Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Bauckham's "Jesus and the God of Israel," 2A (OT, Deuteronomy, and Monotheism)

I just turned in a chapter of my dissertation for critique, am about to take a break in a few days, so am using the next few days to catch up on my review of Bauckham (I have also picked up McGrath's book, so expect a post or two on that soon as well).

To see my reading of his introduction and first chapter, just click on the tags that say "Richard Bauckham" or "Jesus and the God of Israel" to take you back.

Now we turn to chapter two, which, again, will take a few postings. Chapter 1 was about 60 pages and this one is about 40. Chapter 3, thank god, is only about 20. And he is starting to become repetitive, so I do not need to rehearse everything he does. So, in short, I am hoping my readings will become shorter (or the posts per chapter fewer).

Chapter 2 is called "Biblical Theology and the Problems of Monotheism"
As the title indicates, this is the most explicitly theologically patent chapter. Current theological applications of historical and literary studies of antiquity is generally a move I agree with (current theological positions should be informed by current debates on the ancient sources), but one that in a scholarly vein is one of the least of my concerns except when it provides the parameters of what is an acceptable historical argument. There are times in this chapter when Bauckham appears to dismiss a scholarly reconstruction of ancient Israelite worship or Hebrew Bible criticism because it is not theologically palatable to him. This I find completely unacceptable.

He notes how contextual studies that incorporate analogues in the Ancient Near East challenge “any traditional reading of the Old Testament’s own telling of Israel’s story.” He questions any ability to do this. It seems ipso facto that the Old Testament’s own narrative should be privileged to any scholarly reconstructions based upon all of the available contextual data from the ancient Near East. He also will dismiss any attempts of reading the biblical evidence against the grain (these are my words, not his). Just following the biblical narrative itself and dismissing current scholarly reconstructions that do not agree with it strike me as an uncritical or precritical, if not naïve in accepting the biblical books' perspective (whether or not recognizing that it might be a minority position, skewed, etc.), although rhetorically impressive. In this, he forgets that the historian's first question is "cui bono?" Who benefits from the portrayal of God in these books in this way? For D, it is the Jerusalemite elite to the exclusion of even dedicated Yahwist shrines elsewhere throughout Israel, not to mention the mass evidence of the worship of YHWH with a consort. As such, we should be suspicious of the ancient texts' narratives and not just go along with their narrative. He will accomplish his rhetorically impressive uncritical reading of ancient evidence (and overly and punctiliously critical reading of modern scholarship) in three ways: 1. he primarily engages secondary scholarship—this chapter reads like an extended book review on a couple scholars whose arguments he criticizes as hypothetical or speculative because they don’t just go along with the tale spun by the ancient authors (and actually engage in critical scholarship!) Here, however, he does not necessarily engage with the most representative, influential, or persuasive scholars of a position, which weakens, I think, the persuasiveness of his critique; 2. by barely engaging the ancient sources themselves (which is extremely disappointing); and 3. engaging in canonical criticism (speculating on what unites all of the sources, how they are read in light of one another) instead of engaging the peculiarities of individual texts, with the result of normalizing non-monotheistic texts into a monotheistic understanding or a "monotheizing dynamic." He may be right, in fact, that this is how later Jews read these texts, but not correct that these readings constitute the earliest understandings of the texts. The result of this is that he engages in the scholarly reconstruction of ancient Israelite beliefs, challenging the emergent consensus of basically a polytheistic or perhaps henotheistic context in which exclusive Yahwism was a minor or perhaps only existing movement in the late pre-exilic, exilic, or early post-exilic period and then he jumps to the canonical selection and editing process, skipping the middle (the texts themselves!!!). His ultimate purpose is to try to think of “monotheism” as a “pan-biblical” issue, not limited to either testament.

He recognizes that “monotheism” can be a potentially misleading word if we are not precise on how we define the term, noting that the term, like “polytheism” is a modern, mostly Enlightenment, construct that, in its modern formulation, may not be appropriate for ancient evidence. He does acknowledge the current conversation of whether monotheism is harmful, oppressive, and inherently violent, but brackets the issue.

In the first part of extended book reviews, he engages Nathan MacDonald’s Deuteronomy and the Meaning of Monotheism, a revised version of his Durham doctoral dissertation. MacDonald argues that monotheism and polytheism are Enlightenment concepts that are misleading and inappropriate for discussions of antiquity, particularly the reading of the Hebrew Bible (most specifically Deuteronomy). He traces its usage from the seventeenth-century Cambridge Platonists, who used it to intellectualize religion as a body of theoretical knowledge prioritizing the number of gods in order to classify religions, to Enlightenment Deists, who used it as part of a progressivist model of the development of a rational, ethical, and universalist religion. This model looked back to “emergent monotheism” of ancient Israel, projecting Enlightenment values onto ancient texts. MacDonald shows how this model has skewed biblical scholarship from Wellhausen onward (with an exception given to von Rad, who differentiated between ancient and modern monotheisms). MacDonald suggests, according to Bauckham, that any transcendent view of God is an Enlightenment projection, whereas Bauckham views transcendence as part and parcel of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—a completely pre-modern articulation. Bauckham agrees, however, that developmental, progressivist, and more recently, evolutionary models are impositions on the ancient evidence. He cites the archaeological evidence of polytheistic worship (particularly of Asherah) in the pre-exilic period (something difficult to deny)—thus, dashing any concept of “irreversibility”; even after people became monotheists or at least exclusive Yahwists, they may still shade into polytheistic or henotheistic tendencies.

MacDonald argues that monotheism obfuscates as much as it enlightens with regard to Deuteronomy. (1) D does not deny the existence of other gods: Shema and first commandment require monolatry, but do not deny existence of other gods. They may even presuppose other gods’ existence in treating them as competitors for Israel’s devotion. M. dismisses that D teaches that YHWH is the only god. Interestingly, he also notes a differentiation between the word for god with an article and without: when Deut. 4:35 and 39 uses the definite article, it denotes a uniqueness of YHWH as the god (the only god who is the god is YHWH). (2) Lack of intellectualization of religion in D. D emphasizes love expressed in devotion and worship. Any truth-claims are tied to relational devotion. (3) This is exemplified in the Shema, which is not an intellectual assent, but a requirement of obedience and devotion. It does not emphasize universal ethical values, but specific acts of devotion. (4) D presumes that this devotion is difficult, and, thus, lays out “disciplines of remembrance.” This contrasts with Enlightenment view of irreversibility of progress that has affected many reconstructions of ancient Israel. (5) Contrast between Enlightenment universalism (which is in contrast to particularism) and D’s election. For Enlightenment, true monotheism needed God to be free from any particular affiliation (something affecting NT scholarship as well, particularly on Paul); by contrast, YHWH’s uniqueness is inseparable from election of Israel. How nations respond to Israel will affect their standing with YHWH.

B. only disagrees with (1)—not surprisingly. The rest, he thinks, are applicable to the entire Hebrew Bible (with qualifications for Genesis and Wisdom literature, presumably because they do have a more universalistic outlook). B. claims that MacDonald fails to systematically handle YHWH’s uniqueness vis-à-vis other gods: “Given that Deuteronomy affirms the uniqueness of YHWH (as alone God [4:35, 39; 7:9] and as along ‘god of gods’ [10:17]) without denying the existence of the other gods, in what does that uniqueness consist? (65)” I would note that his summary of MacDonald has already answered that question—the uniqueness consists in the unique relationship with Israel expressed in a theology of covenant.

B goes on to criticize MacDonald’s use of an adverb “primarily,” which I laughed at because I find B’s own uses of adverbs highly annoying and inaccurate. B. questions whether YHWH’s uniqueness consists in “nothing more” than covenant? Now it is my turn. Nothing more! What do you mean by “nothing more”? Surely you would not dismiss such monumental and thoroughgoing importance of the covenant! In truth, B does not really dismiss it, but does not fully gauge its importance either. For him, it seems to be “nothing more” than a vehicle to demonstrate God’s deity as creator and sovereign (something, in fact, I would think is a secondary role to the covenanted relationship, at least in D): “Given that Israel can recognize YHWH’s uniqueness only for what YHWH does for Israel, it does not follow that this uniqueness cannot include what YHWH objectively is, even independently of Israel” (67-8). I would qualify his statements here (because I am not a theologian) that YHWH isn’t anything outside of the collective imagination of ancient Israelites. I would rephrase that in D’s literary construction of the covenanted relationship there is also an conception of God beyond that relationship. NOTA BENE: B has suspiciously dropped his divine identity language and has slipped into ontological language, trying to determine WHAT God is rather than WHO, something he indicated in his first chapter was an anachronistic move. I wonder if shifting to WHO would force him to agree with MacDonald at least for D? Maybe not, but I am highly suspicious.

To get a sense of this, B points to 4:39, 10:14, 17, and 32:39. In one of the few moments of actual engagement with an ancient Israelite/Jewish text, he engages with MacDonald’s exegesis of Deut. 4:32-40. He notes that vv. 35 and 39 are climactic pronouncements that indicates YHWH’s uniqueness as god, or “the god,” through his actions with Israel. These passages not only express Gods saving actions for Israel and for them to acknowledge him as God (as with MacDonald), but also his supreme power (Bauckham). The phrasing that he is God in heaven above and on earth below indicate not just his presence (as MacDonald claims) but his power in those places (Bauckham).

“What makes YHWH, by comparison with the gods of the nations, ‘the God’ (or ‘god of gods and lord of lords, the great god’ as 10:187 puts it) is his unrivalled power. This, although it is only in what he does for Israel that Israel recognizes YHWH to be ‘the God,” this status is not only what he is in relation to Israel, but what he is in any case, and, particularly, in relation to the other gods.”


While delineating YHWH’s relationship to other gods as bound up with God’s relationship to Israel, again B slips into the ontological “what.” Ultimately, however, this is an imperial model of divinity: one supreme God who rules over other Gods who in turn rule over their respective nations. Israel gets the emperor.

He further argues that the whole “there is no other” phrasing indicates that while there are other gods, only YHWH is God, or the God. This, then, does not deny the existence of other gods, but God is unique and uniquely powerful in God’s relation with Israel and with the other Gods. I am strangely agreeing with B at this point. I just cannot believe he considers this monotheism.

Other gods are impotent nonentities, they are “non-gods” (32:7, 21) or “mere puffs of air” (32:21)—ok, perhaps a bit more monotheizing.

In sum, Bauckham notes that there is an “ontological division” between the old category “gods” that YHWH appears in a class of his own.

So, in this section, in order to maintain his monotheism, Bauckham has actually backed away from his central insight of “identity” theology and slipped into ontological categories that he has deemed anachronistic impositions elsewhere. I do agree with much of his specific analysis. Bauckham seems at his best (or most interesting) when he engages primary documents rather than secondary sources. He is at his least persuasive in his secondary reflections and larger model-building based upon these exegeses (here just one passage). He has shown that D saw its God as most powerful, but this is just like so many other ancient near eastern devotees saw their particular god as most powerful and even as creator and sovereign of all things (B does address this later in the chapter).

2 comments:

Shema Israel said...

Shema Israel is great Jewish prayer.

informadordeopiniao said...

"evidence of the worship of YHWH with a consort" - which Kenneth A. Kithcen massively rejected. It is very dangerous to rely on iconographic materials without accompanying inscriptions. The cult of Taanach from the tenth century does not possess images of Asherah where a naked female is associated with a lion. Instead, if it is an image of a goddess, sured it represents Qadishtu whose connections with lions is textually supported in Egypt. Compare with the compound name of the deity, Qadishtu-Astarte-Anat. Thus it is not the frequently recognized Asherah.

The idea of consort is a precipitate procedure to more tax to be ideologically useful to the particular ideologicals climate of the moment.