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?
On all these points the information provided by the Bible must be supplemented from other sources: archaeological discoveries, inscriptions, iconographic documents, Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian chronicles, and so on. An examination of this documentation allows us to retrace the path of a god who probably had his origin somewhere in the “South,” between the Negev and Egypt. Originally he was a god of the wilderness, of war and storms, but gradually through a series of small steps he became the god of Israel and Jerusalem. Then eventually, after a major catastrophe—the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah—he established himself as the one god, creator of heaven and earth, invisible and transcendent, who nevertheless loudly proclaimed his special relationship with Judaism. How did one god among others become God? Despite what certain theologians continue to assert, it is now beyond doubt that the god of the Bible was not always “unique,” the one-and-only God.
Our investigation will attempt to determine the origins and successive transformations of the god of Israel. To be sure, the results of our investigation cannot be more than hypothetical, because we have at our disposal only a handful of indirect pieces of evidence in the biblical texts themselves. Relying exclusively on this evidence can constitute a trap that we must be careful to avoid, because the authors of the various books of the Bible are obviously not impartial witnesses, but rather are very keen to impose on readers their vision of history and of the god of Israel. The Bible, then, must be analyzed historically without preconception, just like any other document from antiquity. Furthermore, the results of our analysis of biblical texts must be compared with the archaeological, epigraphic, and iconographic facts. This is the only way to trace the career of a desert god who was originally venerated by groups of nomads and eventually became the god with the unpronounceable name of the Hebrew Bible.
This investigation will also break a taboo that has dominated recent biblical studies. Since the 1970s, at least in Europe, the texts of the Pentateuch, some of which had traditionally been thought to be extremely ancient and to date back to the beginning of the first millennium, have come to be assigned a much more recent time. For this reason we have seen the advent of a perfectly understandable and healthy skepticism about the historical value of these texts; they have come to be seen as theological or ideological constructions rather than historical records. Many parts of the Pentateuch presuppose the annihilation of the kingdom of Judah, the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, and the Babylonian exile in 587, and this has often been taken as a good reason to consider it illegitimate to use these texts to trace the origins of Israel and its god. To take this tack, however, is to ignore the fact that the narratives contained in the Pentateuch are not inventions proceeding simply from the minds of intellectuals seated in their comfortable chairs. Biblical literature is a literature of tradition: those who put these traditional accounts into writing received them from others, and they had all the freedom they needed to transform or interpret them, or to rewrite them modifying older versions, sometimes in a very drastic way. In most cases, however, the process of revision operated in a manner that rested on certain archaic kernels of fact, which might perhaps have received their definitive formulation only at a relatively late stage, but which could still preserve “traces of memory” of events of the distant past. The books of the Hebrew Bible do not bear the signature of specific authors; the anonymity and the lack of any signature of the texts themselves confirms this. The author disappears behind the text, which he transmits, revises, and edits.
In other words, although it is probably impossible to consider the biblical narratives as objective sources, they nevertheless may conceal within themselves references to historical facts that a historian may to some extent be able to reconstruct. To do this, however, one must subject the texts to a critical analysis so as to extract the facts from the surrounding mythological and ideological dross in which they are encased. It seems to me, then, perfectly legitimate to reconnect to the older tradition of historical interpretation of the Bible, which was still widely cultivated at the start of the twentieth century whenever the question of the origins of the god of Israel arose, but which has been relatively neglected since the 1970s. Today we have better maps to guide us in our quest because of the large number of archaeological discoveries that have greatly enriched our epigraphic and iconographic knowledge.
When we speak, then, of “the invention of God,” we should not imagine either that a group of Bedouins met one day and huddled around an oasis to create a god for themselves, or that some scribes, much later, invented Yahweh out of whole cloth, so to speak, as their tutelary god. Rather this “invention” should be understood as a progressive construction arising out of a particular tradition. Think of this tradition as a series of sedimentary strata gradually laid down over the course of time, which is then sometimes disrupted by historical events that disturb the orderly sequence of layers, allowing something new and unexpected to emerge. If we try, then, to understand how the discourse about this god developed and how he eventually became the “one God,” we can observe a kind of “collective invention,” a process in which the conception was continually revised in the light of particular, changing social and historical contexts.