Judaism and polytheism
Sullivan writes: “I will note one sentence Wieseltier writes at the beginning of this unedited rant. It refers to the Holy Trinity and the Incarnation, a profound mystery to Christians, and at the heart of our faith. He writes this:
‘The idea of plurality in the deity, like the idea of corporeality in the deity . . . represents nothing less than a retraction of the monotheistic revolution in thinking about God, a reversal of God’s sublimity, a regress to polytheistic crudity.’
“Leon is describing the central tenets of the Christian faith - the divinity of Jesus and the Triune God - as a step backward for religious thinking. He is dismissing as stupid and backward the Incarnation. He goes so far as to insult it by decrying it as a regress to polytheism. And not just polytheism but crude polytheism.
“I am not one to take offense at such things. My own faith can withstand the cheap pot-shots of others. But can you imagine if Wieseltier came across a Muslim or a Christian making similar derogatory and condescending and cheap remarks about Judaism? As crude? A form of religious regression?” End of Sullivan quotation.
Sullivan makes a good point in his concluding paragraph. Increasingly, Jews feel free to express, often in pungent terms, their open contempt for central tenets of Christianity and Islam. But woe betide any Christian or Muslim who dares to criticize any aspect of Jewish theology. For the label of “anti-Semite” is sure to follow. I know, because the epithet has been hurled at me--and I am neither a Christian nor a Muslim,
Elsewhere I have analyzed the historical problem of the (now) mainstream Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. I will not repeat this discussion here, though I return briefly to the issue at the end.
Instead, what I am concerned with is Wieseltier’s conventional assumption of the pure monotheism of historic Judaism. (Hat tip to the blog Jewishatheist.blogspot.com, from which I take several pertinent examples.)
The Hebrew bible contains many names of God or Gods. Orthodox Jews maintain that every name refers to the same God, except those terms which designate the false deities of other religions. Some of the approved names, however, are strikingly similar to the names of gods from the polytheistic religions surrounding ancient Israel.
A major turning point was the uncovering, beginning in 1928, of religious documents in Ugarit (Ras Shamra), an ancient city on the coast of Syria. The excavations uncovered a vast royal palace, several imposing private dwellings, and two private libraries that contained diplomatic, legal, economic, administrative, scholastic, literary and religious texts written on clay tablets. Crowning the hill where the city was built were two major temples: one dedicated to Baal the "king," son of El, and one to Dagon, the chthonic god of fertility and cereals.
For the first time these Ugaritic archives afforded a detailed perspective of Canaanite religious beliefs during the second millennium, that is the period directly preceding the rise of ancient Israel. The texts show striking parallels to Biblical Hebrew literature, particularly in the areas of divine imagery and poetic form.
At the summit of Ugaritic religion stood the chief god, Ilu or El, the "father of mankind," and "the creator of the creation." The Court of El or Ilu was referred to as the 'lhm. The most important of the other great gods were Hadad, the king of Heaven, Athirat or Asherah (familiar to readers of the Bible), Yam (Sea, the god of primordial chaos, tempests, and mass-destruction) and Mot (Death). Other gods honored at Ugarit were Dagon (Grain), Tirosch, Horon, Resheph (Healing), the craftsman Kothar-and-Khasis (Skilled and Clever), Shahar (Dawn), and Shalim (Dusk). As this enumeration suggests, Ugaritic texts offer a wealth of material on the religion of the Canaanites and its connections with that of the ancient Israelites. Professor Mark S. Smith of NYU has provided a cogent analysis of this link in several books, including his The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (NY: Oxford, 2001).
Let us note some obvious parallels. In the Hebrew bible God is often designated as El, recalling the chief God of the Canaanite pantheon. Furthermore, the term Elohim, which is now thought of as merely another name of God, was in Canaanite religion a term for the whole court of El. (The original Hebrew texts not having vowels, Elohim in Hebrew is basically the same as 'lhm.) Some of the other Gods featured in the Ugaritic texts are also mentioned in the Bible, not as synonymous with the Jewish God, but rather as "other gods," which are now (by Orthodox Jews) thought to mean "idols" or false gods. For example, Asherah is mentioned in 2 Kings 18.8:
“He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the grove (Asherah), and broke in pieces the brazen serpent that Moses had made: for in those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan.”
Asherah is extremely significant in the Canaanite pantheon. She is the "consort" of El, and the mother of his seventy sons. Scholars believe that Asherah was worshipped by many in ancient Israel and Judah; Jeremiah refers to her as "the Queen of Heaven."
“The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead [their] dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto other gods, that they may provoke me to anger.’
Another major Canaanite deity is Ba'al, who is mentioned in the Hebrew bible. Today, Orthodox Jews understand Ba'al to be a false god -- or several false gods -- yet the figure was evidently quite popular in Jeremiah's time.
In the Hebrew bible Yahweh is assimilated to El. But Yahweh may have started out in Canaanite religion as one of the seventy sons of El. The Dead Sea Scrolls fragment of Deutoronomy 32.8-9, agreeing with the Septuagint, reads as follows:
“When the Most High ('Elyon) allotted peoples for inheritance,
When He divided up the sons of man,
He fixed the boundaries for peoples,
According to the number of the sons of El
But Yahweh’s portion is his people,
Jacob His own inheritance.”
The argument for the original polytheistic context presiding at Judaism's birth is bolstered by the name "Elohim." Grammatically, "Elohim" has the form of a plural noun, and indeed is often used that way in the Hebrew bible when used to refer to "other gods." However, it's often used as a singular noun, as in Genesis 1.1. Many scholars hold that the plural form of "Elohim" reflects early Judaic polytheism. They argue that it originally meant 'the gods,' or the 'sons of El,' the supreme being. They suggest that the word may have been singularized by later monotheist priests who sought to erase evidence of worship of the many gods of the Judean pantheon, replacing them with their own singular patron god Yahweh alone. As we have seen, however, the erasure was incomplete.
The polytheist theory satisfactorily explains why there are three words built on the same stem: El, Elohim, and eloah. El, the father god, has many divine sons, who are known by the plural of his name, Elohim, or Els. Eloah, might then serve to differentiate each of the lesser gods from El himself.
This hypothesis casts light on the Elohim saying "Let US make Man in OUR image, in OUR likeness,” as well as Yahweh’s commandment to Israel, "worship no other gods [Hebrew:Elohim] before me." The fact that one can worship other gods acknowledges that they exist.
In his 1967 book "The Hebrew Goddess" Raphael Patai collected various types of evidence for a feminine divine (or semidivine) principle in Judaism, culminating in the Hokma (personification of Wisdom, or Sophia) of Proverbs and several deuterocanonical books, expanded by the rabbis into the notion of the Shekhina, the feminine side of the High God. These elaborations demonstrate that polytheistic straying was not limited to the period of the formation of Judaism. It has recurred.
To be sure, the religion of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, evolved, like any other human institution. Morton Smith has done a remarkable job of delineating the dialectic that led to the eventual triumph of the Yahweh-alone party.
Matters were not always thus, especially as regards the ideas that formed the Torah in the strict sense (a.k.a. the Chumash, the Five Books of Moses, the Pentateuch). That set of books is laced with polythetstic remnants, as I have shown. One can say that the true religion of Judaism is the evolved version, the ostensibly pure monotheistic form of the Later Prophets. But that is not what the rabbis (beginning with the Mishnah, ca. 200 CE) have uniformly held. For them the Torah in the strict sense of the Five Books of Moses is supreme. And it is totally monotheistic. (NOT)
Unfortunately, one cannot have it both ways. One must choose either Torah-supremacy or monotheism-supremacy. This dilemma is beyond the grasp of simple souls like Wieseltier.
The passages cited above suffice to show the polytheistic origins of the religion of ancient Israell, origins it never succeeded in renouncing. Inconveniently for the champions of the pure-monotheistic thesis, the taint lingers in the received text of the Tanakh, transpiring in passages recurring so frequently that they cannot be disregarded.
It would seem, then, that Wieseltier’s summary contrast of Judaism = monotheistic, and Christianity = polytheistic is jejune. However, I hold that--contrary to Sullivan--mainstream Christianity is de facto polytheistic, because of the doctrines of the Incarnation, the Trinity, the cult of saints, and the large role assigned to the Devil.
Moreover, it appears that Muslims are correct in their view of the matter. Of the three Abrahamic faiths, theirs is the only one that is rigorously monotheistic. In this regard neither Judaism nor Christianity can pass muster.
None of this is meant to suggest that in the larger sense monotheism is best. My own preference is for true polytheism or, perhaps better, no-theism.
UPDATE (Oct. 1, 2010)
For those who wish to pursue this topic further, I attach a series of REFERENCES.
Becking, Bob, Marjo C. A. Korpel, Karel J. Meindert Dijkstra, and H. Vriezen, eds. One God?: Monotheism in Ancient Israel and the Veneration of the Goddess Asherah. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002.
Dever, William G. Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2005.
Paper, Jordan The Deities Are Many: A Polytheistic Theology (S U N Y Series in Religious Studies). Binghamton: State University of New York Press, 2005.
Pardee, Dennis. Ritual and Cult at Ugarit. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002.
Patai, Raphael. The Hebrew Goddess. New York: KTAV, 1967.
Penchansky, David. Twilight of the Gods: Polytheism in the Hebrew Bible. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005.
Schäfer, Peter. Mirror of His Beauty: Feminine Images of God from the Bible to the Early Kabbala. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002.
Smith, Mark S. The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
---. The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. New ed. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2002.
Labels: Israelite polytheism