How Many Gods Are There/Were There?

The rather arcane title of the lecture was “Roots of Israelite Monotheism: Evidence from Archeology and Texts”, the forum was Congregation B’nai Israel in Rockville, the sponsors included the synagogue, the Foundation for Jewish Studies, The Biblical Archeology Forum, and the Biblical Archeology Society of Northern Virginia (which you have to like because it goes by BASONOVA).  The audience was large, the room was awful (unless you were in the front row, you had trouble seeing the speakers or the screen).

The lecturers were Mark S. Smith (Skirball Chair of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at New York University, and his wife Elizabeth Bloch-Smith, primarily a field archeologist.  The premise, as I understand it, was as follows:

Monotheism did not appear clean and pure in pre-Jewish Israelite history, but developed from a polytheistic belief system, as can be demonstrated by the examination of both archeological and textual evidence.  The thought that from the time of Abraham there was a clean belief in one God is a later creation, bolstered by a rewriting of history.  And, when you look at the history, you can see that the evolution of monotheistic thought was spurred on in the 8th century BCE by the conquest of the Northern Kingdom of Israel by the Assyrians, and the devastating, but ultimately unsatisfactory, attempt to conquest the southern kingdom of Judea a few years later, and it was spurred on even more in the 6th century BCE by the conquest of Judea and destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.

Prior to that time, the tendency was to assume there were different Gods for different kingdoms, the Israelite God being only one of seventy (the number of nations disbursed at the Tower of Babel), perhaps with some form of overarching God, El-yon, not specifically connected to the Israelites, along with lesser divine creatures, including God-like angels, creating quite a large supernatural pantheon.  As Assyria and then Babylon created large empires, they incorporated the Gods of the conquered peoples in various subtle and sophisticated ways into their own Gods, while the conquered Israelites retreated from believing their God was one of many, but re-thinking him as the only God, ruling the world and choosing the Jewish people as his own.  Exactly why the Jews’ thinking went in this direction was not made clear to me.

It also was not perfectly clear how the archeological evidence led to this, but it becomes important (as the Assyrian attacks on Israelite settlements were outlined on a series of maps) to refer to this in conjunction with looking at the various texts (including the words of the  various biblical authors, and the prophets of the 8th and those of the 6th centuries) to see how the concept of God changed over time.

It was an interesting lecture, although much of what was said seemed rather speculative.  But journalists writing about the Ukraine today often seem to be speculating, so perhaps it is not surprising that we are left to speculation when thinking about 2500-3000 years ago.




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