Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 17 (2017) - Review
The Invention of God is an English translation (beautifully rendered by Raymond Geuss) of Thomas Römer's L'invention de Dieu, published in French in 2014. The rather provocative title is not intended to reflect the antagonistic and somewhat widespread notion of Iron Age goat herders or corrupt priests fabricating the God of Israel out of whole cloth, but the longue durée development of the conceptualization of Israel's patron deity. At the outset Römer outlines an important point of departure: a close reading of the Hebrew Bible demonstrates that God was not always the sole and only God over the entire universe. This raises a host of questions regarding the development of YHWH's conceptualization and worship. The goal of the book is to provisionally trace the trajectory of that development from its earliest possible reconstruction to its final canonical form in the Hellenistic period.
Römer's methodology is primarily historical-critical, and he defends approaching the texts as heavily redacted traditions shrouding kernels of fact (p. 3) that may be excavated with sufficient material contextualization. (As Römer states, this rather conservative approach has been somewhat out of favor with critical scholars for a few decades.) Following the brief discussion of methodology, the Introduction lays some contextualizing groundwork with an overview of the structure and function of the Hebrew Bible, a short discussion of terminology, and a broad historical outline of Israel and Judah from their origins to the Hellenistic period.
Chapter 1 evaluates the name YHWH, and the reader is introduced to some of the dynamics of Biblical Hebrew and the spelling and pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton. Because the divine name was written and vocalized in different ways, and a prohibition on pronouncing the name seems to have developed somewhat early, the precise form, function, and meaning of the name is difficult to reconstruct. Römer highlights some popular etymologies of the name and suggests the southern Semitic root h-w-y (and particularly the sense to blow) is probably the most satisfactory (p. 34), particularly in light of the conceptual proximity to the storm-deity profile.
The next ten chapters are structured in thematic pairs. Chapters 2 and 3 address the likely geographic origins of YHWH in the south, around the territories of Edom and Midian, followed by the relationship of Moses to the Midianites within the exodus tradition. Chapter 4 discusses theories regarding how a southern storm-deity became the God of Israel, while chapter 5 reconstructs the process by which YHWH was relocated to Jerusalem. Chapters 6 and 7 engage the nature and function of YHWH's cult in Israel and Judah, respectively. The main theme of these two chapters is YHWH's growing purview and his concomitant appropriation of divine imagery and authority.
Chapter 8 discusses the statue of YHWH that would have existed in the temple in Jerusalem, while chapter 9 discusses YHWH's parhedros, Asherah, who was worshipped as a goddess both alongside YHWH in the temple in Jerusalem as well as independently. Both of these features of Judahite worship would later become vilified in the biblical literature. In chapters 10 and 11, Römer discusses Samaria's fall at the hands of the Assyrians, Judah's accession to preeminence, and the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah. The main focus of these two chapters is the way these political dynamics facilitated the further expansion of YHWH's sovereignty and the centralization of his worship in Jerusalem.
Chapter 12 represents the climax of Römer's discussion. In it the author describes the circumstances that ushered YHWH over the threshold separating his conceptualization as one god among many from his conceptualization as the one and only God. Römer's model mirrors those of many scholars who have written recently on the rise of monotheism: he identifies ideological crisis as the catalyst for the change, particularly the crisis of Jerusalem's destruction and the deportation of Judah's population to Babylon; he highlights the Deuteronomistic History as laying the groundwork for monotheism (with only the latest additions to the corpus denying the existence of other gods), with Deutero-Isaiah representing the most highly developed set of monotheistic speculations (p. 219); and he interprets the no other gods rhetoric in both corpora as assertions of ontological fact. Römer also adroitly engages several additional dynamics, including the divine feminine, the question of evil, Persian influence, the development of book religion, aniconism, and even resistance to monotheism. Römer's conclusion first traces Jewish history into the Roman period to examine the way monotheism influenced the ideological and literary production of Judaism between 200 B.C.E. and 200 C.E., and then offers a brief synopsis of the development of YHWH's conceptualization as traced throughout the book.
The Invention of God largely navigates well-trod ground, although Römer prioritizes breadth of scope over extended exegetical exploration. This limits the depth of the discussion but also results in a more accessible text. The reader is expected to rely on Römer's authority more regularly, however, and this does raise concerns in places where he confidently ventures from the path of consensus. As an example, one of the book's most unique contributions may be Römer's insistence that the prohibition on the pronunciation of the divine name (and its resulting replacement in Greek translation with Lord and God), definitively made Yhwh a universal God (p. 240). He reasons that a universal deity needs no proper name, and to even assign him one would be a concession to polytheism (p. 240). Idiosyncrasies like these aside, The Invention of God provides a rich yet accessible unfolding of the career of a desert god who was originally venerated by groups of nomads and eventually became the god with the unpronounceable name of the Hebrew Bible (p. 3). The discussion is insightful, state of the art, and peppered with provocative claims that will hopefully stimulate further discussion and debate regarding the historical, social, and rhetorical circumstances that catalyzed God's invention.