Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts.
(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), xviii, 325 pp.
ISBN 0-19-513480-X. $60
Reviewed by Robert Gnuse
Loyola University

Mark Smith has generated a volume to complement his earlier work, The Early History of God (San Francisco, 1990) which has become a landmark study on the development of Israelite religion. In this volume his point of departure is an investigation of the understanding of the gods in the Ugaritic texts in order to perceive the conceptual unity of West-Semitic polytheism, so that Israelite monotheism may be envisioned more accurately in its cultural context. He believes that it is most important to understand what biblical monotheism was seeking to address when it emerged.

The first half of the book considers the religious understandings of the Ugaritic texts concerning the gods, and he specifically evaluates anthropomorphic deities and divine monsters (chap 1), the divine council (chap 2), the divine family (chap 3), minor deities (chap 4), the traits of deities (chap 5), and the question of dying and rising deities, especially Baal (chap 6). In the second half of the book he turns to Israelite religious belief, and topics include the relationship of El and Yahweh (chap 7), monotheistic rhetoric (chap 8), monotheism in the biblical literature (chap 9), and Second Isaiah (chap 10).

Smith proposes a number of challenging and suggestive conclusions for historians of Israelite religion to consider. 1) Our terms “monotheism” and “polytheism” are modern artificial creations which do not reflect the complexity of belief in the ancient world. 2) Polytheism, such as that encountered in Ugaritic texts, can speak of the divine in a unified fashion, anticipating monotheistic language. 3) Polytheism in Ugaritic texts was built upon the image of the “divine family” and not so much the metaphor of “divine council” or “divine bureaucracy.” 4) Insufficient evidence exists to speak of dying and rising gods in the ancient world, especially in regard to Baal. 5) Various polytheisms existed in ancient Israel, and their assumptions can be reconstructed to some extent by consideration of texts such as Psalm 82 and Deut 32. 6) El may have been the original deity worshiped by Israelites and associated with the exodus, but Yahweh emerged and absorbed El. 7) Israelites de-emphasized the other deities in the pantheon under Yahweh, and Yahweh increasingly appeared as the divine bureaucratic lord over the other gods. Israel thus used “divine council” imagery more than is found in Ugaritic texts. 8) Israelite monotheism was rhetoric designed to describe Israel’s exclusive relationship with Yahweh, it was not pure monotheism (for such pure monotheism is really our modern intellectual construct). Monotheism was an “inner community discourse,” not a “new cultural step” (p. 154) or a new stage in religious evolution. 9) Changes in Judean society (breakdown of the kinship system, Assyrian imperialism, the decline of Judah’s political status, and exile) caused the emergence of monotheistic rhetoric for a world in which Jews found themselves without the old familial or political boundaries. These are the major arguments presented by Smith, but the reader will discover other insights and observations well-defended by the author which are worthy of serious consideration also.

I find Smith’s presentation to be brilliant, well-documented, well-organized, and very discomforting. Biblical scholars now recognize that in the pre-exilic era Asherah worship, infant sacrifice, solar veneration, and other religious practices attacked by biblical authors represented normal Israelite worship, while monotheism was a late development in the Babylonian Exile and subsequent years. Smith and others led the charge in this new scholarly perception of Israelite religion. But with this volume Smith has thrown down a gauntlet to challenge our understandings even more. Most notably he suggests that emergent monotheism was not a new stage in religious evolution but rather a new rhetorical strategy prompted by changed social and cultural circumstances. He further suggests that words like polytheism and monotheism are modern intellectual creations which we have imposed upon the ancients and their texts. He may be correct, but intellectually this is frightening, for it calls upon us to reconfigure our scholarly and pedagogical language even more radically. I personally would have to rewrite past (No Other Gods, Sheffield, 1997; The Old Testament and Process Theology, St. Louis, 2001) and future manuscripts in process, for I view “emergent monotheism” as an intellectual breakthrough during and after the exile along the lines of a biological mutation which surfaces after years of genetic preparation has laid the groundwork. On most issues Smith and I agree, but we diverge in characterizing Israelite and Jewish religious development as a “new stage” in human intellectual evolution. I would submit that if you distance yourself from the biblical period and look at the greater religious developments across Asia during the “Axial Age,” you become increasingly tempted to speak of a new step forward in human intellectual development. At some point in human history we got from polytheism to monotheism, and the biblical era and its concomitant literature looks like one of those seminal stages of evolution to me. I am sure, however, that Smith would respond admirably to my argument. Smith probably diverges from most scholars with his thesis, but his arguments will be heeded seriously by those in this field of study. Regardless of whether you consider his conclusions to be valid, Smith has produced a seminal work with which scholars must come to grips for years.