Reflections on “The Early History of God” (2nd Edition) by Mark Smith

The Early History of God  was a seminal work first published in 1990, wherein Mark Smith attempts to construct a history of god. Published in 2002, the second edition provides references to additional work from between 1990 and 2002. His basic goal is accomplished. He does well in presenting a history of ancient Israelite religion which employs relevant Canaanite evidence, demonstrating how Israel was remarkably similar to its neighbors. In time, though, various cultural and political factors led to the progressive establishment of monotheism, wherein Israel become truly unique among its neighbors.

In general, I found the book the be interesting; however, I struggled with getting on board with Mark Smith’s methodology. For example, his book is primarily focused on the Hebrew Bible and extant texts (i.e. inscriptions and Ugaritic materials) in order to construct a history of Israelite religion, particularly the history of God. For many of his claims were based on  Ugaritic literature, employing it as a way to understand the cultural inheritance taken on by ancient Israel, a Canaanite inheritance. In doing this, though, he often resorts to discussing “old traditions” rather than contemporary reflections on contemporary problems. This is a problem because new ideas tend to emerge from reflection on contemporary problems, even if older material is employed. Of course, claiming that older material, like texts, was employed in the case of ancient Israel is problematic because such material is not extant.

For example, he notes that a change in practice “reflect a religious reaction against Israel’s old Canaanite heritage” (146). Similarly, he claims that the language of Ps 29 “perhaps derives ultimately from old theophanic language of the storm” (143). In either case, the idea of “old” is problematic. For while it may have reacted to or been derived from something older, that elides an attempt to describe how the scribe himself conceptualized it. So, for example, did the scribe see himself as employed contemporary language, or maybe reacting against as contemporary concern? 

What this comes down to, then, is less an issue of reference that something is derived from an older traditions; instead, the issue is about the precision of terminology. In attempting to describe what may have occurred in history, for example, it would be helpful to employ a different term than that which describes the origin of such an idea through history. By distinguishing between the two, a more precise construction of the history of Yahweh would emerge.

Concerning the matters of Yahweh’s representation as sun, or the astralization of Yahweh, I found Other Keel and Christoph Uehlinger’s (1998) discussion to be much more convincing and helpful for understanding that development.

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