Thursday, 4 February 2016

"The Invention of God" by Thomas Roemer

This book, by Thomas Roemer of the Collège de France, seeks to trace the evolution of "the god Yhwh, a desert war god who became the one unique God of the monotheistic religions".

Roemer takes the uncontroversial view that the ancient Israelites were originally polytheists.  He notes that placenames in the land of Israel, which probably date from the second millennium BC, bear witness to the worship of multiple gods.  These placenames notably do not include the name of Yhwh - although they do contain the name of El, the chief god of the Canaanites, who was the other principal ancestor of the god of the Bible.

According to Roemer's reconstruction, the nation of Israel originated in the region of Ephraim and Judah, around Jerusalem, and was showing up in the Egyptian records by c.1210 BC.  Archaeological evidence shows that the early Israelites were already avoiding raising pigs.  The name Israel is theophoric, being based on the god-name El.  Roemer derives "Israel" from the root s-r-r, "reign", so that it would mean "May El reign".

But there was another, more important antecedent than El of the God of Israel.  The surviving sources tell us that his name was based around the consonants Yhwh, Yhw or Yh.  The pronunciation of his name is generally reconstructed as "Yahweh", but Roemer suggests that the original rendition was "Yahu" or "Yaho".  Both biblical and non-biblical evidence locates the deity's origins in the desert region of Midian and Edom, to the southeast of Israelite territory.  This is essentially the well-known "Kenite hypothesis", which has been around since the 19th century.  The coming of Yhwh to Israel may have happened very early: Roemer suggests that he was worshipped at the important cult site of Shiloh, which was destroyed around 1050 BC.

Roemer argues that Yhwh was originally a war-god or a storm-god, and that he had solar aspects.  He points to evidence from inside and outside the Bible that he was represented in the form of a bull, at least in the north of Israelite territory.  Monotheism was a very late development.  Roemer suggests that Solomon's temple was a joint shrine of Yhwh and the sun-god Shamash; and that the Omride kings in the Northern kingdom adopted the worship of Ba'al (Melqart) from Phoenicia alongside that of Yhwh.  He also puts forward the well-worn suggestion that Yhwh had a consort in the monarchic period, namely the goddess Asherah (who was originally the consort of El).

In time, the older polytheistic religion of Israel gave way to something recognisable as Jewish monotheism, aniconic in character and centred on the great Temple in Jerusalem.  This happened in several well-known stages - the reforms of King Josiah, the development of the Deuteronomic movement, the Babylonian exile and the infusion of Zoroastrian influence from Persia.

The book is well referenced, although the prose is not always entirely smooth and there are occasional infelicites in the translation from French.  Not all of Roemer's theories are equally plausible.  Nevertheless, this is a useful and not unduly technical compendium of modern research on the origins of biblical monotheism.