In contrast to the conventional wisdom, which views religious pluralism as a modern phenomenon, Professor Israel Knohl posits that in fact religious pluralism was widespread in ancient Israel and only disappeared during the period of Moses. “The first manifestation of this change appeared during the war over the Golden Calf,” says Knohl. “This was in essence the first religious war in human history.”
When was religious fanaticism born? Is it possible that Judaism began as a pluralistic religion of diverse points of view? Why did Moses and the Levites see a need to kill the worshippers of the Golden Calf? These challenging questions have occupied Professor Iisrael Knohl, who has been working on a book called “The First Religious War.”
In his book, Knohl investigates the various Biblical traditions concerning the conflict surrounding the ritual of the Golden Calf. He attempts to analyze the Biblical roots of fanaticism and religious violence as manifested in the killing of the worshippers of the Golden Calf by Moses and the Levites, and considers the other approaches to faith that were common in the ancient period but were later discarded, sometimes intentionally.
Akhenaten and his family worshipping the God Aten.
An engraving from El Amarna
“The book focuses on the claim that the stories of Genesis and the ancient psalms reveal the existence of a pluralistic approach that was common among the ancient Israelites,” says Knohl. “This approach allowed for openness to various religions that flourished in the region where the Biblical religion came into being. The first gods of the various peoples in the region were united in one divine figure that had many names.”
“Thus, for example, Melchizedek, the Canaanite king of Jerusalem, blesses Abraham in the name of ‘El Elyon, Maker of Heaven and Earth’ (Genesis 14:19). These titles were appropriate for El, who was the head of the Canaanite pantheon, who was called by his worshippers “El koneh aretz,” God the Creator of the World. However, Abraham in his answer identifies the god of Melchizedek with Jehovah: “I have lifted up my hand unto Jehovah, El Elyon, Maker of heaven and earth.” Alongside El, who occupies a central position in the Canaanite religion, is the god responsible for rain and the fertility of the soil who is called Ba’al. Due to his connection to rain, he was nicknamed “rechev arpat” which means the “rider of the clouds.” The poet of Psalm 68 adopts this name and attributes it to the God of Israel: “Sing unto God, sing praises to His name; extol Him that rideth upon the skies, whose name is Elohim and exult ye before Him.” (Psalm 68:5) This approach can be characterized as inclusive monotheism, which merges various divinities into one God who is the Master of all.”
Only at a later stage, Knohl explains, does a different approach emerge which can be defined as exclusive monotheism. “According to this approach, there is only one god who is the real god and one religion that is the true religion. Therefore worshippers of other gods must be pursued and destroyed. The transition from inclusive monotheism to exclusive monotheism is the turning point for the birth of fanaticism and religious violence.”
Knohl does not attribute this transition only to Judaism. “The first sign of a philosophy that is close to exclusive monotheism can be found in the beliefs of Akhenaten, an Egyptian king. Originally known as Amenhotep IV, Akhenaten ruled Egypt in the mid-14th century BCE. Not long after he came to the throne, he abandoned the accepted Egyptian religion and its many gods and replaced them with a new religion that was focused on one god named Aten, who represented the light of the Sun. Akhenaten closed the shrines of other gods and erased their images from above the monuments that had been erected by previous kings. He also gave instructions to erase the plural form of the word god since there is only one god. However, we have no evidence that physical violence was used against the worshippers of other gods during that period. Furthermore, the god of Akhenaten did not have human traits and as a result cannot be described as a ‘jealous god’.”
Moses lived about 150 years after Akhenaten and the dramatic events of that period gave birth to religious fanaticism. “Moses’ god is a ‘jealous god’ who gives the command to kill the worshippers of other gods (Exodus 25 and Deuteronomy 17:2-5). The first manifestation of the change was seen in the war against the ritual of the Golden Calf, which was in essence the first religious war in human history.”
Professor Israel Knohl is a Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and occupies the Yehezkel Kaufman Chair for Bible at the Hebrew University. The first chapter of his new book is being published in Tehelet magazine in an article entitled: “The first Israeli-Egyptian war: An unknown chapter in Biblical history.”