David O’Reilly is an Inquirer staff writer

‘Hear, O Israel,” Moses cries out in Deuteronomy, “the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”

Known as the Great Admonition, which traditionally observant Jews wear on their foreheads at prayer, it echoes across time as the foundational statement of monotheism informing Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

But Yahweh, the thunderous voice in the whirlwind who in Exodus makes a covenant with the Israelites, likely traveled a longer and more crowded path to his singular status as “Creator of Heaven and Earth” than the Hebrew Bible makes plain. Such is the argument of Thomas Romer, professor of Hebrew Bible at the College de France and Lausanne University, who presents his case in The Invention of God, recently issued in English by Harvard University Press

To do that, writes Romer, “we must invert the presentation made by the biblical authors and read it against the grain.” He compares early and later versions of certain biblical passages, teases hidden meanings out of the Hebrew, and presents extrabiblical writings and recent archaeological finds from ancient Egypt, Assyria, Phoenicia, Babylon, and the proto-Jewish kingdoms of Israel and Judah.

Romer builds on the consensus of modern Bible scholars that the deity known as YHWH was likely the storm or war god of nomadic tribes living outside Egypt in the second millennium before the Christian era. There is evidence to suggest his early devotees not only spoke his name, Romer writes, but that it was likely pronounced Yahu or Yaho, not Yahweh. Various texts suggest he came from Seir, Edom, or the Midian in what is now Saudi Arabia. These may have included the marginalized people called the Hapiru, a possible source of the word Hebrew.

While some “minimalist” Bible scholars see no historic truth to the Exodus story of Moses leading 600,000 Hebrews out of Egypt, Romer surmises that one of these ancient tribes might have fought or negotiated its freedom from Egypt and made its way north, taking its YHWH worship along. In what would later become the southern kingdom of Judah, it likely encountered indigenous tribes with their own deities, whose pantheons YHWH joined.

Israel and Judah appear to have worshipped Yahweh for centuries in distinctly different ways. In the populated, prosperous northern kingdom of Israel, YHWH was evidently represented in sanctuaries as a calf or bull, likely alongside statues of the deities of Assyria and Babylon – powerful warrior states before which Israel often trembled.

In poor, hardscrabble Judah, meanwhile, Romer concludes, Yahweh was represented in sanctuaries between the 10th and sixth centuries as a human statue seated on a throne surrounded by, or atop, winged mythical creatures known as cherubim.

Romer’s close reading of Solomon’s creation of the great temple described in 1 Kings leads him to surmise that Solomon actually built a room for Yahweh alongside the sanctuary of another deity, likely the sun god Shamash, who was often depicted as a solar disc. He also notes, as have other scholars, that images of Yahweh were sometimes presented alongside those of the female deity Asherah, whom devotees understood to be his wife or consort.

Yahweh’s stature within Israel seemed permanently dashed when Assyria invaded the northern kingdom in 722 B.C., destroyed its sanctuaries, and carted away its divine icons. Then, in 587, Babylon sacked Jerusalem, razed its temple, and relocated its dumbfounded political and religious leaders to Babylon.

When the Persian king Cyrus permitted their return two decades later, the elite of Judah deduced that Yahweh had punished both kingdoms for worshipping other gods alongside him. Priests and scribes began writing and redacting a history of the Jewish people that depicted Judah and its line of Davidic kings as (mostly) heroically devoted to Yahweh, while vilifying now-vanished Israel for its polytheism and calf icons.

From this worldview, Romer writes, would flow the familiar Bible stories of Moses and the covenant on Mount Sinai, YHWH’S stern abjuration that “thou shalt have no other gods before me,” and Moses’ great admonition that “the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”

The Invention of God does not address the question of whether God is an ontological reality. But Romer presents a scholarly and provocative account of how a minor tribal deity likely grew to become – or revealed himself to be – Lord of Creation.

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