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The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts Paperback – November 6, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

Review

"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. Smith has produced a seminal work with which scholars must come to grips for years."

"This is an important work which will alter the perspectives of many."--The Bible Today
"Not only is the text wide-ranging and insightful at every turn, but it is greatly complemented by the endnotes, which resume arguments, develop tangential aspects, and offer a massive bibliography for further exploration."--Journal of Near Eastern Studies
"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. Smith has produced a seminal work with which
scholars must come to grips for years."--Journal of Hebrew Scriptures



"This is an important work which will alter the perspectives of many."--The Bible Today
"Not only is the text wide-ranging and insightful at every turn, but it is greatly complemented by the endnotes, which resume arguments, develop tangential aspects, and offer a massive bibliography for further exploration."--Journal of Near Eastern Studies
"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. Smith has produced a seminal work with which
scholars must come to grips for years."--Journal of Hebrew Scriptures



"This is an important work which will alter the perspectives of many."--The Bible Today
"Not only is the text wide-ranging and insightful at every turn, but it is greatly complemented by the endnotes, which resume arguments, develop tangential aspects, and offer a massive bibliography for further exploration."--Journal of Near Eastern Studies
"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. Smith has produced a seminal work with which
scholars must come to grips for years."--Journal of Hebrew Scriptures


"This is an important work which will alter the perspectives of many."--The Bible Today
"Not only is the text wide-ranging and insightful at every turn, but it is greatly complemented by the endnotes, which resume arguments, develop tangential aspects, and offer a massive bibliography for further exploration."--Journal of Near Eastern Studies
"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. Smith has produced a seminal work with which scholars must come to grips for years."--Journal of Hebrew Scriptures

About the Author

Mark S. Smith is Skirball Professor of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies at New York University. His publications include The Pilgrimage Pattern in Exodus (1997), The Ugaritic Baal Cycle (1994), The Early History of God (1990), as well as several other books on the Hebrew Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and West Semitic mythology and literature.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; New Ed edition (November 6, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195167686
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195167689
  • Product Dimensions: 9.1 x 1 x 6.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (20 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #638,921 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Timothy Dougal on May 10, 2003
Format: Hardcover
If you have read Smith's "Early History of God" and been intrigued by his conception of the development of our notion of God during the Biblical period, "The Origins Of Monotheism" delivers a significantly more detailed analysis of the ancient Bronze Age texts from Ugarit and their influence on the culture of ancient Palestine in general, and Biblical texts in particular. Mr. Smith examines conceptions of the divine family and council of the gods, more general notions of ancient aspects of divinity, and the roles of various divinity. Especially insightful is his critique of James Frazier's category of "dying and rising" gods in the Near East. In his analysis of Isaiah, he gives considerable background into Mesopotamian views on the divinity of statues of gods, whithout prejudice. There is a lot more than I can list here in this book, but if you're interested in how the idea of one, all-powerful god came about, this is really essential reading.
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This is an impressive piece of scholarship to contribute to the study of the emergence of monotheism. What sets Smith apart is a sociological study on how Israel developed from a henotheistic society to monotheism during the period just prior to the exile. What I appreciate about Smith is that he defines his terms very carefully. He shows how scholars in the past have had different definitions of monotheism, and he strives for precision. What is a little confusing about his work is that some of it is very speculative. The vestiges of (orthodox) henotheistic belief in ancient Israel are very sparse (Ps 82, Deut 32:8, 9 LXX and DSS). And Israelite religion did not be come monotheistic for all Israelites everywhere at the same time. As he says, the prophets record the existence of polytheistic and ditheistic Israelite worship by their critique of it. Another thing I appreciate about it is the annotation. THis book is 200 pages of text and 100 pages of footnotes. If you are looking to dive into a topic (such as, YHWH and his asherah), this is a great place to start because he talks about it briefly, then cites about 20-30 source on the topic. The footnote are a goldmine. What is annoying about this book is the lack of editing and the print. First the print is not necessarily Smith's fault, but it is very poor. I would think Oxford University Press could do better, but maybe this is their way of punishing people for not buying their expensive hardbacks. The other problem is the editing. SMith's theory about Ps 82 and Deut 32 come up about 4 times in the book. There are grammatical mistakes and paragraphs that just go on....and on....and on. This book needs some serious editing. All in all it's a good work. I don't necessarily agree with all his theories, but I learn a lot from his work, and what fun is it if you agree with everything you read?
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Format: Paperback
This is the third work of Mark S. Smith's that I have ventured to explore. My first was his Early History of God, which I enjoyed greatly, and the other was the Priestly Vision of Genesis 1, which I found to be immensely interesting at first, only for it to devolve into some rather generic commentary on the nature of myths. The present work, Origins of Biblical Monotheism, incorporates insight from Smith's extensive research into the Ugaritic texts and the Baal Cycle, but it also meanders too frequently into the realm of tangential subject matter and dry minutiae. This is not, therefore, a unified work, and it does not flow gracefully from beginning to end; I have the suspicion that certain of the chapters originated as independent essays. But that is not to say that the work is without interest.

Smith uses the Ugaritic texts as a background for his analysis, but he is careful to distinguish the polytheistic Ugaritic religion, which is geographically and temporally unique, from any (hypothetical) early polytheistic Israelite religion. What the former shares with the latter should not be understated, however, as the affinities between these West Semitic (not "Canaanite") systems are traceable and can be compared using the Ugaritic and biblical sources. These include (but are not limited to) the idea of a divine council headed by a father god (El), divine sons and a tiered conception of divinity, cosmic enemies, holy mountains, and female divinities. The great divide between the Ugaritic and oldest extant Israelite material centers upon the lack of mythic narrative in the latter (174).

The first, and larger part (27-131), of Smith's work is concerned with characteristics of West Semitic divinity, with reference to the Ugaritic sources.
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I am in no position to judge the scholarship of this work. This is my first foray into the world of comparative West Semitic studies, and, so, I have no basis for comparison. Nonetheless, despite the thick and extremely scholarly approach - which pulls not punches for the popular audience - I was still sucked into the text and experienced not a few "gosh-wow!" moments.

The core proposition of this book is that Israel's Yahweh tradition started in the West Semitic culture and, therefore, it is profitable to examine the religion another West Semitic culture - that of Ugarit - to see what the formative Jewish religion looked like and compare its development with the "control" (my word) of the Ugaritic texts, including the "Baal Cycle." By engaging in an exhaustive review of these two schemas - with some forays into Egypt and Babylon - Smith concludes that the Judaism we know was developed during the Exilic period of the "Babylonian Captivity" - when Israel's political fortunes reached their nadir, but the rhetorical power of the Jewish God Yahweh reached its Zenith - leading ultimately to a reworking of the original traditions and stories into the Monotheism that we associate with Judaism.

So, in a nutshell, Jewish monotheism dates from the 6th and 5th Century B.C., and not from an earlier time. That's certainly a a "gosh-wow" proposition for anyone brought up on the conventional story of biblical monotheism.

Nonetheless, the author, Mark S. Smith, does not appear to be some radical debunker of orthodox religion. Smith holds the Skirball Chair of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies in the Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University.
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