Sunday, August 02, 2009

Monotheism in History

Sorry for not posting much recently - I've been away on a conference. Thoughts from that at some point...

At the moment, I'm reading The Church in an Age of Revolution by Alec Vidler. It's good as a kind of overview of the church in Britain and bits of Europe from 1789 to somewhere in the mid 1900s. One of the big events during that time is the rise of liberal Biblical interpretation and liberal scholarship challenging the authority of Scripture. One of the things that annoys me about the book is Vidler's continuing description of those who keep teaching the same truths and keep on teaching the Bible as reliable as "naive". That in itself could be a very naive description. Just because something is written by a "scholar" doesn't mean it's true, and especially not when the scholarship is done as shoddily as a lot of the stuff which was seen to challenge the Bible.

I don't even think that whole area should be described as "theology". After all, theology is about knowing and studying God ("theos"), just as biology is about knowing about and studying life ("bios"). But we cannot know God without him revealing himself to us, and if he hasn't revealed himself, as many so-called "theologians" claim, then we can't know him or study him. Anyway, enough of the rant. To the point.

One of the big areas in which the Bible is often attacked as unreliable is the way it describes the development of Israelite beliefs about God. Many modern scholars claim that Israel started out polytheistic, and developed via henotheism (believing that one god is much more important than the others) at the time of Hezekiah and Josiah (700s and 600s BC) to monotheism (belief that there's only one God) at the time of the exile (500s BC). They believe this partly because that is how they think religions develop (though without much evidence because they've never watched a religion develop), and partly because the archaeological evidence shows that there were lots of idols of different gods, particularly Asherah and Baal, around for the few hundred years before Hezekiah. And then because they think that the idea of monotheism only comes along in the 500s BC, they say that all the bits of the Bible that teach monotheism must have been written after that, and so you get most of the OT written during the Exile.

The main reason that I think this is bad scholarship is that the archaeological evidence also agrees pretty much perfectly with the Biblical account. After all, the Bible doesn't say that the people of Israel were monotheistic before Hezekiah. In fact, it says they worshipped lots and lots of idols.

Even worse, the Israelites tried to hide their sins from the LORD their God. They built their own local shrines everywhere in Israel - from small towns to large, walled cities. They also built stone images of foreign gods and set up sacred poles for the worship of Asherah on every hill and under every shady tree. They offered sacrifices at the shrines, just as the foreign nations had done before the LORD forced them out of Israel. They did sinful things that made the LORD very angry.

Even though the LORD had commanded the Israelites not to worship idols, they did it anyway. So the LORD made sure that every prophet warned Israel and Judah with these words: "I, the LORD, command you to stop doing sinful things and start obeying my laws and teachings! I gave them to your ancestors, and I told my servants the prophets to repeat them to you."

2 Kings 17:9-13, CEV

The picture the Bible paints isn't one of lots of monotheistic obedient Israelites. It's a picture where there are vast numbers of idols, but God keeps telling them that the idols are a bad idea. What Hezekiah and Josiah do is to try to get rid of the idolatry by returning to monolatry (only worshipping one god, whether or not you believe the others exist).

Hezekiah obeyed the LORD, just as his ancestor David had done. He destroyed the local shrines, then tore down the images of foreign gods and cut down the sacred pole for worshiping the goddess Asherah. He also smashed the bronze snake Moses had made. The people had named it Nehushtan and had been offering sacrifices to it.

2 Kings 18:3-4, CEV

So when people find statues that show people thought that God was married to Asherah, or that they worshipped Baal or whatever, we shouldn't be surprised at all. The archaeological evidence fits the Bible on this one just fine, so we don't need another theory.

Of course, the big difference between the two theories is what happened earlier. The Bible does say that there were a few brief periods much earlier in Israel's history when they only really did worship God and didn't use idols.

Israel served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua and had known all the work that the LORD did for Israel.
Joshua 24:31, ESV

There's also the time from early in David's reign until when Solomon introduced idol worship to keep his wives happy - that's somewhere around 1200BC with Joshua and around 1000BC with David and Solomon.

And interestingly enough, when we look at the archaeology for those periods, we find far fewer idols. Finkelstein, for example, found a whole series of villages in the hill country from about 1200BC, with virtually no idols or pig bones. Could this possibly suggest that Israel's later idolatry was not a stage in their religious development forwards, but rather them turning away from their earlier monotheism to idolatry, before finally coming back to monotheism during the exile? In other words, exactly what the Bible says happened....

I was going to write about why teaching henotheism and monolatry are possibly better responses to idolatry than teaching monotheism, but I seem to have written quite enough for now already!

Post a Comment