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Polytheism and Human Sacrifice in Early Israelite Religion

The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries to Hide It)----An interview of Thom Stark, author of The Human Faces of God.

Thom Stark is a scholar of ancient and modern religious texts. He is currently an M.A.R. student at Emmanuel School of Religion in Johnson City, TN. His first book, released in October, is called The Human Faces of God: What Scripture Reveals When It Gets God Wrong (and Why Inerrancy Tries To Hide It). In chapters 4 and 5, Mr. Stark systematically lays out evidence that polytheism and human sacrifice were practiced widely as a part of early Yahweh worship.


I have to start with a question that may sound rude. Most people would expect that someone writing about human sacrifice and polytheism in the Bible would be an atheist or agnostic. And yet you describe yourself as a very committed Christian. Help me put the pieces together.

Well I hail from the Stone-Campbell tradition, an anti-creedal protestant movement that is committed to discovering what the Bible says, even if what the Bible says contradicts what orthodox Christianity has historically said. That commitment to the Bible over the creeds is what underwrote my biblical studies, and ironically is what made it possible for me to come to the realization that the Bible isn’t inerrant, and that what “it says” often depends on which book in the Bible you’re reading.

At this point, many Christians would abandon their faith, because their faith is in the creeds, and in an idea of an inerrant Bible. For me on the other hand, taking the Bible seriously meant taking all of the conflicting voices within the Bible seriously, and I was able to see the value in that. What informs my faith is not so much what the Bible “says” as it is what the Bible displays, the processes that unfold in its pages, the struggle to find meaning that it represents. It’s precisely in the humanity of the Bible that we can gain real insight into the divine. What’s revelatory is not always the words themselves, but the spaces between them.

So, based on your studies, what is the story that the Bible tells?

The Bible is sort of like a choose-your-own-adventure book, except none of the alternative storylines ever gets resolved. That’s just the thing. The Bible doesn’t really tell one story. And by that I don’t just mean that the Bible is a collection of different stories. I mean that the Bible consists of a spectrum of competing stories. The Bible is sort of like a choose-your-own-adventure book, except none of the alternative storylines ever gets resolved. They’re all particular stories, about a people called Israel, their god Yahweh, and the relationship of Israel and Yahweh to the rest of the world. They all try to explain why Israel is suffering, why the world is broken, and how through the reversal of Israel’s fortunes the world is going to be mended, but they posit different answers to those questions.

There are several different authors trying to make sense of the same basic material, but each of them arranges it in different ways, and none of them do it just right. The royal historians declared that the Davidic dynasty would last forever, but it didn’t. The prophets predicted the restoration of Israel’s national sovereignty, but Israel wasn’t restored. Jesus predicted the end of the world as we know it, but the world as we know it didn’t end.

If the Bible does tell a single story, it’s a story that transcends each of the stories its many authors intended to tell. It tells the story of a nation trying to contend for its survival in a hostile world and trying to explain the fact of suffering with reference to the only thing they thought could explain it: the will of Yahweh.

Who is the Yahweh of the Israelites?

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.

You’re saying God evolves in the Old Testament?

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.

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

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.

And early on, the chosen people practiced human sacrifice? Let’s hear it; what’s your evidence?

Well the evidence is complex, and I lay much of it out in my book. But the short version is that human sacrifice was a rare but widespread practice in ancient Near Eastern religion, and there is evidence that until about the seventh and sixth centuries BCE, it was an acceptable part of Israelite and Judean religion as well. There’s the story of the near-sacrifice of Isaac by his father Abraham. It is popularly believed that because an angel prevented Abraham from killing his son at the last moment, the story constitutes a condemnation of child sacrifice. But that’s not the case. Isaac is spared not because human sacrifice is seen to be immoral, but because Isaac was the child of promise and needed to survive. In reality, the account depends upon the logic of human sacrifice, because Abraham is praised for his willingness to kill his own son to appease Yahweh.

There is evidence that ancient Israelites believed that human sacrifices could be offered to Yahweh in exchange for victory in battle against their enemies. The Israelite warrior Jephthah sacrificed his virgin daughter to Yahweh in fulfillment of a vow he made in order to secure Yahweh’s help in battle. The same ideology can be seen in some early accounts of the Canaanite conquest, in which Yahweh gives Israelites victory against Canaanite armies, and the Israelites in turn slaughter all of the women and children in payment to Yahweh for his aid.

There’s also evidence that Yahweh commanded human sacrifice in the law of Moses. Later, when the practice of human sacrifice fell into disrepute among elite circles, the prophet Ezekiel confirms that Yahweh commanded human sacrifice, but interprets that command as a form of punishment for Israel’s disobedience. Ezekiel needed a way to deal with that tradition found in Exodus 22, and did so by claiming that Yahweh ordered them to kill their firstborn sons as a way of getting back at them for their lack of faith in him. Obviously Ezekiel’s solution to the problem was problematic in itself, but at least we can thank him for helping to put an end to the institution of child sacrifice in Israelite religion.

I’ve heard evangelicals explain that the reason God prescribed scorched earth policies in the Old Testament was because the surrounding nations were so evil –that they practiced child sacrifice. (God sent warnings; they didn’t heed them.) Is this just a desperate attempt to justify the unconscionable?

Yeah, well that justification is in the Bible itself, in texts that were written or edited after the institution of child sacrifice fell into disrepute. But the reality is that Israelites practiced child sacrifice too. As I argue in chapter 6 of my book, the real motivations for the conquests were much more nefarious. It had more to do with land and the consolidation of political power than anything else.

Wouldn’t most Christians and Jews find this shocking?

Of course, and rightly so. It is shocking. I was shocked. But what I find even more shocking is the fact that some believers go to such great lengths to try to defend these genocides and moral atrocities. The same people who preach against the evils of abortion in the name of absolute, objective morality throw their absolute, objective morality out the window in order to defend the child-murders of an ancient tribe who thought they were doing the will of God. That’s what’s most shocking to me.

I was raised that the Bible was the literally perfect, "inerrant" word of God. What you are saying sure calls into question this point of view.

I was raised to view the Bible in the same way, and it was my faith in the Bible that led me to study it. My confidence in its veracity is what led me to study it critically, assuming it would stand up to the test. Eventually I had to be honest about the facts and acknowledge that it couldn’t stand up.

You’ve been accused of sleeping with the enemy, so to speak. Aren’t you just giving ammunition to the enemies of faith?

The truth is the truth. I can’t change what the truth is. If some groups want to use the truth as ammunition against other groups, that’s their prerogative. I think that the truth should be used as ammunition against fundamentalist varieties of Christianity and Zionist Judaism, because such strands of the faith wreak so much havoc on the world. If they can use lead bullets to defend their ideologies, I think that justifies using truth-bullets to put as many holes as possible in their propaganda.

If believers can be blind to something as concrete as polytheism or human sacrifice in the Bible, what other cultural fragments may be there – with God’s name on them?

Well, there’s no escaping culture—whether it’s the ancient culture of Palestinian Judaism or modern cultures. All of our knowledge will always be shaped by cultural factors. Many Christians will be surprised to learn that much of Jesus’ teaching is derived from a standard script that scholars call “Jewish apocalyptic” (I talk about this in chapter 8 of my book). Jesus’ thinking was just as culturally conditioned as every other perspective in and outside the Bible. But that doesn’t mean it’s useless or irrelevant as a result. We need to appropriate his insights critically, but once we do, I think we’ll find a wealth of resources in there that transcend the limits of Jewish apocalyptic.

Is this, as Sam Harris called it, “The End of Faith?”

One thing that the New Atheists and fundamentalist Christians share is this either/or logic. Either Christianity is true, or it isn’t. And if it isn’t, then it’s useless. I don’t buy it into that simplistic paradigm.

When we’re talking about an ultimate truth that may or may not lie beyond the metaphysical iron curtain, we’re talking about a “truth” that is very different from the kind of truths that can be verified or falsified by scientific procedures. Talk about this ultimate truth, or “God-talk” as theologians call it, is always going to be conditioned by the limits of human knowledge on this side of the curtain. As Wittgenstein put it, the limits of language are coterminous with the limits of the world. But if there is anything meaningful about our existence, it lies beyond those limits, and speaking truthfully about what lies beyond the limits of language cannot by definition entail speaking about what we can demonstrate to be true empirically.

Truthful God-talk is poetry, not science—evocative, not descriptive. “Faith” is what we have when we live our lives as if they were meaningful, and Christianity offers us one language that helps us do that. Like any language, of course, there are different dialects, accents, and vocabularies. Just as with English speakers, some Christians get irony, metaphor, and humor, and others don’t. Moreover, just as languages evolve to adapt to new realities and new knowledge, religions do the same, and rightly so, whether practitioners acknowledge it or not.

How should Christians read the Bible in light of this kind of scholarship?

Between the lines. That’s how they should read the Bible. Christians need to learn to appropriate our tradition’s God-talk both critically and constructively. As I argue in chapter 1 of my book, the Bible is an argument with itself. It doesn’t have one viewpoint, but in the Bible you’ll find actual disputes between different personalities about the meaning of it all.

To be a Jew or Christian, to be a part of that tradition, is to participate in the argument. It’s to join in. You can take up a position represented by Jesus, or by the Teacher in Ecclesiastes—which is sharply at odds with the two other major schools of thought in the Bible. (I’ve often said that if Ecclesiastes wasn’t in the Bible, I wouldn’t be able to call myself a Christian on most days.) Or you can come up with a new position. But to be a member of the faith community is to participate in the discussion.

I am a Christian because I believe that what our predecessors have said continues to be important to the discussion, even if what they said is sometimes dead wrong. Christians need to understand that it’s OK to disagree with the Bible; but, in doing so, it’s not OK to pretend like we’re not indebted to our predecessors, even when we disagree with them.

Fred Plumer at the Center for Progressive Christianity says, “most of the creedal things we have been preaching and teaching in our churches have not had solid scholarly support for over fifty years (actually 100 years but [this knowledge] only got into the seminaries in the last 50). And we in the Church have not done the work required nor have we had the courage to share what so many of us have known.” It sounds like you agree; is this changing—is it a generational thing?

Well, I hope it’s changing. It may be a generational thing. But I’m a realist. As much as I would like to see the end of fundamentalism, I am dubious that we ever will. I suspect there will always be fundamentalists and revivals of fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is very attractive because it’s easy. It provides pat answers, and it’s much easier to navigate life with answers, even bad ones, than to try to wade through all of this ambiguity. For that reason, I am a bit pessimistic about our prospects.

Of course, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to struggle against such simplistic ideologies and the dangers they represent. But we don’t engage in the struggle because we’re necessarily going to win. We do it because it’s right.

Thom Stark blogs at thomstark.net. For more information on his book go to humanfacesofgod.com.


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