Thursday, April 05, 2007


Passover Blogging

Complementary to the Documentary hypothesis as to the origins of the Torah is the notion that the religion of the early Hebrews was torn between henotheism, the worship of one god exclusively while considering other nations to have other gods, and a kind of subtle theism, that would have been in the pagan world (and what would still be considered by certain Christians) to be a form of atheism. The parts of the Torah attributed to "J", "E" and "P" include both henotheistic and atheistic passages, although the Deuteronomaic text represents the triumph of "atheist Judaism" against earlier henotheistic Hebrew beliefs (note the use of language -- the term "Jew" first occurs in the Bible in the writings of the presumed Deuteronomist, Jeremiah).

Some parts of the Torah can even be read as representing a value judgment as to which theology and which documentary tradition represents the life-force of Judaism and which represents a doctrine that could have led to the end of the Hebrew faith. In particular, the Akedah begins as a henotheistic "E" text telling Abraham to sacrifice Isaac while it ends with Isaac, the already anointed middle patriarch of the Hebrews, being spared in a "J" narration that, while itself somewhat henotheistic, that many have read as a starkly "atheistic" lesson: the redactors, either Prophets with great vision as to how the Hebrew faith could survive an inevitable exile or perhaps, assuming a later redaction, already aware of how the abandonment of henotheism allowed the Jewish people to remain distinct in Babylon and survive the exile, may have, in compiling the story from the "E" and "J" traditions, spun the story this way on purpose.

Presumably, the Prophetic tradition, so keen on retelling the tale of the Exodus to remind the Hebrew of who were there real enemies and friends in the contemporaneous geo-political turmoil of the time, generally did frown upon henotheism -- and yet, while the general story arc of Exodus, e.g. the revelation of the burning bush, are very much against the grain of henotheism, the story of the Exodus itself -- as retold every Passover, is amazingly henotheistic in orientation, as was pointed out at the Seder I attended first nigh this year: it isn't that Hashem is the only god according to the story told, but that Hashem smites the gods of the Egyptians.

On the other hand, this henotheistic language does lead to a paradox: if the gods of the Egyptians can be smote, are they really immortals? So, perhaps the henotheism of "J" in the Exodus story is only skin deep? Can one call "J" Nietzschean?

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