Israel’s Second God. 2 and a bit . . .

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by Neil Godfrey

Continuing from Evidence of the Exile . . . .

Because the Bible uses different words and names for “god” scholars have generally since the 19th century believed that this variation is evidence for the bible being cobbled together from different sources. Each source would have had its respective preferred term for the deity. An editor, sometimes suspected of being Ezra in the 5th century b.c.e, wove these various sources together into the first five books of our Bible, The Pentateuch.

Four main sources are usually identified, but for our purposes in discussing Barker’s hypothesis that early Israel did not practice monotheism in the sense we understand the term, we look at just 2. J and E.

The J source stands for the Jehovah (or Yahweh) source, thought to have been written somewhere in the southern kingdom of Judah during the tenth century. This name, Jehovah/Yahweh, is linked to the Moses narratives in the Bible. Easy to remember: think of J and Jehovah and Judah, and that J is the 10th letter of the alphabet (10th century) and there are 10 commandments (J is linked with the Moses traditions, eg. the Ten commandments).

The E source stands for El, Elohim, or the Elohist source. Recall in previous posts that El was the Canaanite name for the chief god who was father of all other gods, including Baal, and according to that famous passage in the earliest texts of Deuteronomy, also father of Jehovah/Yahweh.

Deuteronomy 32:8

When the Most High [Elyon] gave to the nations their inheritance,
when he separated the sons of men,
he fixed the bounds of the peoples
according to the number of the sons of God [‘el].

The El traditions are mostly associated with the stories before the Moses narrative, that is, with the Patriarchs Abraham and co. The E source is thought to have been written in the northern Kingdom of Israel during the ninth century. Even easier to remember: just work on remembering J and E falls into place.

If you want more detailed background for starters then check out the Documentary Hypothesis on Wikipedia.

In the passages Exodus 3:15 and 6:2-3 Yahweh is quoted as saying his new name, Yahweh, is, well, “new” — unlike the old name by which he was known to the Patriarchs, El:

Exodus 3:15

Yahweh, the God [El] of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob has sent me to you; this is my name for ever, and thus [as Yahweh] I am to be remembered throughout all generations.

Exodus 6:2-3

I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai, but by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them.

Traditionally these passages have been explained as the original biblical editors doctoring the story somewhat in order to explain to readers why the two names for god appeared in the narrative.

Margaret Barker, however, notes that “Recent scholarship has offered a different explanation.” This explanation suggests that the fusion of the two names was the result of the certain later religious reformers, after the exile, working to fuse the different religious practices found in pre-exilic Israel into one monotheistic like religion. That is, before the exile, Israel practiced the worship of both Yahweh AND El as separate deities, and later reformers, e.g. the Deuteronomists, attempted to fuse these gods into one when they edited the Pentateuch and later narrative of Israel’s history.

The reason for the Pentateuch assuming such importance in this debate is because it is in these first five books that the greatest concentration of name variations for “god” is found. It is felt that it is in these books that the key to the origin of monotheism is to be found.

Barker notes, however, following Whybray, that such traditional Pentateuchal studies through the paradigm of the Documentary Hypothesis is “unduly dependent on a particular view of the history of the religion of Israel.” That is, it assumes the view of history which it claims the evidence supports. There is a circularity of argument here. The PREsupposition is a particular view of the history of Israel’s religion. And that was the framework in which the evidence was examined and discussed.

The 2 sources, J and E, are said to have been early epic narratives of certain aspects of Israel’s history. And the later biblical editors drew on these sources to create a single narrative.

Barker asks, however,

“if the great epics J and E really had formed the basis of the Pentateuch, how is it that the authors of Israel’s earlier literature had virtually no knowledge of them? The fact that the authors of the pre-exilic literature of the Old Testament outside the Pentateuch appear to know virtually nothing of the patriarchal and Mosaic traditions of the Pentateuch raises serious doubts about the existence of an early J or E.” (pp.16-17)

Scholarship has traditionally assumed that J and E represented early narratives about Israel’s god, and that these could be reconciled into a single narrative. But if J and E did not exist, what was Israel thinking about God during the period of the biblical Kingdoms of Israel and Judah — the tenth and ninth centuries b.c.e.?

And if they did not exist, what period of religious thought is represented by the Pentateuch with its various names for the deity? Increasingly, there is more scholarship that sees the Pentateuch the product of the post-exilic Deuteronomist. That is, that school of religion who attempted to assert their authority in Palestine some time during the Persian period.

Look again at those passages from Exodus cited above. They are asserting that before the Yahweh traditions and narratives (of Moses?), there was another name for god with stories attached, El. Those Exodus passages are informing readers that El was replaced by Yahweh as not only the new name for God, but as the only name allowed for God from henceforth.

“Presumably this means that any non-Yahweh traditions were either dropped, or rewritten of Yahweh.”

How many, and which ones, we can never know.

How to see behind the reform of the Deuteronomists? Barker suggests that one way is to examine the remaining uses of El, and to see if there is a significant distinction between El and Yahweh. There was such a distinction between the Sons of El and the Sons of Yahweh, as discussed in the first post of this series. Any similar distinction between the uses of the 2 names in other respects will be crucial for Barker’s hypothesis that El and Yahweh were originally two separate deities worshipped in ancient Israel.

To be continued etc etc. . . . .


  • 2008-08-12 00:24:14 UTC - 00:24 | Permalink

    For a long time I felt that Barker’s theory was based on too little evidence, on reading too much between the lines.

    I’m more open to her theory now, particularly having studied the Mandaeans. If they are connected with the pre-Christian Nasaraeans mentioned by Epiphanius, they could well have been a group that persisted in resisting the Deuteronomic reforms. Later Mandaeism’s multiplicity of divine beings and distinction between the Most High God and the demiurge might, to some extent, reflect some of Israel’s pre-exilic heritage.

  • 2008-08-15 06:40:36 UTC - 06:40 | Permalink

    Intuitively (for what that’s worth) I wonder if it would also seem to make sense of Christianity appearing to mature and diversify so quickly in the early days into major groups like the Marcionites and Valentinians with their multiplicity of ranked divinities. At least it makes more sense to me to imagine the orthodox gospel narrative being a distillation of something like one of those, than that the orthodox narrative should itself be the original matrix of such theogonies.

    I will have to have another look at the Mandaeans, thanks.

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