In the Invention of God, Thomas Römer tackles the perennial question of the origins and evolution of the god of Israel. Incorporating a wealth of archaeological and biblical data, Römer traces the complex and multi-layered history of the deity, showing how an obscure desert war god YHWH eventually became the singular God of monotheistic religions. Although the topic has received extensive treatment in recent decades, Römer’s discussion is fresh, accessible, and state of the art, demonstrating a broad knowledge of various disciplines and fields of study and especially critical analysis of the biblical texts.
To summarize the main points of Römer’s reconstruction of Israelite-Judahite religion:
- Originally, YHWH was a warrior and storm god native to the lands south of Israel-Judah in Edomite territory;
- Nomadic Shasu/Hapiru at some point introduced the deity into the lands of Benjamin and Ephraim;
- YHWH was then adopted as tutelary deity of the Israelite and Judahite dynasties and integrated into local pantheons, where he was worshipped as one god among others and subordinated to El and a solar deity;
- YHWH gradually absorbed the functions of these other deities and became the principal god of Israel and Judah;
- Throughout the majority of the monarchic period, YHWH was worshipped in ways virtually indistinguishable from other polytheistic systems in the ancient Near East, at multiple sanctuaries, paired with a female consort, and in material iconic form with a cult statue; still, the cults of YHWH in the north and south show evidence of distinct cultural influences and trajectories;
- In the wake of the defeat of the northern kingdom by Assyria, Jerusalem grew in significance during the reigns of Hezekiah and Manasseh as the enduring home of YHWH;
- As Assyrian influence declined, Josiah undertook a reorganization of politics and religion in Judah, centralizing worship to the Jerusalem sanctuary, clearing the temple of Assyrian cult items, and elevating YHWH to supreme and sole god of the kingdom; YHWH was still however represented with a cult statue;
- After the destruction of the Judahite kingdom and temple, former members of the court and clergy found themselves in an unprecedented diasporic imperial context and therefore developed the concept of YHWH the one god in new directions; YHWH became a transcendent and universal God who had nevertheless chosen Israel, without material form, and who could be accessed primarily through his words preserved in scripture.
Although Römer acknowledges the provisional nature of his account of the god of Israel’s evolution, much of the general outline of his argument is convincing and there can be little doubt that his synthesis of the biblical, archaeological, epigraphic, and iconographic evidence has advanced the scholarly discussion beyond previous analyses and will influence the parameters of research and debate for some time to come. In particular, Römer locates the context in which monolatrous (one god) AND aniconic (without representative symbols) cult developed in tandem with biblical tradition in a post-monarchic setting, or rather the Persian period.
In a project of this scope and which relies to a great degree on biblical texts to fill out the history of Israelite-Judahite religion, it is virtually inevitable that scholars will differ about the interpretation of many details, including the literary history of various biblical traditions or how to integrate archaeology with material from the Bible. No reconstruction is ever definitive and must remain open to testing and examination.
So for the sake of discussion I thought I would point out some areas or lines of argument in the Invention of God I felt were not as strong as others or are deserving of further inquiry:
- Römer favors an Arabic etymology for the name YHWH from the root HWY, in line with his hypothesis that the deity originated in the south (p. 32-34). Yet Tropper has argued strongly against interpreting the basic form of the name as a prefix conjugation or causative verb and postulated that it represents a nominal lexeme of the qatl pattern.
- I am less confident than Römer that the several biblical texts that describe YHWH coming from the south/Edom (Deut 33:2; Jdgs 5:4-5; Ps 68; Hab 3) reflect ancient tradition but think they are rather late constructions that presuppose the Exodus story, selectively adopting poetic theophanic language for literary purposes (p. 40-47). Although the story of the Exodus may show that YHWH was firmly associated with the south/Negev/Edom in the minds of the biblical authors, it is more difficult to be sure that the biblical writers had an accurate understanding of YHWH’s origin. The possible appearance of the divine name YW already at 13th century Ugarit as a title for a son of El advises caution in thinking about how late YHWH came to be included in the pantheon of Israel.
- The association of YHWH and Seth is based on tenuous evidence (p. 48-50). We encounter YHWH in the late Iron Age primarily as an urban and royal deity, not a god of chaos and the desert. Further, as biblical YHWH-Elohim (=El) vestiges remain in biblical literature of his former household pantheon (cf. “sons of elohim/elyon”).
- Was mount Horeb in the Exodus story originally depicted in the southern Negev/Sinai desert or across the Arabah in the land of Midian (p. 62-68)? There seems to be a divergence in biblical tradition on this issue, as a Kenite derivation of Moses’s father-in-law would place the mountain of revelation squarely in the Sinai desert in between Egypt and the land of Judah, which is where the Kenites were located, whereas a Midianite background would associate the mountain with a territory much further away to the east and south. Tradition-historically, the Kenite association of Moses seems earlier.
- Römer derives the name Israel from SRR “to rule, be strong” and suggests that the folk etymology provided in the Bible from SRH “to combat” arose in the process of YHWH becoming the tutelary god of Israel (p. 72-74). But a significant problem for this thesis is that the root SRR in West Semitic does not mean exactly “to reign” or “impose as master,” but has reference to lower-tier rulership, i.e. ruling under someone else’s governance (sar = prince). So it is difficult to imagine this predicative element being used to describe El the chief god of the Israelite pantheon. In addition, the etymology given for Israel in the Bible is awkward, making the theophoric element out to be the object of the verb. A number of considerations suggest that this etymology is late/artificial and was a product of redactional reworking of the story of Jacob (e.g. the verbal form of SRH is found only here and in Hosea), which means that the explanation also does not inform us about early ideas of YHWH’s mythological character.
- Römer rightly emphasizes the importance of El to the development of YHWH. Moreover, he interprets the stories in the Bible that equate YHWH with El as preserving early memories of the worship of El by Israel’s ancestors (p. 78-82). However, I think it is unnecessary to view references to El as only traces of a much earlier form of Israelite religion, but rather that the knowledge and worship of El was still alive at the time of the biblical authors, which would explain why they explicitly attempt to equate YHWH and El and why the two deities are only partially and irregularly integrated into one another in biblical narrative.
- It seems somewhat of a stretch to reconstruct a historical group of Shasu/Hapiru adopting YHWH in Midian/Edom and then introducing the deity into Israel on the basis of the Exodus story about the journey to Horeb/Sinai and the covenant ritual made there (p. 82-85). This latter story is clearly artificial and of a literary character, constructing a singular and non-autochthonous origin for Israel vis-a-vis other Canaanite peoples. If we consider that Saulide Israel as portrayed in the books of Samuel has close interconnections with Edom, then a more simple solution for how YHWH came to be the god of Israel presents itself, that the worship of YHWH is connected with the gradual movement of Edomite-related peoples into the central hill country.
- Elsewhere I have argued that the depiction of Shiloh as the home of a major Yahwistic sanctuary is a complete fiction of the Dtr authors and arose in the process of constructing the Samuel narrative (p. 86-88). At the earliest stage of 1 Sam 1-3 the temple visited by Hannah would have been Gibeon. At a later stage the location of the temple was artificially removed to Shiloh so as to obscure YHWH’s origins from Gibeon.
- I don’t see how the generic parallels between Solomon’s building of the temple and Mesopotamian building accounts corroborate the notion that the first version of the story of Solomon should be dated to the Neo-Assyrian period (p. 96). Further, it seems doubtful that the Dtr version of the temple dedication would contain a polytheistic reference to both a solar deity and YHWH as Römer has reconstructed. Rather, the evidence of the LXX suggests that the text originally read, “The Sun has intended to dwell in darkness,” with “Sun” functioning as an epithet for YHWH. There is no “sun” independent of YHWH. Also, the conceptual distinction between a sun god and a storm god seems rather facile (p. 103). Religio-historically, solar imagery and solar epithets were applied to a wide variety of ancient Near Eastern deities, including deities that otherwise had storm god functions.
- Several times Römer characterizes the bamot as open air sanctuaries (p. 106, 125), but while this understanding is common enough in biblical scholarship I think the evidence is much more ambiguous. From the information provided in the Bible and archaeology often the bamot seem to have been constructed within a city or citadel walls, e.g. Arad, Mesha inscription.
- An important point that Römer passes over is that YHWH was not worshipped precisely in the shape of a bull (p. 111), but rather as a bull calf, pointing to his original status as a second-tier deity under bull El.
- Ashtar-Kemosh in the Mesha inscription is unlikely to be a female consort of Kemosh (p. 114). In West Semitic Ashtar/Athtar is always the name of a male deity (Ugarit, South Arabia, North Arabia, Deir Allah, etc), the name being used for a goddess only in Mesopotamia.
- I don’t think there is sufficient evidence to posit the worship of a god DWD in Israel-Judah. The meaning of ʾrʾl dwdh in the Mesha inscription is unclear and in any case the syntax of the phrase would be more intelligible if ʾrʾl were a reference to a deity and “his/its dwd” something else (e.g. in Ugaritic ḏd is the name of a tent-sanctuary); the “DRK of Beersheba” in Amos 8:14 makes good sense as an epithet of a local form of YHWH, “the Strength of Beersheba.”
- In line with many previous commentators, Römer claims that the Omride dynasty adopted a Phoenician Baal as tutelary deity, perhaps Melqart, which provoked a counter response from various YHWH worshipers as indicated in the biblical narrative (p. 116-121). However, I doubt that the Omrides would have been so reckless as to adopt a non-native deity for such a role. Throughout the southern Levant national deities tended as a rule to be identical to those worshipped on a personal and familial level (as shown most clearly by theophoric personal names). Although the biblical authors attempt to associate the Baal in Israel with Phoenicia and portray him as foreign (1 Kgs 16:31-32), this is almost certainly late Dtr religious propaganda with very little connection to historical reality. The Baal of the northern and southern kingdoms was a native Israelite-Judahite deity, as was Asherah. Especially revealing is the fact that in contrast to Astarte and other foreign deities (cf. 2 Kgs 23:13), Baal is never identified by the biblical authors as foreign or non-Israelite. In addition, the use of the Elijah and Elisha narratives as historical sources reflecting on events during the Omride dynasty is problematic. Marc Brettler and other scholars have argued that these stories were not composed with historical interests in mind, but actually function more as a complex allegory that comments intertextually on earlier biblical tradition. The lateness of these stories is also suggested by the fact that they seem to have been inserted into the books of Kings at a late stage in its development.
- Was Baal actually YHWH? It is certainly true that YHWH in the Bible is depicted with Baal-like storm god attributes and functions as an alter-ego to Baal. But the biblical authors also treat Baal as though it were a proper name of a particular deity distinct from YHWH. If YHWH were not originally the chief of the Israelite pantheon but only came to this position at a relatively late period, then it is possible that Baal is another name for El (cf. the interchange of El-berit and Baal-berit in Jdgs 9:46). Baal also seems to be used as a name for El at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and Mar, the Aramaic equivalent of Baal, designates El (Bethel) in Amherst Papyrus 63.
- The language used in the Khirbet Beit Lei inscription does not necessarily provide evidence that YHWH had experienced an expansion in territorial sovereignty from Jerusalem to all of Judah (p. 124). The designations “YHWH of Samaria” and “YHWH of Teman” may also have reference to YHWH’s control of broader territories surrounding central urban temples.
- Römer suggests that the motif of YHWH sitting on a throne flanked by cherubim was distinctive to the south (p. 131). But it is hard to imagine that Israel did not also picture and represent iconographically YHWH or Baal enthroned in their sanctuaries.
- Römer argues that Molek is an epithet of YHWH rather than Baal. But several lines of evidence support the latter identification, including the clear association of child sacrifice with Baal in Jeremiah (7; 19; 32), the pronunciation of Molek as boshet, and the fact that Melek “king” would have been an appropriate title for Baal-El, the head of the pantheon. El is linked with child sacrifice in Phoenicia as well.
- One of Römer’s more interesting proposals is that the prohibition against sculpted images was not original to the Decalogue and that the commandment to not have other gods before YHWH’s face found its continuation in v. 5 (p. 146-148). However, I think we have insufficient literary-critical evidence to support this reconstruction. While it is very plausible that the continuation of the prohibition against “any form” in v. 4 is a later expansion, it is difficult to disentangle the aniconic theme per se from the broader literary context of the Covenant Code, e.g. Ex 20:23. The short form of the command and the awkwardness of the expansional material in v. 4 also speak in favor of its originality. In fact, it is possible that the command to have no other gods before YHWH’s face is secondary to the prohibition on images and that the main thrust of the original Decalogue was something more along the lines of Ex 20:23. It is worth noting that a significant theme of the Hexateuch is the raising of plain stone stele as divine memorials (Gen 28; 31; 35; Ex 24:4; Josh 4:3-7; 24:26).
- The association of Baal and Asherah in the Bible is thought to be a kind of ideological misinformation intended to break the link between YHWH and Asherah (p. 162). But we have already noted that the name Baal cannot be assumed to designate the same deity as that found at Ugarit. In an Israelite-Judahite context, Baal is the name of a major local deity whom the biblical authors viewed as a competitor to YHWH. If Baal is an epithet for El, the chief deity of the Israelite pantheon, then the consistent association of him with Asherah by the biblical authors becomes intelligible.
- I have already presented elsewhere a detailed argument for linking the drawings on pithos A with the blessing to YHWH and his asherah.
- Römer declines from the common tendency to understand asherah in the inscriptions from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom as only a cult object and argues that it is simplest to think the inscriptions refer to the divine couple “YHWH and his Asherah” (p. 166). But while he is certainly correct to treat the asherah paired with YHWH as a goddess, the interpretation of this divinity as Asherah ignores or pays insufficient attention to the problem of the pronominal suffix. I have argued here that the attached pronominal suffix precludes interpreting asherah as the proper name of the goddess.
- Römer assumes that the asherim worshipped at local sanctuaries were in the form of a tree or pole (p. 170). But it is unclear what exactly the biblical authors had in mind when they refer to asherim or if they were always thought to be constructed of the same material (some are clearly made of wood, but they are never described in clear arboreal terms). From an archaeological perspective, it seems more reasonable to assume that at local bamot Asherah was represented with stone stele, the same as male deities.
- Did Manasseh promote Assyrian astral cults (p. 189)? The biblical authors never connect the astral religion of Judah with Assyria, and in fact the vast majority of the cultic practices they condemn seem to have been rooted in indigenous Israelite-Judahite tradition (bamot, massebot and asherim, Baal, Asherah, the host of heaven, child sacrifice, divination). Astral religion had long been a component of the religious conceptions of the inhabitants of central Palestine (cf. the title of the celestial YHWH of Hosts).
- The picture of Josiah’s reform presented in the Bible is very implausible, almost a mirror image in the reverse of the cultic practices instituted by Manasseh. The so-called reform is almost entirely destructive in character, eradicating what had been venerable elements of the traditional Judahite cult. Although it is plausible that some kind of cultic reorganization occurred under Josiah, the Dtr authors seem to have greatly exaggerated its content and scope as a means of legitimizing their own cultic practices and religious ideology.
- Against the grain of recent scholarship, Römer accepts the traditional identification of the qedešim as sacred prostitutes. However, the passages that have been thought to support this interpretation can be read otherwise. Further, the only consistent association of the qedešim in Dtr narrative is with cult statuary or iconolatrous cult (1 Kgs 14:24; 15:12; 22:46; 2 Kgs 23:7).
- The religious ideology of mono-Yahwism does not fit very well in a pre-exilic monarchic setting. Archaeology suggests that pillar figurines (presumably miniature representations of Asherah) were in widespread use until the very end of the monarchy and possibly even later. A more plausible setting for such a dramatic and fundamental shift in religious practice would be after a lapse in the political and religious institutions of the Iron Age and after the crisis of Babylonian exile and destruction.
- Juha Pakkala has shown that there are significant problems with dating the core of Deuteronomy to the pre-exilic period. Knowledge of the content and form of Assyrian vassal treaties could have easily been preserved into the Babylonian and Persian periods.
- Römer reconstructs an original version of Deuteronomy that moves from the šemaʿ yisraʾel in 6:4 to the law of centralization in 12:13-18 (p. 204-208). But it is difficult for me to see how 12:13 constitutes an acceptable beginning for the law: “Take care that you do not offer your burnt offerings at any place you happen to see…” I think it more likely that 12:13 presupposes an earlier statement of centralization in 12:2-7 and that only 12:8-12 is secondary. The variation in the description of the one sanctuary chosen by YHWH does not require a complicated three-stage process of development.
- It’s not clear why Römer locates the writing of the Deuteronomistic History in the Babylonian Golah (p. 215-218). The purpose of the narrative seems to be more than simply to explain why the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah occurred but in fact to legitimize and provide historical warrant for the religious and cultic views of the authors. That is to say, the Dtr history is intended to contribute to the creation of a distinct people (separate from other former Israelites and Judahites in the land) in the face of a new political and religious situation. To engage in such a large scale identity-making project would seem to presuppose the development and renascence of some kind of Judean polity in the Persian period.
- Does the application of feminine imagery to YHWH in Second Isaiah show an interest in integrating the divine feminine into the singular male deity? I’m more skeptical. The language is highly rhetorical and the imagery only sporadic, whereas the application of female imagery to male royal figures elsewhere in the ancient Near East is well attested (e.g., Azatiwada inscription).
I hope to deal with many of the above issues in greater detail later, but for now I want to congratulate Thomas on producing a very stimulating and important book that I hope gets a wide reading!
Josef Tropper, “Der Gottesname YAHWA,” VT 51 (2001): 81-106.
Marc Brettler, “Method in the Application of Biblical Source Material to Historical Writing (with Particular Reference to the Ninth Century BCE),” Understanding the History of Ancient Israel (ed. Hugh Williamson; Oxford, 2007), 305-336.
“The Date of the Earliest Edition of Deuteronomy,” ZAW 121 (2009): 388–401; “The Dating of Deuteronomy: A Response to Nathan MacDonald,” ZAW 123 (2011): 431–436; cf. Nathan MacDonald, “Issues and Questions In the Dating of Deuteronomy: A Response to Juha Pakkala,” ZAW 122 (2010): 431–435.