Jon Beltz, Jan Assmann’s “Of God and Gods”: Who Influences Whom?

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.

2008 - Jan Assmann - Of God and Gods

One critical question in the study of religion from at least the late nineteenth century and the work of Durkheim is the relationship between society and religion. Do social phenomena influence religion, or does religion influence social phenomena? This dilemma appears in Jan Assmann’s book, Of God and Gods: Egypt, Israel, and the Rise of Monotheism. In this final post I will evaluate how Assmann addresses the intersection of religion and society.

To begin with, Assmann’s entire discussion concerning religion and violence (see my previous post) is predicated on the idea that religion influences society. If the flow only moved from society to religion, there would be no question of whether monotheism or polytheism contains a greater propensity for fomenting violence. In fact, in that case there might be very little discussion of religion and violence at all. Further, Assmann’s thesis that “biblical monotheism” creates a distinction between politics and religion also assumes that society is influenced by religion.

But there are examples of the reverse. According to some interpretations of religion in the ancient world, the relation between gods and humans is modeled on the relation between human superiors and subordinates.[1] The notion of sacrifice, for example, seems to be modeled on presenting gifts to a king or chieftain in order to gain favor or admittance to his presence. Another example from Mesopotamia would be modeling petitionary “letters to a god” (Gottesbriefe in German scholarship) on petitionary letters to kings and officials.[2] In other words, the way to petition the great powers of the universe is the same way one petitions a king or official. Assmann himself mentions that the relationship between a deity and an individual found in the “personal piety” of New Kingdom Egypt derives from models of the relationship between king and official from the Middle Kingdom, and on patron/client relationships from the First Intermediate Period before that (pp. 80-81).

Assmann’s thesis rests on influence flowing from religion to society. But, both directions are evident in Of God and Gods. On pages 13-14, he mentions that the conception of the divine world and of the pantheon provided the model for structuring the human social and political world in ancient Egypt (showing again the direction from religion to society). On the other hand, later in the book, Assmann argues that in Greece and Mesopotamia the structure of the pantheon came from the structure of the social and political realities (pp. 59-60).

Further, in chapter five (“Five Steps toward Canonization: Tradition, Scripture, and the Origin of the Hebrew Bible”), several of the “impulses” which Assmann claims helped to develop the Hebrew Bible are social situations which have religious results. The first is the “disembodiment of tradition” due to the Babylonian Exile (pp. 97-98). This was a social situation which had an effect on the religion. The Persian political pressure to explicitly codify local customs and traditions (pp. 98-100) and the rise of “enclave communities” within Second Temple Judaism (pp. 100-103) constitute two more social impulses which changed religious practices.

The dynamics of influence between religion and social phenomena form a two-way street which is often hard to disentangle. Religion provides significant guidance to a society, and yet it also finds itself shaped by societal forces. The two mutually influence one another. Assmann’s book Of God and Gods deals with a variety of aspects of this issue that show the book’s place within the Mosse series. Mosse himself dealt much with religion’s effects on politics in The Crisis of German Ideology, and with nationalism’s concepts co-opted from religion in turn altering religion itself in Nationalization of the Masses. This book fits well in a series named for a scholar who was interested in similar questions of religion and society.

[1] For example, see chapter 12 in Jean Bottero,  Mesopotamia: Writing, Reasoning, and the Gods. (translated by Z. Bahrani and M. Van De Mieroop) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992), especially pp. 211-215.
[2] See Karel van der Toorn, Family Religion in Babylonia, Syria, and Israel: Continuity and Change in the Forms of Religious Life. (Studies in the History and Culture of the Ancient Near East 7) (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1996), pp. 130-132, 136.

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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