How did one god among others become God? This is the basic, and theologically fundamental, enigma that Thomas Römer attempts to illuminate in The Invention of God. The book was originally commissioned for the same French-language series that Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century appeared in, a series in which major scholars take their newest and biggest ideas to a broad audience. Our English edition, translated by philosopher Raymond Geuss, is new this month; an excerpt from its Introduction appears below.
In the religious landscape of humanity, Judaism figures as the most ancient monotheistic religion: it proclaims that there is only one God, who is at the same time the particular god of the people of Israel and also the God of the whole universe. This idea of a single, unique God was then taken over and propagated throughout the world by Christianity and Islam, each of which slightly inflects the original conception in its own way.
When we read the Jewish and Christian Bibles or the Koran, we have the impression that this God was unique since the very beginning; after all, he is the creator of heaven and earth. Looking more closely, though, we find texts in the Bible that admit the existence of other gods: for instance, in the story of the conflict between a man named Jephthah, a military leader of one of the tribes of Israel, and Sihon, the king of one of the neighbors of Israel to the east, which is recounted in the book of Judges. Jephthah uses a theological argument to resolve a territorial dispute: “Do you not possess that which Chemosh, your god, has given into your possession? And shall we not possess that which our God has given into our possession?” (Judg. 11:24). Here the god of Jephthah is considered to be the tutelary deity of a tribe or people, in the same way in which Chemosh is the tutelary god of Sihon. If we read on in the Hebrew Bible, we discover further curious texts. The audience for which the book of Deuteronomy was originally written and to which it is addressed, for instance, is often exhorted not to follow after other gods, without it ever being asserted that these gods did not exist or were not real. So the Bible itself retains traces of the fact that a plurality of gods existed in the Levant, which means also in Israel, and that the god of Israel, whose name was pronounced Yahweh or Yahu, was far from being the only god worshipped by the Israelites.
The biblical narrative, however, contains other surprises. When Yahweh reveals himself to Moses in Egypt, he appears as a previously unknown god. After all, he himself tells Moses that this is the first time he has manifested himself under his real name. Is this a trace of the historical fact that this god was not always the god of Israel? Why, after all, does he reveal himself in Egypt or in the wilderness? Does he have some special connection to these places, and if so, what connection?