Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel, Foreword by Patrick D. Miller.
(2nd ed.; Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans; Dearborn, Mich.: Dove, 2002), xlvi, 243 pp. Paperback. ISBN 0-8028-3972-X. $25
Reviewed by Seth Sanders
University of Chicago

Among Biblical philologists—those who study the Hebrew Bible as an ancient, and therefore partly alien, document—Mark Smith is probably the most accomplished scholar of his generation. He has produced significant work in the areas of Hebrew grammar, Biblical exegesis, and the history of Israelite religion. Smith also raised the standards of responsibility in Biblical studies by undertaking the first truly ambitious interpretive study of a single Canaanite text, his edition of the Ugaritic Baal epic. The scholarly effort that went into this edition implies an important methodological position: that the monuments of Israel’s uncomfortably close neighbors demand and reward the same care as the Biblical texts themselves. This is an academic position with a meaningful ethic, requiring that one put in hard work to see through the eyes of people remembered as ancient enemies. Smith’s work on all these topics has been distinguished by its balance as much as its erudition.

This book presents a stunning range of evidence bearing on every dimension of who the God of Israel was, and how he came to be that way. When it was first published in 1990 it was recognized as a superior summary of a very difficult field. Updated and with 26 dense new pages surveying the last ten years of research, this second edition serves as an up-to-date report on the state of the art. The present review will reflect on its significance for the future study of Israelite religion.

As the title makes clear, the central point of the book is the idea that God has a history. In principle there is nothing new about this approach. William Foxwell Albright’s Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan, to which Smith’s book is an explicit response, was also an early history of God. And like most major works of Biblical criticism since the 18th century, Albright’s was an evolutionary history. The Israelites progressed from a primitive polytheistic background, with religious ideas expressed in myths, to a spiritually advanced monotheism that saw God acting in history.

But beyond the vast range of data Smith brings to the topic, and, in fact, contrary to what he states in his introduction, what really distinguishes this book from its ancestors is the increasingly explicit idea that God’s history is not necessarily one of progress. As a historical process, the rise of monotheism is a response to the vagaries of history itself. Change does not take place through evolution but through the less value-laden processes of “differentiation” and “convergence.” At an early stage, during the Iron I period, Israel was undifferentiated, a normal Canaanite society: “The number of deities in Israel was relatively typical for the region” (p. 64). In particular “Baal was an accepted Israelite god” and criticism of his cult only began in the eighth or ninth centuries p. 75). The crucial question becomes not “why the monarchy accepted such practices against the condemnations of prophetic critics, but why some of the prophets secondarily came to condemn these practices” (p. 189, my emphasis).

Smith allows us to see through both Canaanite and unreconstructed Israelite eyes, prompting some dizzying reversals. The real historical question that emerges is not Jeremiah’s ‘Why did this people turn away from the Lord,’ but ‘Why did the prophets turn away from Baal?’ We do not yet have a satisfying answer, only the certainty that Baal came to be seen as a “threat.” Similarly, Smith finds that “[t]he biblical evidence pertaining to the asherah does not sustain a historical dichotomy between ‘normative Yahwism’ over and against ‘Canaanite religion’ … biblical criticism of the asherah points to its being an Israelite phenomenon,” (p. 110). Interestingly, this statement is in keeping with the words of the prophet himself that Judah’s “children remember their altars and their asherim, beside every green tree, and on the high hills … ” (Jeremiah 17:2, emphasis mine). A striking fact emerges from comparing Smith’s view with Jeremiah’s: this is the prophets’ complex sense of religious memory. They show awareness that both asherah and the Lord were part of Israel’s legacy, and either one could be forgotten: prophetic writing was a contest over what Israel’s memory would become.

Indeed, though Smith does not quite put it this way, it is clear from his work that all the major practices by which the biblical writers distinguished “Israelite” from pagan were simply Israelite at root. The discovery of a savage Other in the self’s inner sanctum still packs a punch, as in the chilling section on “The mlk Sacrifice,” with Smith’s sober conclusion that “in the seventh century child sacrifice was a Judean practice performed in the name of Yahweh” (p. 172) The most alien possible dimension of Judah’s royal cult is evoked in his description of the uncanny reliefs at the Punic colony of Pozo Moro in Spain (pp. 174–175). A two-headed god clutches a pig’s hind leg and a bowl, in which a child lies; an animal-headed figure, probably a priest in a ritual mask, makes ready to cut the child. Some of Jerusalem’s kings may have imagined God this way, minus the pig.

Smith’s chronology of these successive differentiations is largely convincing; rather than a narrative history we come away with a set of fascinatingly detailed, dated strata, a sort of natural history of Israelite religion. But Smith’s conclusions about why God changed seem fragmentary. In contrast to his models for how change occurred—“differentiation” and “convergence,” for which he could cite a much richer theoretical and comparative background—his view of the causes of change relies on modes of explanation already well known in Wellhausen. Perhaps his strongest statement about how Israelite religion developed in response to society and politics appears on p. 194, where he discusses the diminishing significance of the Judean family under the Babylonian empire. This would be reflected in the decline of divine families and the vision of an individual god responsible for the cosmos; the god of Israel becomes an “Empire-god” like Marduk. The theory that religion projects the social order onto the cosmos is perhaps too simple to capture the full dimensions of history: One recalls Marshall Sahlins’ quip about the genesis of this theory: “It is not that God was society deified but that society was God socialized.”1

When Smith switches the focus to the history of literature and the institutions that produced it, he relies on a different sort of old, if trusty, explanation he elsewhere questions: the documentary hypothesis (pp. xxiii-xxiv). Here Smith describes how Priestly and Deuternonomic traditions censored out the Israelite traditions of the divine council and heavenly temple, which reappear vigorously in the late Second Temple texts known from the Dead Sea Scrolls and apocalyptic literature (p. 205). A footnote raises this to a central explanation, that “the development of the Hebrew Bible is due largely to the history of conflict and compromise between Israel’s various priestly lines” (p. 205, n. 7). Here his work might benefit from reflection on the oddly creative mechanics of suppression and censorship.2

Smith’s work is significant for the mainstream of biblical studies not because he presents the most comprehensive and authoritative data on the topic—though he does—but because of the principle underlying his organization of this data: Monotheism is not the result of evolution towards a superior religious form but rather of incremental differentiation from and convergence within the religions of an originally polytheistic Israel. His work thus puts biblical studies in line with a view of cultural diversity common in anthropology and archaeology: People’s identities are forged (in both the bland and pointed senses of the term) for the purpose of making difference. Smith himself recognizes that the field of Israelite religion and biblical studies “remains one that does not generate its own general theoretical contribution to the humanities or social sciences” (p. xxx), but that the past decade has witnessed a major growth of the conceptual factors that go into thinking about Israelite religion. In other words, the field may be on the verge of realizing its own intellectually distinctive role.

What are the larger consequences of seeing the history of Israelite religion as a process of identity formation? The classic frameworks of both Albright (evolution) and Frank Moore Cross (a dialectic between history and myth) are appreciated but basically abandoned. Israel did not have a single evolving essence, but rather made its own history by remembering, inventing, and forgetting essential dimensions of itself. The question then becomes, what did their own history mean to the Israelites? This question breaks down the old distinction between history (what really happened) and historiography (the way a culture attempts to represent what really happened). For Smith Israelite “history” existed on a continuum with stories conveying collective memory (p. xxviii). Here he shows an acute awareness that understanding how the Bible represented the past will involve theoretical questions that have not yet been assimilated into the field.

This is the most exciting thing about this new edition: the idea that biblical studies has only gotten more intellectually interesting in the past decade, and that it needs to get more intellectually interesting yet.3 In particular, the category of “history” as conventionally used in biblical studies, as in “is the Bible history or isn’t it?” needs to be modified or done away with in the light of literary study. But literary study, as currently practiced, also proves itself inadequate in the light of history. The goal is not an atomized view of some self-sufficient, readerly text but a deeper integration with history on the ground. His discussion thus implies the need to rethink the role of two categories, both of which conventionally appear opposite “history” (and neither of which appear in Smith’s index, though he shows great interest in the first).

The first opposition, which Smith invokes in his preface, is between history and memory. Israelite writing is to be understood as a tool for working with memory, enshrining and reshaping stories in hopes of creating the official memories of a culture. At the same time, acceptance of and participation in this writing worked to define that culture. Jan Assmann has made one of the most self-conscious forays into writing this kind of history; his mnemohistory of Moses “is concerned not with the past as such, but only with the past as it is remembered” and is “not the opposite of history, but rather is one of its branches or subdivisions.”4 A further sign that Smith is onto something here is the way other scholars are converging on the constellation of text, culture, and practice by which people actively make the past into a usable thing: William Schniedewind’s How the Bible Became a Book: the Textualization of Ancient Israel (Cambridge University Press, forthcoming) incorporates the perspective of anthropological linguistics in understanding the formation of biblical literature.5 And Smith himself promises a book “influenced … by Annales figures writing on cultural memory” (p. xxviii, n. 93). This new attentiveness to what ancient writers used texts for is captured by the anthropologist John Kelly: “Our studies change when we approach texts not as windows to distant world views but as tools made for use and used effectively (though not necessarily as originally intended) in distant places and times.”6

A second opposition, between history and myth, reveals an emerging perspective on the biblical that is not as mechanistic as the word “tool” implies, and which may resolve some of the problems Smith’s new history raises. An old and still influential view opposes polytheistic “myth” to monotheistic “history” or epic (cf., simply the title of Cross’ classic From Canaanite Myth to Hebrew Epic). This opposition is one that work like Smith’s has justly undermined, and a new book by Michael Fishbane essentially destroys. In a bold and entirely convincing polemic, Fishbane argues that earlier scholars posed an imaginary but convenient break between polytheistic myth and monotheistic purity for the worst theological reasons.7 Fishbane concludes that denial of the centrality of anthropomorphism in the Bible is an “attempt to save Scripture from itself—for oneself, and must thus be considered a species of modern apologetics” (p. 7).

Smith has best described the suppressed Israelite origins of the polytheistic myth attacked in the Bible, but Fishbane shows that the mythic mode was deeply at home in monotheism itself, essential to the vitality of both biblical and Jewish tradition. If “monotheistic myth” is “the carrier of some of its most powerful and poignant theological topics,” (p. 16) then themes like the Divine Combat with the Sea or Divine Wrath and Sorrow represent a new category of cultural memory: one where myths are neither invented nor repressed but unconsciously shared with neighboring cultures. Here religious identity emerges through an alchemy of cultural system and creativity; identity responds to history and makes difference but is not reducible to either.

The remainder of this review will examine more technical questions, still focusing on points where philology engages history and culture. The most difficult task of the book is assimilating evidence embedded in a staggering spectrum of texts, languages, and objects: despite Smith’s argument that there is “barely enough material” to write a proper history of religion, there may in fact already be too much. This sounds strange, but the point is that in assembling enough data to overwhelm the reader, the massiveness of the data itself raises a serious interpretive issue. This is the problem of truly weighing, rather than merely counting the evidence.

The book contains models of evidence careful weighed, as in Smith’s critique of the work of Jeffrey Tigay on Israelite onomastics (pp. 4–5). His response to the proposal of P. Kyle McCarter on the linguistics of hypostasis (pp. 121–124) is less convincing—Smith brings up all the data but never quite organizes it into a coherent alternative. A footnote (p. 122, n. 64) in the latter section raises a mass of material—and questions—that the argument does not seem to have digested. Here Smith cites “secular uses” of BH panîm to show that “the face” of a god can mean literally that and is not necessarily a sign of divine hypostasis. But these examples are not all secular and may undermine his arguments. The first is in Gen 33:10 where Jacob, prepared for a murderous attack, receives a brotherly greeting from Esau and says, “to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor.” Jacob’s statement refers to the mythic image of God turning his face to the supplicant in mercy and cannot really be understood as “secular.” On the other hand Exod 10:28–9 certainly does refer to Pharoah’s face, showing that the word panîm could indeed mean “face,” but we already knew this. In 2 Sam 17:11 Hushai’s advice to Absalom uses the word to mean “presence, person,” but again this is universally recognized—see for example BDB and Rashi on Exodus 33:15, which provides Smith’s next puzzling example. Here it is God’s presence which goes with the Israelites. In addition to God’s presence hardly being secular, the statement has a crucial theological context. The same speech contains God’s further statement to Moses that “I know you by name” (Exod 33:17), which should not be seen in isolation from Deuteronomy’s concluding statement that God “knew Moses face to face.”

This very evidence shows that even literal uses of “face” can commute with those of “name” (Exod 23:21 describes a clear angelic hypostasis of the Lord, who is to be obeyed because “my name is in him” and was later understood as the angelic viceregent Metatron), evoking mythic resonances that cannot be confined to a literal level. Smith seems to admit as much when he speculates that the goddess known as “Tannit-face-of-Baal” was actually “the representation of Baal”—and how far is it from a divine “representation” of a god to a hypostasis? The material here is profound and exceeds brisk, literal-minded analysis.

As is natural in such a wide-ranging book, there are a few major references missing which readers should be made aware of. On divine combat myths that equate political enemies with cosmic ones, p. 98 lacks a reference to Cristiano Grottanelli’s slashingly brilliant essay, “The Enemy King is a Monster: A Biblical Equation,” Studi Storico Religiosi 3 (1979), 5–36. The section on “Gender Language for Yahweh” (pp. 137–147) omits Tikva Frymer-Kensky’s foundational work8 and Smith’s comprehensive footnote (p. 169, n. 26) on the Marzeah ritual misses the statement of Dennis Pardee on “Marzihu, Kispu, and the Ugaritic Funerary Cult: A Minimalist View” in Fs. Gibson, pp. 273–287. In wading through the swamp of references, Smith could perhaps have been better served by his editors: no less than three different systems are used to refer to Ugaritic texts (CTA, RS and KTU; see for example pp. 76, 82, 86), and an important work of Ahlstrom is frustratingly orphaned by a footnote on 189, n. 20 which is only fully cited 181 pages earlier, on p. 8.

Good philology does not just read all the obscure texts but interprets how they matter. One of the book’s many strong points is the use Smith makes of texts like the amazing Aramaic religious text in Demotic script known as Papyrus Amherst 63 (p. 84). But the philological significance of this text extends yet deeper into religion, culture, and politics. The bare linguistic facts of the text’s transcription system, as analyzed by Richard C. Steiner,9 are significant for the cultural self-differentiation of Israelites. This is because this text, transcribed orally from Aramaic around 300 bce, still differentiates the Proto-Northwest Semitic letters ghayin and kha, phonemes that lived on in some dialects of this time but which the Phoenician-derived linear alphabet never represented. These phonemes were still preserved in the Aramaic spoken by the text’s reciter, as well as in various Hebrew dialects of the third century (Joshua Blau showed most comprehensively that this was the likely explanation for a number of spellings in the LXX,10 and Amherst 63, as a transcribed text, is far more solid evidence of this), but not in Official Aramaic or the Bible.

The official Hebrew of the Israelite and Judean chanceries emerges as a concrete, powerful tool for making the sort of collective memory—and, just as importantly, forgetting—to which Smith draws our attention. In this case, what is forgotten are the local dialects and traditions of the sort embodied in Amherst 63’s version of Psalm 20 and the Deir `Alla text’s version of the Balaam stories. Our contemporary discovery of these texts reveals “foreign” variants and alternative versions of languages and myths shared with Israel. Investigating how each of these traditions once evoked a living world, and how Israel’s writers forged their own from these lost ones, we can begin to write those histories of memory of which Smith and Assmann speak.


[1] Culture in Practice: Selected Essays (New York: Zone, 2000), p. 561.

[2] For censorship and inclusion in Jewish ritual see Lawrence Hoffman, “Censoring in and Censoring Out: A Function of Liturgical Language” in J. Gutmann, ed., Ancient Synagogues: The State of Research (Atlanta, GA.: Scholars Press, 1981), pp. 19–37; for a theory and ethnography of censorship as a cultural practice, Dominic Boyer, “Censorship As A Vocation: The Institutions, Practices, And Cultural Logic Of Media Control in The German Democratic Republic,” Comparative Studies in Society and History 45/3 (2003), 511 ‚ 545. For suppression see the work of Assmann on the history of cultural memory, cited below.

[3] His picture of a dialectic of trends within biblical research, where “each wave of atomism within the biblical field seems to be met by an opposing wave of interdisciplinary research” (p. xxvi) is both fresh and convincing.

[4] Moses the Egyptian: the Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997) p. 9.

[5] Schniedwind’s projected A Social History of Hebrew: Its Origins Through the Rabbinic Period promises to be of interest here. My own contribution, “What Was the Alphabet For? The First Written Vernaculars and the Making of Israelite National Literature” is forthcoming in Maaarav.

[6] “What was Sanskrit for? Metadiscursive Strategies in Ancient India” in Jan Houben, ed., Ideology and Status of Sanskrit: Contributions to the History of the Sanskrit Language (Leiden: Brill, 1996), p. 92. The similarity withthe title of my own article (n. 5 above) is not accidental.

[7] Biblical Myth and Rabbinic Mythmaking (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003). Like Smith’s, Fishbane’s work fits an emerging pattern of scholarly interest in monotheistic myth, marked by James Kugel’s The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible (New York: Free Press, 2003). A brilliant earlier study of the Divine Combat myth’s ongoing theological importance is Jon Levenson’s Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (New York: Harper and Row, 1987).

[8] In the Wake of the Goddesses (New York: Free Press, 1992).

[9] Richard Steiner and Charles Nims, “You Can’t Offer your Sacrifice and Eat it Too: A Polemical Poem from the Aramaic Text in Demotic Script,” JNES 43 (1984) 92–93.

[10] On Polyphony in Biblical Hebrew (Proceedings of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities VI/2, 1982).