VCU Menorah Review
Current issue • Archive • Search
VCU Menorah Review Fall 2003
Number 59
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

One Deity, Three Gifts

The Hebrew God: Portrait of an Ancient Deity
by Bernhard Lang
New Haven, CT: Yale University Press

A Review Essay by Cliff Edwards

Bernhard Lang is Professor of Old Testament and religious studies at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, and Paderborn, Germany. Many will be acquainted with his earlier works — Sacred Games: A History of Christian Worship and Heaven: A History (with Colleen McDannell).

Lang’s current work demonstrates the Hebrew God’s indebtedness to ancient Near Eastern civilizations, especially those of Mesopotamia and Egypt. Weaving together old as well as new sources and insights, Lang sometimes shocks, often illuminates, and always stimulates the reader to rethink accepted modes of interpretation that have focused on the “originality” of Israel’s religion and God to the detriment of attending to the common religious themes and shared symbols of religion in the ancient Near East. The very richness of Lang’s insights fostered by his attention to the wider cultural context may well convince readers that a return to a broader study of Near Eastern civilizations is essential for creative biblical-theological interpretation.

But we have yet to describe a basic structuring element Lang applies to his entire volume. Convinced that anthropological theory will aid in our interpretation of Hebrew religion and its God, Lang universalizes and simplifies the “three functions” of society and its sacred figures as put forward by Georges Dumezil. Dumezil (1898-1986) was the specialist in Indo-European religion and folklore who found Indo-European culture to be based on a tripartition of society into priests, warriors and food producers, mirrored in its array of divinities who functioned as sovereign gods, war deities and divine providers of wealth.

Applying this structure to Hebrew religion, Lang discovers in the Hebrew God a Lord of Wisdom, a Lord of War and a Lord of Life — the Lord of Life functioning as Lord of animals, of individuals and of the harvest. This structure borrowed from Dumezil may seem like a rather heavy burden to be carried by a book of some 240 pages but it provides a fresh perspective with interesting interpretive results as Lang moves through a wide variety of biblical texts. As Lord of the three gifts — wisdom, victory and life — the Hebrew God’s debts to the ancient Near East and functions within Hebrew society reveal unexpected interpretive treasures. The relationship of Wisdom literature to pragmatic social management, the scribal culture of Mesopotamia and the development of “book religion” appear in new and suggestive contexts. God as warrior and the change from human war-making to apocalyptic victory through a permanent overthrow of evil enacted by God’s “quieter judicial role” is located in selected texts of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Zechariah and Daniel.

The third function of the divine, under the images of Lord of animals, Lord of the individual and Lord of the harvest, receives the larger part of Lang’s attention. As Father/Mother of wildlife, the divine blesses and bestows the power to reproduce, exemplified in fresh readings of the God speeches of Job, Psalm 104, Matthew 6:26 and more. God is revealed as gamekeeper, peacemaker among the animals, a deus ludens — an ideal for humans created in this divine image. Disillusioned with the God of war, humans were called to rediscover and celebrate the elementary matters of fertility and flocks, as in the conclusion of the Book of Job.

The Lord of the individual, focused on personal piety and a nurturing deity, is traced from Egypt to the prophets (especially Jeremiah), to Psalms, to Jesus, and is viewed as a response to experienced insecurity.

God as Lord of the harvest completes the structure, focusing on the relationship of God and his people to water, land and fertility. The Hebrew dislike for cultivating grain, revealed in the curse of Adam and refusal of Cain’s offering, is contrasted with the association of arboriculture and viticulture with peace, happiness and blessing. The Hebrew experience of the Babylonian Exile is described as engendering the utopian image of a transformed Palestine in the minds of Hebrews who had viewed the canals of Babylon.

And there is much more. Lang finds the origin of the Hebrew God in an Edomite deity, associates Moses with God’s first function, Joshua with the second function and Abraham with the third. Lang even ventures into an examination of “Christ as a Second God,” describing Jesus as a shaman engaged in a “mystical ascent,” practitioner of “theurgical rituals,” initiating disciples into the “secrets of his heavenly ascent.”

It would be fair to assert that Lang attempts too much for a single volume, but it is a rich experience that is bound to catch the imagination of most readers and, certainly, to challenge what many consider a developing consensus view of Hebrew religion and its God.

Cliff Edwards is Professor of religious studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and editorial consultant.

|  Virginia Commonwealth University  |  College of Humanities and Sciences  |  School of World Studies  |
Center for Judiac Studies

Comments and manuscripts are welcome.
Address all correspondence to:
Center for Judaic Studies
Box 842021
312 North Shafer Street
Richmond, Virginia 23284-2021

Phone: (804) 827-0909  |  Email: jdspiro@vcu.edu

Updated: Jan. 24, 2013

Created by VCU University Relations