This is the second in a BBC series by Dr Francesca Stavrakopoulou on the Bible’s Buried Secrets looking at the Hebrew Bible and archaeology. You can see my review of last week’s episode Did King David’s Empire exist?
This week she turned her fire on the bible’s “cover-up” of the fact that ancient Isrealite religion was not monotheistic but polytheistic. In other words the ancient Israelites didn’t worship just one God but rather many gods.
She starts (and I must admit carries on the whole episode) in very tabloid style –
I’ll be looking at archaeology that shows ancestors of Judaism and Christianity believed in may gods and even that God had a wife. It’s a radical revision that rocks the foundation of monotheism to its core and challenges what the religious past means for faith today.
The problem with this programme is that it keeps setting up straw men to knock down. One very interesting slight of hand happens at the beginning when she focuses on the three main monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam and then takes Islam out of her line of fire by saying that the Koran is “wholly separate from the Bible”. Interesting claim – was this to avoid too much kick-back?
She attacks the claim that the foundation of monotheism goes back to Abraham some 4,000 years ago. And she follows the story of the patriarchs and then she says:
I disagree…When the Bible is put under rigorous analysis you find a different story
She goes to the ancient non-Jewish city of Uggarit north of Israel where digs have given a clearer idea of Canaanite religion. She argues that Baal was the storm god and that there was a god that ruled over the council of the gods called El. El also had a wife – Asherah. She argues that El is also the early name of the Israelite God. El is used in the Hebrew text and in names – Bethel where Jacob meets God means House of El, the House of God. She points out that the name Israel includes el in it.
So she says that when she reads the bible closely (emphasis mine) that she sees something that others haven’t.
Now the problem with much of this is that she is saying nothing that is new or hasn’t been discussed loads. It has been debated for ages about the provenance of the bible and who says what when and where means that her close look at the bible is nothing that others haven’t said for years. So there has been a standard interpretation for decades that the Old Testament in particular was written by people with differing viewpoints. This is called textual criticism. People looking at words (like El) and deciding who wrote what when and where and for what reason.
The use of the word El can be used as the word Allah is used amongst Arabic speaking people to describe God. In fact there was the case recently where the Indonesian courts ruled against Muslims who wanted to ban Christian use of the Allah. The courts ruled that this was the traditional use of the word for God not only amongst Muslims. So too in Greek the word for God used was theos the greek word for a divinity or god.
It is also standard amongst scholars to say that the Exile to Babylon was the key point when the people of Israel had to work out why they had lost and gone into exile.
But some of her views don’t really bear too much scrutiny. The biblical prophets time and again warn against selling out and following other gods. Its there from virtually the moment the bible starts. Certainly we see Rachel taking the household gods and hiding them from her father Laban in the book of Genesis. We see it in all the warnings going on. Its hardly like they didn’t realise that many people were following the other gods. The reason that there are so many warnings is that they realised that there was such a danger of joining in – and many did. You see often in the bible – its exactly why we look at Paul’s letters to see the reasons why he wrote what he did – he wrote in response to the issues in the churches. So too in the Old Testament. Materials were included that were relevant to the community of faith.
Then there is her over the top ending
Monotheism brought a terrible consequence …. Monotheism disempowered women.
The evidence that I have presented rocks the foundations of monotheism and for some that may have a severe impact but the loss of God’s wife had an even greater impact on history of loss and that’s the painful truth of this story
I am afraid that this is simply not true. Monotheism does not see God as male. Monotheism says that words cannot describe God – “I am that I am” and all that. Monotheism says that God is beyond our anthropomorphic view. It is also historical rubbish. Women were not valued and cherished in the pagan polytheistic societies. Women in Ancient Greece and Rome or Babylon were not especially well treated – certainly the polytheistic view didn’t give them rights that Dr Stavrakopoulou thinks that the bible took away from them. In fact when you look at the ministry of Jesus you see a far higher regard for women than occurred in wider society and you see women becoming leaders in the early church (the falling away from that ideal is a sad reflection on humanity but not the intention of Jesus or the early church). Indeed in Luke’s Gospel he uses a literary device of alternating stories of men and women.
Further, her evidence does not undermine monotheism. What is really not clearly explained by her is why does monotheism come onto the scene. Why because of exile would a people come to the idea of one God? Other people don’t do this. The implication from Dr Stavrakopoulou is that this reaction to get rid of the other members of the “heavenly court” is a sexist response to the disaster. But other societies went into exile and didn’t become monotheistic – so why this one and then. Maybe the reality is that although there was synchretism there was also a strain of Judaism that looked back to the belief in just the one God. Maybe there was a strong strand of monotheism that went back very far in their history and eventually became the dominant force.
I’m afraid that I was rather disappointed in this weeks episode.
You can read my review of last week’s episode Did King David’s Empire Exist?
Review of final episode – The Real garden of Eden
Another review of the programme here: http://www.psephizo.com
Yet another review of the episode on Bible Films Blog