Biblical Literacy

Session 3: February 25, 2021

The Session Assignment [link]

The Lead-in:

We come at last to the topic which dominates my thinking about our course: monotheism. By now, you should have a firm grasp on the meaning of the term monolatry and we'll see that there can be no question about whether the Israelites were monolatrists. They were and therefore were not monotheists.

And we'll explore one of finest distinctions between polytheism and monotheism ever proposed. I owe my exposure to Kaufmann's thesis to Hayes and I imagine we'll all thank her for choosing to teach it.

We'll look at the key idea of a convenant between God and a community and consider its consequences.

Finally, we'll puzzle over one of the most enigmatic stories in the bible: the binding of Isaac. Try to have some conclusions formulated prior to our discussion!

And a shout-out to Al Altshuler for providing a link to a terrific 2014 profile of Kugel in Moment magazine.

The Lead-out:

Thanks for all your contributions on the subject of the Akedah. I've always found it to be a profoundly difficult topic and I've now concluded that it's because the story contains so many unlikely elements. As a consequence, no explanation can be truly satisfying.

I want to amplify a bit my comments on the scene in which Abraham is chiding God for his intention to destroy Sodom even though it may contain many righteous people. The fact that God would do this seems strange to us because we live in a world in which the "moral unit" is the individual and the injustice of destroying a righteous person seems obvious. But in pre-exilic times, the moral unit was the community. The prophets were clear that all Israel is jeopardized by the idolotrous behavior of a minority. So we can see Abraham's reaction as consistent with the later post-exilic view that punishment comes to the sinner alone and not as stated on Mt. Sinai to his descendants even to the fourth generation.

Following up on our discussion of the switch from patrilineal to matrilineal determination of Jewishness, I found this information on Wikipedia [link]. In short, the change came in the first century; the Mishnah (200 CE) specifies matrilineal descent. The reason for the change is not clear.

I mentioned the fascinating "biography" of Jesus by Bruce Chilton titled "Rabbi Jesus". In addition to his speculation that Jesus was affected by growing up as a mamzer as a result of his uncertain paternity, Chilton provides the most plausible rationale for the Last Supper I've ever encountered.

For those who would like to read the New Testament online, I can suggest Be certain to select the New Revised Standard Version as the translation!

The Takeaways:

  1. Monolotry is the belief that, although other gods exist and have power, one may worship only the god of his community.
  2. Like other ancient religions, Judaism was unconcerned about belief. One became Jewish by joining a Jewish community, participating in its rituals, and otherwise leading a Jewish life.
  3. Jewish monotheism conceives of God as transcendent and wholly good while polytheistic gods exists within a metadivine realm which enables magic.
  4. Monotheism specifies how many cosmic powers are active in the world so a more descriptive term would be cosmic monism. There is no contradiction when a monotheistic god has a divine council or administrative assitants.