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Monotheism in Ancient Hebrew Culture

Jessup Think
Jessup Think
Monotheism in Ancient Hebrew Culture

Cynthia Schaefer Elliot, Professor of Hebrew Scriptures & Archaeology, joins Mark and Professor Libby Backfish to discuss how monotheism was understood in ancient Hebrew culture. Within the discussion it becomes apparent that our current English definition of monotheism misrepresents its usage in ancient Hebrew culture. Instead of stressing the existence of one God, ancient Hebrews were called to the worship of one God, a practice they greatly struggled with.


Welcome to Jessup think I’m your host, Mark Moore. And today on the show, I’m delighted to be joined for the first time by Cynthia Schafer-Eliot, Associate Dean of Faculty of theology and Professor of archaeology and Hebrew Scripture. That’s what they tell me. That’s what yeah, that’s on your business cards. Here. Welcome to the show. Thank you. It’s really great to have you I know you’re, you know, kind of a professional podcaster. So I just, you know, it’s, it’s good to have you on one of our shows. Now, I’m delighted to be here. Hey, that’s good. And back on the show, friend of the show, we’ll be back. Also a professor of Hebrew Scripture, so welcome back. Thanks for having me again. And when you when you come back a second time, that’s when you become friend of the show. Okay, so it’s not a friend of the show friend of the show mean to you, you’ve come back, you answered my email. That time just worked out. Yeah, exactly. fits in your schedule. But I’m excited to have you both on the episode today, cuz I want to talk about what I think is an extremely interesting topic, that of monotheism and ancient Hebrew culture. So maybe some people hear that and that’s not as exciting to them. But when I hear that I get excited. And I want to kind of know more, because I feel like this topic has been maybe intriguing scholars of late or I’ve just been hearing more about it lately. And there seems to be a disconnect between kind of maybe our current definition of monotheism and the experience of the ancient Israelites in terms of monotheism. And so I just think it’s maybe really interesting. And I think it actually exposes some some theological issues that I think are really important. And dealing with language. We’re going to do a little language today. So So get your Hebrew ready. I did actually take so I was an English and writing undergrad, full disclosure. And as an elective, I took Hebrew because Good for you. I knew what to tell our state. Yeah, exactly. I will, I’ll start I’ll start preaching that you can take these as electives. But, but I think, see, I couldn’t so language wise, it’s going to, I think it’s going to really open some things up maybe in theology. So when we look at that, and we look at the maybe current definition, mostly it is and probably like, the person on the street, if you ask them to define monotheism, right now. It would be similar to the to the definitions and Webster, not this idea of belief in a single God, or maybe even more strongly a belief that only one God exists. I think you hear that a lot. How does that definition maybe jive with the ancient Israelites experience of monotheism? It’s a good question, hey, you know, do you want to go first or Yeah, I

think, Mark, you were getting at something. There’s a disjunction between how we would define it, how they would define it. And also the questions we’re asking and the questions they’re asking. So we’re asking how many gods exist? And I think they were asking, how many gods do we worship? So it’s much more that’s an issue really good to see. Yeah, much. Just borrow that. Free before you. So I think it’s an issue more of praxis for the ancient Israelites, because they were concerned with who do we worship? And whereas now we think of it more theoretically. And I think we can learn a lot from the ancient Israelites, because I think sometimes we think that just thinking about God, theoretically is enough. Right? Really, we need to make good on those thoughts. And how do we worship Him alone?

Well, right. Yeah, just just that idea of, Hey, I believe our God exists, and we may be stopped. They’re much different to say, worship of how do

you give him your exclusive worship? Yeah, I think right. That’s important. And that’s what was in the forefront of Israel’s mind,

and how we’re and so would they would they would have would they have used terminology like that or the idea of monotheism or meaning that is obviously a term we’re maybe putting back on them?

Definitely a term we’re putting back on them. It’s a philosophical category. But we do have similar language, especially developing throughout Scripture. So especially in Isaiah, we have a lot of language about the Lord alone is God. Yeah. But we do and I’m sure Cynthia would agree. We see this developing. So it’s some kind of in seed form and the Torah, and we have it in Deuteronomy. It’s clear, but that may be a later editorial. And then we haven’t really developed in especially a second and third Isaiah this very clear that God, you know, yawei alone is God. Right? But um, but again, I don’t think they were necessarily thinking philosophically the Isaiah his point was, if God alone is God, worship Him alone. Don’t put your trust in Egypt and Syria and yourselves, put your trust in Yahweh.

Yeah. And is that kind of where the Shema so I know you’re referencing Deuteronomy and and even as even a maybe a later edition, that idea of the Shema kind of maybe points towards that to the idea of worshiping love, rather than Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God exists, he exists as one,

right that it’s, it’s not just about, as Libby was saying about as far as worship, it’s not just about going and doing these proper things as far as your sacrifices and going to the shrines and going to the temples that worship of Yahweh and Yahweh alone, very exclusive worship of Yahweh, right, as opposed to Yahweh. And like we see in the archaeological record. And we see in the textual record, too, you know, we see over and over and over again, Israel and Judah really struggling with this idea of being just worshipping this one God and one true God alone, right, as opposed to being part of the wider kind of Canaanite, you know, pantheon of gods, right. So even when Deuteronomy and the Shema, when it talks about worshiping and worshiping God alone, it’s, it’s also trying to make sure that the people see that worship is not just about those high holy days, it’s not just about the sacrifices, yes, it’s a holistic, it’s an everyday thing. It’s when you lie down, it’s when you get up, it’s when you’re home, it’s when you’re away. And so that’s one reason I think that the Shema has become such an important piece within even Judaism today, because it’s showing that more holistic nature of worship.

Yeah. And, and maybe, yeah, separating that from just the the worship experiences, and tabernacles, or shrines, but that this is all of your life. Right? And, and really that call to worship, besides existence. And I think maybe that’s what makes people nervous today, talking about monotheism, an ancient Hebrew culture, because when we think if we define it as only one God exists, and then we say, well, Hebrew culture didn’t really think that then we’re like, so they believed all these gods existed, and it kind of makes us question, you know, and I’ve talked to people and students, and they were like, wait, what is? You know? And I do think it’s, yeah, we’re, we’re asking and answering different questions than they were. And I think highlighting the idea that, that this is a call from God to worship Him alone. Right. And, and, and, and the fact that they really struggled with that

he did. And when you talk to students or people about it in general, and they think, Oh, no, Israel and Judah, will they’ll sell, say, Israel, but I always makes sure Israel and Judah get confused. It really does. But that, you know, they say, oh, Israel, worship Yahweh, and you’re alone. And I think well, and I get a little snobby. Have you have you read the Old Testament? Right, which most people haven’t I was gonna say anymore answer that. Yeah. No, they haven’t. they’ve read the parts of it that, you know, they read it, you know, Christmas or, you know, certain things or, but if you if you look at even just the text, even if you don’t even take the archaeological record into consideration, just looking at the text you see over and over and over again. Israel and Judah really struggled with this. Yeah. And it talks about them worshipping these other gods, but they weren’t supposed to.

Right, right. That’s an important distinction to is between what they were doing, which is Yeah, Leighton constant, perpetual idolatry and apostasy and what they were called to do, right, so yeah, we have to be careful to distinguish what they were doing as something was wrong, you know, in contrast to what they should have been doing

and that this was something that they learned from you know, this was Yeah, if right if they’re looking at the exile and thinking about Okay, well, why did we get here this is one of the conclusions that they came to was that they kept breaking the covenant by worshipping other gods, right? And so if you but if you take if people say, Well, no, they didn’t worship other gods and I think well, then you first of all, you need to look in the text itself because the text itself says it often Right, right. But then also, if you take the archaeological record into consideration that you can’t ignore that either you can’t ignore the text or the artifact, and those artifacts are there. I mean, I’ve excavated numerous of these idols. We call them figurines, right?

Yeah. So you’ve actually excavated and seen some of the figurines from from a traditional Jewish Home,

right? They’re mostly found in homes. This is you’ve got anthropomorphic and zoomorphic figurines. So zoomorphic ones are of course animals. We don’t Zootopia Yes. I love that movie. Yes, it was a really good movie, but we find we find the zoomorphic ones and and they’re not as common as the anthropomorphic ones, but the zoomorphic ones are usually you have kind of donkeys or horses. Some people say horse and rider but you know, horse, maybe more like a donkey. And then also, of course, the calf or the bowl. Right now. All right, all right, all symbol, right, yeah. And then of course, we have anthropomorphic figurines, which you’ve got that horse and rider figurine, and it’s, it’s supposed to be kind of a guy, but it’s very bland, you can’t really, you know, tell, but then we get these female figurines. And most of the ones that we find in households are more often than not these female figurines. And they’re, they’re almost always of women. And these women are usually in some sort of, you’ve got ones that look like they’re holding drums or kind of tambourines. And then you’ve got ones that are kind of just pillar figurines where their hands are kind of at their side, but they’re often nude. And, and a lot of them often have, you know, very large breasts, or they’re some people would say, Oh, that looks like they’re in some stage of reproduction process, or reproduction cycle. But that’s, that’s a big debate. We don’t have to get into that. But if you find them, right, and almost every house, you they may not be complete, they might be broken. Yeah, but you do if you do find

them, what would they? What would be the correlation with those figurines? Would it be two or a Canaanite God? Would it be

right? Well, that’s a big, you know, discussion. Some scholars would say that the figurines represent a Canaanite fertility goddess in particular Ashura. Okay. So and that the particularly the woman, the women of the household would use that figurine as part of their, their prayers to Ashura in order to secure safe conception and pregnancy and birth. Okay, right. So there’s that connection with the reproductive cycle there. And some scholars think that maybe they are representatives of their ancestors, and that gets into the whole, you know, reverence of ancestors and within their culture. So there’s a few different ideas out there. Yeah. But, you know, you find them in the homes and you find other things related to religion in the home. So to have that concept, that idea that the Israelites were going just to Jerusalem, to worship, right, once the temple was built, or once even the centralization of Jerusalem as the local play as the place to worship Galloway. It’s not, that’s not what the archaeological record is showing shows that people of course, they’re not going to travel by foot, you know, for a week or so to get to Jerusalem to go offer a sacrifice, they’re going to either go to a more local shrine, which we do have those. But then there’s also a lot of evidence that they’re conducting worship at home too.

Now, it within those with the figurines and stuff, do you also find items that are more associated with Judaism? I mean, like with were like, did they have a lot of symbols at that time? Um, well, I mean,

yes, and no, I’m trying. I’m trying to think of some examples. I mean, if you’re in a household in a house, you’re pretty poor. Right? Right. So you’re not going to have a lot. Yeah, things related to Judaism. I mean, you might get some like little model shrines that might have some symbols on them. Like the date palm, of course, is pretty popular pomegranate. Later. There’s one occasion I think, at cubit chiappa, where they found a model shrine that might have had an image of, of possibly an ark. I’m trying to recall correctly, but I’m, I’m not really sure about that one. But no, not not. Yeah, a lot of imagery

when I say and that seems like a bad thing to evaluate because they weren’t supposed to be worshipping away with any kind of we’re worshiping Yahweh along with these other figurines and idols, then we wouldn’t have the evidence for that. Right? And they often do. And we know this from the second commandment, they would think of these representations as yawei. So Exodus 32, when Moses comes down, Aaron says, you know, he’s talking to the Israelites, you saying, this is your Lord, this is your Yahweh. Yeah, right. The calf was they thought they were worshiping Yahweh. Yeah, they said, Make us

an image of this god that saved us, right? Yeah. And those those caps that we find, you know, people whenever you see these big pictures of, you know, the golden calf, and there’s a huge golden calves. And it’s like, well, when we find these cats, they’re like, you know, just a couple inches, right? Yeah, they’re like a zoomed in. Zoom out and it’s on a desk. They’re pretty, they’re pretty little, you know, yeah. Even if you find them Calver, cuz they’re usually made out of terracotta, you know, pottery, yeah, they’re fired and all that stuff, but they’re not, they’re not big at all. And so when we see these artist’s rendition of, you know, the golden calf, or like, the nightlife side of earrings to get that big Yeah, but then you get in places you do get inscriptions like I’m thinking of the inscription down at can tell it as rude, which was a kind of fortress down in the southern part of Israel near a rod like in in the desert where really not a lot of people live, but you get a lot of caravans for trade and stuff. And so they think this controller as rude place was a kind of almost like a truck stop. But for any stop. And, and there’s, there seems to be a place for worship in there. And there’s inscriptions that talk about yawei and his Ashura. Okay, yeah. And so if we’re talking about syncretism, right, where, where people, you know, Israel, of course, is called to worship the one true God, but again, really struggled with it. And so if we’re looking for evidence of that, you’ve got it in the text, and you’ve got it in the archaeological record.

Right? Yeah. And you and and it does seem to be that that story of God calling them to worship and, and then them working that out in their, in their experience and seeing their neighbors probably with figurines, right? And Ryan, do we find figurines and other maybe that we know are non Jewish homes,

you can’t really tell if they’re Israelite or Canaanite? Yeah, there’s no way you can tell because their material culture is pretty much the same.

Right? Yeah. And that’s really interesting gets into that whole right. Yeah, little debate there. But I think that’s good for us to, to think about now, because we have so many maybe symbols of Christianity that could be in our home, that, you know, 1000s of years from now someone could find, you know, in a track home in the suburbs. This home that’s been preserved, and crosses might be on and so some like, these kind of clear symbols, that would be like, Oh, this would be a Christian home. And we have to remind ourselves, yeah, that for their experience, for one they are they’re going off of maybe him maybe they actually followed that commandment of not making an image of your way. But then we’re still maybe influenced by the people around them. And that, I think, that desire to have to hold something, right. Sure.

To have their bases covered. I think it was physical, like you said, but so yeah, yeah, that’s true. It was kind of like insurance. You know, we I’m pretty sure your way will protect us. But just in case, just in case, yeah, the other gods seem to have helped our Canaanite neighbors cover our bases.

Yeah. And that’s kind of piggybacking off of what Libby just said, I tell the kind of analogy I give my students is, well, if you’re, you know, you’re just trying to survive, right? They’re all agriculturalists and pastoralists, and trying to survive off the land is very difficult. Yeah. And if you’re, you know, we know that, you know, Israel lived in the land, and so did the Canaanites. And yeah, and that if you’re laying if your field of let’s say, barley isn’t doing so well, and your Canaanites neighbor field is doing really well. And you can imagine the commercial Hey, neighbor, why is field doing so? Well? Well, I worship I send us a prayer and libation offering to Asher every morning. Oh, okay, great. I’m going to say a prayer to your way and I’m going to say a prayer to Ashura, right and just like live He said, cover my bases.

Yeah, that just too and the seams that that that poll would be really strong to, to do that especially. I mean, we’re on such a different end of the historical spectrum, right? We’ve seen that history, we now have all of those stories that we can read. We have Jesus, we have New Testament. And so for us, maybe we’re less tempted to cover our bases in that way. I think we cover our bases in other ways. by Mike our bank account, and things like that, like we, we put our trust, and

it’s always an issue of trust.

Yeah. And yeah, it really is. And this, the story of the ancient Hebrew people would be a story of learning, trust in this yawei in, in the midst of all of these other gods that people around them are worshipping, and are following, and either getting benefits from or not. And then that call is now worship Me above them. I’m above those gods. And, and, and I think we Yeah, it seems to be had to be that process of God. Continually showing his faithfulness. Right. And, and, and for them to, to experience all those times of walking away, and then learning from that.

Yeah. And imagine how hard it would be though to that if you’re called, you know, to, to worship this one, this one God, and you’re not used to that, and everyone around you is worshipping multiple gods. Yeah. And you can imagine, I try to imagine at least about how difficult that would be right to say, Okay, everyone around me is doing this. And I’m supposed to do this. Yeah, I think that would be really hard, especially

if it seems to be working for them. Yeah, right. It’s easy, I think for moderns to look back and think about how just silly it seems to worship items, but what they represented and the practical benefits they have and the kind of peer pressure that you’re talking about. Cynthia? Yeah, it would be very tempting. Yeah. I

mean, they they represented their livelihood and their, the mean the crops, fertility, right, all of that, right.

And God knew that would be a huge temptation, which is why he said, You’ve got to totally get rid of all those Canaanite practices when you go into the land. And they didn’t. Yeah, they were a constant sneer throughout Israel’s history. Right?

Yeah. There seems to be okay. There’s so we’ve, we’ve understood the disconnect between our definition and their experience. And I think that is really, because I think actually, the way it’s presented for the ancient Hebrew people is actually helpful for us today. And maybe it’s like you’re saying it’s taking it out of the theoretical, and putting it into the the practice of worship, that call from God is the same. You know, don’t just believe that I’m the only God who exists, but worship Me above, above. And and I think for for us, you know, and this is that transition for us. Now, you know, we don’t have a lot of little figurines in our house that we’re worshipping, or we’re tempted to worship that. Maybe religiously, the temptation would be to not worship anything, right like that. But there are so many idols and things that get in the way of us worshiping God alone,

right. And I think the idea of trust is a good way to identify what those idols are in our life. Yeah. What are we trusting in along with God? Or maybe even sometimes more than God? When I get insecure? I think I’m pretty sure God’s gonna help me through this. But I have all this, I’m gonna keep saving be a little bit less generous and keep saving, just in case, right? Or whatever that might be for everybody.

Yeah, I think trust is perfect there. And so I think we can maybe note, the ancient Hebrew culture was called to worship god alone, called to monotheism and we can put it back but weren’t very good at practicing it. Right. They struggled and maybe the same for us today. Yeah. You just have to ask, what are our idols? Yeah. And it would be Yeah, it would be interesting, because I love I love to think of it through the lens of archaeology. So me too, you know, I know. I knew. So, you know, when I mean, when I was young, I had a long list of things that I wanted to do, or be one of them was a botanist. I don’t know. I just, you know, somehow was playing that helped me for like, a six month period. I like my mom’s plant had a fungi in it, and I made it healthy. I read an encyclopedia. And you know, and I was like, maybe I want to be a botanist. And then that faded, but archaeologists was always one that was on my list. Probably because of Indiana Jones. But that’s not real. Hey, don’t know you’re not allowed to think about Indiana Jones? Day. That’d be great. I know, that would be great. I would, I would, I would. Can I have a bullwhip, like, on my side? Just

Yeah, you could but you would

be that guy. I’m not afraid. I’ll come with the hat, the leather jacket. I dare you just go with it the whole time. But but right. I always found that interesting. Because especially thinking of our experience now. So thinking 1000 2000 years from now, what if someone excavated our land? What would they say about it? Right? Like, and even talking about our homes, with maybe having crosses up and all those things. But we also have so much other stuff in our house that our gallery would be like, oh, wow, but they had this maybe this this big rectangle box that was that was in there. Everything must have been what they worship, right? All of the chairs are facing? Yes, guys. There’s even a view from the kitchen. Yeah, there’s even have ones in multiple rooms. Yeah, like that would be really fascinating. To think I mean, that tears, because be a part of archaeology as you find these artifacts, and then you’re piecing together how they use them. What what value they had in there, and yeah, and

what their what their context was, I mean, because if I find something in a house, versus finding something, you know, near a gate or something, you know, it’s that makes a big difference in how its interpreted. But, you know, the joke is when you don’t know what it is or what it was used for. It’s all cultic it’s all religion. Yeah.

There you go. Because we’re all looking for that. Yeah. Right. When you don’t know what it is. Oh, must have been used for worship.

Yeah, they must worship. And then yeah, if we could actually talk to someone, they’d be like, No, that was just it’s just a game we play. Yeah. It’s kind of like monopoly. Yeah. Yeah, it would be really interesting to to see that. Well, I think, for me, this conversation has been helpful, because, for one, it’s helpful if I hear and maybe for our listeners, if you hear someone say, you know, ancient Hebrew believed in other gods, or that you can be like, okay, let’s put this in context. Right, the, the ancient Hebrew textually archaeologically, definitely struggled with worshipping other gods. Right. And, and that was a struggle. And, and we see that, and I think the application to us too, is that we do the same thing. I mean, we may not call them gods, but we struggle with putting our trust in other things. And so in that way, we find common ground that we are monotheists Phyllis, philosophically, theoretically, but we also are bad at it. Even even people who are maybe like, paid to do it, right. I joke students all the time, I’m a full time paid Christian, I literally get paid to say these things. I get paid at my church. Right. And yeah, that was good. I appreciate that. But it’s, it’s, it’s even in that I can realize in my own life, the struggle of putting God above everything else, right, trusting God above everything else. Like that is our call. And and that is our struggle,

as well. And where we struggle and where we fail, and where Israel struggled and where they failed at all points to our need to Jesus. So it’s not like we have to go back and look at Israel’s experience as an embarrassment, right to our theology. No, it actually is a crucial part of our theology. It’s why Jesus came to reconcile his people to god

yeah, that’s so great. All right. Well, we’re gonna finish the show today with Libby’s already done this segment. So I got a segment we’ll make it. We’ll make it specific to Cynthia but you’ve already kind of shot me I’ve already shot me down on this, so I’m gonna say it anyway. It’s gonna say it anyway. So this is this segment called nerdy Would you rather nerdy nerdy Would you rather so kind of like the traditional, would you rather? Yeah, just the nerdy addition. And maybe it’s nerdy specific to me, but I tried to make it a little more specific in your world. Okay. So would you would you rather have dinner with Howard Carter, or discovered King Tut, or Indiana Jones See I threw in Indiana Jones, but that’s because that was my answer. The like the read the character Indiana Jones or Harrison Ford. That is a great distinction either one.

I take Harrison Ford. Okay, so yeah, the week but if it was Indiana Jones and Howard, I’d take Carter, our car. There we go. What would you talk about? What would you ask him? Oh, I asked him about when he found the tomb and what he was feeling and thinking and all those emotions of finding one of the most amazing discoveries, right? Just how I would be just amazing. It would be it would be amazing. I mean, I know how I feel when I find like little tiny things. But imagine finding something amazing. Yeah, that that would just be so cool.

To me, it would be a little bit like Indiana Jones find something and that

Indiana never found anything. He was always just

stolen. Yeah, he was a treasure hunter. Yeah. But it was pretty exciting. It’s pretty exciting. I feel like he found the Holy Grail. I will I will lay that claim. The actual holy grail skull and the Crystal Skull. Well, that’s it gets bad, right? It gets bad. It gets bad after the Holy Grail.

so badly. So that’s a nerdy question for you, Mark. Would you rather if you turn into Yeah. Would you rather find the Ark of the Covenant or the Holy Grail?

Oh, wow. Well, I would I would put it in a museum, Mike, it wouldn’t I would sell it to a new. I would be I mean, based on my, you know, research from the movies. I would be terrified to find the Ark of the Covenant. If I found it, I would maybe cover it back up. Move on. No one looked directly. So the holy grail now I would. Yeah, I would be terrified to find the right cover. I would like to find the Holy Grail. Especially if there is like, you know, some type of 11th century Knight guarding it to who’s like to the house. Like that would be amazing. Just to talk to him about his experience because I would how comfortable is that chainmail you’re wearing? It has to be happy. Well, thank you so much for being on the show is really good. I love both of your expertise in this area. And you will be back on the show for sure. So and we’ll be friends. Yeah. show you a friend of the show. When you return. Thank you for listening to Jessup. Think Be sure to follow us on Twitter at Jessup think we would love to hear your thoughts on the episode and engage with any questions you have. Our aim is to provide a framework for further reflection and deeper exploration of these important topics. You can also help the show by leaving a review on iTunes these reviews help the podcast reach new listeners. Until next time, I’m Mark Moore and this is Jessup Think.

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