Week 4: From Polytheism to Monolatry; Covenant.
I assert that the Israelites began as polytheists but concede that the evidence we have is circumstantial: it’s the uniform practice of their neighbors; great consternation about the practice of idolatry which was therefore likely to be widespread; various totems found in locations which may have been places of worship; extremely numerous small figurines in the form of females with large breasts; etc.
Much more certain is that at least until the exile (and perhaps later) a majority of Israelites were monolatrous, following an injunction to worship only YHWH and to pay no (worshipful) attention to all those other gods, which nonetheless were real (Exodus 20:3). I assert that the central idea of covenant makes perfect sense in the context of monolatry and no sense in the context of monotheism. This week we explore ancient middle eastern expectations of the gods in general and specifically how covenant is expressed in the final redaction.
1. Morton Smith, “The Common Theology of the Ancient Middle East” (1952). (link)
Morton Smith’s conclusion in this article anticipates our coming discussion of monotheism but we want to focus on the description he provides of the common elements of the religions of the ancient near east. You can glide lightly over the footnotes but not over footnote 16. The reference to 2nd Isaiah assumes that you know that the book of Isaiah contains the work of two distinct prophets: Isaiah of Jerusalem of the late 700s (chapters 1-39) and a second anonymous prophet active at the end of the exile known as Second Isaiah (chapters 40-66) who is known for insisting that there is only one god and no other (Isaiah 44:6, 45:5-6).
On page 144, the phrase “do ut abeas” means “I give that you may keep away” and the phrase “do ut des” means “I give that you may give.”
2. The Eerdman’s Dictionary of Early Judaism, entry on Covenant (link); (optional) entry on Covenantal Nomism (follows previous entry).
The optional entry on Covenantal Nomism addresses an issue we won’t actually cover but it been a very lively topic in recent scholarship and, if interested, you’d probably like to know about it!
3. The Covenant with Noah, Genesis 8:15 to 9:17.
With whom was this covenant made? What did YHWH promise? What was the “sign” of this covenant? Everlasting or conditional? What additional permissions and prohibitions are announced?
4. The Covenant(s) with Abraham, from the J source: Genesis 12:1-3, Genesis 13:15-16, and Genesis 15; and from the P source: Genesis 17:1-22.
What did YHWH promise? What was the “sign” of this covenant? Everlasting or conditional?
5. The Covenant with Israel via Moses, Exodus 19-24.
In the most general terms, what was the promise made by YHWH? Everlasting or conditional? Is there theological significance in the fact that the covenant was violated so quickly?
6. JSB, 1 Kings 18:16-40.
In a context of monolatry, the important question was whether your god was greater than the god of your opponents, e.g., the exodus, the conquest of Canaan by Joshua, etc. Here, Elisha, pictured as an early proponent of monotheism, stages a contest between YHWH and Baal. We’re in the Northern Kingdom of Israel in the mid-800s and the King of Israel is Ahab whom the writer describes as doing more to vex YHWH than all his predecessors, including (under the influence of his Phoenician wife Jezebel) the worship of Baal.