Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 4 (2002-2003) - Review

Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts ( Oxford : Oxford University Press, 2001); pp. xviii, 325. Hardcover. ISBN: 019513480X. $ 60.

Smith does a nice job of setting forth the context of his study, and various stimuli from other scholars, in his introduction. His purpose is to investigate “the conceptual unity of West Semitic polytheisms,” (actually “Ugaritic and Israelite polytheism”) and he seeks to answer questions about the “ancient circumstances of biblical monotheism.” The work was occasioned in part by a colleague’s question: “what is an ilu?” (Akkadian for “god”). What is divinity? (p. 6). Smith notes that such a question can be approached by asking what is not human, on the basis of etymology, and by compiling a list of all the deities. But he defines his approach as that of a typology of divinity that includes a cosmic typology and a social typology that examines “the major indigenous conceptual structures that ancient Ugaritic and Israelite societies used to construct their religious reality” (p. 8).  

The book is divided into three major sections. Smith first examines the structure of divinity, starting with anthropomorphic deities and divine monsters. He then characterizes the divine council (four tiers), the divine family (as compared to four levels in the household), and finally pluralities, pairings and other divine relationships (“divine intersections or interrelations”). He suggests that “oneness” in what moderns call the “godhead” would come from within the “multiple levels and types of interrelationality within divinity” (p. 8). A family model would make the polytheism of a divine family more fitting than a monotheistic picture. Monotheism would be more fitting within the context of “a royal organization headed by an absolute monarch” (pp. 8f.).  

The second major section discusses characteristics of divinity, focusing first on the traits of deities (strength, size, body and gender, holiness and life [deathlessness]), then identifying what terms the texts use to express what deities are, and then dealing finally with the odd circumstance of the (life and) death of Baal (with a strong denial of Frazer’s views on the dying and rising god motif as being normative) (p. 9).  

The third major section shifts the focus to the origins of monotheism in the Bible. It first observes usage of the words El and Yahweh (“deep impact on Yahweh of the god El”), though admitting that the formative traditions of Israel are now lost. It examines the God of IsraEL and the exodus, which many scholars assume suggests that El, not Yahweh, was linked to that early event. Smith then examines the emergence of monotheistic “rhetoric” in ancient Judah in light of ancient polytheisms, denying that this is a separate stage in Israel ’s development. He suggests instead that “monotheism is a kind of inner community discourse,” “a kind of ancient rhetoric reinforcing Israel’s exclusive relationship with its deity,” which would have been elevated to worldwide importance as it saw its worldly position diminishing (p. 9) Smith then identifies the formation of various monotheistic theologies in Genesis 1, Proverbs 1—9, and Daniel 7 (priestly, wisdom, apocalyptic). He concludes with a survey of the full-blown monotheism of Second Isaiah, to be seen as much more than religious, but rather as a strategy to persuade hearers that Yahweh was the absolute power who even controlled foreign powers (p. 10).  

As always, Smith is deeply engaged in dialogue with others. The final third of the volume consists of footnotes, and one is amazed at the number of recent works cited and the number of references to personal correspondence with other scholars. The level of detail and discussion with other scholars on the intricacies of individual texts and readings is overwhelming and amazing. One is aware of being involved in a discussion that has been ongoing and will likely continue. Smith is careful to note how difficult it is to deal with issues surrounding monotheism, the paucity of evidence about the connections, and the challenge to ground the study in historical data.  

Among the observations that I, an outsider to the intricacies of this dispute and discussion, found particularly helpful: the category of identification of near and far spaces as being more or less safe, four tiers within the pantheon (El and Athirat, royal children, Kothar wa-Hasis to serve those above him in rank, and minor deities), the divine family being the same as the divine council and based on a family model, the critique of Frazer, and the discussion about the mouth-washing and mouth-opening rituals in Babylon, Nineveh, etc.

 Among the questions the volume raises for me: The entire work seems to assume that all of what is written, both in Ugarit and in biblical materials, is nothing but human work and that changes toward monotheism are rooted in humans working with the traditions. One admittedly cannot easily argue presuppositions. But I wonder about the attractiveness of evolutionary model of development from an originally rooted Israelite polytheism to a later type of monotheism (when Israel was at its weakest), instead of the model, which seems much more prominent biblically, that sees one belief structure in opposition to another (the “new gods” whom their fathers did not know [Deut. 32:17]). I am still one of those “into denial” (see p. 248, note 54), who thinks that revelation did play a role and that one encounters a revealed mystery that cannot be resolved merely by adjusting traditions and eliminating what is no longer useful. Is there finally any reality behind all of the rhetoric? If there is, how is the deity known? If what we have in the biblical texts is simply humans at work, then is one’s belief hanging in the air? How might one distinguish between what is worth living for and false ideas that keep one going but that are really “no god” (Jer. 2:11, 28). Is there a real ilu? Or are all ilus merely rhetorical?

 I initially thought to begin this review with the word “perhaps,” which Mark Smith uses so frequently. He has set forth a cogent argument for his position. And yet, he admits that many of the connections he makes are inferences. The raw data of a multiplicity of deities is obviously at hand. The data being used has been dug up after being locked in the ground for over 3000 years or passed down orally and later in written form. The validity of the connections and inferences are in the realm of reconstructions, about which there will always be dispute. I welcomed the chance to read this volume and to refresh myself on some Ugaritic materials that I have not studied in detail for quite some time.  

Dr. Thomas H. Trapp,
Concordia University
St. Paul , MN