How did Israel transform from a polytheistic society into a monotheistic one?
A band of refugees was adopted by the Canaanites as fellow tribesmen and priests. This was the tribe of Levi, and they worshipped a God they called Yahweh.
Yahweh resembled the Canaanite king-of-gods El, and so the two cultures united around the worship of El and Yahweh as the same deity.
But despite a shared love of one High God and some sacred origin myths to forge a common identity, the worship of other regional gods such as Ba’al and Asherah persisted for centuries, as archeological and biblical evidence both demonstrate.
So what were the factors that helped the Levites to complete the cultural transition from many gods in Israel to one?
Cutting the Bull
One important factor was the power of narrative. Through the sacred historical narratives, the Levites were able to actively shape cultural awareness and practice. We already saw such storytelling power with respect to the birth of the 12 tribes of Israel, the escape of all of the tribes from Egypt, and the Israelites’ fabled battle of Jericho to emerge “victorious” of the pagan Canaanites.
These were largely fictions created to unite disparate cultures into one common identity, though the stories hold nuggets of truth in them as well.
So with the rival deities. When mentioned in the Bible as we have it now, the depictions of Ba’al and Asherah tend to be as false idols worshipped by foolish Israelites who are tempted by neighboring pagan cultures such as the Edomites. The truth is that monotheism in Israel was very much the exception rather than the rule for many centuries.
But the Levites had power and influence over religious matters, especially once their sacred stories were written down to cement their authoritative power, and to prevent the distortion that comes from the oral transmission of stories. Through their stories, the importance of Yahweh was built up, while the power of the other gods was played down.
Another factor was the political turmoil that befell the people, often creating new tensions, new calls for unity, and new stories.
The great kingdom of David and Solomon soon split into northern and southern kingdoms, and these factions began to tell their own particular variations of the sacred origin stories of Israel. Yet once the northern kingdom was destroyed by Assyria, the survivors fled to the south for refuge.
This reunion soon presented the people with a troubling predicament:
The sacred origin stories now had rival versions with incompatible details!
As support for their claims, both northern and southern factions could point to their own written scriptures as the authority.
The solution to this predicament was the wholesale combination of both scriptures into one master document.
This version omitted none of the details, thus preventing protest along the lines of: “The true word of God surely would mention when Moses did X in the desert!”
The compromise was that some details that various factions found insulting were also included.
Thus there are scenes written by a northern Levite that depict the high priest Aaron (whose descendants hailed from the south, in Jerusalem) as being wayward and foolish. And yet this controversial content remained and sat next to passages that praise Aaron. It was one unhappily inclusive master narrative to unite the people.
But later on, more scriptures emerged to lay claim as the true sacred story of the people.
One of these was written during the time of King Hezekiah, a leader who sought to bring dramatic religious reforms to his kingdom, including the strict worship of Yahweh alone. The priest who wrote the scripture was an Aaronid priest, and he wrote passages that marred the reputation of Moses to “correct” the earlier scripture that had insulted Aaron. He also depicted God as an all-powerful cosmic entity as opposed to the humanistic depictions of Yahweh in the earlier scriptures. This was the only God to worship; everything else was empty idolatry.
Another set of scriptures came later, during the reign of King Josiah, who attempted to enact the reforms that Hezekiah could not.
The scribe Baruch ben Neriah, in consultation with the prophet Jeremiah, produced an authoritative sacred testimony of the people to support these reforms.
Later, once Josiah was cut down by Babylonian forces and his line extinguished, Baruch ben Neriah and Jeremiah revised their sacred works to explain why God would strike down his chosen people and lead them into exile. The main answer: because of the people’s worship of pagan idols.
Torah! Torah! Torah!
After the king of Persia freed the Israelites from exile in Babylon, he allowed them to return to the land of Judah and rebuild their temple.
Going forward, there would be no more king to unite the tribes, only the priestly temple authorities, and so the need to unite the people into a coherent movement would be greater than ever.
The priest and scribe Ezra was one figure chosen by the Persian king to lead the people back to Judah and re-establish their society.
Once the great Jerusalem temple was rebuilt, Ezra stood among the people and produced for them a miraculous document: the true Torah of Moses, the complete and unequivocal word of God with respect to their origins, and how they must live their lives.
In fact, Ezra had combined all of the older scriptural sources into one omnibus master document:
the northern and southern ancient works, the priestly document from Hezekiah’s reign, and Baruch’s writing from the end of Josiah’s reign to the exile.
Yet this wasn’t the mere appending of the stories back-to-back-to-back: this was an elaborate interlaying and interweaving of the different texts into one flowing story.
There are in fact many redundancies, contradictions, tonal shifts, reciprocal insults, and other quirks that can be observed upon close inspection, which belie the Torah’s patchwork history and composite design.
But so intricate was Ezra’s cutting and weaving that no priests, laypersons, or scholars noticed such narrative quirks until more than two thousand years later! That is an astounding accomplishment.
Importantly, the final Torah also likely featured redactions of material that Ezra found to be unwelcome or unnecessary for the authoritative word of God. One tantalizing possibility is that the earliest scriptures (the northern and southern rival versions) had more explicit content detailing the actual death of the old Canaanite gods at the hands of Yahweh. There are stray verses in the scriptures we have today that seem to allude to the gods meeting Yahweh’s fierce judgment. It may be that Ezra removed most of the details of this judgment, and left only vague hints.
If this is the case, then it speaks to the power of silence in a narrative.
While written satires and polemics can be devastating for the reputations of their targets, the sharpest knife in this fight may have been the subtlest one: simple omission from the record.
Had his remains not been so unceremoniously discarded, perhaps Ankenaten would have smiled from his grave.
Whatever the specific details may have been, the forging of this final Torah—which was itself the product of much toil, discord, and compromise—this lovingly crafted patchwork tapestry of sacred history did much to erase those pesky pagan gods from Jewish culture, and unite the people together under one God.
During the Second Temple period, monotheism finally reigned supreme.
…to be continued…
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