of existence” helps explain the commandment not to wear garments made of wool mixed with linen and to sow a field with different types of seed (Lev. 19:19). These activities involve the blending of things which are ostensibly discrete in nature as well.
A similar code of conduct governs sexual behavior. A holy man cannot, for instance, have sex with a woman who is menstruating (Lev. 15:19), since that would entail the mixing of blood and semen, fluids which according to P’s logic should never commingle. Nor can a high priest marry a widow, divorced woman or prostitute (Lev. 21:14), because in doing so he would cause his seed to be joined in the same organ with that of other men, and the structure of God’s divisible universe seems to suggest different men’s semen ought not to mix. From the same logic comes the injunction against male homosexuality (Lev. 18:22, 20:13). It’s interesting to note that Leviticus includes no such injunction against same-sex activity amidst women, presumably because behavior of this sort does not, at least on the surface, involve the conjunction of immiscible fluids.
P, however, underlies more than Leviticus and its myriad laws. According to many scholars, it’s responsible for nothing less than the opening lines of the Bible—”In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”—and the subsequent verses running through Genesis 2:3, up to “And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it.” The stress on the holiness of the Sabbath is paralleled later at some length in Leviticus 23, a stretch of text which is clearly P’s handiwork.
P also, no doubt, provided the original stories of the Great Flood and God’s subsequent covenant with Noah (Gen. 9), also the later covenant with Abraham (Gen. 17) as well as the construction of the desert tabernacle in direct symmetry with the architecture of the so-called “First Temple” in Jerusalem (Ex. 25-27). Also from P comes God’s promise issued on Mount Sinai of an enduring priesthood who will oversee the performance of rituals, thus ensuring the purity of the Hebrew people once they arrive in the promised land (Ex. 28-30).
Finally, among P’s many contributions to the Bible must be the protracted genealogies which add some tedious reading to the Pentateuch—as one Biblical scholar has been heard to say, “Priests can be pretty boring!”—and include with that the gruesome descriptions of pustulous wounds found in Leviticus 13. Who cares about white hairs inside a boil, except a priest dedicated to maintaining the purity of society at large! Thus, focused on regulations and conduct and the proper way to assess and deal with “imperfections” of the body, be it personal or politic, it seems safe to assume that the author of P lived in a world where the Temple and its officiators were firmly entrenched as part of the Hebrew community.
More than that, however, it’s also reasonable to suppose that the need to write down so many laws in such meticulous detail presumes a challenge of some sort to the authority of the priesthood. For that reason, many scholars look again to the Babylonian Captivity, when the Hebrews were cut away from their Temple and its rituals, for in this age the very existence of the priests was threatened. It is not unnatural to expect them to counter this threat by laying down the letter of the law.
Thus, P is conventionally dated to some time after Cyrus’ restoration of the Hebrews to Jerusalem in the 530’s BCE, more often in the next century, making it one of the more recent voices in the Pentateuch, much later than J and E. Indeed, it seems to pull from and meld both those early texts—which presupposes both had already been set down—for instance, P refers to God as Elohim until the appellation JHWH is revealed to Moses, after which it uses that name.
That assumption rested comfortably in the minds of many scholars of the modern age, until a small silver scroll was discovered on which was inscribed the famous Priestly Blessing from Numbers (6:24-26)—it begins “May the Lord bless you and keep you . . .”—this prayer clearly came from P. It was also obvious that this scroll had been engraved before 600 BCE—the style of the writing on it guaranteed so much—which meant that at least this much of P belonged to an age preceding the Babylonian Captivity. Suddenly, confining the composition of P to a single century was not as simple as some had once asserted.
The inescapable conclusion was that, like the other texts which were woven together to create the Pentateuch, P underwent considerable evolution. If some parts were much older than it was previously supposed, the same, no doubt, was also true of P’s essential thrust, the importance of determining and following God’s specific laws. Thus, P and the Temple Priesthood had far deeper roots in the scriptures than it had seemed at first glance. Or to put it in more biblical terms, “And on the eighth day, God created bureaucracy.”
D, or the Deuteronomist
Fragment of the Fouad papyri, oldest Greek text of Deuteronomy, around 2nd century BCE / The Israel Museum, Jerusalem
The last and latest of the sources underlying the Pentateuch is D, a text seen almost exclusively in Deuteronomy—few scholars today, for instance, would situate any of D in Genesis—it is, instead, the work of a compiler assembling different histories but speaking with a clear purpose and perspective, that is, the view from the ruins of a state under siege. Over and over, D stresses that the sins of the Hebrews will stir God’s wrath and land them one day in bondage. Framed as prophesies from former Biblical greats like Samuel, Joshua and even Moses, the words of D revolve around the errors of the past and the hope of future redemption.
D’s voice is also one of the best educated and most eloquent in the Bible, as one might expect of an author who could look back over centuries of scripture and forge a style that met the demands of a Hebrew readership still deeply entrenched in its own history and culture but at the same time more sophisticated and wiser about the world at large. Fully articulated speeches, such as Moses’ which opens Deuteronomy, for the first time find a home in the Bible. The haranguing orator with fond dreams of improving his people through the beauty of the spoken word is a type evidenced in many an urbanized and advanced civilization, but certainly nowhere better than in D.
Another theme which resonates throughout Deuteronomy, revealing a different dream its author cherished fondly, is the primary importance of the First Temple in ancient Jewish life. The notion that Jerusalem should serve not only as the center of religious life for all Hebrew people but as the only valid site to worship God is, in effect, a denunciation of other religious practices. Indeed, modern archaeological research has confirmed that there were ceremonies being held in honor of Jahweh outside Jerusalem at this time. And because other evidence suggests that the notion of the First Temple’s exclusive priority developed fairly late in the evolution of Hebrew theology, D is uniquely datable.
At 2 Kings 22, the Old Testament recounts the unexpected discovery of an ancient law text dug up accidentally when workers were refurbishing the Temple. According to the Bible, this long-lost legal code was brought to Josiah, the King of Judea at the time (r. ca. 640-625 BCE). When he read it, he was aghast to see commandments forbidding certain religious practices, rituals which had once been employed by the Israelites, the Judeans’ erstwhile brethren whose state the Assyrians had obliterated a century before. And along with the prediction and explication of Israel’s demise came the promise of a new path to salvation, one—rest assured!—God approved of more certainly. It foretold that, as long as Josiah avoided the mistakes of his long-lost northern kin: “. . . thou shalt be gathered into thy grave in peace, and thine eyes shall not see all the evil which I will bring upon this place.” (2 Kings 23:20). The Judeans, the southern Hebrews, did indeed witness a modest if short-lived prosperity during Josiah’s reign, so it must have looked as if the times confirmed the divine protection this buried book had proffered.
Though riddled with invented history, this story probably stems from a real historical event, the writing of Deuteronomy which was disguised as the book’s “discovery and publication” and recorded as such in Second Kings. The tale it told of sin and salvation surely resonated among the later Hebrews, especially those who had survived Nebuchadnezzar’s siege of 586 which gave the work new life—and perhaps a few new words as well—along with a position of prominence in biblical scripture, its fourth-place finish in the Pentateuch sweepstakes. If this is so, as with none of the other texts which have been quilted together to create the first five books of the Old Testament, we can set D in a particular time and place in the past, indeed put it into the hands of a specific type of personality with distinct views and goals, making it unprecedentedly “historical.”
Text and Formation of the Ancient Israelite Religion
Tetragrammaton written in paleo-Hebrew script. Lower part of col. 18 (according to E. Tov) of the Greek Minor Prophets Scroll from Nahal Hever (8HevXII gr). The arrow points at the divine name in paleo-Hebrew script. Dated to between 50 BCE and 50 CE / Wikimedia Commons
From close study of the texts constituting the Pentateuch it’s also possible to create a rough sketch of how monotheism formed in ancient Israelite culture. Beginning with an initial period in which nomadic patriarchs like Abraham and Jacob wandered in search of a homeland, the Hebrews first embraced God as a local deity of sorts initially dubbed “God of my father” or “El,” the nomenclature found in the most ancient of biblical scriptures. These primordial documents also refer to Him as El-elyom (“God on High”), El-shaddai (“God of the Mountains”), El-roi (“God Visible”) and El-olam (“God Everlasting”). Wherever these names are seen, there is never any mention of God as the only divine being in the universe; rather, he is affiliated with the family of Abraham almost exclusively and bound to the land and prosperity he promises them.
In the period after these early patriarchs, there is evidence that a monotheistic perspective had started to evolve in ancient Israelite culture. Embracing a type of worship modern scholars call henotheism (“the belief in one god,” i.e. among many), the Hebrews who followed in Abraham’s wake began for the first time to put all trust in a single deity without disavowing the existence of others. This form of proto-monotheism underlies the statement made in the First Commandment, “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” Careful scrutiny of the wording here shows that, while asserting that God is clearly predominant, which by definition makes all other divinities secondary in importance, the first commandment also implicitly acknowledges that other gods do, in fact, exist. Jephthah all but admits so much when he says to the King of the Moabites: “Wilt thou not possess that which Chemosh thy god giveth thee to possess?” (Judges 11:24). In other words, recognizing that Chemosh can benefit the Moabites just as God does the Israelites entails a limited view of the deity, inconsistent with monotheism in the strictest sense of the word.
In the age of Moses and the subsequent period of the Judges, the vision of God as sole deity continued to expand. Although still the special protector of his favored people, the tribes of Israel, God’s presence has begun to be felt more widely, especially after he made covenants with the Israelites as a nation. And surely, the revelation of a new name for him—Jahweh—also helped to open the door to a much broader vision of the deity, and along with that a different sort of relationship with his chosen people. As worship was seen no longer to be just a matter of praying for favors from God, a kind of exchange system arose in which He was said to grant requests in return for good behavior. Taken this way, the Ten Commandments function as not only a set of laws but as a bargain of sorts, where moral conduct is traded for prosperity.
After the Age of Judges, henotheism took yet another step closer to monotheism. Called monolatry (“single worship”), this encompassed a view in which a foreign god is still recognized as a traditional presence but is deemed essentially irrelevant, at least as a divinity wielding any real power. In the words of Hosea (13:4): “Thou shalt know no god but me.” This broadening perspective on God conforms well with what we know of the period historically. By the Age of the Two Kingdoms (ca. 900-722 BCE), ancient Israelite religion had developed a fairly sophisticated bureaucracy overseeing holy sites, rituals and the preservation of its own history. By now a fixture on the Hebrew cultural landscape, the First Temple was gaining in prominence, too, and more complicated social institutions demanded a more elaborate theology.
By the time of the Babylonian Captivity, fully developed monotheism was clearly underway. Though traces can be seen back as far as 750 BCE, definitive assertions of monotheistic ideology are found most often among the later voices sewn into the patchwork of texts constituting the Bible. For instance, bold declarations that God is the sole divinity in the universe emerge regularly in the text of Deutero-Isaiah (“Second Isaiah”), originally a separate work from the first thirty-nine chapters of the Book of Isaiah. Written by a different author and subsequently appended onto the end of an earlier Book of Isaiah, this later text puts the following words into the mouth of God (Isaiah 44:6-8):
I am the first and I am the last; beside me there is no god. . . . Is there any god beside me? There is no other rock; I know not one.
Here, at last, is a complete and articulate statement of monotheism.
Thus, emerging from a period of trauma and turmoil, the Jewish world transformed itself, as indeed did the whole human sphere. For this is the same age when Confucius and Buddha revolutionized life in Asia, when Ionian philosophers and Athenian dramatists were reshaping Western views on thought and art, when Herodotus wrote his Histories and democracy and representative governments first appeared almost simultaneously in Athens and Rome. Clearly, there was revolution, the stirring of change in the air. God, government and history were born anew all across the globe. What a time it must have been to be alive!
Conclusion: Israel and Canaan
To say, then, that the heady days of the sixth and fifth centuries BCE saw dramatic change and set the stage for the modern world could hardly be condemned as overstatement, but it would be untrue to claim this revolution was swift or easy. The forward-thinking factions within these civilizations which we look back on as heralding our age—those monotheists and philosophers and history-makers who to us characterize this time—were generally not met, at least not at first, with universal cheers and admiration. Perplexed by the novelties swirling around them, many initially rejected the radical notions of the avant-garde in favor of older, more traditional perspectives on life. These people, the “conservatives” of their day, resisted re-assessments of their ancestors’ world view, and their protestations against change, though muted by later generations who adopted the innovations which the revolutionaries promoted, can like the voices of women and other minorities be heard amidst the crash and rattle of new ideas, if one attends closely and carefully to the data.
For instance, the monotheism preached from the Temple, the “rap” of ancient Jerusalem in its Hebrew heyday, clearly did not sit well on every Israelite ear. To begin with, by the standards of most ancient theological thinking it made little sense that God at times refused to favor his “chosen” people but instead let Babylonians carry them off into exile. When a person prays and sacrifices to a god the way that deity demands, simple minds believe the divinity ought to give help in return. Otherwise, what’s the point of praying, sacrificing, being “chosen”? To many in antiquity, such a failure to respond in kind was an open invitation to begin looking around for a more collaborative presence in heaven, one who understands, as the ancient Romans explained to their gods, do ut des, “I give in order that you give.”
Jeremiads, the constant tirades found in the Bible against those who have lapsed into the adoration of Ba’al—or whatever idol was at that moment topping the celestial pop-charts—show how often such “conservative” thinking won over the common people of ancient Israel. After all, Hebrew culture was rooted in polytheistic soil and constantly exposed to peoples who worshipped gods, sometimes by the hundreds. The sort of thinking which arises naturally from a world seen to accommodate many different deities was, in fact, the status quo at that time and place.
To the contrary, monotheism, while it’s our norm, was the unnatural element in the ancient Israelites’ universe. This anomaly not only helps to explain its slow growth in antiquity but shows with abundant clarity how foreign and difficult such a concept really was for the people of early Israel to embrace. Who should accept only one god, when there is obviously so much diversity in the world—the plurality of the universe all but begs for a corresponding pantheon—so why not hedge your bets with a golden calf, maybe two? To put all your money in one theological collection plate must have seemed to many an unwise wager, especially when there were Babylonian swords pressing at your throat.
The full implications of the biblical prophets’ countless warnings not to relapse into the temptations of some sort of idol or other, the Bible never clarifies. Instead, it gives us only one side of the picture, the Temple’s abhorrence of such behaviors. The reason that many presumably sensible Israelites engaged in such practices, we have been left to imagine for ourselves, that is, until recently.
Something which, in particular, set many of the Old Testament prophets off on a long and frothy jeremiad is a thing that was called an asherah. Biblical commentaries tell us this was “a sacred post or tree next to an altar,” but it isn’t clear why this item enraged the prophets so much that they regularly ordered asherahs throughout ancient Israel to be uprooted, especially those outside of Jerusalem. Didn’t they like trees? But Abraham had planted a tree to conclude a pact (Genesis 21:32-3). What’s so bad about asherahs?
Texts recently recovered through archaeological investigation show that in some cases we should capitalize the first letter of the word asherah because to many of the ancient Israelites’ neighbors it was a proper name. Asherah, it turns out, was the principal goddess in the polytheistic traditions of the Hebrews’ close relatives in Palestine, the Canaanites. No less than the wife of El, her divinity was often symbolized by a tree or staff placed near pagan altars in her honor. That explains Jeremiah’s detestation of asherahs whose presence represented, at least to him, traditional polytheism.
In confirmation of all this, archaeologists working in Israel have bought to light an artifact which clarifies just how fraught with tension this whole situation must have been. On this small sacrificial offering is scrawled a simple inscription: “Blessed by Jahweh, and his wife Asherah.” Written in Hebrew clearly by an Israelite of some sort, this simple oblation entails a crude attempt to compliment Jahweh by linking him with the popular goddess Asherah. That is, the worshiper who left it for the Hebrew God was trying, against the wishes of the Jerusalem priesthood, to usurp the principal Canaanite god El’s wife and give her to his deity Jahweh—that both gods could be called “El” must have aided considerably in this wife-napping—which goes to show only that the evolution of monotheism in Israel followed anything but a simple or straightforward path.
Instead, the monotheists’ bumpy, murky, slow and hard-fought victory came only over the course of centuries and against the will of more than a few within their population. It demonstrates not only how bitter was the battle for the heart of the Hebrew people in those days but also, for all its apparent differences, how deeply rooted ancient Israelite religion was in the polytheistic world surrounding it. Reading around and behind the Old Testament provides a new dimension to our understanding of its message and the struggle it took to forge a monotheistic religion, both inside and outside of Israel.
With this, we can see how essentially modern the ancient world was, how tragically at home they would feel amidst our battles over evolution, school prayer, gay marriage and all that constitutes moral behavior. But most modern of all is the way careful analysis of the Old Testament and the ancient world shows how they fought, just as we do, over their vision of the past, which they reconfigured when necessary to suit their needs, their regrets, their hopes for the future.