Reading Mark Smith’s eminent study throws light on the way that The Early History of God, indeed the early history of God itself, is a history of the image in which that figure has been cast and recast over time. The major takeaway of the book that might be of interest to Jewish philosophy is that so-called idolatry is not the litmus test against which ancient Israelite religion stands as its other. At its most inward root, Israelite religion is Canaanite religion. Like metals thrown into a furnace, YHWH fused into the figure of El while assuming attributes associated with Baal, Ashera, and Anat. The history of monotheism is the story of ancient Israel breaking with its own Canaanite origins. A bearded and enthroned anthropos before His council, the blessing of breasts and womb, the theophanic appearance of the deity in a storm, the chariot rider, His shining face –these are Canaanite images that figure the God of Israel and which, by the way, continue to figure Jewish liturgical expression.
The divergence that makes the break from Canaanite origins is relatively late, starting with the second half of the monarchy. There is every reason to suppose that “the Canaanite” as this figure appears in the Bible is retrospective, reflecting as memory lingering parts of ancient Israelite belief and practice. The break from this past includes the polemic against Baal, the rejection of asherim, the satiric ridicule of idols, the turn away from anthropomorphism, as well as the rejection of cultic worship at high places, rites for the dead, and child sacrifice. Smith’s assumption is that these were all acceptable and widely practiced in early ancient Israel.
In The Early History of God (1990, 2002) we are only given a hint here and there how international imperial politics might be seen as having shaped a more strict form of monotheism. We’ll see this angle developed more fully later in Smith’s Gods in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World (2008), about which I’ll say more when I finish reading the book. For now, in this study, YHWH appears only too briefly in this study as the god protecting Israel “against powerful peoples and deities” (p.181). A brief note will be made of the anti-monarchical and anti-foreign strain in deuteronomonistic-prophetic religion (pp.189, 190).
My own sense, which Smith will have already confirmed in Gods in Translation, is that the deep aversion to death and stubborn allegiance to Israel are politically situated as the historical collision between Israel with Assyrian and then Babylonian empire in the 8th century BCE and after. In other words, the aversion to death is not psychologically phobic per se. It’s catastrophic.
Smith brings the reader’s attention back to a pre-catastrophic historical point prior to those disasters in 8th and 6th century Israel. I’m guessing that these earlier historical contexts were more fluid, with political power more evenly distributed among local regional political actors than was the case under Assyrian and Babylonian imperial domination. Less international in scope, the mood that marks out The Early History of God is the pre-monarchic and early monarchic periods evoked in the book of Judges and I Kings. Free from the shattering experience of violent disaster, the religious conceptions that define this period in Israelite history are more easily and equally integrated into the larger and surrounding social, political, and spiritual nexus. The images are rough and tumble, less given over to abstraction. The scene is local and ad hoc, not international and determined. Its relation to the world is a more friendly, or if not friendly than intimate.
So what factors internal to the religious conceptualizations of ancient Israelite YHWH religion might explain this turn away from Canaanite origins? That question is left relatively unanswered here in The Early History of God, but the postscript (Portraits of Yahweh) give two possible clues. What is it that distinguishes the YHWH as the God of Israel from El, Ashera, Baal, and Anat? First there’s a negative register. Like them, YHWH might ride, storm, shake, and shine; but unlike them, the God of Israel doesn’t feast, carouse, fuck, or die. Smith observes how YHWH as a sexless god has been removed by the deuteronomistic and priestly writers as far away as possible from agents of impurity and death (pp.203-5). On the positive register, the God of Israel is powerful to both punish and protect. What seems to matter much more is that unlike El and Ashera, Baal and Anat, YHWH loves a people. YHWH answered Israel, consoled Israel, and loved Israel is how Smith evokes emergent Israelite monotheism in the final and perhaps confessional words that conclude The Early History of God (p.207).