The Invention of God

Thomas Römer’s The Invention of God is a provocative, brilliant, and challenging book.

Römer’s narrates that:

– groups of people in the ancient southern Levant came to worship a storm God named Yhwh (or another close variant of that name);

– that the peoples of ancient Israel and Judah worshiped Yhwh, El, and a goddess named Asherah, among other deities;

– that these same peoples gradually made Yhwh their tutelary or national deity and attributed to him many of the characteristics and functions of these other deities;

– that in sanctuaries at Bethel, Jerusalem, and elsewhere, ancient Israelites built and worshiped boviform and anthropomorophic statues of Yhwh;

– that in the wake of the northern kingdom’s conquest, reforms under King Josiah insisted that Judeans should worship Yhwh alone;

– that during the Persian period that followed the Babylonian exile, the priests and scribes at Jerusalem further asserted that Yhwh was the sole God of the universe. Also, they insisted that there should be no statue of Yhwh in the rebuilt Jerusalem temple.

9780674504974-lgRömer’s basic reconstruction of the emergence of Jewish monotheism out of the rubble (so to speak) of ancient Israelite religion is not new, as the centrality of the post-exilic period for the redaction of the Torah and the creation of Judaism is well known. The Invention of God, however, is original in many of its details, meticulous in its discussion of a wide variety of biblical and extrabiblical sources, and refreshingly candid at many points. Römer is not afraid to claim certainty for his conclusions in some instances, but he also does not hesitate to point out when his suggestions are more tenuous.

The Invention of God is accessible to non-specialists, and Römer summarizes his conclusions periodically. Still, non-specialists will need to do some heavy lifting to appreciate the particular arguments. As one of those non-specialists, I cannot offer an informed critique of Römer’s scholarship. See Ryan Thomas’s recent review here for such a response.

Instead, several thoughts on the book. First, those with an interest in biblical criticism should pay attention to the way that Römer discusses the construction of biblical texts. He writes that “it is no longer possible to accept the ‘documentary theory,’ which explained the genesis of the Pentateuch by reference to the purported integration into one narrative of four successive and parallel documents.” Instead, Römer perceives that both Yhwh and the Torah have longer and more complex histories. By “invention,” Römer does not mean “made up.” Instead, he suggests that the ancient Israelite and then early Jewish ideas about Yhwh changed dramatically over a long period of time and that one can find textual evidence of those evolving conceptions:

We should not imagine … that a group of Bedouins met one day and huddled around an oasis to create a God for themselves, or that some scribes, much later, invented Yahweh out of whole cloth, so to speak, as their tutelary god. Rather this “invention” should be understood as a progressive construction arising out of a particular tradition. Think of this tradition as a series of sedimentary strata gradually laid down over the course of time, which is then sometimes disrupted by historical events that disturb the orderly sequence of layers.

Second, Römer positions himself as a moderate between “maximalist” and “minimalist” interpreters of biblical history. The former, he explains, presume that the Bible is factually or historically accurate without clear evidence to the contrary. Minimalists, by contrast, contend that the Bible is worthless in terms of evidence for reconstructing the history of the ancient Israelites. At first glance, Römer rejects both positions. “The maximalist,” he explains, “violates basic methodological principles of historical research; the minimalist neglect that no matter how ideological the biblical texts are, they might nevertheless contain traces of historical events and of earlier traditions.”

In his discussion of the United Kingdom, of Josiah’s reforms, and of the exile — to name a few examples — Römer does allow that biblical texts contain “traces of historical events.” Most non-specialists will find those traces, however, to be rather minimal. Thus, despite the way Römer positions himself, general readers will find The Invention of God rather minimalist in its use of the Bible as a source for reconstructing the history of the ancient Israelites.

Many Christians, I imagine, would find The Invention of God troubling, and not just for the title. When reading the book, I once again felt caught between two ways of reading the Bible. Does it contain the sayings of God, the records of God’s actions, and narratives of God’s people with at least a substantial basis in history? Or does it contain a collection of texts that illuminate the many ways in which ancient peoples imagined, worshiped, and communed with God (or gods)?

Several years ago, I encountered B.B. Warfield’s essay on “The Divine and the Human in the Bible” through Mark Noll’s Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. Warfield warned against seeing the divine and human aspects of scripture as “as factors in inspiration that strive against and exclude each other so that where one enters the other is pushed out.” That line of reasoning, Warfield observed, leads to the false conclusion “that every discovery of a human trait in Scripture is a disproving of the divinity of Scripture.” In other words, Warfield warned against making arguments about biblical criticism a “zero-sum” game. After all, Christians believe in a fully divine and fully human Jesus, that God took on corruptible flesh, that God was and is in der Mitte “in our midst” (to quote a hymn from the German Pietist Gerhard Tersteegen). Still, when it comes to the Bible, at a certain point does its messy humanness obscure Christian claims for its divinity?

At the same time, acknowledging that messy humanness — the human invention and reinvention of God, in Römer’s terms — is not only perilous for believers. It also has distinct benefits. As my co-blogger Philip Jenkins has reminded us, the Bible contains a number of texts in which God orders or celebrates violence, including violence against civilians. For instance, Samuel informs Saul that “the Lord” (Yhwh) has commanded him to “go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.” Placing such narratives within a long history of textual construction makes it easier to understand such terrifying commandments as the expressions of particular times and places rather than as the exact wishes of God.

Römer contends that the Bible “must be analyzed historically without preconception, just like any other document from antiquity.” It is hard to imagine that very many individuals (believers and skeptics alike) could analyze the Bible “without preconception,” but I do not think that Christians should hesitate to engage Römer’s attempt to do so. Nor do I think that such a methodology is the only way in which Christians should engage the Bible. Hardly. Still, to return to the words of Tersteegen’s hymn, “God himself is present,” in our midst even in our sometimes painful attempts to understand his “past.”

  • Andy Vandy

    Ever since I read Israel Finkelstein I’ve had this question rattling around in my head. And that’s going on three years. The most frustrating thing is that, with the exception of this blog, I never found a single Christian, be he a renowned theologian (like N. T. Wright…although Walter Bruegamann does make passing thoughts on it in one of his books) or an apologist who addresses this issue. It’s almost worse than the outright denial of evolution, because Genesis 1 and 2 really aren’t that crucial to the overall narrative. But Genesis 3-Deuteronomy kind of are. It’s as if the minimalist school doesn’t exist and there is no need to confront these issues. It has troubled my faith greatly and I’m sure it will continue to trouble others until our top minds take it on in a more publicly accessible manner.

  • Pebbleson

    There are lots of troubling aspects to the minimalist thesis, Andy. One of them, for example, is that all the prophetic texts, including those dating from the 10th century BCE onward in both the northern Kingdom of Israel and the southern Kingdom of Judah, the historical books of the Bible such as I and II Samuel, I and II Kings, etc., and the psalms, those traditionally ascribed to King David and to others of later vintage but still definitely pre-Exilic, a veritable archive of ancient Hebraic literature of greatly diverse authorship and provenance, make reference in passing or at crucial points to the events of Abraham’s and the other Patriarchs’ and Matriarchs’ lives, the slavery in Egypt, the Exodus, the Passover festival, the revelation of the “Torah” at Mt. Sinai and the role of Moses in all this, the supremacy of one God over all the earth, and so on and on. The “Torah” as a written text is mentioned as such in the Prophetic writings, the psalms, the references in the historical books, etc. So all this is pre-Exilic. It refutes the minimalist position as outlined here, even the supposedly more moderate one of Roemer.

    The basic story in all these texts, after all, is about the Creator of the entire universe, who has sovereignty over all lands to such an extent that this stamps the entire formative history of the Jewish people. He can call Abraham out of the land of the Chaldeans, in Mesopotamia, abandoning the emphatically empty idolatries of that culture, allow his descendants to dwell in Egypt for some generations but finally take them out of there with no actual involvement of any local “gods” in any of this (a narrative preserved in one form or another from the most ancient times not just in the Torah account but also in the Passover ritual itself), and who created the Jewish people per se at Mt. Sinai with the Torah as their founding covenantal document and the Shema, the declaration of God’s oneness, as their quintessential creedal affirmation (repeated in the first of the Ten Commandments), and only on that basis allowed them to take possession of the land of Israel, following rituals, laws and customs for society and individuals that constantly refer back to Sinai and God. The basic narrative is already monotheistic. It is not a post-Exilic narrative, since it is attested in all the pre-Exilic documents we have, as I have mentioned. In it, God rules over Mesopotamia and Egypt as well as Canaan, with no competition. He is not just a “storm god.”

    Another troubling detail of the minimalist thesis ignored in the claim for a polytheistic/henotheistic oral tradition only very slowly evolving into monotheism is that the Torah account is produced by what is admitted by all to be an already literate culture from the Mosaic period, at least amongst its scribes and priests, the preservers of its culture. It is not credible that this literate culture would wait for some 600 years of allegedly highly diverse polytheistic, henotheistic and monotheistic oral traditions about its own essential formation and identity, its own story, before putting a monotheistic version into a written Torah form, or that, if such a founding narrative defining the whole community’s religious identity as such emerged 600 years after the culture’s formation, that anyone in that culture would give that manifestly novel monotheistic Sinaitic account, stemming from just one corner of the Jewish diaspora (Babylon), any credence as an authentic ancient common and shared record of their own formation and identity. The Egyptian Jewish diaspora, and others elsewhere, would know that this alleged account was not ancient nor authentic, and would not accept it. They had their own learned priests and scribes, after all, and their own well-established traditions. If such a hoax were able to succeed in Babylonia against the testimony of Babylonian learned Jewry, it would still not be accepted anywhere else. There would definitely then have emerged several different Jewish Torah writings and traditions, and several different sects of Judaism. There is no evidence for this and it did not happen. The entire historical thesis of the minimalists seems very flimsy on the face of it, and has miminal credibility.

  • 9Athena

    …”an already literate culture from the Mosaic period’…what language did the scribes and priests use for their writings? Cursive Egyptian script? on papyrus? How were those writings preserved?

  • Pebbleson

    The alphabet itself was invented, it appears, by Canaanites working in Egypt and the Sinai peninsula around the mid-19th century BCE, which we know from alphabetic inscriptions in proto-Canaanite language from that time, and so it was available to the peoples of Canaan in Egypt and also in Canaan (and for Semitic-speakers elsewhere, e.g., in Phoenicia) in later centuries as their own “Proto-Canaanite” and eventually “Paleo-Hebrew” alphabet. Abraham and certainly his descendants who lived in Canaan from the 19th century on, therefore would have known of that alphabet, well before the time of Moses. The Ten Commandments inscribed on the Tablets of Moses were not written in Egyptian language or hieroglyphs, but in paleo-Hebrew.

    There are very few stone inscriptions in Biblical Israel but we do have Hebraic writing on seals, clay tablets and even on silver rolls that have survived the much less dry climate of Judea-Samaria over the millenia. These inscriptions indicate that the cursive style, appropriate for pen and ink writing on paper/papyrus, was the standard style used by the scribes, unlike the inscription-oriented style of Egyptian and Mesopotamian writing. Literacy existed amongst some of the Hebrews from their beginnings, i.e., even before the time of Moses. While it was cultivated especially by scribes and priests, it also spread more widely amongst the people generally in the course of the centuries. After all, a distinctive advantage with alphabetic script is that it was easy to learn even by the ordinary Canaanite miners in the Sinai in the 17th century BCE who left scratches in stone, unlike the thousands of signs that Egyptian scribes had to master, and the hundreds of signs Mesopotamian priests had to study.

    If you are interested in following this up further, have a look at the Wikipedia article on “Paleo-Hebrew alphabet” and also the article by Orly Goldwasser, “How the Alphabet was born from Hieroglyphs,” in the Biblical Archaeology Review for March/April 2010, available on-line at http://members.bib-arch.org/publication.asp?PubID=BSBA&Volume=36&Issue=02&ArticleID=06.

    Coincidentally, just after finishing this post, I was reading various news services on the internet, and came across the following article, “600 BCE Inscriptions Reveal Astonishing Literacy Rate in Ancient Israel,” dated April 12, 2016 (today), which reports on a new study from Tel Aviv University drawing on inscriptions found in a remote southern military outpost dating from 600 BCE, i.e., before the Babylonian Exile, proving that all levels of the officers there could read and write. It is at: http://www.virtualjerusalem.com/news.php?Itemid=20877

  • Yadium

    When assessing religious texts of any particular religion, it is difficult to approach from an unbiased perspective. The line from the article above: ‘Placing such
    narratives within a long history of textual construction makes it easier to
    understand such terrifying commandments as the expressions of particular times
    and places rather than as the exact wishes of God’ voids argument for a
    religion from historical perspective (in this case Judaism and Christianity) based on that particular text due to the fact that we are attempting to differentiate between ‘exact wishes of God’ and the wishes of man that may be attributed to a god to justify actions of men – all religions and cultures have such tales borne of ancient
    times.

    In that regards, we will distort the ‘facts’ to provide
    explanations for something we can’t to justify our beliefs. In the above
    example, how can the supposed massacre of the Amalekites be justified
    either as a direct command by god or a justification by the Israelites for
    establishing cultural and moral superiority? Why did god not intervene to stop
    the Israelites?

    Religions and cultures globally have such tales, we either
    scoff them off as myths or distorted & skewed historical narrative if
    we do not believe that particular religion OR we attempt to justify it in the
    defense of our beliefs. If we are willing to disregard such a narrative
    from other religions and cultures as untrue or mythic, we must be prepared to
    accept that for our beliefs.

  • soter phile

    Romer argues: “The maximalist…violates basic methodological principles of historical research…” — So are we to infer that Occam’s razor is not considered in the basic methodological principles of historical research?

  • Pebbleson

    Roemer’s claim is incorrect. The standard, non-dogmatic “maximalist” approach (which I will distinguish from a dogmatic approach that makes no pretense to historical method) tentatively accepts until proven wrong the historical documents and testimonies we have. The more such documents and other evidence, such as treaty formats common to a given age (which W.F. Albright made reference to), linguistic parallels and temporal changes in the meaning of words (e.g., Leviticus retaining very ancient Hebrew usages no longer current even in the monarchical period), archaeological finds (e.g., the nearly total absence of cult statues of divine beings, polytheistic shrine gods, etc., unique in the ancient world, in the entire period of ancient Israel within its realms, but the plethora of them before that period, and after it in archaeological digs), etc., which confirm each other, the less tentative this affirmation. There is nothing here that violates basic methodological principles of historical research, in the slightest. In fact, these are basic methodological principles of all historical research. But maybe there is one exception, if we are to judge from Roemer’s declaration. Apparently, according to him, basic methodological priniciples vary according to whether or not they apply to Jewish antiquity or non-Jewish antiquity. And if there is no outside “confirmation” of a plausible claim in a Jewish document, it is an outright lie. It is not just a matter of a lack of other evidence, so it may still be true: no, we know in this case that it is a lie. No benefit of a doubt is given. So the minimalist claims. Unlike in all other historical contexts with other peoples.

  • Isa Kocher

    history and science require very different kinds of disciplines.

    the objects of study are nonrandomized in very distinctly different ways. there are no processes of recording past time, and its reconstruction is far more a function of our cultural agenda than those agendas of previous authors.

  • Isa Kocher

    the phrase “the Bible” is by far the very worst barrier to understanding what that particular anthology is.

    “The Bible” never was intended to be a “book” that gives the sole definitive summation of “revelation. it’s revelatory function was rooted in its community integration in divine worship, the divine liturgy in synagogues and the church.

    there are certain things that only can be studied in a laboratory but what something is can only be known by interacting with it in its own setting. The fruit of the apple tree needs to be eaten. the flowers need to be pollinated. the seeds need the fertilizer from which it grows. no part of it was “The Bible” until at least a millenium after the last bits of it were written and edited and published to its readers who then integrated it into their community lives – through their community activities.

    the second worst barrier to understanding it is orthodoxy dogma theology, in short theology. the various documents within the various covers they’ve been shared over the centuries include all kinds of genuine deeply personal examples of living life. what they call “koan” in zen buddhism: examples of people being people in the fullest possible sense of the word. it is literature of many different kinds of genres, and they are all in contradiction to each other. maybe it’s number 1 feature is the degree to which all of it contradicts something somewhere else in it. there is no definitive way to understand it. In that way it is like the I Ching: the I Ching really does communicate is one approaches it seriously, not expecting right or wrong answers but rather answers that arise out of confronting all the contradictions.

    Deuteronomy says at one point that you should not ask from any book or expert or higher authority the answer but rather the answer is written somewhere in our genes.

    Whatever they pages put together to make up the bible, it’s not a Spiegal Catalogue. or even a French Cooking guide. It’s more like but not exactly the best of Moby Dick, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Basho’s Road North, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Carl Jung, Adam Smith, Darwin, Rumi, ibn Arabi etc. all edited together