Monotheism as a Category

As of late, I’v been interested in the development of “monotheism” within ancient Israel. Several recent articles, and even older articles, consistently use the term “monotheism.” While I understand that we may see Judaism as a monotheistic religion in the 21st century, the category of monotheism is not without problems. Just as with the category of “religion,” monotheism as a category is fraught with a long history. This history of monotheism as a category, though, is not fully acknowledged in literature about ancient Israel.

Perhaps, though, we should use a better category. Personally, I prefer the term monolatrism over monotheism. Monolatry recognizes and acknowledges the historical reality of other gods. While speaking with a professor today, I realized an important fact about books like Kings and Chronicles. When we read about how this or that king worshiped Baal or Asherah, we tend to assume it was wrong. In reality, though, it was only natural. If you were a king Levant during the 8th century, a famine occurred, and it didn’t go away after praying to Yahweh, you would surely pray to another god. Not to do so is to allow your kingdom to perish. Additionally, allowing other deities within religious practice, whilst still making it centralized around Yahweh, would permit strong socio-political ties between regions and kingdoms. Thus, monolatry is a better term than monotheism.

It recognizes the historical realities of polytheism. Additionally, while it maintains the fact of the centrality of Yahweh, it recognizes the reality that other deities were worshiped. And that worship was, often times, not morally wrong.

Interesting Article on the Ark and its Egyptian Origins

Check out Scott Noegel’s article.

Abstract: “The best non-Israelite parallel to the Ark of the Covenant comes not from Mesopotamia or Arabia, but from Egypt. The sacred bark was a ritual object deeply embedded in the Egyptian ritual and mythological landscapes. It was carried aloft in processions or pulled in a sledge or a wagon; its purpose was to transport a god or a mummy and sometimes to dispense oracles. The Israelite conception of the Ark probably originated under Egyptian influence in the Late Bronze Age.”

Advancing Digital Scholarship: Open-Access Resource

I am particularly interested in open-access resources. In order for society and culture to grow, resources must be available which provide people with the opportunities to experience growth. For this reason, I appreciate the University of Chicago Library’s recent blog post, “Advancing digital scholarship.”

Within the post, they express a desire to become more involved in production of open scholarship. Hopefully this trajectory continues, for I think it is essential to the human race.

Notes on Judges

*These thoughts are not intended to be fully developed. For the most part, they are musings about my current coursework at the University of Chicago.

For our reading of Judges, we are asked to “isolate folklore motifs, repetitions, foreshadowing, and other literary features in these chapters.” There are other questions as well; however, these are my primary concerns for reading Judges and 1 Samuel 1-16.

Notes on Judges

  • 1:1-2:5 establishes that, from the beginning, the Israelites failed to complete the task of eliminating the people living in the land.
  • 2:9 Joshua is buried immediately North of the Judah and Benjaminite territories.
  • 2:13 worship of Baalim and Ashtaraoth is a historical fact. The primacy of Yahweh developed between the 7th and 3rd centuries BCE (Davies, 2016).
  • 2:1-23 seems to contextual and shape how the reader should think about the remaining material.
  • 3:9-10 notes Othniel the Kenizzite, upon whom the spirit of the LORD descended. This is a folkloric tradition.
  • 3:31 briefly notes another folkloric tradition: Shamgar son of Annath, who slew six hundred Philistines with an ox-goad. That is an impressive CV.
  • NOTE: In Judges much more occurs North of Jerusalem, traditionally Benjaminite and Judahite regions.
  • To what extent is there humor in the statement of 4:9? “the LORD will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.” It may reflect quite a bit about the authors understanding of gender roles.
    • This is an example of her prophetic statement, perhaps more accurate to the practice of prophecy in history than prophetic literature itself.
  • There is a consistent motif of entering a room, expecting one thing, and seeing another (Death of Eglon, King of Moab; death of Sisera; etc.).
  • 5:1-31 seems to be an older, poetic tradition.
  • 5:15b-18 seemingly critiques how certain tribes failed to join the troops who routed Sisera’s forces.
  • 6:7-10 repeats a message similar to 2: 1-5: it critiques Israelites for failing to obey Yahweh.
  • 6:15 contains a similar motif as David: Gideon is the youngest and humblest.
    • This may be part of the reason some scholar claim that Gideon was, at one point, a king within Israelite tradition (I need to double check on this).
  • 6:19 offering under a terebinth may reflect traditions and history which considered trees to be a sort of holy place.
  • Gideon’s calling is an etiology for Adonai-shalom as a holy place and altar.
  • 6:27 has a sense of irony. If the cult of Baal represented is in some way reflective of chthonic deity worship, this is a humorous passage.
  • 6:35 Asher responds, unlike in Judges 5.
  • 7:13-14 prophetic activity is a perfect example of an oracle.
  • 8:1-3 tradition reflective of regional conflict?
  • 8:21 what are the crescents on the necks of the camels of Zebah and Zalmunna?
  • 8:23 Gideon’s claim the LORD will rule over the men of Israel reflects (1) a similar situation to that of Samuel and (2) perhaps an older tradition of Gideonite kingship (check sources; I recall reading this).
  • 9:6 “pillar at Shechem” reflective of an older holy site?
  • 9:42-45 demonstrates extraordinary knowledge of military tactics.
  • 9:53 is so abrupt and humerous: “But a woman dropped an upper millstone on Abimelech’s head and cracked his skull.”.
  • 9:54 connects to the moftif of women killing men.
  • 9:55 is hilarious because, again, the army abruptly returns home once Abimelech dies.
  • 11:1-12 is similar to texts like Enuma Elish in which the warrior agrees to fight only with the agreement that he become the leader.
  • 11:38-40, in contrast to other texts which vividly describe death and violence, avoids describing Jephthah as a burnt offering. Contextualizing it within any reality of child sacrifice, real or imaged, Jephthat, even though he trusted the Lord, is made out to be wicked.
  • 13:19-23 echoes sacrifice in Leviticus, Leviticus 9-10 in particular, and involves the sacrifice as a “rock to the LORD.”
  • The transition between Chapter 15 and Chapter 16 is not smooth. Perhaps it reflects two distinct traditions about Samson? Or else it is just bad writing on the part of the editor.
  • Samson was really not an outstanding guy.
  • 18:1 is interesting because the Danites do not yet have territory. Some scholars suggest the Danites emerged from the Sea peoples.
  • 18:5-10 reads like Joshua.
  • 18:20 priests go with the money and prestige.
  • 19:25 a woman finally dies, after they’ve been the ones doing the saving up to this point.
  • In some ways, based off of what I am aware of from archaeology of the Levant, Judges seems more historically probably than Joshua.
  • 21:19-24 is more or less about how the Benjaminites kidnapped, raped, and married women dancers from other tribes during a feast at Shiloh.

Notes on Deuteronomy and Related Literature

*These thoughts are not intended to be fully developed. For the most part, they are musings about my current coursework at the University of Chicago.

This posts contains my notes on the book of Deuteronomy and other assigned readings. I begin with the assigned readings in order to orient myself as to what I should be looking for as I read the Jewish Study Bible translation of Deuteronomy.

The Literary Background of Deuteronomy 28, by Jeffery Tigay

  • Genre of blessings and curses is well known in the ancient world.
  • Earliest attestation of this sort of list in the third millennium BCE.
    • Are there similar attestation in Greek literature?
      • Yes, but they are not as many (494).
  • Contents of blessings and curses are not limited by genre.
  • Blessings and curses of ancient Near Eastern texts actually include a curse as to the efficacy of magical practice. Naturally, Deuteronomy does not contain a curse that makes divination practices ineffective.
  • Tigay notes a shared Aramean, Israelite, and Assyrian literary tradition.
  • Wording between Deuteronomy and Esarhaddon’s treaty is too different to suggest literary dependency (497).
  • Tigay argues the blessings and curses, although in dialogue with foreign models, were “undoubtedly this local Israelite tradition” (497).
  • Overall, Tigay notes conceptual similarities between Deuteronomy as an ancient Israelite tradition and other ancient Near Eastern traditions; however, he is careful to emphasize the autonomous nature of ancient Israelite traditions.

The Vassal-Treaties of Esarhaddon, in ANET

  • Line 8-10 concern those “who will lives in the future after this treater,” indicating the treaties concern for the future, not just the now.
  • Paragraph 6 is reminiscent of Leviticus. Sinning against Esarhaddon seems to be the same as sinning against God.
  • Paragraph 10 (Lines 119-122) point to a ban on certain ideas within Assyrian divination. If the divinatory activity explicity opposes or is detrimental to the “crown prince designate Ashurbanipal,” it is suppressed.
    • I wonder how Deuteronomy and other biblical literature shares evidence of suppressed prophetic activity. Perhaps not all “evil” prophecy or “uninspired” prophecy is actually so.
  • Today in a TA session for Akkadian, we covered how the idea of “to live” is stative, meaning that we don’t simply live. We are, in the ancient mind, in a state of becoming living as opposed to becoming dead. Hence, in the ANET translation, we see “departs from the living.” In that world, there is not living/dead. There is a gradation between the two. When we further consider the role of chthonic deities, it seems even more reasonable that there is more than live vs. death.
  • The treaty covers everthing from the current king, to the son, to the temporary rule of a queen, etc. Very thorough in establishing that one should never oppose Assyria.
  • Paragraph 35 is similar to Deuteronomy by the ban on changing the tablet. Of course, it is also similar to many ancient Near Eastern documents.
  • Thinking of Leviticus, 39 contains a curse of leprosy which restricts the presence of god(s) and king. With this, the theocratic nature of Leviticus becomes more apparent, as Yahweh is God and King within P material.
  • Paragraph 57: “… may all the gods mentioned (here) call us, our offspring, and our dewscendants, to account.”
  • Beautiful imagery: “JUst as this ewe is cut open and the flesh of its young placed in its mouth, so may he (Shamarsh?) make you eat in your hunger the flesh of your brothers, your sons, and your daughters” (Paragraph 69).
  • I wonder if paragraph 72, which talks about an oath entering the intestines of the sons and daughters, is similar is conception (Numbers 5:11-32). Also, paragraph 94.

Deuteronomy: Introduction in Jewish Study Bible, by Bernard M. Levinson

  • Name “Deuteronomy” is from the Septuagint meaning “second law.”
  • Accoridng to Levinson, Deuteronomy was written in the 7th century BCE by royal scribes.
    • I disagree with such an early date.
    • To simply associate the “scroll of the Teaching” (2 Kings 22:8) as the historical document of Josiah’s reform is somewhat odd.
  • Deuteronomy preserves several layers of tradition:
    • 1) Assuming a scroll was actually discovered in 2 Kings 22:8, the scroll would have been laws of chapters 12-26 with an introduction and conclusion.
    • 2) During the exile, it was framed with 1.1-4.40 and 31-34 as part of the Deuteronomistic History.
    • 3) In the postexilic period, the P school edited Deuteronomy into the Pentateuch.
  • Honestly, I find this previously state historical reconstruction difficult to get on-board with. While I recognize the similarities between Deuteronomy and many texts from the period, we should also consider the Library of Alexandria, which may have had many of those texts, as a possible place for compilation.
  • Certain elements do place in a “Near Eastern” setting:
    • Divine council
    • Shema as dedication to the king, which the Second-Temple period saw as monotheism of some sort.
  • One issue with Levinson’s approach is that he speaks of the MT’s “original meaning of a passage that has been lost in the Masoretic Text” (361). I find this to be problematic because he assumes that the Masoretic Text is the one text above them all. In reality, we know of a variety of literary and theological traditions through different versions of similar texts.
  • Deuteronomy claims both “monotheism” and a pantheon (4.15-31,35; 32.28).

Deuteronomy, in the Jewish Study Bible

  • 1.9-17 is somewhat of a political organization.
  • 1.42 – the absence of the presence of the LORD resulted in the inability to defeat the Amorites.
  • With 2.8, Deuteronomy seems to attempt to synchronize various elements of ancient Israelite tradition, such as the relationship between ancient Israelite peoples and people groups descended from Esau.
  • 2.30: “because the LORD had stiffened his will and hardened his heart in order to deliever him into your power” has a very Priestly flavor to it.
  • In 3.28 Yahweh tells Moses to imbue Joshua with power and strength. This seems to have some sort of ritual implication.
  • 4.2: “You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it.” This verse is very similar to major themes in Esarhaddon’s treaty.
  • 4:5-8 is reminiscent of Priestly ideas: Israel is a priesthood to the whole word.
  • 4:16-18  uses creation language in context of banning sculptured images.
  • 4:19-20 bans worship of the sun, moon, and stars, other major points of creation myths.
  • 4:41 abruptly begins. It follows after a command to obey god. 4:41-43, though, make no sense in there current location.
  •  The command not to turn aside to the left or the right (5:29) echoes Esarhaddon’s treaty in which the sword will be turned to those on the left and the right.
  • Note the comment of Deuteronomy 6:4: “the original force of [6:4]… was to demand that Israel show exclusive loyalty to Our God, YHVH-but not thereby to deny the existence of other gods” (380).
  • The treaty and Deuteronomy are very similar in how they treat future generations (Deuteronomy 6:20-25).
  • Interesting line at 7:15: “The LORD will ward off from you all sickness; He will not bring upon you any of the dreadful diseases of Egypt, about which you know, but will inflict them upon all your enemies.” The statement “about which you know” is an interesting rhetorical choice.
  • P influence: 7:19 speaks of wonderous signs and acts.
  • Deuteronomy differs from the treaty of Esarhaddon because it looks forward to a historical imagined, expected event, namely entrance into the promised land.
  • 9:5 indicates that non-Israelite people have broken some sort of treaty; thus, they are the ones who now receive the curses.
  • Etiology for the unique quality of the tribe of Levi seems out of place (10:6-7).
  • 10:17-19 shows God as a good king.
  • Right now I am reading a book by Spano (2011) whgich speak extensively about how etiology in biblical literature often attempts to suppress certain cult elements. Deuteronomy 12:2-3 demonstrates how there were luxuriant trees which tended to be worshiped in ancient Israel, or at least during the period of composition for Deuteronomy.
  • Like Esarhaddon’s treaty, Deuteronomy 13:2-6 places legal restrictions on prophetic activity. 
  • Shifting to the addition of a king in 17:14-20 is a odd, out-of-place shift.
  • In 18:9-14, magic is absolutely banned.
  • 18:15-22 has more restrictions on prophetic activity.
  • 20:1-9 doesn’t necessarily demand that all people are fully dedicated to fighting for the king (God); rather, it allows those who have responsibilities to return home to take care of those responsibilities.
  • 22:6-7 reads like a Mesopotamian oracle.
  • 23:10-11 implies battle is holy thing.
  • 34:9 contains the ritual for Joshua: “Moses had laid his hands upon him.”

Moses Mendelssohn and Categories

*These thoughts are not intended to be fully developed. For the most part, they are musings about my current coursework at the University of Chicago.

In my Introduction to the Study of Religion course, one of our primary focuses is Moses Mendelssohn, an 18th century ‘German’-Jewish philosopher. Particularly intriguing to me is how Mendelssohn attempts to define categories. His attempt to define “enlightenment,” “culture,” and “education” demonstrate well how his notions of these concepts cast judgement upon non-‘German’-Jewish people groups and regions.



One of Mendelssohn’s arguments is that linguistic usage is indicative of a people groups “education, of its culture as well as its enlightenment, in terms of both its extent and strength.” His evidence is derived from perceived observations about said people groups: “the Nurembergers have more culture, the Berliners more enlightenment, the French more culture, the English more enlightenment, the Chinese much culture and little enlightenment. The Greeks had both culture and enlightenment” (translated by Daniel O. Dahlstrom, 1997: 313-317).

How does he make such conclusions about these groups? He defines both enlightenment and culture. Consequently he is able to categorize various groups into where he perceives that they fit within the borders he provides. While this is not inherently wrong, the most important thing to consider is how Mendelssohn’s categorization essentially tells the other groups, “I understand you better than you understand  yourself.” Although every categorization does this to a certain extent, it is of the utmost importance that we be aware of it. Responsibility rests not only on scholars and academics, but also on baristas and crew members at Trader Joe’s (every human being).

We have a responsibility of respect to our fellow humans. Awareness of our own ideas and thought systems are the best place to begin if we choose to show respect for our fellow humans.

German-Jews in the 19th Century

For my Introduction to the Study of Religion course, I am reading two chapters on a book about German-Jewish identity in the 19th century. Moses Mendelssohn, who was was of the first who seems to have established a German-Jewish identity, was often critiqued for maintaining being two people, a dual identity that was seemingly contradictory. Mendes-Flohr continues, though, with a critique of German “identity” in the 18th century: “German society of his day was too uncertain of its collective identity to entertain a pluralistic conception of its social and political fabric” (Mendes-Flohr, 1999: 14).

While he is specifically considering the issue of German-Jewish identity, I wonder how this sort of environment within Germany may have simultaneously impacted biblical scholarship. How did the lack of certainty in understanding collective identity impact conceptions of ancient Israel or the Philistines? How did it impact biblical criticism?

I have no answer. I just wonder.