Aspects of Monotheism: How God Is One
Dr. Richard Hess' review of, "Aspects of Monotheism: How God Is One: Symposium at the Smithsonian Institution October 19, 1996," by Hershel Shanks and Jack Meinhardt.
Shanks, Hershel and Jack Meinhardt eds. Aspects of Monotheism: How God Is One: Symposium at the Smithsonian Institution October 19, 1996. Washington, D.C.: Biblical Archaeology Society, 1997. 132 pp. Paperback and Hardcover.
This volume consists of four essays originally presented as public lectures along with fourteen pages of questions from the audience and answers. The first study is Donald B. Redford’s analysis of the religious reforms introduced to fourteenth century B.C. Egypt by the pharaoh who came to be known as Akhenaten. Redford considers the contribution of his own excavations at Thebes to understanding the Amarna revolution. It was, in its time, a disenfranchisement of other gods and their temples in Egypt and the development of a single deity, the Aten, as the one who was worshipped by the royal family and others throughout Egypt. According to Redford, Akhenaten was a monotheist who displayed characteristic intolerance of other deities and privileged his own god as alone the creator deity and alone worthy of worship. However, any connection with Moses and the emergence of monotheism in the religion of Israel is discounted. Redford’s presentation is the only one in the book that has no documentation or footnotes. Therefore, his assertions are presented without substantiation of a sort that is necessary for evaluation.
William Dever provides an important survey of extrabiblical archaeological (and some written) evidence of religion in Iron Age Israel between 1200 and 586 B.C. His study is a valuable survey of the field from the perspective of a leading Syro-Palestinian archaeologist. It argues the importance of the extrabiblical evidence for understanding the popular religion of Israel and Dever focuses on a variety of items that have been excavated and associated with Israelite religion but do not appear in the Old Testament. Dozens of terra cotta offering stands and small horned altars have been excavated west of the Jordan but neither are mentioned in the Bible. Again, the evidence for the prominence of Asherah, both in the hundreds of figurines and in the inscriptions that suggest her association with Yahweh, indicate the importance of this goddess that is only hinted at in the Bible. Dever makes an important case for the importance of archaeology. His essay is the best in the volume insofar as it presents a great deal of carefully evaluated evidence with little speculation. However, his absence of evaluation of the personal names is a serious lack for someone who attempts to address the question of folk religion in ancient Israel. The article is a pleasant surprise insofar as it relationship to the title of the book is incidental at best.
Kyle McCarter begins by setting the reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah in the context of the reform of the seventh century pharaoh Shabaka, who also discovered an ancient text and attempted to base reforms on it. His survey of such evidence as Hezekiah’s wall, the Arad sanctuary, the Kuntillet Ajrud inscriptions and sanctuary, and Mesopotamian texts that suggest a movement toward a single deity from the many all interact with biblical texts. However, his evidence that other nations surrounding Israel and Judah were similar in their worship of a single national deity does not stand up to the evidence. First, by McCarter’s own admission he must exclude the Phoenician states since they clearly worshipped multiple deities. Second, his evidence for nations east and south of Judah does no hold up under close scrutiny. For one thing, in most of these the evidence of the personal names is too small to make serious conclusion from the deities mentioned therein. For another, the Ammonite corpus shows examples of many different divine names within its onomastica, unlike the personal names (biblical and extrabiblical) in Judah and even Israel. The fact is that the evidence from nations such as Edom is ambiguous and open to various interpretations, as even Dever suggests (p. 116).
John J. Collins provides an overview of some of the most important intertestamental texts that attest to the presence of other semi-divine or even divine beings in the worldview of Judaism. Therefore, he suggests that many of the statement made in the gospel of John regarding Jesus’ divinity would have been acceptable in the larger Jewish context of first century Palestine. However, some claims, such as “I and the Father are one,” have no parallel.
On the whole the volume is well written, accessible for the general reader, and as good an introduction to the religion of ancient Israel (rather than specifically monotheism) as any.
Richard S. Hess
Professor of Old Testament