My God is Better than your god!
Updated: Oct 4
Imagine a world in which power struggles regularly erupt between rival factions whose tribes gather at the field of battle to pit their powers against their sworn enemy. Banners, uniforms and trash talk everywhere; the glamor and pageantry of these struggles is a sight to behold. A Sunday clash between NFL antagonists?
"Chemosh is no god at all."
Ba'al is number one!"
"Yahweh will kick Marduk's invisible butt."
"Call on your god! He's on the toilet or wandered off! He's so bored he fell asleep!" (1 Kings 18)
Our Bibles come to us from this ancient world in which everyone took it for granted that one's own national god or gods were in a constant state of competition with those of one's neighbors. This was the norm for centuries across the ancient near east, right on down to the Roman period when monotheism was treated as a strange anomaly. In the 14th century BCE, the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten attempted to enforce worship on just one god, Aten. Before his body was cold in the sand, his statues, inscriptions, monuments and even his place on lists of Egypt's kings were erased as everyone went back to the polytheism they knew and loved.
While it's easy to assume from a cursory reading of commandment number one of the fabled Decalogue, that the Bible is clear about the "only-ness" of Yahweh. On closer examination, one finds that Bible is almost never as clear as we'd like, especially when we find a considerable amount of textual evidence in the pages of the Old Testament for a non-monotheistic concept of the world.
Henotheism is the term scholars use to describe the belief in a hierarchy of gods, deities, powers, angels and so forth, with one particular divine figure or couple emerging as ruler over the "divine council." It's just one option among many that human cultures have deployed to explain the cosmos. Monolatry, syncretism, and polytheism are examples of some others.
Henotheism's first assumption is that each identifiable ethnic group has a pantheon of deities over which one or a pair ruled as chief. Secondly, as these groups competed for territory or resources, they appealed to their gods to show themselves superior by sponsoring military victory. There was also the matter of the fertility of the land, livestock and of course human families. A storm and fertility god like Ba'al of the Canaanites needed appeasement in order for rain to fall and babies to survive.
Most ancient Mediterranean and Mesopotamian peoples in the late bronze age (2000-1200 BCE) lived by a complex cosmology inhabited by beings seen and unseen. Israel and Judah's Canaanite neighbors were no exception, with an ancient and detailed hierarchy of divine beings. Many scholars find evidence for Canaanite influence on biblical cosmologies in the names and roles used to describe Yahweh. Here's an example of mainstream scholarly views on the roots of how we think about God in a much later context:
The final editors of the Hebrew canon were fervent monotheists, but a remnant of the polytheistic basis of the pre-Mosaic religion can still be detected. Albrecht Alt has shown that divine titles such as 'El Bet' el (Gen. 31:13; 35:7); 'El 'Olam (Gen. 21:33); and 'El Ro'i (Gen. 16:13); 'El 'Elyon (Gen. 14:18); and 'El Saddai (Gen. 17:1); all later taken to be one God (Yahweh) after Moses, were all originally separate gods worshipped by the early Hebrews. The Catholic scholar Bruce Vawter concurs with Alt. According to Vawter, none of the available English translations does justice to the original Hebrew of Genesis 31:13, which quite simply reads "I am the god Bethel" ('El Bet'el), who was a member of the Canaanite pantheon along with the rest of the above. The original meaning is therefore quite different from the traditional understanding: this god at Bethel is not the universal Lord who appeared at Bethel but just one god among many – a local deity of a specific place.
Hebrew Henotheism, Dr. Nicholas F. Gier https://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/ngier/henotheism.htm
Canaanites, like many local ancient cultures including Israelite, conceived of the human world situated under a "firmament" of water suspended above the earth, anchored on the tops of two mountains. The name "El Shaddai" may be connected back linguistically to Akkadian words for mountain dwellers, and the idea that pairs of mountains are a feature that goddesses would mirror; "shad" is the Hebrew term for breast. Pairs of mountains are also found in the Old Testament, like mounts Gerizim and Ebal.
A general picture of the hierarchy of gods that oversee the world included the Chief Divine Couple El and Asherah, with dozens of other subordinates such as
Chemosh and Ashtar Chemosh, god and goddess of the Moabites
Dagon- a crop and fertility god
Milcom- god of the Amorites
Yam- god of the sea and rivers
A four-tier hierarchy was imagined, and worship occurred on "high places" as condemned in many elements of the Old Testament narratives. As mentioned above the term "El" simply meant lord, god or deity. Elohim means "god-powers or godhood." Dr. Gier once again:
"A divine pluralism can also be seen in the Hebrew word for deity, 'elohîm, which is a plural form of 'Eloah, which is a form of 'El, the general word for God in the Semitic world. There are some scholars who argue that 'elohîm in reference to Yahweh must be a grammatical plurality only. For them 'elohîm is an abstract plural with a singular meaning. Such a grammatical form would emphasize the majesty of the Almighty. In his study of the 'Great Isaiah Scroll' at Qumran, William Brownlee of Claremont has shown the radical extent of the use of this 'plural of majesty': even Yahweh's quiver (Is. 49:2) and a single hand are in the plural.
"There is, however, a significant exception, noted long ago by the Hebrew grammarian Gensenius. When 'elohim is referred to pronominally, as in 'let us make man in our image' (Gen. 1:26), then the majestic plural is not applicable. Furthermore, the priestly writers use singular verbs for the deity in adjacent passages; hence the use of the plural at 1:26 must be for good reason. Canaanite parallels show that the head god uses the first person plural in addressing his divine assembly. It is obvious that this passage reveals a henotheistic situation in which Yahweh is consulting with lesser deities around him."
James Tabor in his translation of Genesis notes the following about the word "Elohim:"
"ELOHIM is a plural noun but often functions as a collective singular, taking a singular verb. It is related to the Hebrew terms: 'eloah and 'el, meaning God, god, power, or mighty one, and can refer to judges and leaders, heavenly beings, the gods of the nations or the one God of Israel."
Footnote 3, Tabor, James D.. The Book of Genesis: A New Translation from the Transparent English Bible . Genesis 2000.
With that in the background, let's ask our questions. Is the Bible consistently monotheistic? If not, where do henotheism and other forms of polytheism show up in Bible texts?
The short answer to the first question is no. Both our Old and New Testaments speak to a mixture of beliefs that contradict the view that the entire Bible speaks with one opinion on the idea of a lone self-existent God. We see instead a biblical world populated with many divine figures and powers exercising some level of agency behind the scenes of day-to-day human life.
Let's look at a few examples. In many cases, the vagaries of translation from other languages into English serve to obscure meanings that would otherwise be clear enough to the reader. The most prevalent is the use of certain conventions in rendering multiple Hebrew nomenclatures for God as discussed above.
Elohim in Genesis
We've already visited Genesis 1:26 in which we find "God" translated from "Elohim," a collective singular noun that we might use for team, family or congregation- words that encompass a number of things but employ a singular verb. This generic Elohim says, "Let us make humans in our own image…" In chapter two starting in verse four, we find a second creation story probably written by a different author who refers to God as "Yahweh Elohim," a more specific nomenclature that zeroes in on the God of Israel. This continues through chapters two and three with the exception that the "Nachash" (Shining one, or snake) uses Elohim when referring to God.
Next, we find in Genesis 18 three visitors to Abraham, Lot and Sodom. In verse three, Abraham calls them Adonai, a plural form of Adon which means "Lord" or "Sir," akin to modern English phrases like "Your Honor," "Officer" or "Boss." To Abraham and by extension, the reader or hearer of the tale, these beings are recognized as worthy of honor and hospitality, confirmed later in the story as they display remarkable powers. There is a strange mixing of identities in the story at this point as Sarah laughs at the joke of the promise of a birth in a year's time. Suddenly, the text switches to Abraham conversing with Yahweh, not the three "men." They discuss Sarah's laughter and as the three visitors begin to move toward Sodom, we hear Yahweh talking to either himself or some sort of divine council about revealing his plans more fully to Abraham.
Yahweh then says in verse 21, "…let me go down, please, and I will see whether they have done completely according to its outcry that has come toward me, and if not I will know.” The "men" turn and walk down toward Sodom while Abraham is said to continue standing before the face of Yahweh, ready to engage in a bargaining session on which the fate of his nephew Lot rests.
Not only do we see Yahweh depicted as fully anthropomorphic, having to actually go and investigate a rumor, we see him apparently doing it through these three beings. Are they-or one of them- in some sense Yahweh himself? Are they supernatural agents from the realm of the deities? In verse 33 the episode concludes with Yahweh walking away, Abraham returning to his tent and in 34:1, two of the messengers arrive in Sodom in the evening. Wait, only two? Was Yahweh one of the visitors in human form? The Hebrew term for the visitors changes from hanashim (men) to hammalakim (angels, from the root malak, meaning messenger or ambassador) in chapter 19 verse 1.
It appears as if another author picks up the story at the beginning of chapter 19 and decides that at least two of the beings were angels. They strike the men of Sodom with blindness and practically drag Lot and his family out of town before Yahweh destroys it.
So what's going on here? There's definitely more than one divine being in this story, and the following crisis story of Sodom has a lot to do with humans trying to overthrow the natural order of the cosmos by dominating the two divine figures. If nothing else, the story clearly reflects more than one take on the nature of deity. It’s not clear at all if Yahweh is acting unilaterally, if he's split into multiple avatars, or has subordinates doing his bidding.
Scholar Marvin H. Pope states that "...these are lesser members of the ancient pagan pantheon who are retained in later monotheistic theology as angels." See Pope's commentary on this in The Anchor Bible: Job.
Joshua 5:13-15 is another example of a "man" (in Hebrew- "ish" ) appearing to a mortal, calling himself " the commander of the army of Yahweh." Joshua, addressing him as adonai, bows in worship and offers himself in service. The only charge given to Joshua is that he should remove his sandals because the ground on which they stood was now holy. It obviously recalls the burning bush episode in which Yahweh commands the very same thing of Moses, affirming that Joshua is addressing a deity just like his predecessor. Is this commander Yahweh himself? Christians have been known to assert that he is Jesus, pre-incarnate. Either way, we have a distinction being made that works against the insistence that strict monotheism runs throughout the entire body of scripture.
Jacob and Laban
Another example: Jacob and Laban in Genesis 31 agree to a treaty between the two families backed by their respective gods.
"Then Laban said to Jacob, “See this heap and see the pillar, which I have set between you and me. This heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass beyond this heap to you, and you will not pass beyond this heap and this pillar to me, for harm. May the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor judge between us.”
Here two distinct gods are referenced, the "god of Nahor" refers to one of the gods of the Arameans, possibly and anachronistic retrojection from the exilic period when Aram was a regional power. Rebekah has stolen her father's household gods but when Laban searches for them he is unsuccessful. Its unclear but entirely possible the treaty is ratified by both Laban's and Jacobs' gods, the text is softened by a later gloss about Jacob swearing only by "the fear of his father Isaac." The fact that they sacrificed and ate together allows for a tacit recognition of the existence of legitimate foreign gods other than Yahweh.
The First Commandment
Now lets move on to the Ten Commandments. In Exodus 20, the first item in the list of prohibitions does not deny the existence or agency of other gods. It says: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me."
Old Testament scholar James Kugel points out:
“For many centuries the first sentence above was indeed taken to mean something like “there are no other gods except Me.” But scholars know that this isn’t quite what the words are saying. To begin with, the Hebrew phrase ‘al-panai doesn’t mean “except for Me.” This phrase generally has a spatial sense; it means “in front of Me” or “in My presence,” and it is really this that God is outlawing in the Ten Commandments. “You can’t worship Me and some other deity in the same sanctuary,” or perhaps more generally (although even this is a bit of a stretch), “You can’t worship Me and also worship some other god or gods,” in a sanctuary or anywhere else.”
Kugel, James L.. The Great Shift: Encountering God in Biblical Times (p. 154). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition.
We also have the curious case of Yahweh's origin, or how he came to be the national god of the Hebrews. We read in Deuteronomy 32:
When the Most High (elyown, meaning Most or Uppermost) apportioned the nations,
when he divided humankind,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples
according to the number of the gods;
the Lord’s own portion was his people,
Jacob his allotted share.
In some English Bibles and Hebrew texts, there's a bit of textual manipulation going on, as attested by a copy of Deuteronomy found among the Dead Sea Scrolls and supported by the Septuagint. The Masoretic Text (ninth century CE) appears to have replaced "sons of god" with "sons of Israel." a phrase that runs into trouble when we read that Jacob (a synonym for "sons of Israel") is actually the portion allotted to Yahweh. Render it literally and you have God establishing the boundaries between the nations according to the number of the sons of Israel, and Yahweh's allotted people is Jacob, or the sons of Israel. The NASB, KJV and the NIV are among modern translations that muddy the waters by accepting the insertion in the Masoretic Text.*
"'Son of Israel' makes absolutely no sense in Deut. 32:8. The people of Israel were Yahweh's 'portion' while the sons of God 'were divine beings or angels to whom God had delegated authority over the nations. Their existence is not denied but rather accommodated to the overall authority of Yahweh to whom they are subservient.'** As Anthony Phillips states: 'The poet, drawing on Canaanite mythology, identifies Yahweh with the pre-Davidic god 'Elyon.' *** As Deut. 32:8 has been taken by some to be a very old passage, Gerald Cooke and others speculate that in the earliest times Yahweh was not the head of the gods, but simply one of the "sons of God" in the sense of b‘n‘ 'Elyon." …Yahweh appears to be different from 'Elyon, because of the definite third person reference, which "easily gives the impression that Yahweh, like the sons of God, received his portion or allotment from 'Elyon."****
--Nicholas F. Gier
The wisdom book of Job provides another good example of the Bible's tendency toward henotheism. Current scholarship places Job's composition during or after the exile, though some traditionalists claim it's a much older composition. Either way, it presents the reader with an ancient conception of a supernatural agent called "the accuser." In Hebrew, "the satan" simply means an obstructer or adversary, and can be used of a human being who hinders or impedes another's intentions. The fact that there's a definite article here denotes a role rather than a name. The idea of Satan as an identifiable, personal figure didn't develop until well into the Persian-controlled second temple period under the influence of Zoroastrianism and Hellenism.
In Job, the satan is presented as one of the subordinate gods, a "son of God," one of a group who on a certain day "present themselves before Yahweh." The satan is asked about his activities and a strange wager emerges regarding Job's allegiance to Yahweh. The satan has a finite location, walks around on the earth, observes human beings, and expresses some antipathy toward Job in particular. He asks Yahweh to do harm to Job which launches us into the philosophical drama wrapped around theodicy.
The satan is numbered among the "bene Elohim" or sons of God- a reference to a plurality of god-like beings, over which Yahweh presides and interrogates as he would agents that do his bidding. These sons of God, according to the storyteller, are allowed to question Yahweh and challenge the status quo to prove a point. In both of the satan's conferences with Yahweh in Job 1 and 2, at the very least we see heavenly agents asking Yahweh to act, and acting on their own to afflict a human being.
Probably the most obvious example of biblical henotheism is in Psalm 82. Here it is in the New Revised Standard Version Updated Edition:
God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked? Selah
Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
They have neither knowledge nor understanding;
they walk around in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I say, “You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals
and fall like any prince.”
Rise up, O God, judge the earth,
for all the nations belong to you!
Many Ancient Near Eastern cultures conceptualized the realm of the gods this way, as an assembly of national deities presided over by a supreme god. Each god was assigned a location inhabited by a people group. Temples were seen as containers for the deity's presence, a point of contact between human reality and theirs.
In the Hebrew texts of the Psalm, we have in the first line "Elohim takes his stand in the congregation of the divine, among the elohim he judges."
We are set up for a kind of courtroom scene, in which a chief "Elohim" is rendering judgement on a group of lesser powers. The name Yahweh is not mentioned. He takes them to task for acting unjustly toward their worshipers, failing to live up to their divine pedigree as children of "Elyown" The Most High.
The dynamic between this council of Elohim makes it a difficult passage to reconcile with the claim that the Bible is monotheistic. Somehow Psalm 82 missed the later redactions of post-exile monotheistic editors. Their exhortations of loyalty to Yahweh alone led in a direction that placed him in a class by himself with no equals, and by the time we get to the first century CE, we have the strong notion in Judaism that "God is One" in contrast to most other surrounding cultures.
Paul reveals his views on the supernatural realm when he writes "…if an angel from heaven [who] should proclaim to you a gospel contrary to what we proclaimed to you…" (Galatians) or "Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords…" and "For this reason a woman ought to have authority over her head, because of the angels," in 1 Corinthians.
There's an anti-idol drumbeat in Deuteronomy that is hard to miss, anticipating the tragedy of a punishing exile later in the story. According to later writers, the primary reason for the exile of Israel and Judah was the peoples' abandonment of Yahweh in favor of rival gods, which makes sense only if those foreign gods had some efficacy in hijacking their loyalty. Our modern conception that the God of the Bible is consistently shown as a single, unique cosmic creator with no rival. That depiction however isn't found in the actual pages of the Hebrew Bible. Gods, demigods, angels and other supernatural powers are everywhere.
Questions for You
What's your theory explaining how and why ancient people began to ascribe power to unseen deities? Which do you think came first, monotheism, polytheism or something else?
How does this discussion relate to a modern evangelical view of demons and angels?
Did the gospel writers indicate a belief in henotheism or competition between supernatural powers?
**The Interpreter's Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1952), Vol. 2, p. 529.
***Anthony Phillips, Deuteronomy: The Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973
****Gerald Cooke, "The Sons of (the) God(s)," Zeitschrift für Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft (1964), p. 33