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The Jews’ path to monotheism

20 May 2016

Recent scholarship is made accessible here, says John Barton

The Invention of God

Thomas Römer

Harvard University Press £25


Church Times Bookshop £22.50

THE Old Testament teaches that there is only one God, who created the world and human beings in it, and yet has a special relationship with Israel among the nations of the world. This “monotheism” lies at the root of both Judaism and Christianity in their classic forms, and was also inherited by Islam. Most people probably think that it goes back to Moses.

In this detailed study, Thomas Römer shows that the final picture in the Old Testament comes at the end of a long and complex development. Not until the time when the Jews lived under Persian rule (from the late sixth to the fourth centuries BC) did they believe in the sole God of monotheism. Their God, Yahweh, or possibly Yaho or Yahu, had originated as one god among many, probably as a desert storm-god living in the wilderness south of Israel, as we find in old poems such as Habakkuk 3 and Judges 5.

He then came to be identified with a bull-god, and was so worshipped in the northern kingdom of Israel in the days of the kings. Adopted in Judah, the southern kingdom, he existed for a time alongside the sun-god, Shamash, in Jerusalem. He almost certainly had a consort, Asherah.

Only with Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40-55) in the sixth century do we find a clear movement towards unequivocal monotheism: interestingly, it is Deutero-Isaiah who uses the most feminine imagery for Yahweh, probably because he now has to incorporate into the nature of the one God features that had previously been distributed among other gods and goddesses.

Little of what is set out here will be a surprise to Old Testament scholars. But Römer is the first to have brought all the relevant material together in such an accessible form, setting out both literary and archaeological evidence clearly and readably. (The translation, by Raymond Geuss, is excellent, though sometimes proper names appear in their French form — thus Ozias for Uzziah, Zerobabel for Zerubbabel.) There are many clear maps and line drawings.

The title, The Invention of God, is perhaps more provocative than the book requires. One could be justified in calling it The Discovery of God. What Römer shows is how people came to believe in the one God of monotheism. This cannot be done other than through this kind of painstaking historical analysis — there is no simple appeal to revelation or to philosophical reasoning which will substitute for a detailed account of religious development in ancient Israel.

We are, of course, free to be uninterested in the pre-history of our religious beliefs, but not free simply to assume, for example, that Abraham or Moses were monotheists, when the evidence that they were not is overwhelming. The fact that later writers projected their own beliefs back on to earlier historical characters such as these is a commonplace in biblical scholarship, and has been for a couple of centuries. It does not undermine the truth of those beliefs, but it does rule out a simplistic reading of the biblical texts.

John Barton is Emeritus Oriel and Laing Professor of the Interpretation of Holy Scripture, in the University of Oxford, a Senior Research Fellow of Campion Hall, Oxford, and an Anglican priest.

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