Review of Othmar Keel, Die Geschichte Jerusalems und die Entstehung des Monotheismus

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

Othmar Keel, Die Geschichte Jerusalems und die Entstehung des Monotheismus (Orte und Landschafte der Bibel 4,1-2; Göttingen: Van­den­hoeck & Ruprecht, 2007). Pp. 1384. Hardback, €150. ISBN 978-3-525-50177-1.

Othmar Keel has written a magnificent, but complex, two volume monograph of encyclopaedic stature. In fact he has intertwined two separate discourses into one: (a) a history of the city of Jerusalem up to the Roman Era, and (b) a proposal on the emergence of the monotheistic variant of Yahwism. The book was originally conceived as a handbook for the educated pilgrim to the Holy Lands, but the final result is much more. These volumes provide the evidence-based views of a seasoned scholar on important topics in biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies. Some relics of the original conception still remain, however, such as Keel's ongoing discussion of the symbolic role of Jerusalem in Christian theology.

Keel's re-enactment of Jerusalem's history is not easily summarized. The reader is supplied with a variety of evidence and insights. Keel correctly operates with a holistic approach. He warns against too much trust in the written and/or archaeological evidence: a text or an artefact does not equal history but contains a view on past events. It is the informed historian who combines and evaluates the pieces of the puzzle - knowing that too many pieces are gone and that new discoveries could change the image of the past. Keel underscores the fact that there was a Jerusalem before David. There is evidence against the ideology behind the celebration of “Three Thousand Years of the City” in 1997 ce: Remains of occupation from the Early Bronze Age and the role Jerusalem played in the Amarna correspondence clearly show that Jerusalem was inhabited before the Iron Age. It is intriguing to see that Keel, despite his own warnings, mainly follows the biblical agenda for the history of Jerusalem, although he cannot be accused of “Biblicism.” At some points he overestimates the historical value of the biblical tradition, such as his construction of Jerusalem in the later decades of the eighth century bce where he uses prophetic texts from Micah and Isaiah as evidence for his view. Aside from the fact that the dating of these texts is debated, the methodological question must be raised regarding to what degree prophetic texts that clearly aim at something other than history-writing can be used for the construction of the past. Admittedly, they play their role in a histoire de mentalité.

Keel's discourse on the emergence of monotheism can be summarized in his position that monotheism did not begin in the desert and should not be seen as a vague reflection of the measures of Apophis or Akhenaten, but should instead be seen as a product of urban life. He builds his argument as follows:

  • The inhabitants of pre-Davidic Jerusalem venerated the sun god, probably Shalem. In addition to the solar deity, a weather god and an Asherah-like goddess were present;
  • At the spot where the Dome of the Rock now rises, an open air sanctuary was built for the sun god; later the Solomonic temple was erected at exactly the same spot. The cult of the Judaean tribal deity Yhwh was then introduced as a deity of second rank replacing Baal-Hadad;
  • At some point in time Yhwh and the sun-god amalgamated; Keel is not very clear when it comes to the question of the “when” and “how” of this merger;
  • In the latter part of the ‘monarchic period’, between Isaiah and Jeremiah, “universal monotheism” was conceived: Yhwh was no longer seen merely as the patron deity of Jerusalem and vicinity, but became the Lord of the Universe;
  • This universalistic turn should be distinguished from the contemporary rise of “particular monotheism,” which was favoured by Deuteronomy and led to the Josianic reform. A misconception within this “particular monotheism” - namely the idea that the ‘true people' will never be abandoned by the ‘true God’ paved the way to the downfall of city, state and temple;
  • The tension between particularism and universalism became a constant feature in the emerging Judaism and Samaritanism.

Keel's analysis will generally be accepted. I would like, however, to point out a few weaknesses in his argument.

  1. In my view, “universal monotheism” did not arise before the postexilic period when it was expressed beautifully by the anonymous prophet Deutero-Isaiah;
  2. I still think that categories such as monolatrism and monoyahwism are of great help in understanding the history of religion in ancient Israel (and Jerusalem);
  3. In a way, the veneration of the Canaanite El/Ilû does not seem to be of great importance in Keel's scheme. It is strange that the deity plays such a minor role in the reconstruction of the past while he seems to be omnipresent in the evidence.

Despite these critical remarks, I would like to underscore that Keel has done a great service to biblical and ancient Near Eastern studies. As mentioned above, the two volumes are informed and balanced. Since the ability to read German is a vanishing competence for scholars, it is hoped that Keel's book will soon find a translation into English.

Bob Becking, Utrecht University, Netherlands