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Mark S. Smith’s book The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel opens with a quotation from the 6th c. AD writer on Roman antiquity, Lydus.

There has been and is much disagreement among theologians about the god honored among the Hebrews (De mensibus 4.53)

Indeed.

For the next 200 pages, Smith looks at the “role of Yahweh within Israelite religion” vis-a-vis older Canaanite deities like El, Baal, and Asherah (also known to us from the Bible).

Ferreting out how the ancient Israelites came to worship Yahweh and what that meant in the context of ancient polytheistic cultures has been a huge topic ever since modern biblical scholars/archaeologists began learning new things about (1) ancient Israel and (2) ancient polytheistic cultures.

The bottom line, mainstream view—I shudder even to attempt to summarize it in one sentence—is that the Hebrew scriptures contain a record of Israel’s diverse and changing views concerning God, where the experience of the Babylonian Exile was a major turning point in the emergence of monotheism (the belief that only one God exists) out of monolatry (many gods exist but only Yahweh is worthy of worship).

God, in other words, has a history—or at least on the pages of the Old Testament. We are seeing development over time in how God was understood.

This mainstream view does not rest well with the biblical progression of events, namely: Israel knew Yahweh as the/their only God from the time of Abraham, and how well they did as a people/nation depended on remembering that and worshiping/obeying Yahweh alone.

For biblical scholars of the last century or so, this picture is complicated by

(1) the Bible’s own hints and nods at a more complicated “early history of God” (hence Smith’s book), and

(2) our considerable and growing understanding of religion in general in the ancient Near East, especially Canaanite and Ugaritic religion, which are closest to Israelite religion.

I’m used to this sort of thing, but I know many are not. That’s fine. The point, though, is that the modern study of the Old Testament has irrevocably affected what we can expect from the Bible in terms of “brute information” about God.

The modern study of the Old Testament doesn’t tell you what to believe, like a bully, but it has placed the Old Testament firmly in its culture moments—so firmly, in fact, that a well rounded view can’t just make believe the last hundred or so years of thinking on this subject didn’t happen.

Here’s my take-away from all this—and I’m asking you (or at least humor me) to believe me when I say that this is not a last minute frenzied punt from my own end zone before the sack. My life, such as it is, is about synthesizing my own spiritual life with what I’ve been trained to do and what I do for a living, which is to say I’ve thought about this a good bit and hang out with others who have done the same.

Studying the Bible and Israel’s past is a regular reminder to me that my ultimate object of trust is God, not the Bible (or how I understand the Bible). That’s not knocking the Bible. It’s acknowledging that the Bible—even where it talks about God—is a relentlessly contextual collection of ancient literature that takes wisdom and patience to handle well, and in doing so drives us toward further contemplation of God here and now.

God is bigger than the Bible. 

I see Jesus and Paul already sounding that note when they began reshaping traditional expectations of God.

I haven’t come to this place quickly or casually, though from my vantage point today, it feels rather commonsensical to me—though I don’t impose that on anyone, at least not until I gain supreme, ultimate power, which is the plan.

One last point, to anticipate a common response: “But how can you know anything about God other than what the Bible tells you?” Fair question, but that potential problem does not dismiss the observation about God in the Bible. When you get close to the Bible, prepare to have your view of the Bible reoriented. The irony is that it is the study of the Bible that has led me down this path.

And it’s a nice path, at least for me. God is more outside of my control this way, which I can’t help but think is as it should be. As Lydus said over 1400 years ago, Yahweh isn’t easy to get your arms around—for Israelites or for those who have followed in their footsteps.

You can listen to my podcast on this topic HERE. You can read more about the nature of the Bible and Christian faith in The Bible Tells Me So (HarperOne, 2014) and Inspiration and Incarnation (Baker 2005/2015).

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

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  • Phil Ledgerwood says:

    I really liked Smith’s book and it’s about as close to a “popular” look at the topic as I’ve found.

  • Veritas says:

    The world is not in your books and maps, it’s out there – Gandalf

    Similarly, God

  • Ken Cooper says:

    Although it has been a bit difficult, the journey to reframe my understanding of the nature of Scripture has been worth it. Of course I haven’t fully arrived, but I think I am mostly in what Richard Rohr describes as the re-order box (after passing through the order and dis-order boxes).

  • Jack says:

    When I read the Epistles to Timothy, I am reading a piece of correspondence
    written to a particular audience. The letter is clearly contextual. For a lot
    of Christians, Paul is legislating God-given policies to govern, for example, women.
    But in my view, without questioning the authorship or legitimacy of the text, it
    seems Paul has handed out a prescription to manage people in Ephesus, but ultimately,
    the problems are the result of some unhelpful social realities (i.e. women are
    marginalized and not well-positioned for fuller participation).

    There are a number of problematic social norms in the Roman-Greco world,
    such as slavery. It begs the question of how we should treat verses on gender
    roles. What are the implications for the authors of the Bible?

    Certainly, I could be wrong about 1 Timothy 2.

    Some Christians are trained to handle the Bible is a particular way.
    They handle Bible verses in a vacuum. The more I study the Bible, the less
    dogmatic I become.

  • Ross says:

    I have many arguments with “bible believing” Christians over the nature of the text they constantly refer to and hold as their “ultimate authority”, often or usually without any successful resolution. In some respects I often sympathise a lot with the emotional under-current of what is going on. In current circumstances they are expressing that God actually exists and we should do something about it. Bibliocentrism is the narrative through which they express this emotion. So In a way I agree with them, but I cannot agree with the way they express it, as it is too flawed an argument to be of any use.

    Personally I think the title “bible believing” really needs to be cast into the trash because it is both wrong in most of its assertions and inherently dangerous. The major problem is that it is the only currency in American Evangelicalism and still rather too popular over here in the dusty and declined Imperial hub.

    My two main worries are that sense will not prevail and this pernicious doctrine will maintain too large a hold on much of Christendom and that there will be a very deep schism between the inerrantamundalists and us humans.

    In the past year however, my despair at the lack of communication between normality and irrationality has had some positive buds as I have worked on relationships with a few fundamentalists of my acquaintance.

    Agreeing to disagree is not really an option about this irresolvable impasse so the next best thing is to ignore it. Point out that you are a “liberal”, refuse to discuss this or the bible and talk about following Jesus and the trials and tribulations of daily life as equal humans and maybe there is some way forward. Any discussion about the nature of the bible is a total non-sequitur so not worth entering in to.

  • Chris Eyre says:

    I’m assuming that you’ve read Jack Miles’ “God, a biography”, which treats the Hebrew Scriptures (in the Jewish ordering) as a work of literature and, from a lit crit POV, discusses the character development of the main character, namely God. If not, I strongly recommend it!

  • Occasional Commenter says:

    Pete,
    Thanks for a helpful post. When I try to access one of the links, it returns a “no results found.” The link where you talk about Jesus and Paul pointing to the idea that God is bigger than the Bible. “God is bigger than the Bible. I see Jesus and Paul already sounding that note when they began reshaping traditional expectations of God.”

    I may have seen the post to which you’re linking, but I’d like to make sure. Thank you!

    • Pete E. says:

      That link was broken. Thanks for letting me know. And not to disappoint you, but it take you to my website page for The Bible Tells Me So 🙂

      • Occasional Commenter says:

        No disappointment. If that’s where you develop the idea, that’s where I need to look. Haven’t bought a book about the “bible” in years; never thought I would again. Fact it’s yours does change the equation somewhat. Thanks for fixing the link.

  • Sheryl says:

    In regard to monolatry, have you read “The Afterlife of Billy Fingers”? Not very scholarly sounding, I know, but interesting as an individual and culturally present story.

  • Mark says:

    Fascinating topic. It seems like something is in the theological air. Michael Gellert’s book is coming out in January, which is entitled, “The Divine Mind: Exploring the Psychological History of God’s Inner Journey.”

    Part of the description says:

    Michael Gellert, a Jungian psychoanalyst, treats this story and the sacred writings that convey it as psychological facts—as expressions of the human psyche—regardless of whether or not God actually exists. He shows how the Hebrew Bible presents God as a primitive, barbaric tribal war god while centuries later the mystics portray him as their innermost essence and emptied of all projected, external, anthropomorphic images. Thus, God’s inner journey and the evolution of human consciousness—his story and ours—parallel each other and are integrally related.

  • Occam Razor says:

    Yes, God progressed in the OT, but it didn’t end there. I would posit that Christians are constantly changing their view of God, and their view of who he/she is. Because we are so close we can’t see it, or don’t want to acknowledge it, but it is happening nonetheless.

  • Stewart Felker says:

    Agreed — Mark Smith and others have truly done a fantastic job in really bringing out all the historical contours of how the God of Judaism/Christianity is a manufactured sham.

  • DP says:

    What are your thoughts on the growing embrace of process theology as a next potential evolution in thought regarding the nature of God, revelation, the Bible, etc.? After listening to the B4NP podcast, and reading your blog & “The Bible Tells Me So”, I can see how your own work (and for that matter the work of some of your associates as well, like Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Walter Brueggemann, Richard Rohr, Diana Butler Bass, and others) could potentially be synthesized with a process view of God.

    Obviously no model or system will have all of the answers – there is no “figuring God out”, but I think process philosophy/theology offers an important perspective and voice in this ongoing discussion, where we work together in learning how to trust God more and more. On that note, have you considered having any process Christians or Jews on the B4NP podcast?

  • Jorge Ostos says:

    Thanks for your incredible words Dr. Enns… Only a question, I want to buy Smith’s book, but I’m not sure yet. What do you think? Should I read it? Thanks. Lots of love from Venezuela/Argentina.

  • DinkyDauBilly says:

    “God, in other words, has a history—or at least on the pages of the Old Testament. We are seeing development over time in how God was understood.”

    “… understood …”.

    OMG! OMG! OMG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    I’m not the only heretic in the freakin’ world!!!!!!!!

  • Tim says:

    I love these two statements:

    “Studying the Bible and Israel’s past is a regular reminder to me that my ultimate object of trust is God, not the Bible (or how I understand the Bible). That’s not knocking the Bible. It’s acknowledging that the Bible—even where it talks about God—is a relentlessly contextual collection of ancient literature that takes wisdom and patience to handle well, and in doing so drives us toward further contemplation of God here and now.”

    “God is bigger than the Bible. I see Jesus and Paul already sounding that note when they began reshaping traditional expectations of God.”

    If only the majority of Christians actually understood these two points, there wouldn’t be so much stupidity in our ranks out there.

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