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Bible Research

Imperial God

In the midst of their flight through the desert, the people of Israel received God’s commandments at Mount Sinai. That’s what it says in the Bible. No less dramatic is the historical background of this story. Biblical scholar Konrad Schmid is tracking it down.
David Werner


Moses with the Tablets of the Law. Painted by Valentin de Boulogne (1620). (Image: Keystone)


Essentially it’s always been the same script: Whenever a kingdom blossomed, its gods were held in greater esteem; once it declined, sooner or later its immortals also died with it. It was the same story from the Euphrates and Tigris to the Levant and the Nile. For example, the pantheon of the Babylonians at one time boasted no fewer than 3,000 deities, none of which survived the test of time. In the Near East of antiquity, states and gods formed a firm alliance, which is also why they generally shared a common fate. But amid all this alternating pomp, glory, violence and decay, one god of the Near East, named Yahweh (or YHWH), proved to be a real survival artist. “Resilience, rather than power, is what made this god so successful in the long run,” explains biblical scholar Konrad Schmid.

The earliest references show Yahweh as a mountain and weather god of the semi-desert. Later he figured as a state and temple deity in the kingdom of the legendary David and Solomon – which recent archaeological findings suggest was a raw, barren, scantily developed provincial princedom led by warriors with little similarity to the distorted picture of a prosperous, peaceful kingdom painted in hindsight by the authors of the Bible. This edifice soon crumbled. Right away the two small successor states Israel and Judah embarked on an epic struggle for the prestige of their Yahweh shrines. Astonishingly, the less important and poorer mountain country Judah, with its capital Jerusalem, came out in front.

Over the centuries, as Judaism gradually took shape, there were repeated catastrophes which almost extinguished the faith of Yahweh. In 720 BCE, troops of the Assyrian Great King marched into Israel and brutally subjugated the country. This was followed 150 years later by the Babylonian occupation. Both events had a traumatic effect, but in the long run strengthened the resilience of the Yahweh religion to such an extent that it was ultimately able to withstand even the devastating defeats of Jewish rebels in the struggle against the Romans and the scattering of the Jews all over the world. Now around two thirds of the world’s population – Jews, Christians and Muslims – invoke the god who is said to have led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt.

New and exotic

What are the characteristics that made Yahweh so resistant to crisis? “It was his distance from power,” says Konrad Schmid. In a contradictory and anything but systematic process, over the centuries the gulf between the Yahweh religion and those wielding political power grew. This was a gap that hadn’t existed in the sacral kingdoms of the ancient orient, where kings were seen as sons of god.

This momentous development probably had its origins during the Assyrian occupation in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE. At this time, laws said to be divine and set down in writing came into general use in Judah; laws, in other words, claiming even greater validity than those from kings. “The notion of a law-giving god now seems commonplace to us, because it has been so successful in world history,” says Schmid. “If you look at it in the cultural context of the time, however, you realize just how new and exotic this idea must have seemed back then.”

Written with the finger

The gods of the Near East ruled over nature and the heavens, decided on wars and destinies, guaranteed success and prosperity, and oversaw order and justice in general. But none of these deities ever turned directly to people to give them laws – except Yahweh.

It says in the Bible that on Mount Sinai, Yahweh wrote down the Ten Commandments with his own finger and thus set down ethical principles and defined, as in a constitution, the relationship between himself and his people. Via his go-between Moses, he also stipulated in great detail how his people should pray, sacrifice, celebrate, do business, eat and live together. Until that point, laying down such firm rules had been a matter for kings as representatives of the gods on earth, but not for the gods themselves. “With the introduction of normative laws with absolute validity, and the associated idea of a law-giving god, small, insignificant Judah became the arena for an innovation whose import in the history of ideas can hardly be overestimated,” says Schmid.

It’s true that biblical laws are deeply anchored in a venerable written legal tradition of the ancient Near East going back to the end of the third millennium BCE. But they had a completely different function and different addressees. The legal texts of the Near East of antiquity were designed to help kings in the finding of justice; in other words, they were how-to literature in the broadest sense. Yet legal enactment itself was done orally on an ad-hoc basis by kings.

By contrast, the laws that had now been introduced in Judah were normatively binding. They claimed absolute validity. Everyone had to keep to them everywhere at all times. This basically made the king redundant as a legislator or law-giver. “Without the notion of a law-giving god, the emergence of complex, differentiated religions such as Judaism and subsequently Christianity, which are not directly linked to a political power base, would not have been possible,” explains Schmid.

Striking back at the superpower

But how and under what influences did the idea of a law-giving god, such an unusual notion at the time, come into being in the first place? Many laws that made their way into the biblical tradition had initially been temporal in nature and were only later given a theological spin. The oldest text in the Old Testament in which this theological stamp first becomes tangible is to be found in the Fifth Book of Moses (Deuteronomy). This book bears the clear imprint of Assyrian foreign rule. The Neo-Assyrian Empire is now considered to be the first superpower in history.

In 722 BCE, Assyrian imperial forces penetrated the Northern Kingdom of Israel, obliterated its capital Samaria, and carried off most of the population. Some managed to flee to the Southern Kingdom of Judah, which also came under Assyrian influence as a vassal state, but overall was less hard-hit. The Israeli refugees brought their ancient traditions with them to Judah, including the saga of the exodus of the people of Israel from Egypt. When the Torah was written down – its core content was now taking shape – this story was used as a narrative framework for the proclamation of God’s laws on Mount Sinai. This way it was possible to project the act of divine law-giving back into a time way in the past which still, however, precisely mirrored the situation in which the long-suffering Israelites currently found themselves. The Egyptian house of bondage became a code for Assyrian tyranny.

The Fifth Book of Moses emerged when, about a hundred years later, the Assyrian grip on Judah began to loosen. Taking the form of long speeches made by Moses to the people of Israel, it lists the divine laws and provides explanations. It’s interesting to note the form in which God is introduced here as the author of laws. In conceptual and linguistic terms, the Fifth Book of Moses precisely follows the model of the vassal treaties with which the Assyrian Great King bound the peoples he had vanquished to loyalty. The imperator is simply replaced by the figure of God. The revolutionary idea of divine law that stands above the laws of kings thus finds its way into the Bible by way of a subversive ruse: The language of the oppressors is imitated and brought into play against the oppressors themselves.

Coping with suffering and misfortune

Right down to its fundamental structures, the book thus reflects the profound influence of imperial rule and Assyrian legal conventions. “The rule in the history of religion that the gods are always a reflection of their society is affirmed in the Fifth Book of Moses,” says Schmid. He goes on to explain: “In the way he appears here, God takes on clear traits of a Great King who signs treaties, enacts laws and demands the absolute loyalty of his people with the sole claim to validity of an imperator. God’s behavior is imperial – but in an anti-imperial twist is turned on worldly powers, as God alone is allowed imperial power.

The idea of a law-giving god clearly contains an element of biting criticism: Criticism of ruling authority. The Exodus story provides a visually stunning framework for the proclamation of divine law and thus explains how it is to be understood. The covenant with God is supposed to be a way out of bondage. But even divine law won’t work without the threat of violence. A law only has force if violations are sanctioned. So the notion of God as a law-giver also includes divine judgment. Schmid is convinced that historically speaking, the idea of divine punishment has made a particularly important contribution to the crisis resistance of the Yahweh religion. How so? “The scheme of culpability and punishment has huge potential in terms of rationality,” he says. “Whatever happens by way of misfortune could be interpreted as punishment from God for a failure to satisfy his demands for loyalty.” The paradigm of the covenant took the place of the wrath of God as the reason for calamity.

As the idea of divine laws became established, the Yahweh religion became more and more capable of coping with negative experiences. This way an utterly endless series of failures, disappointments and collective experiences of terror could be processed and integrated in the religious context. Unlike the state deities of the ancient Near East, which could only symbolize success and prosperity and dwindled into impotent bogeymen whenever there was a serious crisis, Yahweh the punishing god retained his authority even in the greatest catastrophe, and was thus able to bind his followers closely to him.

Inspiring exile

When in 587 BCE, 150 years after the attack of the Assyrians, the Babylonians sacked and pillaged their way into Jerusalem, reducing the temple to rubble and sending the Judaic elite into Babylonian exile, in all historical probability this should have spelled the end for the Yahweh religion. But Schmid is convinced that the reason it didn’t is “because the idea of the law-giving god and divine judgment had in the meantime become established in people’s minds.”

For the exiles, the loss of their homeland seemed to be a legitimate divine response to their wrongdoings. It now bound them even closer to their god. They revised the Torah in light of the most recent state of knowledge, benefiting in the process from input from the urbane metropolis of Babylon, the undisputed center of knowledge at the time. Only then did Yahweh theology really gain momentum. The Jewish religion began to take shape. “Without the notion of a law-giving god, this would not have been possible,” says Schmid.