Thom Stark Interviewed About His New Book

Q. Who is the Yahweh of the Israelites?

A. Well as scholars like Frank Cross, Chris Rollston, Mark Smith and others have demonstrated and have known for some time, the earliest texts in the Hebrew Bible give a strong indication that the early conception of Yahweh was that he was an ancient Near Eastern tribal deity. As I argue in my book, following Rollston, the Song of Moses in Deut 32 indicates that Yahweh was believed to have been one of the children of the Canaanite deity El Elyon (God Most High). The song describes how the nations were originally formed, and what it says is that the peoples of the earth were divided up according to the number of El Elyon’s children (the junior members of the divine pantheon). Yahweh, Israel’s patron deity, was one of Elyon’s children.

The best evidence suggests that Yahweh did not begin as the “only true God” of later Jewish monotheism; he did not begin as the creator of the world. Yahweh began as a young, up-and-coming tribal deity whose prowess among other gods mirrored Israel’s aspirations vis-a-vis surrounding tribes and nations.

Q. You’re saying God evolves in the Old Testament?

A. Exactly. Surprise of surprises, as Israel aspired to greatness and sought to make a name for itself, surrounded by vast empires, Yahweh got bigger and bigger, until he became so grandiose in their theologies that it no longer made sense to refer to the other national deities as gods at all—so vastly superior was Yahweh to the gods of other nations, according to Judean propaganda literature.

Q. Tell us more about this evolution from tribal deity to monotheism.

A. Well as Chris Rollston argues, there are various stages in Israel’s progression from polytheism to monotheism. Yahweh begins as a junior member of the divine pantheon. This is the view during the tribal confederation period of Israel’s history. After Israel became a monarchy, Yahweh gets a promotion to head of the pantheon, taking his father Elyon’s place. (This parallels similar ideas in Babylonian literature, in which Marduk’s ascendancy to king of the gods mirrors the rise of the Babylonian empire.)

Over time, Yahweh and Elyon are conflated, they sort of merge into one god. At this stage Yahweh starts to be seen as creator-god. But in this period, Israel still believes in other gods; it’s just that they’re not supposed to worship other gods because they owed their allegiance to Yahweh, their patron deity. Of course, Yahweh was believed to have had a wife, Asherah, and it is clear that Israelites worshiped her as Yahweh’s consort.

This seems to have been acceptable orthodoxy until the seventh century BCE or so. At that point, prophets like Jeremiah began to polemicize other gods, calling into doubt their very existence. This idea that Yahweh alone is God is solidified during the Babylonian exile in the sixth century, for a complex set of reasons. This is when official Israelite religion finally became monotheistic.

To read the whole interview click here.

16 comments:

Bogdan said...

John, someone like Thom Stark is exactly who I was waiting for since I read Question 107 from ReasonableFaith. It's subject is "Ancient Israelite Polytheism?". To answer this question W. L. Craig asked the help of Richard Hess (the Earl S. Kalland Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Denver Seminary). Could you please ask Thom Stark if he wants to address what Hess said regarding El Elyon and Israelite polytheism? Hess' view is quite different than what I've read in this interview. Here is the link:

http://www.reasonablefaith.org/site/News2?page=NewsArticle&id=7110

Also, if it's of any help, Hess wrote a book in 2007 entitled "Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey "

Thank you very much

John W. Loftus said...

Bogdan, I alerted Thom about this, so thanks.

Thom Stark said...

Bogdan,

I read Hess's Reasonable Faith response. Unfortunately, it's full of obfuscations of the facts, misinformation, and actually (quite to my surprise) plain ignorance about the material. I won't reply to everything he said. I've read his book Israelite Religions. It's similarly not a very helpful contribution to the subject, although I'll grant it has its moments. On polytheism and monotheism in Israel, the leading experts are Frank Moore Cross (Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic) and Mark S. Smith (The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, The Early History of God, and God in Translation).

I'll just respond to one of the more obvious mistakes Hess makes (obvious to those who have a basic training in textual criticism anyway). Hess writes:

Now as to the matter of Deuteronomy 32:8-9, I translate the Hebrew as we have it: “When the Most High (Elyon) gave nations their inheritance among humanity, he established boundaries for the people according to the number of the sons of Israel. (He did this) because Yahweh’s allotment is his people. Jacob is the portion of his inheritance.” To find “sons of God” in place of “sons of Israel,” you need to rely on the Greek Septuagint translation, which actually has “angels of God.” It is not in the Hebrew.

Seeing this come from Hess surprised me, but I suppose it really shouldn't. Hess is an Evangelical Scholar, and sometimes the "Evangelical" comes first for a reason. He translates this according to the Masoretic Text ("according to the number of the sons of Israel"). When he says that to find "sons of God" instead of "sons of Israel," one needs "to rely on the Greek Septuagint translation [LXX]" and that "sons of God" is "not in the Hebrew," he exposes his ignorance here.

(cont'd)

Thom Stark said...

This would have been fine if he were writing in 1946, before the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. He says "It is not in the Hebrew," and by "the Hebrew" he is referring to the Masoretic Text. The Masoretic Text says, "sons of Israel." But the Dead Sea Scrolls (Hebrew texts which are over a thousand years older than the Masoretic Text Hess relies on) say, "according to the number of the sons of the gods."

Those who are trained in textual criticism know how to tell which reading ("sons of the gods," "sons of Israel") is most probably the original reading—precisely because the Greek Septuagint says, "according to the number of the angels of God." I talk about this at length in my book (chapter 4).

Scholars know that the reading in the Dead Sea Scrolls is what the scribes were translating into Greek when they produced the Septuagint in the third century BCE (also about a thousand years older than the Masoretic Text). "Angels of God" doesn't derive from "sons of Israel"; it is a translation of "sons of the gods." The Dead Sea Scrolls reading is what scholars call the vorlage for the Septuagint translation. That just means that the translators of the Septuagint had a Hebrew text that reads just like the Dead Sea Scrolls, and not like the reading found in the much later Masoretic Text.

At the time the Septuagint was translated, Jews were monotheists; so they interpreted references to the "sons of God/gods" as "angels." (I show why "angels" couldn't have been the original meaning in my book.)

So, when Hess writes that "It is not in the Hebrew," what he really should say is that, "It is not in the late and corrupted Masoretic Text, but it is in the early Dead Sea Scrolls text." The change of "sons of the gods" to "sons of Israel" is what textual critics call a tiqqune sopherim (a pious alteration of the problematic text).

So, the picture here is clear: El Elyon (God Most High) divided up humankind according to the number of the sons of the gods/God (read: his and his consort's children), and Yahweh's portion was his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance. Yahweh is clearly depicted as El Elyon's son in this very early Hebrew text. The land and people of Israel are given to Yahweh as Yahweh's inheritance.

I go over all of this much more fully in chapter 4 of my book, and detail other evidence pertaining to polytheism in the Hebrew Bible. That Hess doesn't even mention the evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls (indeed, he seems to be completely oblivious to it) I think is quite telling.

I'd also recommend you look at Evangelical scholar Michael Heiser, who provides a much more honest treatment in this material, in several articles (some of which are accessible online in various places).

Regards,
Thom

Bogdan said...

Thom,
Thank you and I look forward to reading your book.

Thom Stark said...

It's a pleasure!

Jorge said...

@Thom Stark wrote:

Re "Yahweh is clearly depicted as El Elyon's son in this very early Hebrew text."

Hi, Thom. In the Bible, El Elyon, Yahweh, El Shaddai, El Olan, and others, are the names attributed to the One true God, only depicting His varied attributes, to help explain His nature and character (as much as it can be "explained"). El Elyon is mentioned in Gen 14:18-20, 14:22, Psalms 57:2, and Psalms 78:35.
Yahweh is mentioned in Gen 4:3, Exo 6:3, and others. Etc.
In other words, they are one and the same.

Re Deut 32:8-9, remember that in Deut 6:4 Moses had already established that "The LORD our God, the LORD is one.", so Moses couldn't possibly be talking about Yahweh's father, as one of many gods. Moses just uses different characters or attributes of God to explain what He (God) did.

Re "El Elyon (God Most High) divided up humankind according to the number of the sons of the gods/God.."

The "sons of god/s" reference CAN mean angels, or demons. To say God divided the peoples, it can be implied that some, or all, were controlled, or headed, by "gods", (for we know there be "gods" and "lords" many: Jer 11:13; 1Cor 8:5).
1Cor 8:6 instruct us that there truly is only ONE true God, even mentioning Jesus as part of Him.

Harry H. McCall, CET said...

Jorge stated:

In the Bible, El Elyon, Yahweh, El Shaddai, El Olan, and others, are the names attributed to the One true God, only depicting His varied attributes, to help explain His nature and character (as much as it can be "explained"). El Elyon is mentioned in Gen 14:18-20, 14:22, Psalms 57:2, and Psalms 78:35. … The "sons of god/s" reference CAN mean angels, or demons.

Jorge, your understanding does not consider the Semitic world of the Israelites.

There is, at no time, in the ancient Semitic world any form of monotheism. The earliest texts (based on a much older cuneiform syllabic writing systems) all believed in a hierarchy of gods often headed by a older father or king god.

Thus, if the Israelite god was truly as old as you (and the Bible) claim, we would expect to find baked clay tables written in cuneiform discussing both the Israelites and their monotheistic god Yahweh, but we don’t!

Hebrew is a late alphabetic text that shows a transformation from Israelite polytheism to monotheism in the Hebrew Bible.

What you are attempting to doing is to prove that the Israelites had some early form of the Trinitarian doctrine which could account for all the other gods (polytheism) rolled up into one god that the Israelites worshiped, but these ancient Semitic cuneiform texts do not to support your premise at all.

The closest language (and neighbors to the Israelites) were the people form Ugarit, but even the alphabetic cuneiform texts from Ras Shamra show no concept of monotheism.

Thom Stark’s points are build on objective solid schoilarship and must stand.

Jorge said...

@Harry H. MacCall,CET wrote:

"There is, at no time, in the ancient Semitic world any form of monotheism."

Hi, Harry. Yes, that is very clear. One can come to that conclusion from a plain reading of the Bible even, but it doesn't necessarily have to mean that the other "gods" can even be compared to (or equated with) God.

2Co 4:4 "In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers,..". There, Satan is referenced to as the god of the world, and that's been the case from the beginning, when he attempted to make himself equal with God.
As men multiplied on the earth, gods became many, with a few of them gaining more prominence than others (Baal, Adrammelech, Ashima, Ashtoreth, Dagon, and others).
It is out of this environment that God separated the Israelites (by singling Abraham out) to be the people through whom Messiah would come. Reference:
Jos 24:2 And Joshua said to all the people, "Thus says the LORD (Jehovah), the God (Elohim) of Israel, 'Long ago, your fathers lived beyond the Euphrates, Terah, the father of Abraham (who was called Abram at the time) and of Nahor; and they served other gods.
(Parentheticals by me.)

Re "Thus, if the Israelite god was truly as old as you (and the Bible) claim,.."

I believe Gen 1:1 ; "In the beginning God (Elohim) created..".

Can't get any "older" than that! ;-)

Harry H. McCall, CET said...

Jorge,

You never addressed the fact that the Hebrew language in very late when compared to cuneiform script.

Thus, if Genesis 1:1 is really an authentic account, then please provide a text of any part of Genesis in Semitic cuneiform script.

Even if one accept the Jewish / Bishop Ussher’s dating system that the earth is about 6K years old, please provide a reference to support your belief in the truth of Genesis with at least some known text written in Paleo-Hebrew on either baked clay or stone.

Surly, if you believe Genesis that Abram came out of Ur / Mesopotamia, then he had to have know Akkadian.

If the text of Genesis was given to Moses, then why should we take the Torah on faith totally on its own?

If faith is the case, then all the other ancient religious text are true too if we claim they were given by some god / gods (Hindu texts).

Basically, you want me to believe that Genesis is true because faith makes it true for you. Even though there is no other Semitic language it is written in and neither is there any proof Moses wrote it other than Jewish tradition and, again based on faith.

Finally, nowhere in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) does it claim that Genesis is the ONLY creation account that is true (This is because the Jews copied other creation accounts and used them in their stories).

Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible does it claim that the other Gods are not true either.

If your want to make an exclusive truth statement that ONLY the Bible is true of all the world’s religions (ancient and modern), then you’ll have to drop the faith issue (as all the other religions appeal to faith too) and provide facts to support your claims.

As for faith, almost every murder in prison today wants you to believe he is innocent. Why? Well have faith!

Jorge said...

@Harry H. McCall, CET wrote:

Re "You never addressed the fact that the Hebrew language in very late when compared to cuneiform script."
Thus, if Genesis 1:1 is really an authentic account, then please provide a text of any part of Genesis in Semitic cuneiform script."
Hi, Harry, here are a couple of interesting articles:
www.allaboutarchaeology.org and www.british-israel.ca/Genesis.htm

I have no way of knowing the accuracy of that info, just as I have no way of knowing what Thom Stark talks about in his book can be trusted. Yet, I'm willing, as far as I can, to discuss what's "written" in that material, against what's written in the Bible. So far, I'm not impressed.
To call El Eloy the "chief" of gods, and Yahweh another, lesser god, with many more like him, goes beyond anything I understand from the Bible. The Bible is clear it talks about one only true God, with many so called "gods" who are no gods at all, but beings capable of manifesting themselves and deceiving the very early peoples (and, may I add, doing it even today!).
That writings older then the original texts have been found that contradict what the Bible says is material for many, many debates.
You have to understand my position. If Thom understands that what he found is telling an older story that supersedes what the Bible says and should be taken as the "real" truth about God(s), he has to make it clearer just HOW the Israelites DID expand on those stories. Just saying they did won't do.

After all, if an even older tablet was found that spoke of the tooth fairy, would it then follow that she's real??

Re "Finally, nowhere in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) does it claim that Genesis is the ONLY creation account that is true (This is because the Jews copied other creation accounts and used them in their stories)."

Sorry, Harry, The Bible does not say:
"Here's the account of creation from one god", or "Here's an account of creation.."; but rather, "In the beginning God..". Not even "a God..").
( 1 of 2 )

Jorge said...

( 2 of 2 )
Re "Nowhere in the Hebrew Bible does it claim that the other Gods are not true either."

I don't think it does. I'm not negating the existence of "other" gods that are true as far to say they exist. just the claim that they are equal with THE God (Deu 6:4 "Hear, O Israel: The LORD (Jehovah) our God (Elohim), the LORD (Jehovah) is one. ). Also, I take the whole of Scripture (both old and New Testaments, to interpret Scripture. I'll assume you know the New Testament references the Old a lot).

Re "If your want to make an exclusive truth statement that ONLY the Bible is true of all the world’s religions (ancient and modern), then you’ll have to drop the faith issue (as all the other religions appeal to faith too) and provide facts to support your claims."

Yes, but the question then becomes faith in what, or more accurately, in whom?. Faith in the teachings of a person who lived to tell us to believe in "ourselves"?; Faith that says WE are gods?; Faith (a kind of faith) that says there is/are no god(s), just us, then nothing?;
Faith that makes someone believe heaven is filled with virgins just waiting for men to get there? (or, for women, that heaven is becoming a virgin and waiting for some guy to get there?). OR Faith, backed by a Bible that's been attacked and still survives?.
That speaks to the uniqueness of Biblical Faith. Since it is: Heb 11:1 "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.", we can KNOW it cannot be attained by searching for empirical evidence, and that clearly sets it apart.

Re a murderer's innocence claim.
Any murderer's claim of innocence is worth pursuing. I would not believe in the innocence because it was claimed, but realize we can only go so far until the evidence or lack of pointed one way or the other.
Again, I don't think that approach can be applied to Biblical Faith.

Harry H. McCall, CET said...

Jorge:

Genesis 1:1 is not “God” but Gods. Elohim is masculine PLURAL in Hebrew Check out any Hebrew grammar.

Secondary, you feel that humans are corrupt and sinful and yet God wrote none of the Bible (Scribes did) and God canonized none of the Bible (Humans did).

Frankly, you are running on a double standard: Humans are sinful evil corrupt creatures and yet, without them god would have no proof of his existence.

Moreover, you accept the New Testament, then why did Jesus and the New Testament author quote ONLY from the LXX? Could it be that the LXX (Like the Aramaic Targums) has been edited by “corrupt humans” to where Israelites gods are now angels and bad gods are now demons (both assertion are supported by NO Semitic textual or grammatical evidence, but ONLY by “sinful and corrupt humans” changing the text.

Proof of how your “corrupt and sinful humans” changed the text is found in Numbers 22: 22 where the messenger מלאך (Not an angel !) is none other than Satan שטן (again, NOT an angle)!!(Check out the Hebrew and use a Hebrew lexicon and not the corrupt Strong’s or Young’s concordances that are totaly misleading.)

If your want to play the inspirited Bible apologetic roll, then is the Hebrew text the inspirited Word of God?

Or is the Greek LXX the inspirited Word of God? Are the Aramaic sections the inspirited Word of God?

Or will you choose an English version as the inspirited Word of God?

Harry H. McCall, CET said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Harry H. McCall, CET said...

Sorry about the typo: “Inspirited” should have read “inspired”.

The dictionary defines “inspired” as an adjective meaning:
1. Extraordinarily good; brilliant and creative. 2. Motivated by something.

Thus, the entire Bible and all its ancient versions are all motivated by the current views of god at the times these many versions were written.

Jorge said...

@Harry H. McCall, CET wrote:

Re "Genesis 1:1 is not “God” but Gods. Elohim is masculine PLURAL in Hebrew Check out any Hebrew grammar."

Hi, Harry. Elohim CAN be in singular in that instance (since the singular form "bara" he created, is used). Still, I do think it means plural, as in Trinity. So I have no problem with that.

Re "Secondary, you feel that humans are corrupt and sinful and yet God wrote none of the Bible (Scribes did) and God canonized none of the Bible (Humans did).
Frankly, you are running on a double standard: Humans are sinful evil corrupt creatures and yet, without them god would have no proof of his existence."

Well, actually, I know WE humans are corrupt and sinful; yet, the bible is clear that those entrusted with taking down the "God breathed" words of God were enabled (inspired, if you will) and therefore "speaking for God" (as in "Thus sayeth the LORD"). So there is a difference between those who claim to speak for God and those who actually did. King David comes to mind. He was called "a man after God's own heart", and yet it is recorded that he did some awful stuff. That speaks of his humanity, warts and all, not negating he WAS used by God to write some good stuff.

Re "Proof of how your “corrupt and sinful humans” changed the text is found in Numbers 22: 22 where the messenger ???? (Not an angel !) is none other than Satan ??? (again, NOT an angle)!!(Check out the Hebrew and use a Hebrew lexicon and not the corrupt Strong’s or Young’s concordances that are totaly misleading.)"

Yes, God dispatched a "malak"; a messenger, who would act as a "satan" (merely an adversary), not "Satanas", the devil himself.
Reference: 1Samuel 29:4, where the princes of the philistines were afraid King David would become a "satan" (adversary), against them.
I'd be interested in checking out any concordance other then the Strong's you'd recommend.

Re "Thus, the entire Bible and all its ancient versions are all motivated by the current views of god at the times these many versions were written."

Well, that's quite a claim. I use the revised KJV, regular KJV, NIV, and also the ESV. All recognized as "good" translations, and have found them to be quite in harmony, with only slightly different ways to say the same thing. As such, that's what I look for in a Bible.