This is another contradiction between the 7th century BCE text of Deuteronomy, most likely written by Levite scribes, and the 6th-5th century BCE text of Leviticus written by an elite scion of the Levite tribe, the Aaronids. Like other contradictions we have reviewed between these two guilds (eg. #152, #153-154, #172, #174, #176, etc.) this one also reflects the specific historical crisis that each of these writers sought to respond to as well as each one’s unique religious agenda and ideology.
The most severe sin an Israelite could commit according to the Deuteronomic literature was to practice idolatry. This is the central and most significant argument of the book of Deuteronomy (see especially Deut 7 & 13). The crime was punishable by death (Deut 13). The covenant that the authors of Deuteronomy stressed through the mouthpiece of their deity was one that demanded strict allegiance and loyalty to Yahweh and Yahweh alone.
The Yahweh alone movement (excerpted from the Deuteronomist)
The Deuteronomic literature advocates a unique theological position that has often been referred to as the “Yahweh alone movement.” Textual expressions of this ideology include:
Know that Yahweh alone is god; there is none beside him! (4:35)
Yahweh alone is god in heaven and on earth below; there is none beside him! (4:39)
Yahweh our god is one, Yahweh alone! (6:4).
It is here in this movement that scholars identify the origins of Israelite monotheism, or monolatry as some critics prefer—that is the sole worship of one god. In other words, Israelite monotheism had its roots in the 7th century BCE at the tail end of Israel’s monarchy, and not in some archaic Mosaic past as portrayed by the biblical sources. It is, rather, the sole creation of the Deuteronomist. How do scholars arrive at this conclusion?
Contrary to the book of Deuteronomy’s divine proclamation “to exterminate,” “devour,” “put an end to,” and “utterly destroy” all the peoples of Canaan and their shrines and altars, the books of Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings present a different picture: the Israelites are portrayed as repeatedly practicing Canaanite ritual practices and worshiping Yahweh and the gods of Canaan interchangeably at the high places, and even in the temple. This in itself, we must recall, is completely contradictory to Deuteronomy’s strict legislation of a single altar and place of worship at Jerusalem (#137-138).
More specifically, the books of Kings openly recognize that the worship of Yahweh along with other Canaanite deities at local altars and high places was a common and repeated occurrence in both the northern and the southern kingdoms from Solomon to Josiah. These types of cultic practices were labeled as apostasy by the Deuteronomist. Even the good kings of Judah, those “who did good in the eyes of Yahweh,” left the altars of the high places with their Canaanite, and Yahwistic, cultic practices undisturbed. All this was to change however with Josiah’s religious reforms in the last third of the 7th century BCE. Josiah, we are informed, was the only king of Judah to have destroyed the high places and to have centralized the cult of Yahweh in Jerusalem as part of a systematic religious reform (see below). The ideology behind this religious reform may be identified as the Yahweh alone movement.
It is not surprising that these two programs are the two essential features of the book of Deuteronomy. That is, part and parcel to this new Yahweh alone movement were the systematic destruction of all local shrines and altars where Yahweh and the other gods of Canaan were worshiped and the implementation of one authoritative cultic center at Jerusalem (Deut 12). These two religious innovations are only spoken of for one king in the monarchic period, king Josiah. It is true that Hezekiah, his scribes, and other court officials may have ushered in the Yahweh alone movement at the end of the 8th century BCE and implemented a program to centralize the cult of Yahweh at Jerusalem as well, but only Josiah is accredited by the Deuteronomist authors with destroying the high places. In other words, before Josiah’s religious reforms of the late 7th century BCE—which were legitimated by the text that expressed that ideological program, Deuteronomy—local shrines and altars, rooftop shrines, and cultic practices at the so-called high places to both Yahweh and other Canaanite deities were all part of the popular religious landscape of Israel and Judah. Yet the biblical authors, the Deuteronomists in particular, label this old popular tradition as apostasy. And we, its readers, have unknowingly bought into the Deuteronomist’s propaganda.
It is important to remember that the religious program propounded in the book of Deuteronomy to worship Yahweh alone and furthermore at Jerusalem alone was the product of an elite religious guild—educated Levites who may have been far removed from the religious practices of the people on a local level. Indeed, as some scholars have suggested, they may even have misunderstood local religious practices all together.1
In either case, the portrait they paint in the biblical literature is not a pretty one. Furthermore, according to the theological interpretive lens through which these elite scribes viewed history, it was these popularistic cultic practices that incurred Yahweh’s wrath which led to the people’s destruction by foreign superpowers in the region; two historical events were particularly interpreted through this theological lens: the destruction of Israel by the Assyrians in 722 BCE, and the destruction of Judah, Jerusalem, and the temple by the Babylonians in 587 BCE. It is no wonder that the Deuteronomist labeled these popularistic practices as apostasy—an apostasy created by the Deuteronomist as a means to scapegoat the real historical causes of each one of these destructions and, as the theology dictated, to accredit them to Yahweh himself. It was in all intents and purposes a way, a theological way, of making sense of the destruction and loss of land occasioned by the Assyrians and Babylonians, whose real and historical reasons for their brutal invasion and annihilation of both Israel and Judah respectively were that each of the kings decided to stop paying tribute to their foreign overlords.2
Yet contrary to the Deuteronomist’s derogatory and damning view of these sorts of popularistic religious practices, there is evidence from the Bible itself, archaeology, and inscriptions dug up throughout the whole monarchal period that make a rather strong case for understanding such practices as normative religious practices. It was how religion was practiced by the Israelites up to the religious reforms prompted by Hezekiah’s scribes and the Josianic Deuteronomists, who propounded a new religious movement, the Yahweh alone movement, and legitimated that movement by textually retrojecting it into the past as the ideal and pure state of Israelite religion as it was intended and as it had been practiced in the archaic past. Archaeologists Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman have written extensively on this topic:
The existence of high places and other forms of ancestral and household god worship was not—as the books of Kings imply—apostasy from an earlier, purer faith. It was part of the timeless tradition of the hill country settlers of Judah who worshiped Yahweh along with a variety of gods and goddesses known or adapted from the cults of neighboring peoples. Yahweh, in short, was worshipped in a wide variety of ways—and sometime pictured as having a heavenly entourage.3
The archaeological as well as biblical evidence for this widely accepted claim among archaeologists are:
First, numerous bull figurines and fertility goddesses have been unearthed at every late monarchic site in Judah, indicating a widespread and normative syncretic cultic practice across Israel.
Second, there have been a number of inscriptions found in sites from the 8th century BCE archaeological layer with the formulaic expression, “Yahweh of Sameria and his Asherah.” In Canaanite religious lore, Asherah was the consort of the high god El. Yahweh eventually came to be described in similar terms as El, and even apparently adopted his consort Asherah (see #27).4 Other inscriptions have additionally been unearthed that mention Yahweh along side of El and Baal. In the cultic sphere, the worship of El, Baal, and Yahweh were indistinguishable. Bull iconography was likewise associated with El, Baal, and Yahweh.
Third, there is even biblical evidence that some sort of syncretic cult of Yahweh and other Canaanite deities flourished in the monarchal period in Jerusalem. The prophetic literature, although advocating a Yahweh alone policy, clearly suggests that Yahweh was being worshiped at Jerusalem together with Baal, Asherah, and even the deities of Israel’s neighbors (see 1 Kings 11:5; 2 Kings 23:13; Jer 11:13; Ezek 8). Noteworthy as well, we are told that Josiah removed many of these deities’ cultic figures from Yahweh’s temple when he started his religious reforms in the late 7th century BCE (2 Kgs 23:4-5).
The point is that none of the earlier sources preserved in the biblical literature criticize or deem these practices as inappropriate until the Deuteronomist writes his history in the second half of the 7th century BCE. Given this evidence, together with the Deuteronomist’s strong polemic against such religious practices, scholars have come to conclude that this syncretic form of worship was an older normative tradition prior to the elitist Yahweh alone movement of the Deuteronomists. With the emergence of the Yahweh alone movement in the late 8th century BCE, however, this age-old religious practice was condemned as apostasy by 7th century BCE Deuteronomic authors. To cite Finkelstein once more:
“What can only be called an extraordinary outpouring of retrospective theology, the new centralized kingdom of Judah and the Jerusalem-centered worship of Yahweh was read back into Israelite history as the way things should always have been.”5
In short, this was the intention of the book of Deuteronomy.
The exclusive allegiance to Yahweh, and Yahweh alone, is best voiced throughout Deuteronomy in terms of the covenant. In fact the book of Deuteronomy is the covenantal document par excellence that defines this allegiance and stipulates the conditions of the allegiance as well as its punishments (curses) if the covenantal demands are broken. On the flip side of this demand for sole loyalty to Yahweh and his covenant is the systematic program to utterly destroy the Canaanites.
“You shall doom them to destruction. You shall grant them no terms and you shall not spare them!” (7:2)
“You shall devour all the peoples whom Yahweh your god delivers to you. You shall show them no pity!” (7:16).
This utter extermination of all the peoples of Canaan coincides with Josiah’s 7th century BCE religious reform of destroying all local altars and other non-Yahwistic altars, as defined by the Deuteronomic ideology promulgated from Jerusalem (see also #68). This is merely one way in which the text of Deuteronomy supported and legitimated the ideological program of Josiah in centralizing the cult of Yahweh around one shrine located in Jerusalem and exterminating all other Yahwistic and non-Yahwistic cultic sites. In reality the holy war against the Canannites and the divine decree to utterly exterminate them never happened. It was an idealistic program meant, theoretically, to eradicate the root or causes of apostasy: Canaanite cultic altars and statues. In practice, however, this never happened. Indeed many scholars have wondered if it ever happened under Josiah’s reign since once again the archaeological record indicates uninterrupted layers of cultic figurines and graven images throughout the monarchal period, even through Josiah’s 7th century BCE reforms.
It is for this very crime that the Deuteronomist’s Yahweh proclaims that he has expelled the Canaanites, and it is this very crime that Yahweh threatens to expel the Israelites from the land, to exile them (Deut 28-30). Indeed, as we have already seen in the affair of the Golden Calf narrative (#162), idolatry was the charge laid upon the north by the southern Deuteronomist and this crime resulted in the total annihilation of Israel in the north by the Assyrians in 722 BCE, at least according to the theological interpretive lens through which the southern Deuteronomist interpreted the fall of the north.
Surprisingly, the Priestly writer has little to nothing to say about idolatry. It does not surface in the priestly literature and was apparently of little to no concern for the Priestly writer and his historical circumstances. In other words, when the author of Leviticus sat down to compose his text, idolatry was not an imminent threat to Israelite religion. This has been one of the staple features in assigning the Priestly literature to the exilic or post-exlic era. Idolatry, as the books of Samuel, Kings, and the pre-exilic prophetic literature bear witness to was a religious phenomenon of the monarchy, not of the exilic or post-exilic periods.
The distinction between idolatry and purity also highlights the larger theological differences between D and P. The Deuteronomist was a strict monotheist, and following Yahweh’s commandment to obey and worship only Yahweh were the central theological tenets of his text. Not to say that P would have disagreed, but neither P’s theology nor his concerns were articulated in these terms. For the Aaronid priests, ritual and ethical purity defined its community and their relationship to Yahweh (see #185).
Although we might concede that the later Priestly writer would not have disagreed with the Deuteronomist’s call for strict allegiance to Yahweh, his concern and religious program however lied elsewhere. It was not idolatry, the swaying of one’s allegiance from Yahweh, that functioned to theologically explain the loss of the land and the extermination of the Canaanites, but rather, and in accord with P’s ritual and ethical sacrificial cult, the utter breach of ritual and ethical propriety between the pure and the impure. Leviticus 18 lists those sexual practices that were deemed impure, offensive, and blasphemous towards Yahweh, and which were also the reason why the Canaanites were expelled from the land. As is visible, maintaining the holiness of not only Yahweh’s people, but the land was of utmost importance to the Priestly writers.
- In particular see William Dever, Did God Have a Wife?↵
- In fact, it could be argued that the Yahweh alone movement lead to Israel’s and Judah’s destruction, since in its most strict articulation, it meant that covenants or treaties with other sovereigns other than Yahweh was not permissible. But literature is a miraculous thing in itself, especially the use of literature to support monarchal or state policies—propaganda in short. Hezekiah’s scribes certainly had a flare for this as they extolled him as devotedly loyal to Yahweh alone, which resulted in his refusal to pay tribute to his Assyrian overlord, which then resulted in the Assyrians utter destruction of the land of Judah and besieging of Jerusalem. Yet the biblical authors relate this story as a triumph for the Yahweh alone movement by narrating how Jerusalem was “miraculously” spared because Hezekiah put his trust in Yahweh alone. However, we know from archaeological and extra-biblical material that Hezekiah finally acknowledged his Assyrian overlord—contrary to the stipulations of the Yahweh alone movement—and paid him a handsome tribute. See the Assyrian annals of Sennecherib.↵
- Finkelstein and Silberman, The Bible Unearthed, 241-242.↵
- For a lively treatment see William Dever’s recent book, Did God Have a Wife?↵
- Ibid, 249.↵