I just finished Mark S. Smith’s newest work God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World and I have to say that he is quickly becoming my favorite author. About two years ago I began to really look into the “Creation Stories” in the Hebrew Scriptures and I stumbled on his The Priestly Vision of Genesis I which was phenomenal. So, recently I have been struggling with why idolatry is something only the Isrealites are warned of and not the nations until 2nd Temple literature? Well Dr. Smith is at it again with his newest work where he explains the “translatability” of God.
His main thesis is that originally Israel/Jacob was polytheistic like all the other nations. (This starting point is apparently very different than Assmann and Hendel who claim Israel was an exception to the rule.) Yes, Israel had YHWH but this god was a warrior god who was part of the “great” god El/Elyon. He shows that the nations around Israel at its earliest stage of literature identified their gods with other nations gods although by different names. So Israel’s YHWH is another nations Ba’al. This view then slowly morphed (around the Monarchic period) into the view that each nation had its god, of which none were inherently evil, which made up a larger “world theology.” This worked because nations were relatively small at that time but, by the time of the Neo- Assyrian empire, which was huge by the former standard, Israel began to be threatened. Also at this time, Babylon and Assyria began to shift to “one-god” religions (Marduk for the former and Assur the latter). The threat of empire plus the religious shift of the region caused Israel to fall back on allegiance to YHWH their “one-god” or King vs Assyria.
He does go on to talk about the Greco-Roman period but for my interests the first five chapters were worth the price of the book. I say this because I have often been asked about the destiny of those who don’t believe in the God of the Bible. I always say I don’t know due to the lack of information I have. This book, for me, confirms my suspicions. The earliest theology of the Hebrew Scriptures did not think it problematic for say, and Egyptian or Mesopotamian to worship their god. It seems that idolatry (or lack of worshiping YHWH) is a later issue that grows out of political and social reasons.
My own hunch (speculation) is that idolatry begins to be viewed as wrong because the other nations, and thus their gods, have shown themselves to be unjust and wicked. So we have Psalm 82 that claims Israel’s God will take charge of the other Gods bring justice to the world. So idolatry is rooted more in ethics than in ontology. There are other gods its just they are not Righteous like Israel’s God and he will deliver the world from wickedness just like he did Israel.