Saturday, January 30, 2010

Revealed or Evolved

Did God reveal himself to Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and others imparting the faith that is now the core of the Bible? Or did Hebrew monotheism evolved gradually from Canaanite polytheism? Recent finds of an ostracon (shard of pottery with an inscription) in the Sinai desert bearing the inscription "Yahweh of Samaria and his asherah" and the Ras Shamra tablets discovered in the ruins of the ancient Phoenician city of Ugarit some eighty years ago are giving skeptics opportunity to press their case for a purely human origin for biblical faith. What is the truth?

The truth is that Israel from the exodus forward was plagued by a besetting polytheism. The polemic of Moses and the prophets who followed him against the worship of the calves of the exodus and later Baal and Asherah and a pantheon of others is on every page of the Old Testament. There was nothing added to our knowledge of the religious condition of Israel by these finds. In fact, they confirm what the Bible has declared always. So what's the big deal?

The big deal is the attempt now to find an affirmation of polytheism in the words of the prophets. The most often quoted text is Deuteronomy 32:8 It reads in the RSV: "When the Most High 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." The argument is that these "sons of God" ("ben Elohim" in the Dead Sea Scrolls text of Deuteronomy) are the 70 sons of El referred to in the Ugaritic tablets. Therefore, the Deuteronomy passage agrees with the polytheism of the Phoenician Canaanites. That would be a big deal - if it were not for the context of the Deuteronomy passage.

The context is the entire poem from 32:1 through verse 43, in particular verses 5 and 6. There it is the people of Israel who are called the children (ben) of God. That provides the insight we need to understand verse 8 - God fixed the bounds of peoples of the earth according to, or in consideration of, the sons of Israel. Interestingly, that is how the Masoretic text of the Old Testament reads. Apparently the scribes who copied down what we now call the Masoretic text wished to make it clear that it was the people of Israel who were the sons of God.

A simple reading of the poem in its entirety, rather than picking out individual verses, would have cleared up the controversy. But skeptics are inclined to isolate the verses in which they believe there is an inconsistency and ignore the context. Fortunately, almost any careful reader of the scriptures can recognize that error. That is an admonishment to us, however, to read the scriptures for ourselves and to read carefully.

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