Recently I was browsing an article on Wikipedia titled “History of ancient Israel and Judah” and I read some passages I extracted and wanted to know of you could tell me if there is any actual historical credibility to them.
1 The religion of the Israelites of Iron Age I, like the Canaanite faith from which it evolved and other ancient Near Eastern religions, was based on a cult of ancestors and worship of family gods (the “gods of the fathers”). Its major deities were not numerous – El, Asherah, and Yahweh, with Baal as a fourth god, and perhaps Shamash (the sun) in the early period. By the time of the early Hebrew kings, El and Yahweh had become fused and Asherah did not continue as a separate state cult
2 There is a general consensus among scholars that the first formative event in the emergence of the distinctive religion described in the Bible was triggered by the destruction of Israel by Assyria in c. 722 BCE. Refugees came south to Judah, bringing with them laws and a prophetic tradition of Yahweh. This religion was subsequently adopted by the landowners, who in 640 BCE placed on the throne the eight-year-old Josiah.
3 Josiah and the Deuteronomists launched a bid for independence expressed as loyalty to “Yahweh alone” and in the law-code in the Book of Deuteronomy, written as a treaty between Judah and Yahweh to replace the vassal-treaty with Assyria
4 According to the Deuteronomists, the treaty with Yahweh would enable the god to preserve both the city and the king in return for the people’s worship and obedience to the legal code.
5 The history books, Joshua and Judges to Samuel and Kings, interpreted the Babylonian destruction as divinely-ordained punishment for the failure of the Hebrew kings to worship Yahweh to the exclusion of all other deities
Statements like 1. are easy to make, but the one making such a statement must provide evidence to support such a statement. I believe that those who make such statements do so primarily based on presuppositions which they bring to the table. The unbelieving scholars generally assume that, obviously, the Jewish religion evolved from pagan roots. Therefore, by definition, when they assume this, they reach the conclusion that the Jewish religion evolved from pagan roots. This is a logical fallacy. Where is the evidence that this person has to support the belief that the Jewish religion included worship of Asherah or Baal? Does he offer any? My guess is that he has literally no actual evidence of Judaism including worship of Shamash. What the Bible says is that many Jews continued to worship these pagan deities, but that Judaism itself absolutely forbade worshipping these deities from all the way back to the time of Moses and even Abraham. So, again, I ask the one who makes this claim to provide evidence to support this claim. We do have the Bible which seems to prove this claim wrong. Of course, that alone leaves open the possibility that this person is right, but my guess is that his only real “evidence” is his presupposition about the nature of the evolution of religions. He is assuming that no religion could actually come from God to his people. The problem is that this is assuming the answer before we ask the question.
Statement number 2, unlike statement number 1 does not need evidence to prove it. It is a statement about current opinion. Of course, such “current opinion” is not evidence, but it is something to consider. Having said that, I will vigorously challenge his statement that “general consensus” among scholars is that the destruction of Israel by Assyria in 722 is the triggering event which led to the formation of the Jewish religion. He is making this statement concerning the opinion of a circle of friends all of whom agree with him. This circle probably does not include any who believe in God, but perhaps that is beside the point. All that really matters is what is true and what is the evidence. We have a well-developed Judaism, certainly by the time of Isaiah. Surely even this person will agree that Isaiah represents a thoroughly developed YHWH only Judaism. Yet, Isaiah wrote his prophecies beginning around 740 BC. How can he explain this? I believe that this “general consensus” comes again from certain presuppositions. Now, to explain this would require me to get into some scholarly detail that might be a bit beyond your background. For several decades, unbelieving scholars have been working under an assumption about the origins of the Old Testament. They talk about a J document and a P document and a D document. This is extremely speculative stuff. You should take such claims with a very large grain of salt. Far more believable in my opinion is to accept that David was a real person and a real king over a real Israel and that he wrote at least some of the Psalms. David almost certainly was a believer in only YHWH. The claim that David also worshipped Ashtaroth or Baal is really a bit outrageous. Surely the ones who have this “scholarly consensus” have actual evidence for this claim. Surely not! Again, take this with a big grain of salt and be aware of the presuppositions of these scholars.
About statement number 3. This statement assumes that these folks known as the Deuteronomists even existed. Do we have evidence for these people? Do we know their names? Do we have documents outside the Bible written by these people? The answer, simply, is no. Again, this is a highly speculative theory about a group who created Deuteronomy in about the late 7th century BC. The problem with this theory is that it lives in an evidence-free zone. Bottom line, as far as I know, there is no evidence, either from the Bible or from inscriptions and other kinds of archaeology, that there was ever a branch of Judaism which believed in YHWH but not in El. Biblical Judaism includes El and YHWH as the name of God in nearly every book in the Old Testament. You should be quite skeptical of this claim.
About statement number 4. According to whom? The only reliable historical record we have from the time of Josiah is 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles (as well as parts of Jeremiah). Do these documents mention Deuteronomists or record their work? Nevertheless, I agree with this author that Josiah believed that worshipping YHWH alone would enable God to preserve both the city and the king, as long as the people faithfully obeyed the legal code. This much I agree with. It is recorded in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles.
About statement number 5. I agree that the author of Samuel and Kings believed that the Babylonian destruction was divinely ordained punishment for failure to worship YHWH to the exclusion of all deities. This claim is consistent with the scripture. The author appears to assume that Joshua was written after the time of the Babylonian destruction. I am very skeptical of this assumption, but, to be honest, I cannot say with any great certainty when Joshua was put into its final form. The historical books do not come with dates of writing on them, making it hard to say for sure when they were written. I believe that the scholar you are reading assumes it must be written after the destruction of Jerusalem because of some prophetic material in the book and the presupposition of the author against divine influence on the Bible. I do not make such assumptions, but I honestly do not know the date when Joshua entered its final form.
A final statement. Be aware of the presuppositions of scholars, including your own and my own presuppositions. Arguments based on presuppositions should be carefully avoided. Either that or at least when people make arguments based on presuppositions, they should make their readers aware of this. The author of the Wikipedia article fails in this standard.