The Garments of Torah: Essays in Biblical Hermeneutics

By Michael Fishbane | Go to book overview

·4·
ISRAEL AND THE "MOTHERS"

It is sometimes necessary to "go to the Indies," as an old saw has it, to see oneself in perspective. The historical and comparative study of religion has taken this advice with gusto, and the results in our century are a vast revisioning of the structures of religious experience and expression. Poor Dorian Gray, the lens which catches his image is ever-changing. One must therefore be concerned that the cultural configurations reflected by scholarly study adequately approximate the phenomena at hand. And one must ask: are these patterns merely methodological projections which over-assimilate distinct data; or is there real explanatory power in the models used for analysis? Such questions become more acute as the amount of detail diminishes—which is often the case for the religions of Near Eastern antiquity. Frequently, structural polarities which seem productive from one perspective are distorting from quite another; and apparently fundamental differences are often more reconcilable than one may initially think. It is then intriguing to correlate these intersecting structures, and to trace their transformations from one "pure" type to another.

In the following, I aim to reconsider the old and vaunted polarity of ancient Israel and its pagan neighbors. Formally, it would seem, the religious structures of Israel and Canaan are at irreconcilable odds—or so one would conclude from the face-off between Elijah and the prophets of Ba'al. But let us not forget that the prophetic purism of Elijah confronted a popular attitude in which such differences were less menacing. "How long," he demanded, "will you hop between two branches? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Ba'al [is God], follow him" (I Kings 18:21). One must wonder at the structure of this hopping, and ask how two such branches might stem from one tree? In order to appreciate the dialectics involved, the broad differences between Yahwism and Ba'alism must first be drawn. Since the evidence of Canaanite religion is sparse and scat‐

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A version of this essay was originally published in The Other Side of God, ed. P. Berger (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1981), 28-47, and is used here by permission.

-49-

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