The word of Yahweh came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great ... Bring me a heifer ... a she-goat ... and a ram, three years old, a young bird and a turtledove.” And Abram brought him all these, cut them in two, and laid each half separated from its other half ... and when the birds of prey swooped down on the carcasses, Abram drove them off.
Now as the sun set, an unnaturally deep sleep fell on Abram, and behold dread and great darkness came over him ... And when the sun had set and it was dark, behold, a smoking brazier and a flaming torch passing between the pieces ...1
This quotation is taken from the Christian Old Testament (the Jewish Tanakh), but it clearly has little to do with religion as currently practiced by either Christianity or Judaism. Instead it describes an essentially pagan religious experience and ceremony. Here is a ritual of covenant-making which, in a similar form, is well-known among many ancient peoples. The partners to the covenant (the solemn treaty) walk through a lane between halved animals, invoking a curse upon themselves if they break their agreement with each other. Abram’s god makes a covenant with him by appearing as a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch, and his appearance is accompanied by a feeling of intense supernatural dread.
This is far from the only point in the Old Testament where the hero of the story takes part in pagan practices. Repeatedly older sets of beliefs show through the veneer of monotheism which later editors have applied to their sources. The aim of this book is to extract the earlier paganism from its later monotheistic setting: to expose the originally pagan religion that underlies the sacred scriptures of Judaism and Christianity.
What Christians call the Old Testament is also the whole of the sacred texts (Tanakh) of Judaism. Written mainly in Hebrew, it makes up the first three quarters of the Christian Bible.
The Old Testament is not "a book” as such; it is much more like the library of an entire religious culture. Written down gradually over the course of maybe 800 years, it contains that culture’s history, law, hymns and wisdom sayings, and the writings of its distinctive holy men called prophets.
The culture which produced it evolved considerably during the time of writing, and this is partly reflected in changes to the name of the people involved. Early on they are called the Hebrews (hence the name of the sacred language, “Hebrew”), then Israelites, and finally, from the sixth century BCE, Jews. They lived in a small section of hill country, not much bigger than Wales or New Jersey, located in the eastern Mediterranean. They shared many characteristics, including a language, with the other peoples of the region who are usually known as Canaanites.
The texts of the Old Testament were gradually written down from about 1000 BCE, when the Israelites first acquired a centralised administration and a literate class of scribes employed by the early kings David (about 1000 – 970 BCE) and Solomon (about 970 – 930 BCE). However they contain stories from much older times passed on, as was usual in the ancient world, by word of mouth.
Now we do have older western religious texts, particularly from Mesopotamia, Egypt and Syria, but these are fragmentary and nothing like as extensive or wide-ranging. So in reading the Old Testament we are reading some of the very earliest accounts of humanity’s religious beliefs and practices. This bears repeating. Here we have many of the oldest western religious texts, and memories from the dawn of western civilisation. The Old Testament is a prime source for the early pagan beliefs of humanity as a whole.
The extent, nature and survival of these texts is in fact quite remarkable. The group and area which produced them was small, rarely politically independent, and dwarfed by the empires of Egypt and Mesopotamia ranged on either side. Yet these texts have survived, and still nourish on-going world religions, while the texts and religions of the larger empires have been largely lost and forgotten.
However for most modern western people the Old Testament is literally a closed book. Even among practicing Christians it has a reputation for obscurity, tedium and barbarity, with its god viewed as cruel and domineering or worse. Most non-Jews and non-Christians, including most pagans, simply assume that it has nothing useful to teach them.
This book aims to change that attitude by using the Hebrew texts of the Old Testament to expose the fascinating world of ancient Israelite religion, a religion much closer to polytheistic paganism than the official lines from Christianity and Judaism would have us believe. The book makes use of the best of Old Testament scholarship as practiced in western universities over the last 130 years. The findings of this scholarship are largely unknown to the average church or synagogue attendee, but they reveal a colourful kaleidoscope of ancient beliefs that is surprisingly attractive.
The Old Testament is not the work of a single author, but of many different people writing over the course of several centuries. The writings grew gradually, were collected and edited, and went through several revisions. They reached the form in which we now have them between about 500 and 200 BCE, and as such are the work of final editors working at that time.
Old Testament scholarship generally recognises at least three earlier collector-editors involved in this process. The earliest, codenamed “J”, worked round about the time of Solomon (tenth century BCE) and wove the traditional stories known to him into a coherent plot running from the creation of the world to the invasion and possession of the holy land of Israel/Canaan. The second, codenamed “D”, worked around the seventh or sixth centuries BCE and interpreted the history of the Israelites since that invasion in terms of their faithfulness or otherwise to their god Yahweh. The viewpoint of “D” is similar to that of the Israelite prophets. The third, codenamed “P”, worked around the sixth or fifth centuries BCE and reinterpreted the whole scheme from the viewpoint of the sacrificial priesthood. The final editors of the whole thing agreed in essentials with “P”.
These editors have between them imposed an overall plot on the texts so that they fit together into a coherent whole. The plot concerns the history of the Israelite people and their dealings with their god, and goes like this:
Implicit in this story are two editorial points of view which inform the whole of the Old Testament.
The first is a clear distinction between the Israelites on the one hand and their neighbours the Canaanites on the other, both in terms of descent and in terms of religion. The Israelites are believed to be a distinct people, who invaded Canaan from the outside bringing their own religion with them, and who struggled to displace the people who previously lived there. And the pagan religion of the Canaanites is believed to be thoroughly evil, quite different from the pure, ethical monotheism that is the true Israelite faith. There is no connection and can be no peace between the two communities, socially or religiously.
The second is the belief that all of the Israelites share direct descent from the founding fathers, Abraham and Jacob/Israel, who were the first to worship their god and founded their religion.
So this is how the final editors of the Old Testament would like us to read the ancient texts. But it is possible to strip away their viewpoint and see what the old stories themselves originally said. For although the editors clearly felt free to add to the ancient stories they received, and to put them into a framework expressing their own beliefs, they generally did not just rewrite them from scratch. They left the stories more or less intact, even when they didn’t fit the case they were trying to make.
If we separate out the ancient stories from the later viewpoint, and work with the stories alone, then almost every point of the “official plot” outlined above is shown to be a misrepresentation. Instead of a single God dealing consistently with a single people over hundreds of years, we find a great diversity of groups, beliefs and practices. Instead of a totally different Israelite religion from that of the Canaanites, we find a religion gradually emerging from a Canaanite source, sharing a past and a great many features with it. And instead of a consistent monotheism, what we find for much of Israelite history is a complex, polytheistic paganism.
It is not necessary to look up any of the notes (indicated by small numbers in the text like this27) while reading the book, but they are provided for three main reasons. Primarily they provide references to the passages from the Old Testament and other works quoted and summarised. Sometimes they follow up interesting sidelines that would otherwise interrupt the flow of the argument. And occasionally they refer to other books where complex issues are explained in more detail. The notes for each chapter are found at the end of the book.
The quotations from the Old Testament are usually my own translations from the original Hebrew. For those who want an Old Testament to read for themselves, I recommend the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). This retains a lot of the poetry of the old King James Version of 1611 while updating its archaic language, correcting its mistakes, and using inclusive language where possible. It sticks close to the Hebrew text, which makes it a popular choice in university Theology departments. However any English translation of the Old Testament is fine provided you remain aware of its limitations. The original Hebrew is frequently ambiguous, so any translation takes decisions about the likely meaning of the text with which other translations may disagree.
The exact meaning of the term "paganism" is a contentious issue. The British-based Pagan Federation defines it as including any polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshipping religion,4 while in the past the term was often used to denote any religion apart from the western monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. In this book I use it in broadly the second sense: for all the beliefs and practices of the peoples surrounding the Israelites that were originally unconnected with their national god Yahweh. These beliefs and practices were frequently pagan in the first sense as well, as we shall see. My aim is to show how great was the influence of this paganism on the evolution of Israel's faith and on its sacred writings.
1. Genesis 15.1-17. The Old Testament is divided into 39 “books”, of which Genesis is the first. Each book is divided into “chapters” and each chapter into “verses” to aid navigation by the reader. So “Genesis 15.1-17” means “the Book of Genesis, chapter 15, verses 1 to 17”. These numbers were not in the original texts and have been added later.
2. In the Hebrew of the Old Testament the name of Israel’s God is spelled YHWH or yhwh without any vowels (ancient written Hebrew had no separate capital letters, and originally had no vowels either). Later Jews regarded this name as too sacred to pronounce, so when reading the scriptures out loud they substituted the title “Adonai” (Lord) and said that instead. English translations of the Bible follow this convention by translating yhwh as “Lord” rather than “Yahweh”, but they signal that the Hebrew text has yhwh by rendering it “LORD”, with all capital letters. In previous centuries it was wrongly believed that yhwh was pronounced “Jehovah”, hence that antiquated name for the Old Testament God. However modern scholars think the pronunciation was closer to “Yahweh”.
3. According to the texts, Abram was renamed Abraham when he was adopted by Yahweh as his worshipper.
4. See The Pagan Federation (2011) Introduction to Paganism, available from: http://www.paganfed.org/paganism.shtml (accessed 3 October 2011).