The Invention of God

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Thomas Römer
Raymond Geuss
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , December
     320 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The theological and historical debate concerning the changes of the notion of YHWH, as well as the cultural development of the Jewish tradition, in the Old Testament is still hot. Thomas Römer’s latest work, The Invention of God, contributes to this debate from the perspective of etymology and archaeology. For him, the current doctrines and scholarly resources are inadequate to conceive the discourses about how the god is developed and finally becomes the “one God” satisfactorily. He endeavors hard to prove that this process is “a kind of collective invention,” in which “the conception was continually revised in the light of a particular, changing social and historical context” (4). Thanks to Römer’s lucid and readable writing style, this book presents in concise form an insightful yet exceptionally rich history of Yahweh culture, which coversfrom the end of the second millennium before the birth of Christ until the Hellenistic era. 

The first four chapters examine the name of the Jewish God, Yhwh, its possible sources, and the information that it entails.It discloses the origin of the worship of Yhwh.Conventionally since the 18th century, in the field of biblical criticism, some scholars held a common hypothesis that the Torah consisted of more than one source. For instance, Genesis contains at least two sources: J source (Jahwist source) and E source (Elohist source), while the latter is comparatively ancient. Römer follows this path and argues that the name of Elohim and Yhwh entails the geographic origin and its cultural closeness with other neighbor cultures. For instance, the Hebrew name of Israel, yisra-el, clearly shows the shared root of El of Ugarit, a deity being worshipped in Canaan. In Genesis 14, Abrams told the king of Sodom, “I have lifted up mine hand unto the LORD, the most high God (El Elyon), the possessor of heaven and earth” (14:22). The title, Elyon, which means “the most high,” is not limited to El. Römer argues that it is also used for another deity, Baal at Ugarit (79). Yhwh seems to inherit the titlefrom these deities.

More vitally, adopting the “Midianite-Kenite hypothesis” suggested by the historian Friedrich Wilhelm Ghillany in the 19th century, Römer claims that the story of Moses and the Exodus reveals the connection between the earliest worship of Yhwh and Midianites and Edomites. Combined with the texts from the book of Exodus, the biblical opus may “preserve the memory traced of a ritual by which a group of Shau/Hapiru constituted itself via a mediator as ‘am Yhwh,' the people of a warrior god to whom they attributed their victory over Egypt" (85). It thus sets the stage for the legendary Davidic dynasty, and Yhwh becomes the tutelary god of Israel and Jerusalem. 

In the next four chapters, Römercharitably introduces the development of Yhwhworship. In particular, he answers the question of how the cult of Yhwh gradually dominated the religious life of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. In the kingdom of Israel, for example, Yhwh was worshipped as a “Baal” insomuch as he was worshipped in the form of a bull and his sanctuaries existed all over Samaria, Bethel, Dan, and so on (116). Furthermore, the “worship of the Phoenician Baal as the god of Samaria provoked a revolt by groups attached to the worship or the Baal Yhwh” (118). The revolt made sense only if Elijah or Elisha, his successor, used the Yahwistic putsch to plot against the dynasty of Omri, and thus the Book of Kings inserted the stories of these two great prophets. On the contrary, in the kingdom of Judah, Yhwh “absorbed the functions of the sun god and combined the functions of two further kinds of gods, El and Baal. The temple of Jerusalem became the center of the kingship of Yhwh” (140). For example, a general who was under David’s command was named Uriyyah (Yhwh is my light) and on some seals of the 8th century we find the nameYw’r (Yhwh is [my] light) (129). As a result, Yhwh increasingly asserted his superiority in Jerusalem and Israel. 

In the last four chapters, Römer accounts for the reform of Josiah and the process of developing the monolatry of the cult of Yhwh. It is not surprising that numberless scholars argue for the impact of the Babylonian exile and the destruction of the temple in 597 BCE. It caused the Jewish scholars or elites to save their collective identity and religious belief through (re)writing some books of the Torah and comprehending the political turmoil in terms of Yhwh’s will. 

Römer adopted Armin Steil’s doctrine of tripartite attitudes to analyze the impact of the Babylonian exile in the Bible and the Jewish communities more in-depth. The prophetic attitude, which is the first type of attitude, declared the crisis as the beginning of a new era. Thus what they foresee is a hope for a better future. The second manner is priestly. For this attitude, “the way to overcome the crisis is to return to the sacred origins of society” (214) and ignore the new reality. They try to preserve the tradition and their existing privileges. The last attitude is “mandarins,” which endeavored to “objectify the crisis by giving a historical account of it that explains the collapse of the old social structure” (215). Clearly, the Deuteronomistic school that supports the reforms of Josiah should belong to the “mandarin” position, insomuch as they explained the deportation by constructing the history of Yhwh and his people, from Moses to the present. This approach can account for the discourse from Deuteronomy to 2 Kings of the Hebrew Bible. Along with the text analysis, Römerbrings together his expertise in Jewish studies, archaeology, and linguistics and gives an insightful and well-grounded reading on the cultural development behind the Hebrew Bible, especially the conception of the “one true God,” Yhwh.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Yu-sum Lee is a graduate student in Philosophy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Date of Review: 
November 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas Römer is professor of the Hebrew Bible at the Collège de France and Professor at the University of Lausanne.

Raymond Geuss is emeritus professor in the faculty of philosophy at the University of Cambridge.



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