Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 11 (2011) - Review

Smith, Mark S., God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World (Grand Rapids, Mich./Cambridge, UK: William B. Eerdmans, 2010). Pp. xxvi + 382. Paperback. US $18.00. ISBN: 978-0-8028-6433-8.

In God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World Mark Smith provides a fine study that is both important to scholarship of the ancient Near East and the Bible and also relevant to contemporary inter-religious dialogue, especially among the Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam).

Smith derives the term “translation” from the field of cultural anthropology where it refers to the process of mediating language, customs, and worldviews from one culture to another. He acknowledges the additional challenges of attempting to translate ideas from texts of antiquity to modernity, given the fragmentary evidence we have of any culture in the ancient world. While underlining the limitations of the available evidence, Smith examines the cross-cultural translatability of the gods from one national ethos to another, originally in the ancient Near East and subsequently in the Mediterranean world of the Greek and Roman eras. He distinguishes between two types of translatability: “horizontal,” which refers to the geographical reemergence of deities or their attributes from one nation into another across the ancient world; and “vertical,” which refers to the mutations of deities over time within particular traditions, especially those of ancient Israel and early Judaism, with extensions into Christian origins.

Smith explores Israel's participation in the international conversations about the gods in three successive historical eras. In the first chapter, he surveys the deities of the ancient Near East to the end of the Bronze Age (1200 BCE). In the following three chapters, he concentrates on Israel and analyzes its comparative permeability by foreign deities in successive stages from the settlement to the end of the Persian era (1200–332 BCE). In chapter two, he describes Israel's relative openness to diverse national deities during the periods of the settlement in Canaan and early monarchy (ca. 1200–750 BCE). In chapter three, he highlights Israel's growing resistance to foreign gods while under the domination of the Assyrian and neo-Babylonian empires (ca. 750–540 BCE). In chapter four, he discloses the opposition to foreign gods in Judah, with its turn to monotheism, during the post-exilic resettlement (540–332 BCE). In the next two chapters, Smith discusses philosophical discourse and Jewish theology in the Greco-Roman era (332 BCE–100 CE). In chapter five, he describes the intercultural exchanges particularly in history, philosophy, and mythology, which reshaped religious perspectives in the Hellenistic world outside of Judah. In chapter six, he analyzes the Jewish resistance to associating its God with the deities of the Greco-Roman world. He then examines the transmission of the Jewish religious heritage into Christianity and notes the minimal appropriation of Hellenistic discourse about the gods in the Acts of the Apostles and its practical absence in the letters of Paul.

Smith begins and ends his work with evaluations of the provocative study by Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism.[1] Assmann, an Egyptologist, proposes the thesis of “the Mosaic distinction,” which asserts that Israel was unique in the ancient Near East for its consistent rejection of foreign gods as false gods. Assmann suggests that Israel's monotheism set it apart from other nations insofar as Israel refused to translate other deities into its conception of divinity. Assmann's contrast between the insularity of Israel and the permeability of other nations in the international “god-talk” provides a basis for his assertion that monotheism is suspicious of the other and prone to violence whereas polytheism exudes inclusivity and cultivates tolerance. Assmann implies that coexistence in our contemporary world requires that everyone practice the translation of deities according to the models of the great cultures of antiquity and reject the exclusivist claims of monotheism, which have emerged from the narrow confines of the Mosaic tradition.

Assmann's limited familiarity with Israelite traditions prompted responses from Ronald Hendel and Smith who wrote seminal works on memory in Israel.[2] Hendel tends to accept Assmann's thesis of Israel's refusal to assimilate deities of other nations into its conception of divinity and contends that this resistance to outside influences accounts, in large measure, for the survival of Judaism while other more prominent cultures in antiquity disappeared. By contrast, Smith writes his current book primarily to contradict Assmann's claims that Israel was impenetrable to the influence of foreign deities throughout its history. Furthermore, Smith argues against Assmann's claim that monotheism is prone to violence while polytheism is comparatively irenic.

Smith offers a nuanced assessment of divinity in Israel by examining specific texts while eschewing predetermined theories derived from religious studies, anthropology, or politics. His readings demonstrate that, particularly in the period of the settlement and the monarchies prior to the emergence of the Assyrian empire (ca. 750 BCE), Israel and Judah acknowledged the reality of the sovereign deities in various neighbouring cultures and incorporated aspects of them into the conceptualization of Yahweh and the heavenly world. In the late pre-exilic and early post-exilic eras, Judah continued to appropriate its earlier traditions, which contained elements from diverse cultures beyond its borders. Only in the Greco-Roman era did the rejection of foreign deities become characteristic of Judaism, but even then the exclusion of foreign influences was not absolute.

Smith's expertise in the civilization of Ugarit animates his analysis of how Mesopotamian scribal activities provided the basis for an international culture as they became standard in Egypt and the Levant prior to 1200 BCE. International trade and diplomacy, which was premised on common scribal practice, opened up cross-cultural conversations about family, myth, ritual, and deities. However, Smith challenges Assmann's assessment that the various nations across the ancient Near East shared a common conception of divinity under a variety of names. Smith asserts that the conflation of deities may not suggest a cultural ecumenism among political equals, but rather the imposition of a dominant culture by an imperial political power upon its weaker neighbours. Smith notes that the translation of deities may have been characteristic among circles of societal elites composed of kings and scribes, while local traditions may have remained comparatively impermeable to such influences. Smith illustrates how Ugarit, a minor political power, maintained its distinctive mythology even as the scribal traditions of Mesopotamia became normative in its regional administration.

Smith's analyses of various biblical texts from the Iron Age I and II prior to 750 BCE constitutes his central argument against Assmann's thesis of “the Mosaic distinction.” He emphasizes that the translation of deities from the nations into Israel and Judah during this period differs from the translation of deities across the ancient Near East in the Bronze Age insofar as Israel and Judah validated the gods of the nations on their borders to east and north (Edom, Moab, Ammon, Aram, Phoenicia) rather than those of the imperial powers farther afield in Egypt and Mesopotamia. Examples of Israelite translatability are: the covenant between Laban the Aramean and Jacob the Israelite under the aegis of the God of Nahor and the Fear of Isaac (Gen 31:53); the reference to “God” that Ehud the Benjaminite shares in common with Eglon the Moabite (Judg 3:20); the recognition of Chemosh the god of Edom by Jephthah of Gilead (11:24); and the influence of the Phoenician god Baal on the conceptualization of Yahweh in the northern kingdom (1 Kings 18). Furthermore, Smith argues that the description of Balaam the Moabite as a prophetic agent of Yahweh is emblematic of translatability in Israel (Num 23:4–5, 16; 24:2–4, 15; cf. Micah 6:5).

The translation of deities was as common in the Greco-Roman world as it had been in the ancient Near East during the Bronze Age but the impetus for such cultural exchange was different. Whereas imperial expansion had propelled the international god talk prior to 1200 bce, the emergence of academies and libraries in the Hellenistic world generated new cross-cultural conversations about religion as informed by philosophy. Historians, philosophers, and grammarians in the Greco-Roman world sought out equivalencies between the deities of diverse cultures. While such gentile scholars included the God of Israel in their speculations, Jewish writers were notoriously resistant to viewing the God of Israel in terms of the Hellenistic pantheon. Such resistance is evident also in the letters of Paul and, with a few qualifications, in the Acts of the Apostles.

In summary, Mark Smith provides an exceptional investigation into the translation of deities in the world of the Bible. His work reveals multiple contours in a cultural landscape that Jan Assmann had viewed as comparatively flat. Smith's work bears eloquent testimony to the necessity of seeking out the unique features of every text. He demonstrates how attention to detail provides the necessary basis for a credible synthesis of tradition. His control of secondary literature is exemplary. (I would recommend this book for the footnotes alone.) By his manner of studying the cross-cultural conversations about divinity in antiquity, Smith positions the academy at the service of the contemporary world. May his work inform the inter-religious dialogue that is essential to global peace in the 21st century.

Michael W. Duggan, St. Mary's University College, Calgary, Alberta

[1] Jan Assmann, Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (Cambridge MA/London: Harvard University, 1997). reference

[2] Mark S. Smith, The Memoirs of God: History, Memory, and the Experience of the Divine in Ancient Israel (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2004). Ronald Hendel, Remembering Abraham: Culture, Memory, and History of the Hebrew Bible (Oxford/New York: Oxford University, 2005). reference