Monotheism was: "admittedly syncretistic..

Jonathan D. Safren yon_saf at
Sat Jan 26 04:02:12 EST 2002

Re: Monotheism was: "admittedly syncretistic..Dear Rolf,

You write:


[Rolf] in scientific research "God" as a *factor* must a priori be excluded. We cannot seek recourse in something metaphysical ("God") if we are doing scientific research. The problem, however, is that we research documents that not only speak about God, but where several authors explicitly say that they were inspired by God. So how can we do an intelligent research on documents that are claimed to be rooted in something that we a priori exclude?


[JDS] Nothing is or should be excluded from scientific research. I realize that many, if not most, people have an emotional problem doing research into the God they believe in. But, first of all the study of ancient Israelite religion need not concern the validity or invalidity of this or that belief system (that would be engaging in religious polemics), but the phenomenology or historical development of Israelite religion and its belief in God,

I realize that this is difficult for most people, even scholars to do, without introducing one's own religious belief system (witness Wellhausen!), but this is what must be done. Otherwise, it would be like not investigating whether the earth was round because it interferes with established belief. Moreover, I have known Orthodox Jewish scholars who have had no problem with critical scholarship (for example my own teachers Loewenstamm and Seeligmann); others did and do: At Bar Ilan University in Israel, there are no courses in the books of the Torah, only in commentaries to the Torah. They are afraid of what they might get into. This avoidance, I might add, has been a cause of ridicule, in at least one article I have read.

Secondly, why should shamanism, Buddhism, totemism, animism, Canaanite, Babylonian and Ugaritic religions and their gods be investigated while the Israelite God remains immune?


[Rolf] In this research I have completely avoided the problem mentioned above, but it becomes acute when the question of monotheism is at stake.


[JDS] If a problem becomes acute, then all the more reason for investigating it.


[Rolf] After pondering on the situation for a long time I have taken the position that I strictly have to follow critical scientific methodology, but that I, at the same time must take a critical stand towards critical scholarship.


[JDS] Nothing healthier than that. If we were all to accept one scientific opinion because it appeared "authoritative", then where would scholarship be? Up to this very day, many scholars still accept the Wellhausian scheme of the Hexateuch and four parallel sources, even though there is much evidence, and many critical opinions, countering this classical scheme (just two examples: Redford's 1970 book on the Joseph Narrative, and Rofe's 1978 book on the Balaam Narratyive). Just think of what might happen if there were no criticism of criticism! 



[Rolf]. Thus God is not a factor that is a variable in the scientific research, but at the same time the claims that the documents are a result of work of a "God" in a way is held open. Even though the position that the documents of the Tanach are just like other documents is strictly scientific, it is just as dogmatic (and religious) as the opposite viewpoint of God's inspiration.


[JDS] I respectfully disagree on both points. God, or the conception of God in the Bible and elsewhere, is a variable in research. The God who accepts human sacrifice in Jud. 11 is not the same God who forbids it in Deuteronomy.

The view that the Tanakh is ancient literature and should be investigated like ancient literature should not preclude the stipulation that it is at the same time RELIGIOUS          literature, and this fact adds extra parameters in investigation.


[Rolf]. In this book I listed 24 different passages in the Gilgamesh/Atrahasis which are almost completely parallel to bassages in Genesis. The laws of probability definitely speaks against the documents having originated independently. But what is the relationship? Most scholars would say that Genesis has adopted thoughts from an Accadian original; and this is a fine example of scholarship that is too critical, or even unbalanced, Because, how can they know? The fact that cuneiform tablets, that are easily preserved, are older than Hebrew documents of a more vulnerable material, say very little. However, for me, after a study of many years, it is clear that there is an enormeous quality difference between the Accadian accounts of the creation/flood  and the Genesis account.The Babylonian gods are clearly the invention of men, having all the degraded characteristics of men ##., while my judgement is that the God in the Genesis account is  of a completely different nature. Therefore, I see no reason to postulate that Genesis has adopted Accadian material; it is more logical to me that that both accounts stem from a common source, but with different final products as a result.


[JDS] And to me it is more logical that the Torah is engaging in a polemic against polytheistic belief, sometimes overtly, in its many prohibitions of worshipping other gods, and sometimes covertly, as in the First Creation Narrative and the Flood Story. This was first pointed out by R. Moses Maimonides in the 12th century, and restated by Prof. Umberto Cassuto in the 20th century, after the discovery of the Ugaritic texts.


[Rolf] Some years ago we read the laws of Hammurapi in class and it bacame evident for the students how different these are from the laws in the Pentateuch, even though there are similarities as well. So it seems to me that there generally is a clear quality difference between the Hebrew documents of the Tanach and other documents of antiquity. 


[JDS] Most definitely. And this should be explained in terms of the development of Israelite religion. First of all, the various "law codes" of the Torah function as stipulations in the Divine suzerainty treaty with Israel, and are not at all equivalent with Codex Hammurapi or the Laws of Ur-Nammu, which serve to demonstrate that the king was just. The fact that the laws of the Pentateuch are treaty stipulations explain why they include cultic-religious laws, as these are the ways of expressing loyalty to the sovereign.

And, according to Weinfeld, this also explains the presence of apodictic formulation, entirely absent in the ANE law codes, but quite conspicuous in the suzerainty treaties (which also include casuistic formulations).

The fact that the Torah was later understood, both in Judaism and Christianity, as the "Law", helped obscure the original nature of the laws; but Rashi, citing R. Yitzhak, pointed this out already in his 11th century commentary to Gen. 1:1.


Whew! Rolf, for me this  has been an exceedingly long discourse, and I think I'll end it here. Sincerely,


Jonathan D. Safren 

Dept. of Biblical Studies

Beit Berl College

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