[This brief review was published in the short-lived journal of Temple Zagduku, The Owl and the Lion, in 2004. It is very timely now.]
In God Against the Gods1, Jonathan Kirsch has an agenda. He spells it out in detail in the prologue, and summarizes his case in the epilogue, so no one can accuse him of hiding it. It is simply to remind us of what happens every time religious rigorism and state power are allied. With images of toppling towers and the internal and external responses of the world’s lone superpower fresh in our minds, we can hardly question the timeliness of Kirsch’s message.
The work is methodical, starting with an examination of the reforms of the Pharaoh Akhenaton in the 14th century B.C.E., and then examining the traditions surrounding Moses and the history of the holy wars under King Josiah. Here he draws heavily on Finkelstein and Silberman’s The Bible Unearthed2, a brilliant synthesis of political history and archaeology, which clearly explains why so much of the Old Testament is the way it is. Kirsch walks through all of the episodes of holy war from Josiah through Theodosius I (d. 392 C.E.), and then ends his chronology with the death of Hypatia (415 C.E.).
This book does not purport to break any new ground; it is more in the nature of a synopsis with a polemical thread. It sets itself the task of showing the better side of polytheism and the dark side of monotheism, redressing a long-standing imbalance; it accomplishes the task completely, and without ignoring the exceptions to the norms of pagan tolerance and monotheist intolerance.
Along the way, the book explores many historical sidelights. In the prologue (p. 54), there is a discussion of the history of laws and edicts against human sacrifice in Rome, which, like the fulminations of Biblical prophets against the worship of Asherah, Astarte, and other “abominable” heathen deities, is the best proof we have that the practice under condemnation existed. Kirsch cites Nigel Davies3 as a central authority on human sacrifice; I’m adding his book to my reading queue.
Naturally, the drama of the years from the start of Constantine’s reign to the death of Julian the Blessed (306 – 363) are covered in loving detail. It is a measure of Kirsch’s skill as a writer that I read every word of those chapters with pleasure, and only afterwards reflected that I had learned no new specific facts.
Because of Kirsch’s choice of historical periods, the matter of Islamic jihad is only mentioned in passing. The few references to modern fundamentalist movements do not spare anyone; he mentions Jewish atrocities in the same breath with Islamic ones, and there are a few asides about the Crusades and the Inquisition.
The book is well documented, with a reasonably extensive bibliography, an index of historical personages, chronology, notes, and topic index. It supplies wonderful ammunition for anyone opposing religious fundamentalism and attempts to establish theocracy; it is lamentable, but probably true nonetheless, that very few of the people who most need the message of this book will read it or take it seriously.
1. Kirsch, Jonathan. God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism. New York: Viking Compass, 2004.
2. Finkelstein, Israel, and Neil Ascher Silberman. The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of its Sacred Texts. New York: The Free Press, 2001.
3. Davies, Nigel. Human Sacrifice: In History and Today. New York: William Morrow, 1981.