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Origins of Biblical Monotheism, The

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Mark S. Smith.  Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Softbound, 6" x 9", 343 pages.

As the Bible tells us, ancient Israel's neighbors worshipped a wide variety of gods.  It is now widely accepted that the Israelites' God, Yahweh, must have originated as one among these many, before assuming the role of the one true God of monotheism.  In recent years, many scholars have sought a better understanding of this early polytheistic milieu and its relation to the God of Israel.

Here, Mark S. Smith seeks to discover more precisely what was meant by "divinity" in the ancient near-East, and explores how these concepts apply to Yahweh.  Part one of the book offers a detailed examination of the deities of ancient Ugarit, known to us form the largest divine "family" and notes the correspondence between the four tiers of the Ugaritic pantheon and the four levels of a family household in Ugaritic society.  In this society, he contends, the polytheism of a divine family would have been far more intelligible than any notion of monotheism.  In part two, Smith explores four classic problems associated with Ugaritic deities, considering how they affect our understanding of Yahweh.  In conclusion, he returns to the question of Iisraelite monotheism, seeking to discover what religious issues it addressed and why it made sense at the time of its emergence.  True monotheism emerged only in the latter half of Israel's history, concludes Smith, and was heir and reaction to a long tradition of Israelite polytheism.

 

"Brilliant, well-documented, well-organized, and very discomforting.  Biblical scholars now recognize that in the pre-exilic era Asherah worship, infant sacrifice, solar veneration, and other religious practices attacked by biblical authors represented normal Israelite worship, while monotheism was a late development in the Babylonian Exile and subsequent years.  Smith and others led the charge in this new scholarly perception of Israelite religion.  But with this volume Smith has thrown down a gauntlet to challenge our understandings even more.  Smith has produced a seminal work with which scholars must come to grips for years.

-Journal of Hebrew Scriptures

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Origins of Biblical Monotheism, The

Origins of Biblical Monotheism, The

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