Posted By MSH on April 14, 2011
Well, finally got around to re-reading Dan’s paper from SBL of last year. I had attended the paper and taken notes, but I wanted to run through the paper once again. My thanks to Dan for sending me a copy (and for the heads up from Matt – and congrats to him and his wife on their new baby). Here is the link to Dan’s paper for all those interested. I presume that if I get any of his thinking wrong, he’ll chime in. Now for a review, as promised in the Comments section.
For starters, it’s a good paper. No surprise there. Fortunately, Dan commits two transgressions with respect to academic writing: clarity and succinctness. Come on, Dan, can you be a little more obtuse and convoluted in your prose? How is this ever going to get published?!
I also think Dan is fair with his source material, both primary and secondary. I can tell he’s read the important material.
Lastly, I also think his conclusions are understandable, given their context. What I mean here is that nothing he says is over the top; he is solidly within the consensus thinking.
But I reject the consensus thinking.
My point in saying this is that, when I disagree with Dan, it’s because I disagree across the board with the way consensus scholarship proceeds on this topic. I’m not targeting him. I’m rooting for him to break away from the paradigm (you’ll all understand that as you proceed ). When it comes to Israelite monotheism and later Jewish monotheism, the majority of scholars presume too much about the neatness of what they know (or think they know), and all too often assume the very thing they seek to prove.
To begin, let me start with some language quibbles. On page 3 we read:
“That the Israelite El had a consort is supported by textual and archaeological evidence.”
This is overstated, but reflects what the consensus would say. To correspond to reality, the statement should say this: “That some Israelites believed Israelite El had a consort is supported by textual and archaeological evidence.” Now it’s accurate.
The facts on this statement are as follows: (1) There are indeed textual and archaeological data for an Israelite El with a consort; (2) There is no way short of omniscience to know from those data that ALL Israelites believed El had a consort — including the biblical writers. All the data show for sure is that someone from the period to which the material dates expressed this belief. That’s it. There is simply no way to make such a sweeping generalization, but many scholars do just that.
Perhaps a modern illustration from Dan’s blog will help. If you scroll down a bit on the front page of his blog, Dan has written a lengthy response to James White, an evangelical apologetics scholar in regard to White’s opinion about Mormons and Christianity. If an archaeologist 1000 years from now were to find a few fragmentary lines from that post, would it be coherent to think “Mormons are not evangelicals, and evangelicals are Christians; therefore (a) Mormons cannot be Christians and (b) no Christians would ever think of Mormons as Christians?” No, it wouldn’t. It would be no more logically coherent to draw those conclusions than it is to take some artifacts and a few lines that mention Yahweh and Asheratah (which itself has several possible meanings) and then give us the statement: “that the Israelite El had a consort is supported by textual and archaeological evidence.” Kuntillet Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom do not a lock-step national belief system make.
Another example from page 3 (speaking of the divine council):
“All three of these tiers were populated by anthropomorphic deities according to both the Ugaritic literature and the Hebrew Bible.”
This is also worded imprecisely, or perhaps unconsciously reflects Dan’s Mormon theology (and that isn’t a moral evil; we all fall prey to our predispositions at times). What I mean here is that Dan’s wording presumes deities are anthropomorphic. The line should say, to be more accurate (and less theologically stilted): “Deities populating all three of these tiers were anthropomorphized according to both the Ugaritic literature and the Hebrew Bible.”
Hope you get the idea. On to more substantive matters.
On pages 4 Dan writes:
Deuteronomy 32 is widely recognized as having been composed or compiled by different and earlier authors from the rest of the book. . . .
[The statement of Deut 32:8-9 about the Most High dividing up the nations, and Yahweh's portion being Israel] points to an archaic distinction between Yhwh and Elyon, or El. That distinction is undermined by Deut 4:19, which anticipates Deut 32:8, but imposes a different interpretive lens. That verse places Yhwh in the role of distributor, and has the gods assigned to the nations rather than the nations to the gods. The gods of the nations are rhetorically demoted, and are astralized. In placing Yhwh in the position of making the assignments, the author influences the reader toward the desired understanding of Deut 32:8 without having to alter the text itself. . . .
This material is at the heart of Dan’s paper, and of course the focal point of our disagreement. Dan is correct that most every scholar (and I’m included this time) would see Deut 32 as having been written prior to Deut 4. There are linguistic reasons for that, having to do with features in the Hebrew of Deut 32 that mark it as one of the earliest portions of the Hebrew Bible. What Dan is arguing is that:
(1) Yahweh and El/Elyon are separate deities in this early material. He presumes the language of Deut 32:8-9 has El/Elyon giving Yahweh the nation of Israel when the nations were divided.
(2) Deut 4, which is later than Deut 32, was added by an editor later as an interpretive filter to Deut 32:8-9. (Deut 4 has Yahweh “taking” Israel for himself, not having Israel given to him. El/Elyon is not mentioned, and so Deut 4 represents a later blending of El/Elyon with Yahweh. The writer of Deut 4 is a filter for Deut 32, so that readers do not make the mistake of seeing two deities any longer.
If Dan is correct in these two assertions (and he is with the dominant majority), then we have what could be termed polytheism in orthodox (biblical) Israelite religion and a movement toward monotheism at the time of Deut 4′s writing (which I presume Dan would put in the 7th century BC). But is this coherent? I don’t think so, despite agreeing that Deut 32 is earlier than Deut 4. My reasons for disagreement follow.
Dan’s position assumes that one either must read Deut 32:8-9 as having two deities or, perhaps more importantly, that Israelites would not or could not have seen Yahweh and El/Elyon as the same deity in Deut 32:8-9 before Deut 4 was written. So the question is, could Israelites have read Deut 32 and come out with an identification of El/Elyon with Yahweh? I believe so because of the two preceding verses, Deut 32:6-7. I have argued this position before in a paper published in the HIPHIL online journal. Readers can download it for free.
In a nutshell, the writer of Deut 32 utilizes several El epithets and familiar El language evident in vv. 6-7 if one reads Hebrew and is familiar with the corresponding Ugaritic vocabulary. What this means is that Israelite readers of Deut 32, prior to Deut 4 being added, who would have been familiar with El descriptions and motifs, would have readily discerned that these descriptions and motifs were being applied to Yahweh in verses 6-7 — because Yahweh is mentioned by name in v. 6. Any Israelite familiar with El/Elyon epithets would not have missed the message that Yahweh and El were the same deity. And Dan cannot argue that Israelites would not have been familiar with El language, because he presumes that Israelites were familiar with El/Elyon as distinct from Yahweh in vv. 8-9. You can’t say they saw the theological descriptions for keeping El/Elyon and Yahweh separate, but would have missed the same El signage applied to Yahweh two verses earlier. That’s simply inconsistent reasoning. And so I ask: which is more coherent:
A. That the writer of Deut 32:8-9 distinguished Yahweh and El/Elyon, but fused them in the two prior verses, and let this separation – fusion tension stand (the two are fused and separated back-to-back) … OR
B. Deut 32:6-7 portray Yahweh and El/Elyon as one and vv. 8-9 are to be read in light of that messaging (there is consistency of presentation over these four verses).
The second option is my view. I would therefore suggest that an Israelite didn’t need Deut 4 to see Yahweh and El/Elyon as the same deity. Deut 4 simply echoes that point; it doesn’t filter Deut 32 to make that point. This is why I believe Dan’s position, the consensus position, assumes what it seeks to prove. It assumes a separation in 32:8-9 and then uses Deut 4 to prove that separation. But it doesn’t explain why vv. 6-7 refer to Yahweh with El/Elyon language.
Now, lest anyone misunderstand my own position, I am not saying that all Israelites believed Yahweh and El/Elyon were separate deities. Religious people within a religious community simply do not think in lock step. All Mormons do not think alike about doctrine. All evangelicals do not think alike about doctrine. All Catholics … yadda, yadda. You get the idea. It just isn’t reality. I’m not any more omniscient than the consensus thinkers (some of whom – not Dan, mind you – can act as though they are omniscient on this point). I’m quite sure that there was doctrinal diversity in ancient Israel among the “good guys” (believers) just as there is right now (and we have a lot more information and still can’t agree). What I don’t believe is that one can demonstrate the biblical writers held ideas as correct that they later rejected. I think their views preserve an orthodox view of Yahweh (the view that prevailed within the prophetic tradition and became canonical). But that hardly settled anything for many Israelites.
In another regard, I think a lot of this discussion gets muddied because scholars doggedly persist in (mis)defining monotheism in modern terms, not in biblical terms. This refusal skewers the entire discussion.
What am I talking about? I’m still sort of stunned that biblical scholars don’t seem to have a grasp on something that, to me, looks painfully obvious. We know that several different entities are described as elohim in the Hebrew Bible: the God of Israel, “demons” (shedim; Deut 32:17); the plural elohim of Israel’s divine council (Psa 82); the immaterial human dead (1 Sam 28:13); and perhaps angels (as I have outlined in several papers, this depends on how one triangulates Gen 32:1 with other passages). We have 4-5 different entities / entity groups called elohim. Now, am I really to believe that the biblical writer (and here I’ll go well outside, to many other Israelites) would have viewed all these elohim as ontologically equal? Would they really have considered the disembodied Samuel on the same par as the God of Israel? Hey, they’re both elohim! Must be polytheism! Did an Israelite really believe that Yahweh and the shedim were equals? Hey, they’re elohim! Must be polytheism! This is nonsense — and yet it is precisely what most biblical scholars presume when they start saying things like multiple elohim = polytheism. It frankly presumes a certain level of stupidity on the part of an Israelite. I would suggest (as I did in my ETS paper last year, and as I did in a paper at an ISBL meeting in 2007) that elohim is not a term that speaks to one set of attributes (the way we moderns think of the word “G-o-d”). Rather, it speaks to the normative “place of residence” for one who is labeled by the term — the spiritual world. Every entity who lives over there is an elohim – a member of the non-human world. That’s it. That realm has differentiation of attributes and rank, but referring to a being in that realm said nothing about a belief in “many beings of the same ontological quality.” We presume that because that is how the modern West has used “G-o-d” for centuries, and then we impose that on Israelites. How is that remotely close to “contextualizing” the Bible?!
What this means is that believing other elohim existed did not violate a belief in the uniqueness of Yahweh. Yahweh was an elohim; no other elohim was Yahweh. “Multiple elohim talk” in the Hebrew Bible by biblical authors is therefore not evidence of polytheism. It’s only evidence of a belief in a diverse unseen spiritual world. I believe that at all stages of Israelite religion there were Israelites who would have considered Yahweh utterly unique among all the elohim (and many who would have had other ideas, or who could have cared less). Monolithic theological uniformity in Israelite religion is a myth. Evolutionary trajectories outlined on the basis of such a myth are likewise myths.1 This is why my eyes glaze over every time I hear the polytheism-to-monotheism mantra.
There are other things I could quibble about, but moving on …
The rest of Dan’s paper . . . .
I was not surprised to hear the claim (again, consensus thinking) that Hellenistic Jews de-mythologized the gods as they moved toward monotheism. My eyes are glazing as I write. This, again, commits the error or presuming too much — making blanket assertions from the data when more cautious conclusions would work just fine. Sure, I’ll bet that many Jews in this period were sensitive about using “small-g god talk” in their theology. Not everyone was a theologian or even cared. Different strokes for different folks. But to say that all Jews thought this way — or even the most pious Jews thought this way — is absolutely unwarranted. It simply requires omniscience to talk about a neat, linear trajectory of ideas like this on the basis of LXX (and it isn’t like all the LXX translators did the same thing with plural elim or elohim). Some thoughts here:
1. Dan’s note about the Greek wording in Deut 4 and elsewhere for the host of heaven (tov kosmov tou ouranou) proves nothing except that some Jew somewhere would no doubt have seen what Dan sees there — a de-deification. And that would have made his day. But how do we move from that to a neat theological evolution at a nation-wide, cultural level when there is so much data to the contrary (showing diversity)? See below.
2. This language occurs in astrological (think constellations) material. Are we really to believe that no Jews thought that the celestial bodies were controlled or moved by (or actually WERE) angelic beings at this point in history? Are we to believe that Jews divorced that idea from the very same ideas in the ancient Near East when the word used for those entities was elohim? Is it really demotion to astralize when clearly polytheistic religions in the ANE astralized their spiritual beings? (I’ve often wondered how astralization became a de-deifying technique for just that reason — worked just fine for deifying hordes of divine beings before the Hellenistic era).
The only way Dan can really argue this trajectory is to presume that an Israelite or a Jew thought the same way about elohim as he does about G-o-d. But that’s a totally hit-or-miss proposition, not only on the basis of what I outlined above, but by virtue of the fact that , in the Dead Sea Scrolls alone there are well over 100 references to plural elim / elohim with divine council language in context.2 And some of that material concerned astrology to boot (heavenly liturgy with calendar). So, if lots of Jews (including pretty pious ones) were not dumping all the “gods” talk in the divine council during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, why would I think every Jew was trying to de-deify the heavenly host because of some phrasing in the LXX? I wouldn’t — unless I was hypnotized by the consensus thinking. Rather, I’d say that, as in other stages of Israelite religion, the plural elim-talk didn’t bother them when it came to monotheism — because they didn’t reflexively assign one set of attributes to every bearer of such a label.
All of that is a windy way of saying that you just can’t prove a neat evolution from polytheism to monotheism when there is terminological confusion and so much “polytheistic” material in later Jewish periods. The solution is not to bend the data to a prevailing paradigm — it’s to fix the paradigm. Dan would be an asset for rethinking it, too. Otherwise, we end up making assumptions based on data we’re trying to use to prove the assumptions. I think my views are just more reality-based: (1) Israelites and Jews believed different things about God and the spiritual world throughout their history; (2) Many Israelite and Jews were capable of using elohim to speak of a wide variety of spiritual entities, knowing the whole time that Yahweh was species unique among those elohim; and so (3) Reading and writing texts that had multiple elohim in them was no threat to their monotheism, and wasn’t polytheism. They didn’t parse elohim the way we parse G-o-d, and they weren’t stupid, either.
Diversity among believers. Now why does that sound familiar?
- I’m well aware of the proposed “crisis catalysts” for the “movement” toward monotheism. I critiqued them in my dissertation. My view is that there is nothing said in the wake of the presumed crisis that many Israelites would not have said prior to said crisis. ↩
- Every time I think of this I think of Carol Newsom’s oxymoronic “angelic elim” term — it shows the desperation to keep the consensus paradigm in the face of all the contrary evidence. The scrolls and their divine plurality language is my regional SBL paper topic this May. ↩