The Origins of Biblical Monotheism

  • Mark S. Smith
  • Jan 1, 2002
  • Series: Volume 5 - 2002

Smith, Mark S. The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. xviii + 325 pp. Hardback. ISBN 0-19-513480-X.

Smith continues his work at analyzing Ugaritic texts and relating them an interpretation of the biblical text. His studies have already appeared in his 1990 Early History of God and in a steady stream of articles that continue to be published. In the present work, Smith examines issues in the current discussion and creates a positive model for the analysis of West Semitic religion as found in the Bible and at Ugarit. Central to this contribution is the picture of the Ugaritic pantheon as a family, similar to Ugarit's royal family. In this family El and his consort, Asherah, occupy the first and highest level of the hierarchy. On the second level are the family of the supreme couple, the seventy sons of Asherah (=Athirat). This family receives support and service by the remaining two lower levels of the pantheon. These are occupied by craft specialists and other messengers and domestic servants.

Smith suggests that this model formed the basis for early Israel's pantheon. He outrightly rejects views of an early belief in a single deity by ancient Israel, preferring to understand early biblical poems (Numbers 23, 24; Deuteronomy 32; Judges 5; and Psalm 82) as indicating an original Yahweh who began in the deserts south of Israel as a second-level deity subservient to El. Only later did Yahweh become identified with El and achieve first-level status in the pantheon.

Early Isrealite religion was thus based on the model of a family. In particular, this was the royal family and thus explains many texts that closely identify the king with the deity. Even during the ninth and eighth centuries prophets such as Elijah, Hosea, and Amos did not exclude the possibility of other deities among other nations, although they condemned Israel for worshipping deities other than Yahweh. It was sociological factors such as the decline in the importance of the family lineage-based society and the emergence of supranational powers such as Assyria and Babylonia in the seventh and sixth centuries that led to the emergence of a belief in only one deity. Especially the latter drove the writer of Isaiah 40-55 to employ rhetorical techniques that contrasted the efforts needed to manufacture idols with the power of Yahweh as the creator of all.

Once again Smith has produced a synthesis of erudition in which an impressive survey of modern scholarship and control of ancient texts are compressed into a volume that persuasively draws many parallels between the world of Ugaritic religion and that of early Israelite faith. Nevertheless, a few questions remain. First, in the world of Ugaritic religion Smith appropriately questions the old model of Frazer about dying and rising gods. However, does this effectively do away with the analysis of the myth about Baal that he does die and later is seen to be alive again? It is not clear that Smith succeeds in eliminating the possibility that Baal suffers death and then lives. Second, the discussion about early monotheism centers around the prohibition of other gods and images in the Decalogue. Again, it is not clear how Smith explains that these commands do not exclude the presence and worship of other deities. Third, although there are allusions to some matters such as the relation of divinity and royalty in the biblical text, there is little direct biblical evidence for the Ugaritic pantheon model of a divine family that Smith proposes. In fact, even in such matters as the royal connection, there are many examples in what the Bible regards as early Isrealite religion where cult and worship do not involve the king at all. Indeed, Daniel Fleming has recently emphasized the similarity of this phenomenon with the religion of Emar, an inland West Semitic society contemporary with Ugarit. There the emphasis upon a pantheon is far less prominent (in the texts) than at Ugarit. In fact, the entire religious picture is considerably different than Ugarit and in many ways closer to biblical Israel, both sociologically and in matters of cult practice. It may be that the use of data from Ugarit requires evidence such as this to provide greater controls and limitations in the importation of models to Israelite religion. These questions deal with some methodological concerns regarding Smith's approach.

However, the reader of Smith's latest contribution to the religion of Israel will learn a great deal about West Semitic religion and will receive new insights into many difficult and sometimes obscure biblical texts.

Richard S. Hess, Ph.D.
Professor of Old Testament
Denver Seminary