Jon Beltz, Jan Assmann’s “Of God and Gods”: Religious Violence

Jan Assmann. Of God and Gods: Egypt, Israel, and the Rise of Monotheism. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008. 200 PP. Cloth. $26.95. ISBN: 9780299225544.

1840 - Delacroix - Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople
1840 – Delacroix – Entry of the Crusaders into Constantinople


Violence and its perpetrators play an important part in a number of the books in the Mosse series. Jan Assmann’s Of God and Gods: Egypt, Israel, and the Rise of Monotheism is no exception. Several of the essays in Assmann’s book deal with the issue of religious violence. In this post I will give an overview of Assmann’s schema for understanding religious violence within the interplay between polytheism and monotheism(s).

The different essays in the book lay out varying aspects of the interplay between religion and violence, with the later essays often building on concepts found earlier in the book. In Chapter Two, “Seth the Iconoclast,” Assmann introduces the distinctions between intrasystemic and extrasystemic religious violence, and between external and internal focus for that violence. Intrasystemic violence is enacted against enemies who are part of the same overall religious system (an enemy whose concepts can be “translated” into one’s own, pg. 30), whereas extrasystemic violence is enacted against those of a different (non-translatable) system. An Extrasystemic enemies must be “converted,” or are “heretics,” whereas intrasystemic enemies are not (pg. 31). The Assyrian empire, in Assmann’s thought, practiced an external, intrasystemic violence: they focused it outwards, at enemies belonging to other socio-political groups, but they took foreign gods seriously (pg. 31). A key example would be the Assyrian wars with the Babylonians. Assyrian kings marched forth to conquer Babylon and steal its gods’ cult statues at the behest of their own god, Ashur, but they continued to revere and pay homage to Babylonian deities, as well.

The Hebrew prophets or the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten (who attempted to institute an early form of monotheism) focused their polemics at internal, extrasystemic enemies. These enemies were part of their own social and political group, but belonged to a completely different (and mutually exclusive) system of thought (pg. 31). Other combinations are possible. One could imagine that external, extrasystemic violence could manifest itself in the concepts of “crusade” or “jihad,” or a “clash of civilizations.” The thrust of Assmann’s essay in this chapter focuses, however, on internal, intrasystemic violence: the way the Egyptians developed ritualized violence against their own god Seth, the god of violence, as they began to associate him with foreigners (human sacrifice would constitute another form of internal, intrasystemic violence).

Chapter Three provides further conceptual categories which factor into Assmann’s conceptualization of religious violence. Here he distinguishes between polytheism and several types of monotheism: monotheism arrived at by “translating” gods (conceiving of all gods as actually being masks of, or manifestations of, one god), monotheism arrived at by creating a “hierarchy” of gods (elevating one god over the others and reducing other gods to mere servants of that god), and “biblical monotheism,” which is found in the three major monotheistic religions of today. The key difference between this third form of monotheism and the first two is that it postulates a separation between the deity and the world, whereas the first two tend to equate their prime god with the universe itself. This separation between deity and material universe allows for conceptual separation of religious and political spheres (pg. 74-75). Polytheism and the forms of monotheism derived from it are unable to separate religion and politics by their very nature.

Chapter Six, “No God but God: Exclusive Monotheism and the Language of Violence” makes two contributions to Assmann’s overall argument. The first is that violence connected to monotheism (“biblical monotheism” in this case) is inherent only as a “propensity,” and that this propensity resides “not in the idea of the One God but in the exclusion of other gods, not in the idea of truth but in the persecution of untruth” (pg. 110). Assmann here also examines violent language in biblical texts regarding polytheistic Canaanites. As Assmann’s work tends to use a “mnemo-historical” outlook (examining how history was remembered, pgs. 8, 111), he sees the memory of the “Canaanites” as a symbol of the Israelites’ pre-monotheistic past, practices of which remained latent in their collective mind (pg. 112).

Assmann sees great benefits to society coming from religion, but he is also fully aware of its use in encouraging certain types of violence. His thoughts on religion and violence seem to be oriented towards mediating these two opposing points. This task is not easy (especially when one also has to deal with the study of ancient forms of religion), but where Assmann’s work really succeeds is in providing framing concepts and theoretical typologies for discussing religion and violence.

Jon Beltz
Jon Beltz is a PhD student at Yale University, specializing in Assyriology. He has an MA in Hebrew Bible and the Ancient Near East from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research interests are primarily in Mesopotamian literature and mythology, but he dabbles in Hebrew Bible and Comparative Semitics from time to time.

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