Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Rooting for the Undergods

From the April 2013 E-Block.
At reader request, we are now checking out an article titled, “Israelite Religion to Judaism: the Evolution of the Religion of Israel” by David Steinberg. It is difficult to assess Steinberg as a whole because he professes to have studied seriously on these subjects, but he appears to be published only on the Internet. In any event, we will evaluate his points in the article, which includes a great deal that is non-controversial, and which is written not as a narrative, but as a collection of notes. We will seek out and focus on main points about which the inquiry was made; namely, claims having to do with the premise that Israelite religion "evolved from" Canaanite religion.
Initialy, it seems obvious that Steinberg has no awareness of, or does not consider, scholarship defining the "monotheism" of the Old Testament (see link below). One of his initial queries illustrates the matter:
The discovery of advanced polytheism poses a central theological issue: if polytheism can have such positive attributes, what is the purpose of monotheism? Did the Bible simply substitute another system, one that represented no advance towards a better understanding of the universe and a more equitable way of living? Indeed, were there some aspects of paganism lost in the transition that present, in fact, a more positive way of living in the world?
If, however, the religion of Israel was better described as monolatry; and if it is kept in mind that elohim does not carry the semantic freight of our word god, especially with a capital “G”, then there really isn't another "system" at all. Rather, it was a simple matter of selecting one elohim for exclusive devotion , which conceptually doesn't require any hard thinking, any more than it did for Akhenaten. And thus as well, there is no need to ask what the "purpose" of monotheism is. The obvious answer is that it was considered advantageous to align one's self with the most powerful patron/suzerain -- one that not so incidentally had the ability to manage all aspects of creation, whereas with the pagan elohim each had their own domains (oddly enough, later on Steinberg does note this distinction, but does not apply it to his findings in other places).
Eventually we get to the gist of the matter, which is to argue for some connection between the Elohim of the Bible (as we say, God the Father) and the Canaanite El. As usual, it is never considered that El is a distorted version of Elohim as it is instead assumed that Israel cleaned up El. But let us grant the former premise for the sake of argument. Steinberg quotes another as saying:
The common identity shared by El and Yahweh is impressive…. In the various texts El and Yahweh were both portrayed as 1) father figures, 2) judges, 3) compassionate and merciful, 4) revealing themselves through dreams, 5) capable of healing those who are sick, 6) dwelling in a cosmic tent, 7) dwelling over the great cosmic waters or at the source of the primordial rivers, which is also on top of a mountain, 8) favorable to the widow, 9) kings in the heavenly realm exercising authority over the other gods, who may be called ‘sons of gods’, 10) warrior deities who led the other gods in battle, 11) creator deities, 12) aged and venerable in appearance, and most significantly, 13) capable of guiding the destinies of people in the social arena.
To those who consider this "impressive," I can only say…they need to get out more. Nearly all of these would be commonplaces for any major deity in any world religion. The first from the above, for example, represents typical in-group collectivist language. #2 represents a natural duty for any deity -- has anyone heard of a major deity that declines to judge at all? At the same time, has anyone bothered to list out differences between El and Yahweh the same way, and determined their comparative weight and significance? And, if we're going to cite things like #12, why not site differences like the fact that El wears bull horns, but Yahweh does not? Shouldn't these comparisons be thorough in order to be both accurate and also honest?
The next points of comparison concern parallel mythologies. Since Glenn Miller has already thoroughly addressed these issues (link below), we will engage them no further.
In terms of the Biblical record, as is usual for such presentations, theory is used to interpret the facts. OT authors are accused of "projecting their religious values in idealized fashion back into the past" though Steinberg merely quotes conclusions to this effect rather than actually ever arguing the points.
Our next area of concern has to do with the origins of Israelite religion. Said to "fit very well" with the evidence is this scenario:
Israelite religion was originally a local variety of the pattern in Iron Age Phoenicia in which there was a triad of deities: a protective god of the city (often El), a goddess, often his wife or companion (in Ugarit and Israel Asherah) who symbolizes the fertile earth; and a young god (in Ugarit and Israel Baal usually her or their son), whose resurrection expresses the annual cycle of vegetation [57]. Through the processes of convergence and differentiation this developed into Biblical Monotheism. At an early stage a new god Yahweh was brought in from outside urban Canaan, identified with the Canaanite High God El [58], and accepted as the main object of worship by the emerging Israelite confederacy i.e. association of clans and tribes.
One has to ask, how does this "fit well"? As yet we are not told. What we do see is a tendentious abuse of the word "resurrection" to describe a "dying and rising god" associated with vegetation, and so far, a mere assumption of development. Steinberg does, however, consider alternatives, but they mostly get the short shrift. For example, this alternative:
It developed from early Semitic religion which was a “practical monotheism” in which only El was worshiped [59].
...is not one I'd argue, but Steinberg merely waves it off in one sentence, which wrongly assumes he is already correct:
Unlikely since the biblical evidence is that Israelite religion was preceded by polytheism.
Of the alternatives that follow, the one closest to my own view is:
3.1.1 Traditional Jewish Divine Revelation [61] – God gave Moses on Mt. Sinai the written Pentateuch that we have today together with the Oral Law i.e. the tools for developing the laws of the Pentateuch to meet all future needs. This Oral Law was later embodied in the Talmuds and other Rabbinic literature;
But actually, it's barely 50% in line with my views. I would not hold that the oral law was also given at this time. Nevertheless, Steinberg also dismisses this with a single sentence:
The results of Higher Criticism of the Bible make this extremely unlikely.
And that is all! One supposes, charitably, that Steinberg here meant to give only summaries of views, not arguments for them; and it is to that end that he also merely quotes conclusions that are amenable to his views. In that respect, Steinberg's material is like Evidence Demands a Verdict for the higher critic of the OT!
Further on, others are quoted concerning the reputed "process" whereby polytheism evolved into monotheism, but such offerings are too vague and non-specific to be worth much more than a non-sequitur label, such as follows:
The great gods of the Canaanite pantheon were cosmic deities. There is, indeed, a double movement clearly discernible in Syro-Palestinian religion. A great god such as 'El or 'Asherah appears in local manifestations in the cult places and gains special titles, attributes, hypostases [71]. In the process, one cult or title may split apart and a new god emerge to take his place beside 'El or 'Asherah in the pantheon. On the other hand, there is a basic syncretistic impulse in Near Eastern polytheism which tends to merge gods with similar traits and functions. A minor deity, worshipped by a small group of adherents, may become popular and merge with a great deity; major deities in a single culture's pantheon may fuse; or deities holding similar positions in separate pantheons may be identified.
But why should we believe this happened with Israel's religion…and we are not told. This is no better an argument than pointing to the process of writing historical novels as evidence that historical information was actually fictional.
Then again there are points like these:
In order to meet the needs of farmers Yahwism also owes a debt to the myths of Ba'al. In the earliest poetic sources the language depicting Yahweh as divine warrior manifest is borrowed almost directly from Canaanite descriptions of the theophany of Ba'al as storm god.
But, once again, this proves nothing of what Steinberg wishes to prove, for at least two reasons. The first is that "divine warrior" would be the accepted and expected role of any deity recognized as a suzerain over their people. The second is that even if it is correct that language was "borrowed" -- and Steinberg does not provide any record of meaningful parallels to show this -- it would be a matter of honor for one group (whether Israel or Canaan) to claim and take over the language of the other group, not because one "evolved" from the other, but in order to claim the honor of the language for their own suzerain/deity, and deny it to the other. Steinberg's reference here is not only non-sequitur; it also shows no awareness of a more likely conclusion based on the social context.
Further claims are little more than, "this is how it must have happened" arguments, such as:  Perhaps spurred on by the establishment of Astarte-Ishtar-Queen of Heaven worship in the 8th- 7th centuries; the Deuteronomic movement of the late 7th century BCE demanded the rejection of the native Asherah as un-Israelite and disloyal to YHWH. By this time Asherah may just have been seen as a manifestation of the nurturing side of YHWH. As far as feasible, given YHWH’s male language, Ashera’s characteristics are appropriated by YHWH.
Again, why believe this? We are given no reason to do so. And, the traditional view of revelation, is merely waved off in one sentence:
There is nothing that can be said about it from a secular-critical point of view. Again, one hopes this is not meant to be an argument , which, quite obviously, it is not!
At one point, we finally get to a linguistic argument for evolution:
A … plausibility attaches to those interpretations of the name Yahweh which identify him as a storm god. Thus the name has been connected with the meaning 'to fall' (also attested in Syriac) …. Another suggestion is to link the name with the meaning 'to blow', said of the wind (cf. Syr hawwe, 'wind')….
Storm god? Really? Apparently Steinberg thinks a storm is the only reason one might "blow." He has forgotten that God is reported in the OT as the source of the "Spirit of God" -- the literal word where "spirit" also means wind or breath. Steinberg also tendentiously takes the identification of the pagan Arameans of Yahweh as a "god of the mountains" as evidence for the "storm god" notion. Why the word of this pagan (whom God goes on to refute in battle) should be taken as anything more than battle propaganda, designed to inspire his troops, is not explained.
Expected as well, Steinberg takes evidence of localized cults of Yahweh being evidence for "poly-Yahwism" as an original. This, of course, merely begs the question of which came first, and which was authoritative as well.
Then we have this for consideration:
That Solomon founded a polytheistic cult for Judah has been noted, since it is hard to miss the passage in I Kings 11:1-10….
True, but since it is considered an act of disobedience, what is the point, unless we beg that same question of origin and authority? Later, Steinberg quotes to the effect that the mere mention of these other deities being worshipped "demonstrate that these deities were established in the official religion as it was practiced at the time and not some bizarre aberration easily discounted as irrelevant to the cult. " But again, how this conclusion is reached is not explained, and the explanation remains a non-sequitur.
Next, Steinberg notes a connection between the angels of the OT and the lower deities of Ugarit. This we hardly need dispute; nor do we need to dispute the commonality of a tiered cosmos, though the presumption does remain that any and all ideas held by pagans must also have been held by e.g., the author of Psalms.
A peculiar note is this one:
The gods Resheph and Deber appear in Habakkuk 3:5 as part of the military retinue of Yahweh.
Really? Before him went the pestilence, and burning coals went forth at his feet.
Apparently the words "pestilence" and "burning coals" here are taken as names of gods, though both words are used elsewhere in the OT in ways that make it clear they are not used of gods. It is only tendentious reading that identifies these words with pagan deities in Habakkuk.
Also worth noting is the appeal to inscriptions/depictions in which Yahweh is given a female consort, such as at Kuntillet Ajrud. Once again, it is enough to point out that it is merely a question begging to suppose that such depictions represent evidence of "evolution" as opposed to corruption. Certainly, we need not deny corruption, for not only does the Biblical record testify to it as being such, but it is evident in the actual process of religious "evolution" known from historical example. Even in modern times we see examples of various cults that are merely corruptions of a mainstream religious tradition.
In a later section, records are offered of instances where Israel "borrowed" from other cultures i.e., such things like administrative/government functions, literary images and so on. It never quite gets to the point where an abrupt non-sequitur is committed, such that these are used to say Israel must also have borrowed their ideas about religion. That said, it should be noted that for things like God and Baal both controlling weather, this is manifestly not meaningful, as we'd hardly expect any powerful god to not be able to do such things. In other cases, borrowing of images and titles reflect stakes of honor: That is, Baal is called "Lord," but since Yahweh is our God, it is He who really deserves the title, not Baal, so we'll take it for Him.
Thus ends our survey of Steinberg's notes.  
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