Did ancient scribes update Yahweh? Probably. (and that’s OK)

Did ancient scribes update Yahweh? Probably. (and that’s OK) September 16, 2013

Today’s guest blogger is Carlos Bovell, whom many of you know from some previous posts here. Carlos is a graduate of Westminster Theological Seminary and The Institute for Christian Studies, Toronto. He is also the author of Inerrancy and the Spiritual Formation of Younger Evangelicals (2007), By Good and Necessary Consequence: A Preliminary Genealogy of Biblical Foundationalism (2009), an edited volume, Interdisciplinary Perspectives on the Authority of Scripture (2011), and Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear.

In a recent post reflecting on Mark Smith’s book, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel, Pete shared with readers how the “mainstream view” holds that “the Hebrew scriptures reflect Israel’s later beliefs (i.e., after the return from Babylonian exile), further along on their spiritual journey, though their writings also preserve earlier, more diverse religious stages, where exclusive worship of Yahweh was not a given.”

In the next two posts, I would like to reflect on how this mainstream view might be incorporated into an evangelical view of scripture.

In another of his books, God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World (see here for a review), Mark Smith develops the following six points:

(1) In keeping with its scale and relatively local relations with other polities, Israel deployed a form of local translatability during the period of the monarchies, if not earlier [“translatability,” Smith explains, refers to the cross-cultural identification, equation, and recognition of other people’s deities (6)];

(2) This translatability took the form of a worldview that could recognize other national gods as valid for Israel’s neighbors just as Yahweh was for Israel;

(3) Israel’s loss of translatability represented an internal development that corresponds with its experience of the initial stage of the international age emerging under the Assyrians and the Babylonians;

(4) The conceptual shift in this period involved a sophisticated hermeneutic that retained older formulations of translatability within expressions of non-translatability and monotheism;

(5) The hermeneutic of theism within ancient Israel and Yehud [i.e., the land of Judah as it was called after the return from exile] was an ongoing intellectual project involving various forms of textual harmonization;

(6) If [the Hebrew Bible’s “Mosaic distinction” between the one true God and all other false deities] is to be maintained, it would be during the late biblical and post-biblical reception of the Bible than generally the Bible itself (much less ancient Israel) when it comes into focus.

To take just one illustration of what effect Smith’s research might have on one’s view of scripture, let us consider Deut 6:4, known as the Shema, which Smith translates: “Hear, O Israel! Yahweh our god, Yahweh is one” (143). He explains that although modern translations opt for “Yahweh alone” at the end of the verse, Deut 6:4 arguably meant that Yahweh was “the one main God for Israel,” i.e., among the pantheon.

In other words, the monotheistic reading of the verse that we apply to the verse today reflects cultural and political developments in postexilic Israel. A latersecondary, interpretation began to attach itself to the verse, deliberately promulgating Yahweh in a monotheistic fashion, i.e., to the effect that Yahweh is the true god and all others are false.

A common evangelical response that I find inadequate is to downplay the need to fit scripture into its ancient Near Eastern contexts. This reaction is exemplified, for example, by John Oswalt in The Bible among the Myths: Unique Revelation or Just Ancient Literature?who writes:

The fact that the entire Bible as it now stands is written from the perspective of the transcendent God breaking into human history and revealing himself through unique events and persons cannot be gainsaid. Either this was the perspective from the beginning of the nation or there must have been some cataclysmic experience that would have caused the systematic rewriting of all previous traditions. Outside the exodus, I see no such events (97-98).

A better way, I propose, is to think again about whether “the entire Bible as it now stands” is chiefly interested in reporting a redemptive history that involves a unique series of events where God intervenes in history. Given developments in critical scholarship, it might prove fruitful to disagree with Oswalt and begin wondering whether there are other ways to construe the Hebrew Bible (as it now stands).

Smith, for example, analyzes cases of biblical censorship where the biblical writers, over time, had become more and more concerned about “protecting God” from longstanding, polytheistic conceptions of Yahweh. According to Smith, many post-exilic priests were also scribes who composed, harmonized, edited, and revised scriptural texts in an effort to promulgate their understanding of monotheism and particularly the special relationship that the single deity had with the Israelites.

These priest-scribes cloaked their scribal activity “in the august robes of hoary antiquity, precisely the hallmark of the religious traditioning process” (224). By deliberately weaving into scripture an overarching, monotheistic description of the past as if it were the divine perspective they successfully politically sanctioned a monotheistic prescription for both Israel’s present and future (215).

In my book, Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear, I tried to help students work through some of the difficulties evangelicals have with the Bible’s compositional history. In my follow-up post, I will suggest a way to accept the mainstream view and integrate it with the belief that the Bible is God’s Word.

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  • Kaleidobible

    Greatly looking forward to the sequel!

  • mark

    A better way, I propose, is to think again about whether “the entire Bible as it now stands” is chiefly interested in reporting a redemptive history that involves a unique series of events where God intervenes in history. Given developments in critical scholarship, it might prove fruitful to disagree with Oswalt and begin wondering whether there are other ways to construe the Hebrew Bible (as it now stands).

    Excellent proposals. Let me take a stab at both.

    The answer to the first proposal–reconsider whether “the entire Bible as it now stands” is chiefly interested in history–has been answered in the negative by modern scholarship, if we rely upon one of Pete’s recent posts When did the Old Testament become the Old Testament?. Pete discusses Peter Schmid’s book The Old Testament: A Literary History and concludes that Schmid’s ideas ” and concludes:

    That’s generally the broad outline of the historical-critical narrative of the origins of the OT, and, for what it’s worth, it’s pretty uncontroversial in contemporary OT studies.

    The bottom line: Israel’s written (and oral) traditions grew to become the “Hebrew Bible/Old Testament” after a lengthy process, punctuated by the crisis of the exile and an uncertain future after Judah’s return. Or, as I put it elsewhere, it is an exercise in national self-definition in response to the Babylonian exile.

    I don’t see this as a hushed, back room, discussion among biblical scholars with coded language and secret handshakes. I think all this is important to take in, because knowing something about when and why the Old Testament came to be helps us understand its theology. This saga of Israel gets reframed, redefined, and transformed in the NT around Jesus.

    Smith’s work, IMO, contains the key to the second proposal–that we begin “wondering whether there are other ways to construe the Hebrew Bible (as it now stands).” Because Smith is firm that there was a development in that theology of the “OT.” I see that development as focused on discovering the identity of God, and it resulted in the identification of God as one and creative in a definitive sense. My contention is that the Christian identification in Jesus of God as Trinity is the fulfillment of that Israelite identification of God. It is in this sense that the “OT” is revelatory, in that it prepares for the definitive revelation of God in Jesus. Further, this development of Israelite theology from its roots in ancient Middle Eastern thought (or, more broadly, from what Mircea Eliade identifies as “archaic ontology”) links the discovery of God’s identity to universal mankind God’s self revelation in Jesus.

    • C Bovell

      Great thoughts. So are you indicating that scripture is primarily given to help us construct theologies?

      • mark

        Thanks, Carlos. Not exactly. I’m saying that the Israelite scriptures are, in effect, part of the record of Israel’s development from a worldview that it shared in common with all other known cultures–Mircea Eliade’s “archaic ontology”–to a worldview centered on the identity of God as a true creator, not just a deity who formed pre-existing matter into the cosmos that we know (as in the Greek view). The Israelite scriptures–actually, Israelite history and culture as a whole–certainly preserve evidence that Israelite religion shared the “archaic” or traditional worldview–cf. the references to the primeval combat of the warrior god with the sea monster, derived from common West Semitic myths.

        Something that I find to be significant for the history of Western thought is that this development of Israelite thought opened up the possibility for the Christian theology of God as Trinity, which embodies the idea of God as world transcendent and infinite act. This is in sharp distinction with the development of Greek thought, which is in essence an ideologization or conceptualization of “archaic ontology” into what we still refer to as “philosophy”–a grab bag term that covers quite a number of different experiences of reality.

        Whitehead’s dictum that Western thought is largely a series a footnotes to Plato captures the importance of the conflict between true Judaeo-Christian thought and Greek derived developments of “archaic ontology.” Eliade also examines this issue in both The Myth of the Eternal Return: Cosmos and History and Myth and Reality. Of great importance, IMO, is Frank Moore Cross’ treatment in From Epic to Canon of the distinction between cosmogonic and theogonic myths and his comparison of the development of Greek and Israelite thought–especially his demonstration that Greek “philosophy” derives from Greek myth that shares many common features with ancient Middle Eastern thought.

        I believe these considerations point us in the direction of a true theory of revelation, with revelation understood as pre-eminently the person of Jesus as the revelation of God. Israelite history can thus be seen to be a preparation for this revelation, no matter whether we view the scriptural texts as “revelatory” (“inspired”) or not. Revelation becomes God’s cooperation or interplay with humanity.

        • Hanan

          So where does God actually revealing himself to the Israelites actually occur? Did he at some point reveal himself, and then let them build a theology on top of that?

  • Benj

    Thanks for this post, Carlos. One example that comes immediately to mind is the way that Psalm 96:7 removes any hint of henotheism from Psalm 29:1 (“sons of the gods” becomes “families of peoples”). Another puzzling verse is the “wrath” (קצף) that came upon Israel after the king of Moab sacrificed his son in 2 Kgs 3:27.

    • C Bovell

      Yes, some are convinced that the 2 Kgs passage recalls a time when Yahweh was thought to be defeated!

  • Hello Carlos.

    As a progressive Christian rejecting the notion that books within the Biblical Canon are in principle more inspired than non-canonical books I certainly find that pretty exciting.

    I am convinced there are many mistakes in the Bible which contains, to use Thom Stark’s wonderful expression, the human faces of God.

    That said I am completely open to the possibility of miracles and of people experiencing supernatural beings who can be both benevolent or malevolent.
    So I approach the Bible critically as I would appraoch any other ancient text but NOT with the modern assumptions that miracles never happen.

    And having read quite a few so-called historical-critical works I know that many of their conclusions heavily hinge upon their naturalistic presupositions.

    I am open apriori that God revealed Himself in a direct way to the people of Israel and that this was a boosting factor for their evolution between polytheism and monotheism.
    THe problem is that if He really did, He also allowed people to write within and outside the Bible falshoods about Him.

    The genocidal texts I’m currently dealing with are the most crying problem, except if they were intended as myths:

    And all Christians (like myself) who reject the idea that God is a genocidal monster are faced with the problem of divine hideness: why did God not clearly reveal his true moral natures to Mose or the first Isrealites? Why did He let them undergo this long moral and theological evolution?

    What would be your personal responses to these questions?

    Lovely greetings from continental Europe.

    Lothars Sohn – Lothar’s son


    • C Bovell


      I am happy to hear that you are open to the supernatural. I do not follow, though, why genocidal texts in the Hebrew Bible would pose a special problem if the canonical books are not held to be “inspired” in a unique way. Perhaps I misunderstand your position.

  • The Bible is a palimpsest from which we can get clues of Judaism’s early polytheism.