One of the blind spots in the academic study of religion has to do with revelation. Actual religious people believe that God has revealed or disclosed some of the meaning of existence and divinity. But titles like Mark Smith’s The Early History of God or Jan Assman’s The Invention of Religion assume that scholars can explain the religious ideas that began in ancient Israel without taking seriously that ancient Israelites received a revelation from God.
I am sure scholars rebel against some of the ways religious people think revelation happened. In the United States we have an evangelicalism supported by an infrastructure of megachurches, radio and TV stations, and bookstores that usually assumes the way God gets revealed is through the Bible understood as this extraordinary book that contains information about the past all the way back to creation and future until the end of the world.
But suppose God has revealed himself in events like the exodus or Israel and the resurrection of Jesus and by appearing to people in various forms. Suppose God has revealed himself by augmenting human wisdom. Suppose God has revealed himself in ordinary religious experiences such as answered prayer and incidents of grace. Christians see Jesus as the definitive disclosure of God. But suppose God has done all this without providing us with supernatural information in the form of a verbally inspired book.
When I read the Bible that is what I see. The writers were bound to their cultures and did not have special historical or scientific information that others of their time did not have. Even Jesus didn’t have this special information!
Yet I do not assume that this means religion, and especially the concept of God, was invented or was a purely historical development.
So how does one deal with this idea of henotheism. The dictionary definition of henotheism is the worship of one god without denying the existence of other gods. A standard way of dealing with this by scholars is to assume that Israel adopted polytheistic Canaanite ideas and that those ideas evolved first to henotheism and ultimately to a pure monotheism.
Paula Fredriksen convinced me that the apostle Paul, in speaking of entities in heaven, on earth, and in the underworld who would acknowledge Jesus (Philippians 2:10), thought in terms of supernatural beings as well as humans. So Paul had not evolved beyond this concept.
Michael Heiser brought out a whole lot of evidence from the Bible and ancient Jewish and Christian literature to show that the writers saw God as having a “heavenly host”, a “divine council”, or a family of the “sons of God”. For him, this constituted an unseen supernatural realm.
Yet a very non-Canaanite theology comes through in Genesis 1. A unique creator God forms everything in heaven and on earth. It is very different from the sexual, violent and anthropomorphic stories of creation we find elsewhere in the Ancient Near East. Still, Genesis 1 retains the divine entourage. “Let us make humans in our image”. There is evidence that Isaiah and Jeremiah already knew this story. So it is old.
What I see happening in ancient Israel is that this unique creator God actually revealed himself to some of them. There was an old tradition that carried on in the midst of a sea of paganism that included sexualized rituals and child sacrifice. This old tradition was usually the minority position pushed by some priests and village elders. But once in a while they would influence or even install a king to make reforms.
I have been thinking about this in relation to the ideas of Margaret Barker, who sees King Josiah’s reforms as burying the old henotheistic religion of Israel. In my next post, I want to talk about that. And then, I want to speculate a little about how the idea of the heavenly host or the unseen supernatural realm might fit into modern faith.