Tuesday, June 14, 2016

The invention of YHWH?

HISTORY OF RELIGION: How the Jews invented God, and made him great. The God of the Old Testament started out as just one of many deities of the ancient Israelites. It took a traumatic crisis to make him into the all-powerful creator of the world (Ariel David, Haaretz). The word "invented" is a bit provocative, but it comes from the title of the 2015 book by Thomas Römer, The Invention of God. I haven't read it, but this article seems mostly to be a summary of it. Inevitably, the farther back we go the more speculative the reconstruction, and of course I want to debate or nuance some of the specifics, but at least in outline the reconstruction is probably more or less correct. The article concludes:
Snatching God from the jaws of defeat

The real conceptual revolution probably only occurred after the Babylonians' conquest of Judah and arson of the First Temple in 587 B.C.E. The destruction and the subsequent exile to Babylon of the Judahite elites inevitably cast doubts on the faith they had put in Yhwh.

“The question was: how can we explain what happened?” Römer says. If the defeated Israelites had simply accepted that the Babylonian gods had proven they were stronger than the god of the Jews, history would have been very different.

But somehow, someone came up with a different, unprecedented explanation. “The idea was that the destruction happened because the kings did not obey the law of god,” Römer says. “It’s a paradoxical reading of the story: the vanquished in a way is saying that his god is the vanquisher. It’s quite a clever idea.

“The Israelites/Judahites took over the classical idea of the divine wrath that can provoke a national disaster but they combined it with the idea that Yhwh in his wrath made the Babylonians destroy Judah and Jerusalem,” he said.

The concept that Yhwh had pulled the Babylonians' strings, causing them to punish the Israelites inevitably led to the belief that he was not just the god of one people, but a universal deity who exercises power over all of creation.

This idea is already present in the book of Isaiah, thought to be one of the earliest biblical texts, composed during or immediately after the Exile. This is also how the Jews became the “chosen people” – because the Biblical editors had to explain why Israel had a privileged relationship with Yhwh even though he was no longer a national deity, but the one true God.

Over the centuries, as the Bible was redacted, this narrative was refined and strengthened, creating the basis for a universal religion –  one that could continue to exist even without being tied to a specific territory or temple. And thus Judaism as we know it was established, and, ultimately, all other major monotheistic religions were as well.
Read it all before it goes behind the subscription wall.