The History of Palestine and Israel in the light of Hebrew Bible

So pagan festivals in Israel, Kaufman says, are historicized, commemorating events in the life of the people and not in the story of the god’s life since we have no mythology. But we are going to be spending a fair amount of time talking actually about the meaning and the function of Israel’s purity laws and cultic laws in the later parts.
Now since God is himself the transcendent source of all being and since he is good, in a monotheistic system there are no evil agents that constitute a realm that opposes God as an equal rival. No divine evil agents. Again, in the pagan worldview the primordial womb spawns all sorts of beings, all kinds of divinities, good and evil that are in equal strength. They’re sort of locked in this cosmic struggle. But in the Israelite worldview, if God is the source of all being, then they’re can’t be a realm of supernatural beings that do battle with him. There’s no room for a divine antagonist of the one supreme God, which is leading us down here to this point: that sin and evil are demythologized in the Hebrew Bible. And that’s very interesting. It’s going to lead to a lot of interesting things.
It’s also going to create a really huge problem for monotheistic thought [that] they’re going to struggle with for centuries and actually still do struggle with today. But again, in the pagan worldview, sin is understood very often as the work of a demon or an evil god that might possess a person, might have to be exorcised from that person by means of magic. If you tap into some of these substances then you can use the magical, the powers in those substances, to coerce the demon to be expelled from the person’s body. These are things that are very common in polytheistic and pagan practices. But in Israel we have no metadivine realm to spawn these evil beings, these various gods. So Israelite religion did not conceive of sin as caused by an independent evil power that exists out there in the universe and is defying the will of God. Instead evil comes about as a result of the clash of the will of God and the will of humans who happen to have the freedom to rebel.
There’s nothing inherently supernatural about sin. It’s not a force or a power built into the universe. Kaufman is claiming therefore that in Israel evil is transferred from the metaphysical realm (built into the physical structure of the universe) to the moral realm. I’ve put it up here for you. Evil is a moral and not a metaphysical reality. It doesn’t have a concrete independent existence. And that means that human beings and only human beings are the potential source of evil in the world. Responsibility for evil lies in the hands of human beings. In the Hebrew Bible, no one will ever say the devil made me do it. There is no devil in the Hebrew Bible. That’s also the invention of a much later age. And that is an important and critical ethical revolution. Evil is a moral and not a metaphysical reality.
Once a student of Yale asked a question to his Professor. The conversation between student and Professor is quoted here:
”[Prof. Christine pointing finger towards a student in the classroom].
Professor Christine: You had a [question].
Student: What about the serpent in the Garden of Eden?
Professor Christine: Great. That’s what you get to talk about.
Wonderful question.
Well what about when Eve is tempted by the serpent?
Who is the serpent?
What is he doing? What’s going on?
What is Kaufman claiming?
Okay. That’s exactly the kind of stuff that should be popping into your head—-What about…what about? – Okay, and in section, you’re going to be discussing exactly that story. Okay? And that’s one of those texts…and in a minute if I haven’t at the end of a lecture, asks again if I haven’t kind of gotten to part of an answer to your question.
Okay? But again, this emphasis on evil as a moral choice – think of Genesis 4, where God warns Cain, who’s filled with anger and jealousy and is thinking about doing all kinds of horrible things to his brother, and God says, “Sin couches at the door; / Its urge is toward you, / Yet you can be its master” [Gen 4:7b]. This is a question of moral choice. Final point then is…and we’re not going to talk about salvation right now…but we’re going to talk about the fact that the only supreme law is the will of God, because God is a creator God rather than a created God. He’s imposed order, an order upon the cosmos.”
Extract from the lecture of Prof. Christine 2004.
And so the pagan picture of an amoral universe of just competing powers, good and evil, Kaufman says, is transformed into a picture of a moral cosmos. The highest law is the will of God and that imposes a morality upon the structure of the universe. So in sum, Kaufman’s argument is this: Israel conceived of the divine in an entirely new way. Israel’s God differed from the pagan gods in his essential nature. The pagan gods were natural gods. They were very often associated with blind forces of nature with no intrinsic moral character, he says. And the god of Israel was understood to transcend nature and his will was not only absolute, it was absolutely good and moral. A lot of people say, well in a way didn’t we just rename the metadivine realm God? No. Because the difference here is that it’s posited not only that this God is the only power but that he is only good. And that was not the case with the metadivine realm. Right? That was morally neutral. But there’s a moral claim that’s being made by the writers of the Hebrew Bible about this supreme power, this God. God is depicted as just, compassionate.
Morality therefore is perceived as conforming to the will of God. And there are absolute standards then of justice and reverence for life. Now Kaufman says God is demythologized, but even though he’s demythologized he’s not rendered completely impersonal. He’s spoken of anthropomorphically, so that we can capture his interaction with human beings. This is the only way, Kaufman says, you can write in any meaningful sense about the interaction between God and humanity. So he has to be anthropomorphized. But the interaction between God and humans, he says, happens not through nature but through history. God is not known through natural manifestations. He’s known by his action in the world in historical time and his relationship with a historical people.
I just want to read you a few sentences from an article Kaufman wrote, a different one from the one that you read. But it sums up his idea that there’s an abyss that separates monotheism and polytheism and he says that it would be a mistake to think that the difference between the two is arithmetic – that a polytheistic tradition in which there are ten gods is a lot more like monotheism than a polytheistic tradition in which there are forty (40) gods, because as you get smaller in number it gets closer to being monotheistic. He says the pagan idea, and I quote, “does not approach Israelite monotheism as it diminishes the number of its gods. The Israelite conception of God’s unity entails His sovereign transcendence over all. “That’s the real issue.”
”It rejects the pagan idea of a realm beyond the deity, the source of mythology and magic. The affirmation that the will of God is supreme and absolutely free is a new and non-pagan category of thought” [Kaufman 1956, 13]. That’s in an article in the Great Ages and Ideas of the Jewish People. And he goes on again to say that this affirmation isn’t stated dogmatically anywhere but it pervades Israelite creativity, biblical texts. He also asserts that the idea kind of developed over time, but that basically there was a fundamental revolution and break, and then within that there was some development of some of the latent potential of that idea. So, which is it, which is part of the question that came from over here, [gestures toward student who had earlier asked a question]? You have on the one hand the claim that Israelite religion is essentially continuous with Ancient Near Eastern polytheism. It’s merely limiting the number of gods worshipped to one, but it houses that God in a temple. It offers him sacrifices and so on. And then on the other hand we have Kaufman’s claim that Israelite religion is a radical break from the religions of the Ancient Near Eastern.
Well, the value of Kaufman’s work, I think, lies in the insight that monotheism and polytheism in the abstract – now I’m not sure they exist anywhere in the world – but in the abstract are predicated on divergent intuitions as systems. They do seem to describe very different worlds. And therefore as a system, the difference between Israel’s God and the gods of Israel’s neighbors was not merely quantitative. It was qualitative. There’s a qualitative difference here. However when you read his work it’s clear that he often has to force his evidence and force it rather badly. And it’s simply a fact that practices and ideas that are not strictly or even strongly monotheistic do appear in the Bible.
So perhaps those scholars who stress the continuity between Israel and her environment are right after all. And this impasse I think can be resolved to a large degree when we realize that we have to make a distinction between – well let’s do it this way first. We’re going to talk about a distinction between the actual – I hate to say that as if I can somehow show you a snapshot of what people did 3,000 years ago – but between the actual religious practices and beliefs of the actual inhabitants of Israel and Judah, we’re going to call that Israelite-Judean religion. What somebody back in the year 900 BCE might have done when they went to the temple; and what they might have thought they were doing when they went to the temple? Because I’m not sure it was necessarily, what the author of the Book of Deuteronomy says they were doing when they go to the temple; so there’s a difference between what actual people, the inhabitants of Israel and Judah, did – we’ll call that Israelite Judean religion–and the religion that’s promoted, or the worldview.
I prefer that term, that’s being promoted by the later writers and editors of biblical stories who are telling the story of these people – we’ll call that biblical religion, the religion or the worldview that we can see emerging from many biblical texts. That distinction is found in an article in your Jewish Study Bible, an article by Steven Geller (Geller 2004, 2021-2040).
What second millennium Hebrews and early first millennium Israelites or Judeans, Judahites, actually believed or did is not always retrievable, in fact probably not retrievable, to us. We have some clues. But in all likelihood Hebrews of an older time, the patriarchal period, the second millennium BCE – they probably weren’t markedly different from many of their polytheistic neighbors. Archaeology would suggest that. In some ways that’s true. We do find evidence in the Bible as well as in the archaeological record, of popular practices that are not strictly monotheistic.
The worship of little household idols, and local fertility deities, for example. Most scholars conjecture that ancient Israelite-Judean religion, the practices of the people in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah in the first millennium BCE, was maybe monolatrist. They might have promoted the worship of one God, Yahweh, without denying the existence of other gods and still kept their little idols and fertility gods or engaged in various syncretistic practices. It was probably monolatrist rather than monotheistic, really asserting the reality of only one God.
Moreover our evidence suggests that Yahweh was in many respects very similar to many of the gods of Canaanite religion. And we’ll be talking about some of those at the appropriate time. But continuities with Canaanite and Ancient Near Eastern religions are apparent in the worship practices and the cult objects of ancient Israel and Judah as they’re described in the biblical stories and as we find them in archaeological discoveries. The Hebrew Bible also contains sources that exhibit features of what Kaufman has described as contemporary polytheisms.
In Genesis 6 – I mean, the text you pointed out is a good one but even better, go look at Genesis 6 where you have these nephilim, these divine beings who descend to earth and they mate with female humans. That’s a real fluid boundary between the divine and human realms, if you ask me. But it only happens there, in one spot. In many passages too Yahweh is represented as presiding over a counsel of gods. Certainly in the Psalms we have these sort of poetic and metaphoric descriptions where God is, “Okay guys, what do you think?” presiding – or he’s one of them, actually. In one Psalm – it’s great – he’s one of the gods and he says, “You know, you guys don’t know what you’re doing. Let me take over.” And he stands up in the council and takes over. And there are other passages in the Bible too that assume the existence of other gods worshipped by other nations. So there’s certainly stuff like that in there you have to think about.
Now nevertheless, the most strongly monotheistic sources of the Bible do posit a God that is qualitatively different from the gods that populated the mythology of Israel’s neighbors and probably also Israelite-Judean religion. In these sources the Israelites’ deity is clearly the source of all being. He doesn’t emerge from a pre-existing realm. He has no divine siblings. His will is absolute. His will is sovereign. He’s not affected by magical coercion. And biblical monotheism, biblical religion, assumes that this God is inherently good. He’s just. He’s compassionate. And human morality is conformity to his will. Because certain texts of the Bible posit this absolutely good God who places absolute moral demands on humankind, biblical monotheism is often referred to as ethical monotheism, so it’s a term that you’ll see quite a bit: ethical monotheism. Beginning perhaps as early as the eighth century and continuing for several centuries, literate and decidedly monotheistic circles within Israelite society put a monotheistic framework on the ancient stories and traditions of the nation.
They molded them into a foundation myth that would shape Israelite and Jewish self-identity and understanding in a profound way. They projected their monotheism onto an earlier time, onto the nation’s most ancient ancestors. Israelite monotheism is represented in the Bible as beginning with Abraham. Historically speaking it most likely began much later, and probably as a minority movement that grew to prominence over centuries. But that later monotheism is projected back over Israel’s history by the final editors of the Bible. And that creates the impression of the biblical religion that Kaufman describes so well. But the biblical text itself, the biblical record, is very conflicted, and that’s part of the fun of reading it. And you will see the biblical record pointing to two different and conflicting realities.
I think it’s also a civil war of Israel against itself. And that’s an aspect that is really not entertained by Kaufman. And I think it’s an important one for us to entertain so that we can allow the biblical text to speak to us in all its polyphony. And not try to force it all into one model: “Well, I know this is monotheistic text so, gosh, I’d better come up with an explanation of Genesis 6 that works with monotheism,” You’re going be freed of having to do that; you’re going to be freed of having to do that. Let the text be contradictory and inconsistent and difficult. Let it be difficult. Don’t homogenize it all. So the differences between the god of the monotheizing sources of the Bible and the gods of surrounding Mesopotamian literature and older Israelite ideas, perhaps, they’re apparent from the very first chapters of Genesis.
That’s a creation story in Genesis 1, we’re going to see, a creation story that’s added to the Pentateuch, Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, Genesis through Deuteronomy. This creation story is added to the Pentateuch probably in one of the last rounds of editing, probably sixth century perhaps, we don’t really know. But Genesis 1 is a very strongly monotheistic opening to the primeval myths that are then contained in the next ten chapters of Genesis. So next time we’re going to start with a close reading and examination of Genesis 1 through 4. We’re going to read these stories with an eye to Israel’s adaptation of Near Eastern motifs and themes to sort of monotheize those motifs and themes and express a new conception of God and the world and humankind.
The Hebrew Bible in Its Ancient Near Eastern Setting: Genesis 1-4 in Context.
The Hebrew Bible is understood against the background of Ancient Near Eastern culture. Drawing from and critiquing the work of Yehezkel Kaufmann, the lecture compares the religion of the Hebrew Bible with the cultures of the Ancient Near East. Two models of development are discussed: an evolutionary model of development in which the Hebrew Bible is continuous with Ancient Near Eastern culture and a revolutionary model of development in which the Israelite religion is radically discontinuous with Ancient Near Eastern culture. At stake in this debate is whether the religion of the Hebrew Bible is really the religion of ancient Israel.
In the first of a series of lectures on the book of Genesis, the basic elements of biblical monotheism are compared with Ancient Near Eastern texts to show a non-mythological, non-theogonic conception of the deity, a new conception of the purpose and meaning of human life, nature, magic and myth, sin and evil, ethics (including the universal moral law) and history. The two creation stories are explored and the work of Nahum Sarna is introduced.
what I’d like to do is begin our survey of Genesis 1 through 11, in order to illustrate the way that biblical writers – and precisely who we think they were and when they lived is something we’ll talk about later.
But the way biblical writers drew upon the cultural and religious legacy of the Ancient Near East that we’ve been talking about. Its stories and its imagery, even as they transformed it in order to conform to a new vision of a non-mythological god. We’re going to be looking at some of Kaufman’s ideas as we read some of these texts. Now one of the scholars who’s written quite extensively and eloquently on the adaptation of Ancient Near Eastern motifs in biblical literature is a scholar by the name of Nahum Sarna: I highly recommend his book. I’ll be drawing very heavily on Sarna’s work as well as the work of some other scholars who have spent a great deal of time comparing Israelite and Ancient Near Eastern stories, particularly these opening chapters. In order to see the features that they share and to wonder if perhaps there isn’t after all a chasm that divides them quite deeply.
In our consideration of Genesis 1 and 2, we first need to consider a Babylonian epic, an epic that is known by its opening words at the top of the column over there, Enuma Elish, which means “when on high,” the opening words of this epic. And the epic opens before the formation of heaven and earth. Nothing existed except water, and water existed in two forms. There’s the primeval fresh water, fresh water ocean, which is identified with a male divine principle, a male god Apsu. You have a primeval salt water ocean which is identified with a female divine principle, Tiamat.
Tiamat appears as this watery ocean but also as a very fierce dragon-like monster. I will be reading sections from Speiser’s translation of Enuma Elish, part of the anthology put together by Pritchard [Pritchard 1950, 1955, 60-61]. It begins: When on high the heaven had not been named, Firm ground below had not been called by name, Naught but primordial Apsu, their begetter, [And] Mummu-Tiamat, she who bore them all, Their waters co-mingling as a single body; No reed hut had been matted, no marsh land had appeared, When no gods whatever had been brought into being, Uncalled by name, their destinies undetermined; Then it was that the gods were formed within them. So there’s some sort of co-mingling or union of these male and female divine principals, a sexual union of Apsu and Tiamat that begins a process of generation and it produces first demons and monsters. Eventually gods will begin to emerge. Now, in time, Tiamat and Apsu are disturbed by the din and the tumult of these younger gods.
The divine brothers banded together, They disturbed Tiamat as they surged back and forth, Yea, they troubled the mood of Tiamat By their hilarity in the Abode of Heaven…Apsu, opening his mouth, Said unto resplendent Tiamat: “Their ways are verily loathsome unto me. By day I find no relief, nor repose by night. I will destroy, I will wreck their ways, That quiet may be restored. Let us have rest.”…Then answered Mummu, [Mummu Tiamat] giving counsel to Apsu; [Ill-wishing] and ungracious was Mummu’s advice: “Do destroy, my father, the mutinous ways. Then shalt thou have relief by day and rest by night.” When Apsu heard this, his face grew radiant Because of the evil he planned against the gods, his sons. So he decides to destroy the gods and he is thwarted by a water god named Ea, an earth-water god – sorry, he’s a combination earth-water god – named Ea. And Apsu is killed. Tiamat now is enraged and she’s bent on revenge.
She makes plans to attack all of the gods with her assembled forces. The gods are terrified and they need a leader to lead them against her army and they turn to Marduk. Marduk agrees to lead them in battle against Tiamat and her assembled forces, her forces are under the generalship of Kingu, and he agrees to lead them against Tiamat and Kingu on condition that he be granted sovereignty, and he sets terms. His heart exulting, he said to his father: “Creator of the gods, destiny of the great gods, If I indeed, as your avenger, Am to vanquish Tiamat and save your lives, Set up the Assembly, proclaim supreme my destiny!…Let my word, instead of you, determine the fates. Unalterable shall be what I may bring into being, neither recalled nor changed shall be the command of my lips.” And the agreement is struck. And Marduk fells Tiamat in battle. It’s a fierce battle and there is in fact a memorable passage that details her demise.
In fury, Tiamat cried out aloud, To the roots her legs shook both together…Then joined issue, Tiamat and Marduk…, They strove in single combat, locked in battle. The lord [Marduk] spread out his net to enfold her, The Evil Wind, which followed behind, he let loose in her face when Tiamat opened her mouth to consume him. He drove in the Evil Wind that she closes not her lips. As the fierce winds charged her belly, her body was distended and her mouth was wide open. He released the arrow, it tore her belly, it cut through her insides, splitting the heart.
Having thus subdued her, he extinguished her life. He cast down her carcass to stand upon it. Well, what do you do with the carcass of a ferocious monster? You build a world, and that’s what Marduk did. He takes the carcass, he slices it into two halves, rather like a clamshell, and out of the top half he creates the firmament, the Heaven. With the other half he creates the land, the Earth. He split her like a shellfish into two parts. Half of her he set up and ceiled it as sky, Pulled down the bar and posted guards. He bade them to allow not her waters to escape. Alright, so he has used her body to press back her waters and that’s what the ceiling is, the firmament, a firm sheet or structure that’s holding back waters. When little holes come along, that’s rain coming through.
And the bottom part is the land, which is pressing down waters below. They come up every now and then in springs and rivers and seas and lakes and things. That is the created world, but he doesn’t stop there and he creates various heavenly bodies at this point. “He constructed stations for the great gods” – the heavenly bodies were understood as stations for the great gods – Fixing their astral likenesses as constellations. He determined the year by designating the zones; He set up three constellations for each of the twelve months…The moon he caused to shine, the night to him entrusting. And then the complaints begin to roll in. The gods are very unhappy because they have now been assigned specific duties in the maintenance of the cosmos.
The moon god has to come up at night and hang around for a while and go back down. And the sun has to trundle across the sky, and they’re pretty unhappy about this and they want relief from working and laboring at their assigned stations, and so Marduk accedes to this demand. He takes blood from the slain General Kingu, the leader of Tiamat’s army, the rebels, and he fashions a human being with the express purpose of freeing the gods from menial labor. Blood I will mass and cause bones to be. I will establish a savage “man” shall be his name, Verily, savage man I will create. He shall be charged with the service of the gods that they might be at ease.
Geller, Stephen A. 2004. “The Religion of the Bible” in the Jewish Study Bible, ed. Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, 2021-2040. New York: Oxford University Press. Kaufman, Yehezkel. 1972. The Religion of Israel, trans. Moshe Greenberg.
“The Biblical Age” in Great Ages and Ideas of the Jewish People, ed. Leo W. Schwarz. New York: The Modern Library.
Bible: Introduction to Genesis (JSB pp. 8-11); Gen 1-4.
Pritchard, James, ed. “The Deluge,” “The Creation Epic.

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