Did the Religion of the Biblical Writers Evolve from Polytheism to Monotheism? A Paper and Response to Thom Stark

Posted By on November 27, 2011

[Note: For other posts on Mike's work on the divine council, click here for the archive.]

Here is my second ETS paper, entitled, “Does Divine Plurality in the Hebrew Bible Demonstrate an Evolution from Polytheism to Monotheism?” My answer is “no, and the question is somewhat misguided.”

The paper was an invited one; it was requested by the committee that planned a session on the Old Testament and Ancient Near East connections. I was grateful for the invitation, especially since I had the privilege of being on a follow-up panel discussion with Dan Block (OT professor at Wheaton) and Alan Millard (an Assyriologist from the UK, now retired after many years of teaching). I met Dan some years back (he’s a wonderful guy, honestly), but this was my first occasion to meet Dr. Millard, having benefited from his writing on numerous occasions. I really enjoyed meeting him. He was every bit the Englishman and scholar.

The paper was well received, and the panel discussion went well. There were some good questions as you might imagine.

I’m sort of well know for this topic (hence the invitation) since I have had some scholarly articles pertaining to the topic published in journals, and have given several papers at regional conferences relevant to the topic (they are referenced in the paper with links where they can be obtained). I’m also known on the internet for the issue. Some time ago (quite a while) a writer named Thom Stark posted a lengthy response to one of my papers. Stark takes the common view that the biblical texts witnesses to an evolution from polytheism to monotheism. I thought it a good idea to post a response to him once I posted this paper. Some comments are in order here, though, so readers don’t get lost in my response.

  1. Stark’s response was very long, as it included portions of my article. I didn’t want to produce something just as long that would require readers going back and forth between two documents. As such, my strategy was to append my replies to his responses to his posting as a PDF. When you read through this response of mine, the document consists of his posting (which I converted to PDF) along with 8 or so pages of my responses at the end.
  2. To facilitate reading the above PDF file, I have inserted LINKS enclosed in red boxes that lead from something Thom says directly to my response within the document. I have also inserted sticky notes when my reply could be briefer. The reader will see them floating at various places in the PDF. Hopefully this was a good strategy for helping you all navigate the discussion.
  3. At various points in my response to Stark, I refer the reader to my most recent ETS paper on the issue, the one linked to at the beginning of this post. You would do well to read that first, since my references back to it will make more sense that way.

Some of you might be wondering about why I’d bother to respond to Stark’s response. First, he put a lot of time into it, so I thought I owed it some attention. Although I think that he regularly misconstrues things and uses some startlingly poor logic in places, it was something that deserved not to be ignored. Second, a number of readers have requested it. It’s taken months to get to (it was posted back in July), since I didn’t find anything in there I hadn’t heard before. I don’t let such things dictate my schedule (I can’t, even if I wanted to). So, as promised, here it is — but read the paper first if you want to follow along well.

I should also note clearly for Thom Stark that this most recent paper and PDF response will be my reference point for any discussion from this point. Both my paper and the response make clear that there are specific items Thom needs to produce to make his case. Failure on his part to do so will not prompt me to waste any more time on this. I will merely point readers back to this post and the files herein. If Thom cannot produce the textual data — the stuff of philology (read the response for that term), then I will consider him unable to do so.  For those new to the discussion, my position is simple: Israelites in the ancient world believed lots of things about God, the gods, and the nature of those beings, including polytheism. However, I do not believe a textual case can be made that the biblical writers would have embraced polytheism, or that “orthodox Yahwism” was at one time polytheistic. That is the standard academic view–one that I objected to and undermined in my dissertation. If my arguments were so misinformed and illogical as Thom wants to make out, I have to wonder how none of my readers caught those problems. Maybe Thom is just smarter than all of them, or maybe not.  Every argument I have made in my dissertation I have also taken to wider peer review. I deliberately have published and delivered papers on all the key ideas in my dissertation. I have taken them directly to peers in the field for analysis. That is, I work without a net. I *want* to hear (from experts) if there are things I have overlooked with respect to the data. As of yet, I haven’t had anyone object to the data. The disagreement stems from the fact that one side (the mainstream) assumes certain ideas about how monotheism “worked” in the mind of the biblical writers, while the other side (me and those who have adopted my positions) are saying the emperor has no clothes — there are serious fallacies amid the assumptions that need to be owned and addressed. These fallacies are outlined and discussed in my paper and the response to Thom Stark.

Lastly, Mr. Stark may want to take some time to read the recent book (2009) by Benjamin Sommer, a well-respected scholar of biblical and Judaic studies, entitled, “Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel.” I’ve appreciated the book, as Sommer makes several of the points I made in my dissertation, though along different trajectories. Sommer’s book was broadly about the problems with how monotheism is talked about in scholarly circles. He developeda theory of “divine embodiment” to explain what he sees in the data (and which does not conform to the usual discussion). As several reviewers have explained it (my emphasis):

“Sommer’s central idea is that in both monotheistic Israelite and polytheistic Near Eastern thought, a deity could have many fragmented and/or overlapping selves, and that this “fluidity of divine selfhood” was manifested in the “multiplicity of divine embodiment. . . . He observes that this multiplicity was not simply native to polytheism (distinguishing the Near Eastern phenomenon from polytheism in Greece) and suggests that the classification of concepts of the divine in terms of fluidity will be more instructive for Israelite and Near Eastern religion than are the common distinctions between monotheism and polytheism or immanence and transcendence. . . . While some may not be convinced by his arguments on that front, his goal of showing that the monotheism – polytheism polarity is insufficient for describing Israelite religion is an important challenge. . . . This book will have serious implications for thinking about the nature of divine self and embodiment in the Hebrew Bible.” (Esther Hamori, Journal of Religion, University of Chicago Press)

“Sommer’s thesis is, as the title of the book implies, not that the God of Israel has a body, but that he has several bodies which have various locations. Hence, the two tasks he sets for himself are, first, demonstrating God’s multi-corporeality and, second, exploring its implications for religion associated with the Hebrew Bible (which is not to say only ancient Israelite, but modern religion as well). By way of introduction he lays out simply and effectivelythat the Hebrew Bible’s depiction of God is as a bodily being; the number of texts that casually make this point are too numerous to allow the reader any other conclusion. . . . The volume concludes with a lengthy Appendix on monotheism and polytheism in biblical Israel. Sommer includes this because the tendency in
recent years is to define the debate about Israelite religion as monotheism v. polytheism. This book proceeds from the position that the Hebrew Bible is monotheistic, and Israelite religion was not unusually monotheistic in the biblical period. That said, Sommer also recognizes that much of the recent discussion about these two concepts fails to capture the complexities of the divine portrait in the Hebrew Bible.” (Todd Hibbard, Journal of Hebrew Scriptures)

But to get it right from Sommer, here are some excerpts from his appendix “Monotheism and Polytheism in Ancient Israel” (all from p. 145, with comments and emphasis of my own):

“It is a commonplace of modern biblical scholarship that Israelite religion prior to the Babylonian exile was basically polytheistic. Many scholars argue that ancient Israelites worshiped a plethora of gods and goddesses, including Yhwh as well as Baal, El (if or when he was differentiated from Yhwh) , Ashtoret, and perhaps Asherah. Pre-exilic texts from the Hebrew Bible, according to these scholars, are not genuinely monotheistic; the first monotheistic text in the Hebrew Bible is the block of material beginning in Isaiah 40, which was composed during the Babylonian exile. Some scholars recognize the existence of a small minority of monotheists or proto-monotheists late in the pre-exilic period, but stress that the bast majority of ancient Israelites were polytheists before the exile. Another group of scholars, however, argue that the exclusive worship of Yhwh as the only true deity was widespread in ancient Israel well before the exile, perhaps even well before the rise of the monarchy.” [MSH: Note I am not alone here; I would only add that the debate proceeds along a faulty understanding of the word "elohim" -- that this misunderstanding is what leads us as moderns to produce and perpetuate this debate; see my paper on that issue).

"In what follows, I hope to accomplish two tasks. I intend to show that the Hebrew Bible is rightly regarded as a monotheistic work and that its monotheism was not unusual for Israelite religion in the pre-exilic era. At the same time, I hope to explore the limitations of the term 'monotheism' in light of the discussion of the body of this book. . . . The polarity 'monotheism - polytheism' has some explanatory value, because it helps us notice something we might otherwise have missed. At the same time, its explanatory value has bee overestimated, because it obscures connections that transcend this polarity.

"In order to understand why we can rightly label the Hebrew Bible monotheistic and also in what specific ways doing so is important, we need first of all to address two issues: how the term 'monotheism' is best defined and the difference between asking whether ancient Israelite religion was monotheistic and whether the Hebrew Bible is monotheistic." [MSH: Bingo. I would answer the first of these in the first half of my new paper, the material on a right understanding of elohim. Sommer flirts with the problems of the current (mis)definition but doesn't quite get there. But it's gratifying to see a reputable scholar acknowledge there is a problem. His second issue is spot on. Many biblical scholars fail to even think about making such a distinction in their questioning of monotheism. Thom Stark misses this distinction as well. Sommer has hit on a crucial item.]

I mention all this to let readers know that part of any response to Thom Stark mandates demonstrating that he needs top first acknowledge that scholars are aware of the sorts of problems I bring up. I am not the only one, and I am no idiosyncratic in this regard.  Sommer is a scholar that cannot be ignored, and so Thom Stark must address Sommer’s criticisms of the consensus view of monotheism along with mine. Again, failure to do so will mean I’ll just direct readers back to this post in the future. I’m only going to spend further (internet) time on this issue if the contrary data to my views is produced from the text. Those who take the time to read my paper and my response to Thom will know exactly what I mean.





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43 Responses to “Did the Religion of the Biblical Writers Evolve from Polytheism to Monotheism? A Paper and Response to Thom Stark”

  1. kennethos says:

    Looking forward to reading these, though my head may hurt as I do!
    A quick rabbit trail: any opinion on Paul Coban’s book on God not being a moral monster, re: genocide in the Bible? Thom Stark essentially tore him a new one in his response, and I wasn’t certain if it was justified or not.

  2. Good deal Mike. Sorry I didn’t get back to you sooner with the review.

  3. A veritable bonanza! Good stuff, Mike. I can’t work out how to access the sticky notes, however – double clicking doesn’t do anything.

    I was wondering – shouldn’t the Balaam Oracles come into this, if they’re dated to a similar time as Deut 32? As well as using a whole range of names across the four oracles (inc. ‘Most High’) for YHWH, it also says in 23:9 that Israel was ‘not counting itself among the nations.’ If that idea was around at the time, it adds support to the idea that Israel was not seen as one of the nations dished out in Deut 32:8, and YHWH is therefore not one of the Sons of God. Seems to me the idea is hinted at throughout Deut 32: the national name ‘Israel’ is never used but always ‘Jacob’, and they’re always referred to as a ‘people.’ Indeed, v.21 says that all other nations are ‘no people’, adding to the idea of uniqueness. Don’t know if that has any legitimacy, but see what you think.

    • MSH says:

      what version of Adobe Reader are you using? I tested them in version 8, so I would think 8 or later would work. Please let me know. I wouldn’t want people to miss items in the notes.

      An interesting note on the Balaam oracles. Critical scholars typically see Num 22-24 as a combination of the J and E sources, so that would definitely be pre-exilic according to mainstream critical scholarship.

  4. Jason Leonard says:

    Stark’s response to Copan showed he didn’t even understand the arguments Copan makes. His logic completely fails. I don’t agree with all of Copan’s points but Stark misses the ballpark completely. He has always been a hack and I’m glad MSH is ripping him up here as well.

    How clearly you see that depends partially on your grasp of how social context can inform an understanding of suffering and genocide.

    • MSH says:

      I don’t know much about Stark. I didn’t do any research on him so I’m not sure where he is at on the believer / unbeliever spectrum. I don’t care (so I didn’t look). Poor logic is poor logic. A lot of people have told me I need to read his book on inspiration (“The Human Face of God” as I recall). I may get to that in 2012. If you read the blog you know that I think inspiration needs a better articulation, so I am hoping Stark hits good examples that really need better thinking. But his logic with respect to my paper (and now your comment) make me wonder if the read won’t be disappointing. I suppose I will just have to find out.

  5. Brian Godawa says:

    Great essay. So when do you think Psalm 82 occurs in history?
    Is it the New Covenant calling in of the Gentiles or some other point in OT history?
    The Gentile nations are ruled by the gods until Messiah came and made all nations his inheritance?

    • MSH says:

      psalms are notoriously difficult to date. I think the only thing that can be said with fairness is that it is post 8th century. There are no features in the text (grammar, morphology, syntax) that point to an exilic or post-exilic date, nor does the lawsuit genre pinpoint either time period. The ONLY reason scholars see it that way is the assumption of religious evolution. The key question about this psalm or any other text in this debate is simple: Removing any sort of imagined role for a text in some theory or belief we have, what features of the text (grammar, morphology, syntax) situate a text in a time period? Put another way, taking the nuts and bolts ONLY, what are the features that make a chronological conclusion self-evident? There is nothing of this sort for Psalm 82.

      • Brian Godawa says:

        I’m sorry. I think i was not clear in my question. I meant to say, when in history do you think the content of Psalm 82 is fulifilled? When are the sons of God are judged by Yahweh and Yahweh possesses the nations by taking them back from those bene ha elohim?

        • MSH says:

          I think it’s eschatological (from both the OT writer and NT application – ending with the displacement of the sons of God with the new divinized human sons of God set over the nations).

      • Ed Roberts says:

        When I read the comment “when does Ps 82 occur in history”… I was not thinking about when Ps 82 was written, because it could have been written long after the event being discussed in Ps 82 happened… When do you think that proclamation by God was stated… and how long did it take to complete the action of the proclamation

  6. kennethos says:

    Read through the paper and the response. Wow. A fair amount went over my head, but pretty intense stuff. It’ll be interesting to hear about the responses from the scholarly community, as well as any popular responses. Additionally, if your response to Thom is any indication of how scholars interact contentiously, then it must get interesting at times!

    • MSH says:

      It can be interesting. I just believe that if the “argument emperor” doesn’t have clothes, no good purpose is served by pretending the argument isn’t naked. Personally, I don’t *need* such evolution to not have occurred for some theological point; I just don’t think the evidence of the text bears that out. Other doctrines evolved (evangelicals call that progressive revelation), such as that of the afterlife, so theological protectionism isn’t the issue. If God progressively had faithful biblical writers learn more about his uniqueness that they didn’t know in other periods, so be it. I just don’t think the arguments for such evolution are coherent. Too many holes emerge when they are probed.

  7. blop2008 says:

    “Neither is the psalmist hoping that four consonants would deliver his people”.

    Nice! :-)

  8. blop2008 says:

    Your paper on Polytheism to Monotheism is very solid and lucid as usual. A refreshing upgraded contribution to your dissertation of the Divine Council among evangelical scholars. I gotta get Ronn Jonhson dissertation on the Pauline usage of Principalities and Powers

    • MSH says:

      let me know if you can’t get it. RJ is a friend of mine and I have a version of it.

      • blop2008 says:

        Yes, pastor Ronn Jonhson from the google group about the divine council we had last year with you and his paper on non-bloody atonements and our exchange on the angel of Yhwh.

  9. Matt says:

    Great article. Thanks! Would you mind commenting on how the use of ‘elohim as a “place of residence term” works when applied to the human ruler, presumably in Jerusalem ( e.g., in Ps 45:7[8])?.

    • MSH says:

      sure. Briefly:

      The word elohim is at times used to associate people with divine beings – beings whose residence is the spiritual world. For example:

      Exod 4:16 – “You shall be to him as an elohim”; Exod 7:1 – “I will make you an elohim to Pharaoh”

      (Moses would seem like a divine agent to Pharaoh; he would seem like a god — one from the other side — because of the wonders he performed).

      Zech 12:8 – “the feeblest among them on that day [shall be] like David, and the house of David [shall be] like God, like the angel of the LORD, going before them”

      (The Davidic king / messiah will be associated with divine power / acts in association with the day of the Lord; again the “he must be a god” idea is the point).

      Psalm 45:6-7 [Heb, 7-8]; this is an elohistic psalm; I take it fairly normatively in concert with many other scholars:

      While the psalm is written to the king, many scholars (and I would agree) see the psalmist praying or referring to the *eternal* Yahweh in v. 6, and the earthly king in v. 7. Yahweh’s kingdom is eternal, and he has chosen the line to David to administer that kingdom on earth in Israel:

      YHWH as in view in v. 6 (cf. the elohistic psalter thing), and so elohim is used of the God of Israel (Yahweh), a resident of the spiritual realm: 6 Your throne, O God (elohim = YHWH), is forever and ever. The scepter of your kingdom is a scepter of uprightness;

      The king is in view in verse 7; elohim is the God of the king: 7 you have loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Therefore God (elohim = Yahweh), your God (elohim/Yahweh), has anointed you (the king) with the oil of gladness beyond your companions;

      The two (God and the Davidic king) are juxtaposed and blurred because God planned for the human king to be Yahweh incarnate (recall my “mental mosaic” idea with respect to messianic prophecy in an earlier post). In Heb 1:8-9 Jesus is substituted for Yahweh in the citation of 45:6, a familiar strategy of NT writers for associating Jesus with deity.

  10. roberterasmus says:

    Michael, wonderful work yet again. Thanks for your stand on this stuff, I know what a wall of entrenched “critical” work you are up against.

    So, “the new divinized human sons of God” correlates to “the congregation of the firstborn”, the then displaced bunch of firstborns with other “firstborns” (inclusive of our captain?), eh? I like what I’m hearing and wonder where you have written on this.


  11. roberterasmus says:


    Blop2008 makes mention of a dissertation by a Ronn Johnson on Pauline usage of Principalities and Powers which you intimated might be available?? Might I kindly request the electronic version; the fluff that goes for grounded truth from evangelicals on the on the heavenly host IN Christian Scriptures is …shall we say…sparse at best and non-critical at least.

    If, as the writer of Ephesians posits, the church is to “inform” these bad boys about (I’d almost like to say, “rub their noses in”) God’s wisdom; any help would be greatly appreciated. This is the Greater Commission, IMHO, for the believer.


  12. Quick question: Bernard Levinson suggests in his commentary on Deuteronomy in the ‘Jewish Study Bible’ that the epithet ‘the Rock’ applied to YHWH in 32:4 was an epithet applied to El Elyon in Canaanite religious texts. I’m sure you would have put that in your material if true, so is it really a viable connection to make?

    • MSH says:

      sure – that was a useful metaphor that various peoples used to describe the strength of their god(s). DDD doesn’t list any specific reference for this as applied to Elyon, but it notes others in Canaanite, Ugaritic, and Hittite.

      • Thanks. One other question: Thom still isn’t convinced by the supposed El epithets in vs.6-7 as they’re not in the original context of El making mankind, but YHWH making Israel. When you describe them as an ‘analogy’ do you mean that the inference is that Jacob/Israel is actually a ‘new humanity’ created by El/YHWH and therefore distinct from the ‘sons of Adam’ divided up in v.8? I guess if the epithets are stacked together like that it’s hard to avoid the implication that some sort of parallel is being drawn.

        • And something else has come to mind… wouldn’t ‘I kill and I make alive/ I wound and I heal’ at the end of ch. 32 imply that YHWH is the creator God El?

        • MSH says:

          I’d have to revisit the specific wording on both our parts for this, and just don’t have the time at present. But the problem with Stark’s view is more fundamental.

          His argument about an evolution to monotheism is based on (1) a chronology he cannot prove, and (2) ignoring the evidence for FUSION before the exile. On one hand, I agree that certain parts of Deut were written at different times. Few in biblical scholarship would deny that. But he *needs* certain of these parts to be exilic or post-exilic, and there is no evidence for that — they could all be pre-exilic *in the order he wants* but they’d still be PRE-EXILIC. This is why I keep saying that the approach is based only on the assumptions that it needs to first prove — namely, the “arrival” at monotheism during or after the exile. And besides all that, the biblical writers had fused Yahweh and El long before that Smith argues the 8th century on the basis of Yahweh’s identification with both El and Baal at least by that time — so why does Thom not accept that chronology? I’ll tell you — because he WANTS to see an evolution toward monotheism that reaches its climax after the exile, so he MUST posit the chronology he does. Relative chronology is one thing; absolute chronology is quite another. And when you have BAAL as king of the whole earth, and Yahweh identified with Baal before the exile, then WHY would we argue that kingship over the nations is a monotheistic innovation achieved AFTER the exile? Because he just wants to, since he wants the biblical writers to be polytheistic. Sorry, I’m not buying it without data that (a) supports a precise absolute chronology of that nature and (b) explains why the “late post-exilic” proofs of monotheistic innovation are found before the exile. And let’s add “c” — why is it that so many Jews felt free to use elohim in the plural – hello, 200 references to that at Qumran) after this wonderful religious evolutionary climax? My answer: because there was no such evolution.

          • I think there might be a misunderstanding – it seems to me that Thom agrees there was stage between (his reading of) Deut. 32 and the exile where YHWH was head of the pantheon in El’s place. But perhaps I’ve misunderstood. His response to your response has been up since December, anyway, and the nature of the El epithets in vs 6-7 remains the key thing.

            ‘I kill and I make alive’ could be the clincher in terms of YHWH having authority over all human life.

  13. Manuel says:

    Hey micheal, have you responded to Thomas’ response to ur response?

    • MSH says:

      man is this ancient! I haven’t thought about Stark for years, nor did I read that. Send me an email about it and I may get to it by summer’s end.

      • Manuel says:

        Sorry if i misinterpreted last comment here stating that Thomas replied to you. I don’t lnow for sure. I’m working work Benjamin Smith’s last comment here.Something random tho, was there a fusion of El and Yahweh? before the eight century?

        • MSH says:

          The answer is yes and no – not all Israelites thought the same thing (Stark assumes they did). There is no secure evidence in the Hebrew Bible of this fusion, but in terms of archaeology (which is mute – it doesn’t give us individual identities) the answer is apparently yes. The real dispute here is whether the biblical writers thought so. Stark’s view depends on his own omniscience – as to when certain passages were written (even down to the verse level) before or after other verses. Once he arranges things as he wants, he gets an evolution. I’m saying that, minus that arrangement, there’s no secure data for his view AND that his view is driving the arrangement, as opposed to the arrangement rising organically / naturally from the texts themselves without a presupposed grid being the guide. He basically wants to arrange passages like a a jigsaw puzzle, using a box lid he has fashioned (more accurately, that others have fashioned and which he uses). I’m saying “there’s no box lid” — you’re just making one and then pretending it’s self evident. It’s not.

          • Hanan says:

            >but in terms of archaeology (which is mute – it doesn’t give us individual identities) the answer is apparently yes.

            Practically speaking, how does archeology show that? What exactly was unearthed that show that fusion?

            >There is no secure evidence in the Hebrew Bible of this fusion

            Ought there be? I mean, if the archeology says it happened, then wouldn’t the biblical writers have simply taken advantage of the fusion already occurring and went on from there?

            • MSH says:

              I didn’t word this very well. Archaeology would speak in some cases – inscriptional material. Non-inscriptional material would be things like figurines, seal images, etc. associated with different deities found in Israelite contexts.

              Personally, I don’t buy the notion that biblical writers evolved to monotheism. They do identify Yahweh with both El and Baal in various places, but I take that as polemic.

  14. Manuel says:

    haha sorry, I assumed Stark had responded to ur response based on Benjamin Smith’s last comment. I don’t know for sure. A random question though, was there an actual fusion of El and Yahweh?By the people and/or the biblical authors?

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