Dan McClellen’s Response to Yours Truly, and My Rejoinder Points

Posted By on April 24, 2011

Hope you all aren’t getting bored with this.

For those interested, Dan McClellan has posted a response on his blog to my thoughts on his SBL paper of last year.  You can all go read it in full. I’m taking a few moments here to add “rejoinder thoughts” to his most recent post.

1. On this note in response to my contention that we cannot know what ALL Israelites believed about Yahweh and other gods, we read: “The Taanach cult stand; the 1000+ Jerusalem pillar figurines; the his and her cult stands, incense altars, and standing stones at Megiddo room 2081 and the Arad temple; and the numerous biblical references to the ubiquity of Asherah worship among the Israelite monarchs and laity point in the same direction.”

I don’t think this undoes or even addresses my point — that we are neither omniscient nor can we claim what was going on in *all* Israelite heads. These data actually prove nothing, other than that they exist and that they point to polytheistic beliefs on the part of some Israelites.  But all Israelites? Nope. A list of data tells us nothing about what every Israelite believed, including biblical writers. For the latter we need the Hebrew Bible to have any shot at understanding that.  And BTW, pillar figurines (maybe a couple exceptions here, not sure) don’t come with texts telling us what their users or viewers were thinking when using or viewing them. Same goes for cult stands and incense altars and standing stones. They are MUTE. It is modern scholars that propose (and presuppose) what these things meant on some sort of imagined religious thinking continuum. It is this sort of data piling that the mainstream regularly employs but which I find so unpersuasive. Don’t give me your guess at what these objects meant to Israelites. Show me texts, please. And there aren’t many of those that have substantial content; they are usually dedicatory. But even if there were a thousand, that doesn’t tell us what is in the head of *every* Israelite. Scholars who use a psychologizing hermeneutic really have little more than their imaginations to go on.  It’s just not possible to think their thoughts after them. Even with texts that’s hard (and also not completely possible), but without texts to these archaeological data, it’s hopelessly speculative.

One last note. Dan’s response sort of reads like he’s trying to rebut me on a point I’m not making. I never said (and I think I was quite clear on this) that Israelite religion was never polytheistic. I’ve said repeatedly that some, perhaps even most, Israelites worshipped other gods — and so I don’t know what Dan is trying to convince his readers of in the material he listed. My contention is that I don’t see evidence that the biblical writers approved of polytheism or that what I’m calling orthodox Yahwism (biblical Yahwism) at one time approved of worshiping other deities (polytheism) and then transitioned to a rejection of such practices. Dan’s list of data don’t make a case against what I’m asserting at all. And that was my point in the original response.  All the data do are to show that polytheism was extant, not who was doing it or how many were doing it.

2. Daniel’s discussion on Deut 32:6-7 and 32:8-9 depends entirely on his guess (and that’s all it is) that the writer of 6-7 didn’t compose 8-9 (i.e., the pairings had separate authors). He has to say this to make his view work, but there’s no way to actually prove it. I was expecting this, as it’s his only logical retreat. But this is yet another example of assuming what he is trying to prove. He needs to make this chronological and content separation, so he assumes separate writers.

The rest of his discussion on this area doesn’t matter. Yes, we know there was a deity El predating Israelite settlement. So what. More psychologizing ahead. Here’s the logic chain:

a. A deity named El exited prior to Israelite settlement.
b. Israelites called their deity El (among other names of course).
c. Deut 32 mentions El and El imagery in several places.

All that’s easy and obvious.  Now the good part.  Here’s what we’re asked to believe on the basis of the above.

a. Israel’s El was this same pre-Israelite El. I ask, how would we know that? It’s an assumption. An given that all the Canaanite languages used the term for deity, are they all thinking about the same El in a given text? How would we know that isn’t the case?  What is the litmus test for knowing when the same or different Els are floating around in someone’s head?
b. The writer(s) of Deut 32 wrote at different times in connection with their (evolving) views of this same El. Again, how do we know that?  What is it — besides our preconception that it is so — that tells us this?  It’s a *belief* and nothing more.

We simply cannot psychologize the writers like this and call it factual knowledge.  As soon as we think we can get inside the heads of a writer dead for millennia on the basis of data *external* to the biblical text (which is our best shot at knowing what a biblical writer would think), we have gone over board.

3. Exodus 6:3 isn’t as tidy as Dan makes it (and again, the academy). He needs to look up Francis Andersen’s work on the sentence in biblical Hebrew for how the syntax of this verse could be translated — 180 degrees from the consensus opinion, too. I’m not saying that Andersen’s view must be correct. I’m saying it’s very unwise to bank so much on Exod 6:3 when it is far from that clear.  But Andersen’s work gets little attention. I wonder why? Could it be that the consensus has already made up their mind and his proposal muddies the waters?

4. So now we can tell contemporary time from a ki particle? How tight is the time window? Five minutes? A week? A month? A year? Dan, grammar and syntax just aren’t this precise, and you know it. We both know commentators disagree on this, too.

5. Yes – it’s all El language — but who is it applied to in vv. 6-7? Who’s the referent? Yahweh — he’s there by name.

6. Is there a single text where the scrolls equate elim with angels? Where are the texts where that equation is made? Where the terms are overlapped or are in apposition to one another?  If you know of some, I’d love to see them.  It actually doesn’t mar my thesis in any way, since I have a different take on how “angelic terms” should be understood.  I’d just like to see some.  I’ve located just under 200 references to plural elim / elohim in the scrolls thus far, and have yet to find a passage that defines the plural term by “angel” terms.

7. Why didn’t these Qumran writers feel the need to de-deify these many elohim? I think that’s easy. It is  we moderns who are guilty of mis-defining what an elohim is.  I believe many Israelites had no need to “de-deify” them; they didn’t give it a second thought, since they distinguished them already, because elohim was a “place of residence” term, not an ontological one. Many Jews (and many Israelites — at all periods) would likewise have felt no tension here with their devotion to YHWH. But moderns certainly seem to need this de-deifying.

Here’s a perhaps silly illustration of what I want a modern scholar in this field to convince me of.  Let’s say we took one of the biblical writers and we told him he was going to view a line-up of elohim (kind of like criminal line-ups where witnesses make an identification). Our writer sees YHWH, then one of the sons of God from Psalm 82, then a demon from Deut 32:17, then the spirit of his deceased grandma (a la 1 Sam 28:13), and (just for good measure) an angel.  All of them were elohim to the biblical writer. Now here’s the question we ask our witness: Would you agree that all those characters are the same?  That is, do they all have the same powers or attributes, have the same spiritual status, are all equally deserving of worship?

Sorry, unless our Israelite is a buffoon, the answer isn’t going to be yes. He’d think we were nuts. He is going to say YHWH is different and incomparable. Long-dead Grandma Rivka ain’t at the same level as any of the others, and Israelites knew it. She wasn’t the next YHWH or divine council “deity of the month” nominee.

My point (again) is that it is nonsense to say that plural elohim in the biblical writer’s worldview means polytheism. If you can’t prove to me the biblical writer would see all these elohim as ontologically on par, or “worship interchangeable,” then you can’t prove to me that it’s really polytheism. If it’s true polytheism they’d all have an official cult and there would be no reason to deny them that cult.  Again, I’m not going to commit the offense I’m criticizing and say all Israelites parsed this well or even cared. My point is that many could and did distinguish elohim, understanding that “elohim” was a term applied to a range of very different entities that did not share a specific set of attributes. Since today we do equate “g-o-d” to certain attributes, we can’t seem to swallow this. But that’s too bad. We ought to, since the alternative is to impose our view on the ancients and then act like we can reconstruct their religious views. I don’t think so.

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12 Responses to “Dan McClellen’s Response to Yours Truly, and My Rejoinder Points”

  1. Thanks for the prompt response, Michael. I will have to sit down with it later, but a couple thoughts stuck in my head as I finished reading. First, I don’t think I’ve ever run across the notion that polytheism exclusively means deities can be interchangeably worshipped. There are numerous texts from Egypt to Mesopotamia that use rhetoric of incomparability perfectly analogous to the biblical version to describe a national deity or a high god over and against other deities of the pantheon, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone argue that that indicates they were not polytheistic.

    Second, I thought I was pretty clear on agreeing with you that I didn’t think there was anything related to polytheism taking place in the Hebrew Bible. On those last three points you made I only disagreed about the degree of antiquity of Yahweh’s species uniqueness, but I still don’t think that means polytheism.

    • MSH says:

      I’ve run into LOTS of scholars that equate references to plural elohim as meaning polytheism. Dozens. My view is that one does not mean the other (it can, of course, but there is no necessary link). Thanks for the second note, too; that helps me (and others I’m sure).

  2. Nobunaga says:

    I looked to purchase the paper you mentioned by Francis Andersen, on my search this paper kept comming up by w. Randall Carr ?


    • MSH says:

      where were you trying to purchase it?

    • MSH says:

      Here is a comment from another Naked Bible post about the Andersen view:

      “On syntactical grounds, Andersen argues for a translation that is basically opposite in its meaning to the accepted view: “I am the Lord (YHWH). 3 I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai. And my name is the Lord (YHWH); did I not make myself known to them?” Andersen’s seminal work on sentence structure and its implications for this crucial text should at least have been noted.”

  3. Nelson Chung says:

    I’m certainly not bored. This dialogue is engaging.

  4. Nelson Chung says:

    And it looks like Paul Owen is jumping in! This can get interesting.

  5. Chris Gudmundsson says:

    How about this question as it relates to the monotheism/monolatry thing: Since the LXX in Deut 32:8 and the NT in Heb 2 use angelloi to translate elohim or beney elohim, should we conclude that both the LXX translation team and the author of Hebrews considered the “sons of God” to have actually been exalted angels, not gods? Were they too skittish about pagan polytheism to call these beings “gods”? Just thinking…

    • MSH says:

      There are a couple of problems with seeing it this way, though most scholars will do so:

      1) It doesn’t hold if “angels” is a term of service or function. We know it was a “role term” not on ontology term from Ugarit, where the ml’km are called elohim = they are elohim that take messages (ml’km [“messengers”] is their job, not what they are ontologically). The term ml’km / mal’akim gets translated as “angelos” in Greek, which means messenger. It is WE who have made that term into something ontological, not them. Since, as I argue, the term elohim itself did not describe ONE ontology (one set of attributes) the term mal’akim is *not needed* to parse ontology. But msot scholars, believe it or not, haven’t even thought about this. They just parrot our recent understanding and impose it on the ancients.

      2) That the NT quotes the OT isn’t an indication of “thinking like an LXX translator” – it rather reflects the fact that the LXX was the most used, most logical text for citation in a Greek document like the NT. WHy do your own retroversion into Greek when one already existed — and one that was in wide use?

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