More on updating Yahweh: a possible way forward (Carlos Bovell part 2)

Today’s post is the second of two by Carlos Bovell (see first post and bio here) on how Israel’s understanding of God developed over time and what this says about God and how God speaks.

In yesterday’s post, I made reference to Mark Smith’s book God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World to help describe briefly what might be called the “mainstream view” regarding the development of monotheism in Israel.

The mainstream view holds that key parts of the Bible were composed, edited and revised by post-exilic priest-scribes in order to promulgate monotheism and especially the belief that this single deity had a unique relationship with the Israelites.

It is important to note that non-evangelical scholars are not the only ones who describe portions of the Hebrew Bible in these terms. In God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation of Critical Biblical Scholarship, evangelical OT scholar Kent Sparks presents the Hebrew Bible as containing political and religious propaganda.

The propaganda, Sparks explains, was an important component of priestly-scribal activity during post-exilic times. Reminiscent of Smith, Sparks explains, “Interestingly, some of the biblical texts that purport to be very old turn out to be among these late priestly texts” (127).

What I want to do now is ponder how a believer might grapple with these issues, particularly how they might integrate scholarship with faith, in this case one’s doctrine of scripture.

In his book, Divine Discourse: Philosophical Reflections on the Claim that God Speaks, Nicholas Wolterstorff ponders how one might tease out divine speaking in the midst of human discourse. Such efforts would involve two hermeneutics, a first that attends to the human discourse and a second that focuses on the divine. While exploring the second hermeneutic, Wolterstorff helpfully introduces the notion of “transitive discourse” to describe the connection between the two.

In speech-act theory, an illocutionary act refers to what is being accomplished through speaking (e.g., asserting, promising, warning, etc.). For our purposes, we are interested in cases where what is accomplished by someone’s speech act also accomplishes something else either for that same speaker or on behalf of someone else.

So, in order to help us assimilate Mark Smith’s research, we could posit that the biblical writer (a post-exilic priest-scribe in our case) begins to frame the Hebrew scriptures in monotheistic terms by penning, say, a creation story and weaving it into the fabric of the beginning of Genesis. This constitutes a first illocutionary act (telling a creation story that features a monotheistic God and presents him as creator God of the universe).

This first speech act generates a second one: the promulgating of monotheism and especially the special relationship that exists between the Israelites and the single deity. This is all happening on the level of human discourse.

On the level of divine discourse, however, God is appropriating the two human illocutionary acts to accomplish his own purposes. In other words, God’s illocutionary act—what he accomplishes—is also generated via human discourse; however, what he sets out to accomplish is never determined by it.

This means that even if the post-exilic priest-scribes, to continue with our example, believed they were giving an historical account regarding the origins of monotheism and specifically the special relationship that exists between the Israelites and Yahweh, it does not necessarily follow that God wished to give an historical account. Again, God’s illocutionary act might be generated by the biblical writers’ illocutions, but the human illocution can still turn out to be quite different from that of God’s.

I found this approach to biblical discourse to prove quite useful for coming to terms with the research produced by biblical scholars such as Mark Smith.

I admit that I am still left with the question of how to discern what God is “saying” in scripture. But here I am encouraged by Wolterstorff ’s insistence that what God says in scripture very much depends on what kinds of things we think God is likely to say. This means that “[t]o interpret God’s discourse more reliably, we must come to know God better” (239).

For me, at least—and this is one of the important points I try to make in Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear it is vital to remember that our relationship with God does not depend on our understanding of the Bible or how good we are at biblical hermeneutics. It depends on God, God coming down to humans and communing with us. Learning about just how human the Bible is should not lead one to despair, but rather to appreciate just how incarnational our God is.

inerrancy, historical criticism, and the slippery slope
another article on inerrantist biblical scholars and "protective strategies"
7 problems with a recent evangelical defense of the historicity of Genesis 1-11
does an inerrantist culture "do good or do harm"?
  • edwardtbabinski

    An alternate explanation is that it is not “God” saying every word that humans have written down and dubbed, “divinely inspired writings.”

    Here’s another thought: If humans could canonize whole books, claiming every passage such books was “inspired,” then why can’t later humans, who have taken a closer look at such books “de-canonize” at least a few passages in them? Why not? Maybe it’s time to initiate an argument throughout Christendom over whether to “de-canonize” at least a few passages inside books that other humans canonized whole?

    And I agree with something else you wrote above, namely that the question of “what” God is “saying” in Scripture is a good one. James McGrath recently asked that same question when investigating a puzzling passage in Matthew, “He Shall Be Called a Nazorean: Intertextuality Without an Intertext?” What exactly was Matthew getting at? And can we be certain we know at all?

    One can not help wonder why God, knowing all languages and exactly which words to inspire people even millions of years in the future, chose to have “Matthew” boast about Jesus being called “a Nazorean,” whatever that means.

    It’s questions like this that drove an award winning Harvard student to declare:

    It is remarkable, that the ablest modern advocates for the truth and divine authority of the gospel, as if they knew of no certain, demonstrative proof which could be adduced in a case of so much importance, seem to content themselves, and expect their readers should be satisfied, with an accumulation of probable arguments in its favour; and it has been even said, that the case admits of no other kind of proof. If it be so, the author requests all so persuaded to consider, for a moment, whether it could be reconciled to any ideas of wisdom in an earthly potentate, if he should send an ambassador to a foreign state to mediate a negotiation of the greatest importance, without furnishing him with certain, indubitable credentials of the truth and authenticity of his mission? And to consider further, whether it be just or seemly, to attribute to the Omniscient, Omnipotent Deity, a degree of weakness and folly, which was never yet imputed to any of his creatures ? for unless men are hardy enough to pass so gross an affront upon the tremendous Majesty of Heaven, the improbability that God should delegate the Mediator of a most important covenant to be proposed to all mankind, without enabling him to give them clear and, in reason, indisputable proof of the divine authority of his mission, must ever infinitely outweigh the aggregate sum of all the probabilities which can be accumulated in the opposite scale of the balance. And to conclude, I presume it will not be denied, that the authenticity and celestial origin of any thing pretending to be a Divine Revelation, before it has any claims upon our faith, ought to be made clear beyond all reasonable doubt; otherwise, it can have no just claims to a right to influence our conduct. http://edward-t-babinski.blogspot.com/2012/06/george-bethune-english-1787-1828.html

    • C Bovell

      Hi,

      Thanks for taking time to remark. You raise some very difficult questions. In response to what you have written the following thoughts come to mind:

      There was a time when one of my daughters was in kindergarten that she asked me, pointing to her eye, “Papi, how do you spell ‘eye’”? I said to her, “E – Y – E.” She stared at me blankly for a moment and said, “No, Papi, that’s not how you spell it.”

      I was rendered speechless. There was nothing I could think to say by way of reply, nothing anyway that was likely to convince her. She either had to trust me or not. Not until later, not until she matured some would she be able to learn and see that I was right.

      I believe we are in a rather similar position in our relations to God. I believe that when we die, we’ll “mature” and be properly disposed to know (at least to the extent that he wants us to) that whatever God was in the process of saying to us during our time on earth, that he was right.

      Grace and peace,
      Carlos

      • ayahasherayah

        It’s revealed. “…lest ye come as a child…” Paraphrasing: I will take all those who profess to be wise and make them fools; all those who confess they are fools I will make them wise. “The secret things belong to YHWH.” They are revealed to whomever… by the will of the one who is revealing, by the grace. http://www.ayahasherayah.org/images/elohim.pdf

    • http://labreuer.wordpress.com Luke Breuer

      accumulation of probable arguments in its favour [...] admits of no other kind of proof [...] indubitable credentials of the truth and authenticity of his mission

      George Bethune English appears to be operating within a modern philosophy mindset, whereby there are certain propositions that “everybody knows are true”—at least all educated, sensible people. From these propositions, he would be able to take in the contents of the Bible, any additional ‘metadata’ about them, plus archaeological evidence, and thus conclude that the Bible is from God, or something like that.

      Unfortunately, for George, logical positivism is false. There is no ‘objective viewpoint’. There is no way to a priori decide what sense experiences are ‘data’. For a compelling defense of this, see Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge.

      I think there is a deeper reason why George Bethune English’s argument fails. Ultimately, I believe Yahweh cares about what each of us wants, as well as how we intend to get there. He has provided his own plan for what he wants, and how he intends to get there. It is up to us to accept his will and his means, or to choose something different. I don’t think this teleological + methodological discussion really fits into what he says in the text you quoted. Unless he bridged the is/ought gap, the Naturalistic Fallacy still looks like a fallacy. That means that regardless of what is demonstrated to be true, that cannot change his deepest desires. Unless he thinks his deepest desires are entirely rational, which is its own can of worms.

  • James

    Whenever we attempt to peer behind the text we walk eyes wide open into a hornet’s nest–not that it is unwise to risk such a venture from time to time. Difficult enough and more satisfying to devour the canonical tidbit lying under our very nose. Yes, we must hold to canonicity even when unsure exactly what to measure. God surely speaks through scripture but always with a particular audience in view–whose response to the word closes a vital feed-back loop. Fit monotheism into that!

    • C Bovell

      Everyone peers behind the text, don’t you think? Even someone who looks back there and assumes that there is nothing there but what the text itself recounts. Unfortunately, historical criticism IS taking place and there are believers who do not find it “more satisfying” to ignore what is happening in the field when they believe that their faith has a historical component to it.

  • Chip

    Wolterstorff ’s insistence that what God says in scripture very much depends on what kinds of things we think God is likely to say…

    What exactly is he saying? I don’t want to assume. Things I “think” God is “likely” to say?

    • C Bovell

      I think all that he’s saying is that the choices we make in hermeneutics will always be influenced by the kinds of things we expect God to actually “say.”

  • ctrace

    I would think the ‘mainstream view’ would be what the church has professed in its official documents and through its vetted-by-time theologians over the centuries.

    In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. That is pretty definitive for placing the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob above any localized mix of Canaanite deities.

    • C Bovell

      “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Who said this and why? What did they mean by it? Did it mean different things at different times to different readers and hearers? These are some of the questions that I am trying to take seriously.

      • ayahasherayah

        What Moses saw in a vision atop Mt. Sinai he wrote (or dictated) to be written down, which was later compiled as Genesis and moved out of chronological order from the place in Exodus where it belongs. It’s an account of Moses’ vision (reiterating), not the beginning of creation but rather what was revealed to him by Yahweh-Elohim. And it shouldn’t say “God” but rather “Elohim created the heavens and the earth.”

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    Hello, your theory of plenary inspiration is apparently very similar to the one of progressive Evangelical Randal Rauser.
    I applaud you for not only presenting the results of critical scholarship but also helping Christians grapple with them.

    That said, there is an obvious objection: if God really just wanted people to affirm monotheism, why on earth would he have allowed that to come about in this way even if he foreknew that it would lead to many false beliefs about the origins of Israel and even the whole world?

    I believe we cannot view the books included within the Biblical Canon as being more inspired as the books outside the Canon and I explain here how we can still, however, remain Christians while doing this:

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/on-the-inspiration-of-the-bible-and-other-books-von-der-interpretation-der-bibel-und-anderen-buchern/

    Lovely greetings from continental Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

    • C Bovell

      What responsibility does God for making sure we “believe” the right things? And who gave him that responsibility? Us?

  • Craig Vick

    Thanks Carlos for some stimulating thoughts. My initial reaction (which might quickly change as I give your words more time to settle) is that this goes in the wrong direction. The whole idea of interpreting the text is suspect to me because it seems to promote a translation after translation. The temptation to dispense with the text, like scaffolding, once we arrive at the final meaning is enough to make me very cautious. I also wonder if reference to God’s illocutionary acts leaves us without a workable distinction between special and general revelation.

    You probably don’t remember me, but we chatted a bit on Conn-versations, and I always enjoyed your thoughts. I hope and trust you and your family are doing well.

    • C Bovell

      Yes, I remember. Blessings! The suggestions in the post take some time to digest. Think about it some and see whether you find that we all do the same thing anyway with the texts that prove troublesome.

      Grace and peace,
      Carlos

    • http://labreuer.wordpress.com Luke Breuer

      The whole idea of interpreting the text is suspect to me because it seems to promote a translation after translation.

      What if “translation after translation” has the promise of leading us closer and closer to God? Compare science coming up with better and better descriptions of reality.

      Let me try out a little hypothesis. Strictly speaking, God wishes the act of us reading, meditating upon, ‘trying out’, and discussing the Bible to result in us A) learning more about him; B) bringing into existence a reality which better displays his glory (e.g. Zion). It is well-established that reading the Bible just once is insufficient. Indeed, as we apply our understanding of the Bible at a given time, and then go and read it again, we often get something new out of it. The same happens in science. This naturally leads to the question: what happens when the process of read-meditate-act-reflect, read-meditate-act-reflect, …, comes to its culmination? Or is there even a culmination?

      I think this hypothesis reduces the worry you express with “translation after translation”, but feel free to disagree and say why. :-)

      • Craig Vick

        I’m in the process of rethinking some of my very basic assumptions, so I apologize in advance that what I write will seem fuzzy at best. I agree that the Biblical text is given to us to be read and reread. We never finish. What I would suggest is that we shift our focus from interpretation to reading. When we interpret, as I understand the model, we’re looking for the meaning. There’s only one meaning and the process continues until we find it. In my tradition (Presbyterian) that one meaning is equated with theology. This from the very start, it seems to me, gives theology (the best interpretation we have at any given time) priority over Scripture. There are many readings of a text. There are many valid or good readings of a text. This, of course, is not to say that all readings are valid or equally good. The ideal of interpretation is that we can put the text through a process that spits out the meaning. We admit there’s an art to this process, but we do so reluctantly. The process would be better if it was one hundred percent decidable. There’s no one goal or process to reading. It’s art from beginning to end.

        • http://labreuer.wordpress.com Luke Breuer

          I could agree to your “one meaning” if you put it beyond the “dark glass” in 1 Cor 13. That is, if you acknowledge that no human this side of heaven will ever stumble upon it.

          There is a deep scientific parallel: has the latest scientific discovery found the mathematical equation or description of reality, the bottom one, the ‘real’ one? As far as I’m aware, the answer is always a firm “No!” Instead, the answer is sufficiently good for certain purposes. I think that’s all we can hope for when it comes to theology/doctrine. I think this is because God is infinite and is drawing us to his infinity.

  • mark

    Here’s an article that plays into this whole discussion, and especially into Smith’s views on the development of Israelite thought: Finds in Israel add weight to theory God “had wife”:

    Professor Francesca Stavrakopoulou of the University of Exeter said, “There is increasing evidence that the ancient Israelites worshipped a number of gods alongside their ‘national’ patron deity, Yahweh. The goddess Asherah was among these deities.

    “Not only is she mentioned in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament), but inscriptions dating to the eighth and seventh centuries BCE attest to her worship alongside Yahweh in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. Taken together, the biblical and archaeological evidence strongly suggests that Asherah was worshipped by some Israelites as the wife of Yahweh. They were likely a divine couple at the head of the local pantheon.”

    Stavrakopoulou says that deities such as Asherah were “written out of history” as Yahweh became the “one God” of Jerusalem.

    Theologians of the time were the scribes responsible for biblical texts – and Asherah’s appearances cast her as “foreign”, rather than as wife material.

    “With the gradual emergence of monotheism in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE, a process in which Yahweh was increasingly prioritised over and above all other deities to the point at which the pantheon was ultimately rendered redundant, the goddess Asherah fell from favour among the leading theologians among Jerusalem’s elites,” Stavrakopoulou says.

    “Many of these theologians were the scribes responsible for the production of biblical texts, and they sought to discredit and vilify the goddess of old by casting her as a deity ‘foreign’ and ‘abominable’ to traditional Yahweh-worship. As a result, she was falsely caricatured in the Bible either as a ‘Canaanite’ competitor to the Israelite god Yahweh (as in Torah and the Books of Kings), or as a lifeless wooden idol – an object to be destroyed by obedient to Yahweh’s demands that Israelites should worship him, and him alone (as in Deuteronomy).”

    • Seraphim

      Written out of history? The Old Testament documents the worship of Asherah in Israel, these are likely what Jeremiah’s references to the “queen of heaven” are about. The Book of Kings is very clear that much (maybe even most) of Israel worshiped many gods, including most of the kings. What it insists on is that there was always a faction of Israelites who were solely devoted to YHWH as creator and sovereign. Never does the Old Testament insist that monotheism was in the comfortable majority.

      Indeed, the fact that Asherah was worshiped as a consort of Yahweh demonstrates that most YHWH was understood as the “high god” similar to El in the Canaanite pantheon, who was married to Asherah. So I don’t know why the idea that Asherah is Canaanite is mocked- of course she was. What the worship of Asherah refutes is the idea that Yahweh’s elevation to the head of the divine council is a very late development in Israelite religion, to be dated to the time of King Josiah.

  • rvs

    I found this point to be especially useful in terms of thinking about how God interacts with authors: “what he [God] sets out to accomplish is never determined by it [highly contextualized/historicized human speech acts...].

  • Seraphim

    I accept the idea of progressive revelation. I believe that God made Himself known to His people gradually, and that this process came to its climax in the incarnation of the Logos. But this can only be taken so far before Christianity simply collapses in on itself. If, as I understand this article to be arguing, we should reconcile Christianity and Smith’s interpretation of Israelite religion, how are we to do so? If we believe that YHWH began as a minor god on the Israelite pantheon, son of the high god, and that he was the patron deity of Israel without being the creator of the universe, where do we move from there? Smith argues that YHWH was subsequently elevated to the head of the pantheon by overthrowing El, similar to how Marduk becomes head of the pantheon in Babylon. Then, in the Babylonian Exile, Israelite religion evolves into monotheism.

    This doesn’t look like progressive revelation. This looks like Israelites behaving like every other people group in the Near East. It is one thing to argue that the Israelites were a part of their Near Eastern environment (they were) and that the Old Testament should be interpreted in its Near Eastern context (it should.) It is another thing to argue that there is virtually no difference between the people of Israel and every other nation on Earth. Was Israel the people of God the whole way through? If we went back in time, would we even be able to tell?

    Not only do I think that this kind of argument is theologically disastrous (and I’m not an inerrantist, by the way), I also think it is historically unnecessary. The idea that monotheism only developed in the exile isn’t even the consensus among non-Christian scholarship. A good portion of scholarship argues that monotheism developed in the preexilic Kingdom of Judah and is reflected by some of the Judean prophets. Benjamin Sommer (a very highly respected Jewish scholar of the Hebrew Bible) argues intensively for a very ancient Israelite monotheism, with the following reasons as examples:

    1. While other lands in the Ancient Near East have theophoric names (names that contain the name of a god, such as JeremiAH, IsaiAH, IsraEL) from many gods, over seventy percent of Israelite names are Yahwhist or Elohist, mostly Yahwhist. That Yahweh and El were understood to be one and the same very early on is obvious from the fact that many Israelites worshiped Asherah as Yahweh’s consort, whereas Asherah was widely known to be the consort of the high god. This isn’t to legitimate Asherah worship, but rather to say that Yahweh’s position as the high god had to be presupposed in order for this to develop.

    2. Very early texts like Isaiah 2 are clearly monotheistic: they envision all nations as coming to worship the God of Israel and engaging in a direct covenantal relationship with Him. Isaiah 2 is representative of a large sample of

    3. Yahweh is never described as in danger of losing his sovereignty. In other Ancient Near Eastern texts, even the high god becomes frightened when there is a challenge on the divine council. Not a single text like this exists in the Hebrew Bible. In view of the innumerable examples of this phenomenon in ANE literature and the size of the Old Testament corpus, the silence is deafening.

    The whole argument can be read here:

    http://www.academia.edu/1857268/Monotheism_and_Polytheism_in_Ancient_Israel_Appendix_from_The_Bodies_of_God_and_the_World_of_Ancient_Israel_

    It’s also important to understand what monotheism truly is. Monotheism is not the denial of divine plurality. That there are other spirits on the divine council, and that such spirits are described as “elohim” is obvious. But that’s not decisive in the least- even the ghost of Samuel is called an “el.” The word simply conveys the sense of “spiritual being” without identifying the being as of the same “substance” as YHWH. Furthermore, texts at Qumran (undoubtedly monotheistic) use language of the divine council, without any apparent awareness that this compromised monotheism. Finally, even in the New Testament, pagan sacrifices aren’t offered to nobodies. St. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10 that the sacrifices are offered to demons: the identification of the “gods of the nations” with the demons forms the backdrop for Christ’s conquest of the “heavenly powers” and the Church’s “seat in heaven with Christ.”

    In short, a proper understanding of monotheism requires not the denial of divine plurality, but rather the understanding of one divine being as being unique in substance. That is, there are many divine beings, but YHWH (one of them) created the rest and one of them (YHWH) is immovably sovereign. It is impossible to overthrow Him.

    As one final note, I want to emphasize the fact that I accept the idea of progressive revelation. I apply this particularly in how we look at ancient Israelite concepts of who God was. God was unique in the senses I described above, and there was always a strain of Israelite religion which affirmed this uniqueness (though much Israelite religion was genuinely polytheistic, as described in the Prophets and Histories), but the way they understood God’s uniqueness changed and developed from a seed into a full grown tree.

    A good example is the embodiment of God. Early Israelite religion almost certainly understood Yahweh as an embodied, emotional being. Nevertheless, within this early Israelite understanding, seeds of transcendence were there. They understood that this being was the only creator. That he was eternal. And we have texts in the Old Testament which provide the root for the later development. For example, in the Holy of Holies, there was a throne, but the throne was empty. In other ANE tabernacles, the throne in the Holy of Holies contained a statue of the god. This hints at YHWH’s essential invisibility, as does the prohibition of images (a prohibition that was largely observed in Ancient Israel, as Sommer notes.) There are passages which hint at omnipresence, which requires incorporeality, such as 1 Kings 8: Heaven and highest heaven cannot contain you!

    But the people of God truly came to understand God, ironically in a way, in His most immanent moment: the incarnation. The very fact of the incarnation demonstrated God’s “otherness.” If God was essentially like us, the incarnation would have been meaningless. The reason that the statement “the Word became flesh” is so Earth-shaking is because the Word was not already flesh. He was other. Thus, “no one has ever seen God, the unique God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known.”

    This is why, I think, you get a sense of transcendence in the New Testament and Early Christian literature that you don’t get in the Old Testament. Even early Jewish literature is diverse on the question of transcendence. Many people assume that the idea of transcendence is a result of Greek philosophical influence. But, as Gavrilyuk has proven, the philosophers were by no means united on the question of divine emotions and transcendence, and the early Christian doctrine was quite distinct from all philosophical glosses on transcendence. Thus, the incarnation is the supreme revelation both of God’s transcendence and His immanence.

  • http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/ Lothar Lorraine

    Hello.

    Since I wrote my last comment on this post I have blogged about the question of “God’s wife”, namely the goddess Asherah and if this really undermines the conservative understanding of the origin of monotheism.

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/09/20/when-did-god-pick-up-his-wife/

    I think this could interest some of you.

    Friendly greetings from continental Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son

    http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com

  • ayahasherayah

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