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What attributes did Yahweh have before becoming a monotheistic deity?

What attributes did Yahweh have before becoming a monotheistic deity?


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Did it "belong" to another people before he was adopted by Hebrews? Is there any anthropological reconstruction about all this monotheistic thing?


Early Israelite religion was not monotheistic, and it remained in that classification for at least several hundred years. YHWH was developed very slowly in a syncretistic process were he was ascribed with all the attributes of the other deities in the region. This process of accumulation of powers and status reached a first high point during the archaeologically uncertain period of of establishing the monarchies when YHWH became not the sole but the high god in the pantheon and started to become the only God at the start of the Persian period.

Since he (male, since he became a divorcee from the female Ashera in the process) had been made by ascribing him with all the aspects of all the other gods it might be argued that he is identical to all of them being an all-encompassing superset of all deities available. Albeit since his divorce getting more and more grumpy with time.

While the exact etymology and geographic origin of the name might not be reconstructed with reasonable certainty, the apparent process of localised ethnogenesis of the Canaaanites-becoming-Israelites points into the direction of an increasingly abstracted, generalised and radicalised deity that is firmly rooted in West-semitic tradition. Initially just one of the deities, probably identical to the more widespread presence of El, his earliest attributes would be those of El.

Since the process of accumulation started it seems to have become practical or even necessary to separate this El from all the other Els around. Both to avoid confusion and to mark the ethnic boundary between worshippers.

“Early Israelite culture cannot be separated easily from the culture of “Canaan.” The highlands of Israel in the Iron Age (ca. 1200-587) reflect continuity with the “Canaanite” (or better, West Semitic) culture during the preceding period both in the highlands and in the contemporary cities on the coast and in the valleys. This continuity is reflected in scripts, for one example. Both linear and cuneiform alphabetic scripts are attested in inscriptions in the highlands as well as in the valleys and on the coast during both the Late Bronze (ca. 1550-1200) and Iron I (ca. 1200-1000) periods.”

The original god of Israel was El. This reconstruction may be inferred from two pieces of information. First, the name of Israel is not a Yahwistic name with the divine element of Yahweh, but an El name, with the element, *'ēl. This fact would suggest that El was the original chief god of the group named Israel. Second, Genesis 49:24-25 presents a series of El epithets separate from the mention of Yahweh in verse 18 (discussed in section 3 below). Yet early on, Yahweh is understood as Israel's god in distinction to El. Deuteronomy 32:8-9 casts Yahweh in the role of one of the sons of El, here called 'elyôn:

When the Most High ('elyôn) gave to the nations their inheritance, when he separated humanity, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of divine beings. For Yahweh's portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.

This passage presents an order in which each deity received its own nation. Israel was the nation that Yahweh received. It also suggests that Yahweh, originally a warrior-god from Sinai/Paran/Edom/Teiman, was known separately from El at an early point in early Israel. Perhaps due to trade with Edom/Midian, Yahweh entered secondarily into the Israelite highland religion. Passages such as Deuteronomy 32:8-9 suggest a literary vestige of the initial assimilation of Yahweh, the southern warrior-god, into the larger highland pantheism, headed by El; other texts point to Asherah (El's consort) and to Baal and other deities as members of this pantheon. In time, El and Yahweh were identified, while Yahweh and Baal co-existed and later competed as warrior-gods. As the following chapter (section 2) suggests, one element in this competition involved Yahweh's assimilation of language and motifs originally associated with Baal. One indication that Yahweh and El were identified at an early stage is that there are no biblical polemics against El. At an early point, Israelite tradition identified El with Yahweh or presupposed this equation. It is for this reason that the Hebrew Bible so rarely distinguishes between El and Yahweh. The development of the name El ('ēl) into a generic noun meaning “god” also was compatible with the loss of El's distinct character in Israelite religious texts. One biblical text exhibits the assimilation of the meaning of the word 'ēl quite strongly, namely Joshua 22:22 (cf. Pss. 10:12; 50:1):

el elohim yhwh - God of Gods is Yahweh

Excerpt From: Smith, Mark S. “The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel (Biblical Resource Series).”, William B Eerdmanns: Grand Rapids, Cambridge, 22002.

That passage in Joshua is rendered "El, God, the LORD!" (NET), "he LORD God of gods"(KJV), "ο θεος θεος εστιν κυριος" (LXX), "fortissimus Deus Dominus" (Vulgate) for comparison, that is if you do not recognise this passage from your translation…

A different account:

We cannot therefore definitively exclude a link between Yw in the Ugaritic text and Yhwh, which would suggest that in the thirteenth or twelfth centuries Yhwh might have been known in Ugarit and (marginally) integrated into the Ugaritic pantheon. [… ]

An Egyptian text from the eighteenth dynasty that lists the places occupied by the Shasu nomads (who have already been discussed) mentions a “country of the Shasu and of Laban.” So there seems to be a connection between these nomads and “Laban,” which in this context functions as a geographic term. Is it, then, possible to connect Yhwh and this foreign god? This deity is represented in the papyrus as particularly violent and is identified using the terms Egyptians used for designating the god Babi/Baba (an ape god). Babi, however, was a form of Seth and then finally of the god Thot. It is hard to decide whether this violent deity without a name might possibly be Yhwh, but it is interesting to note the connection made in this document between Laban and Edom, a connection that is also made in the biblical story of Jacob (Israel), who is the brother of Esau (Edom) and the nephew of Laban.
These possible links between Seth and Yhwh all converge in a way that underlines the “southern” origin of Yhwh, his status as a warrior god, and his provenance from the steppes.

These texts from the book of Exodus may preserve the memory traces of a ritual by which a group of Shasu/Hapiru constituted itself via a mediator as ̒am Yhwh, the people of a warrior god to whom they attributed their victory over Egypt. This group then introduced the deity Yhwh into the territory of Benjamin and Ephraim, where Israel was located. An allusion to this encounter can perhaps be found in the poem of Deuteronomy 33:2-5: “Yhwh came from Sinai; he shone forth from Seir, he was resplendent from Mount of Paran… Indeed, he loves his people (̒am)… He became king in Yeshurun when the chiefs of the people assembled together with the tribes of Israel.” This last verse seems to indicate a kind of union between the chiefs of the ̒am Yhwh and the tribes grouped together under the name “Israel.” The chiefs of the ̒am Yhwh meet with the tribes of Israel and Yhwh thus becomes the god of Israel. Can we detect in this passage a trace of the installation of Yhwh as the premier god of Israel?
This ascendency seems to have occurred at the beginning of the Israelite monarchy-at the turn from the second to the first millennium- and this is how Yhwh became the tutelary god of Saul and David, who introduced him into Jerusalem.
From Thomas Römer: "The Invention of God", Harvard University Press: Cambridge, London, 2015.


Nobody really knows for sure. El/Elohim (which by the time of the writing of most of the Hebrew scriptures had become synonymous) has ancient Semitic roots, but Yahweh appears to be (nearly) unique to the Hebrews.

There is almost no agreement on the origins and meaning of Yahweh's name. It is not attested other than among the Israelites, and seems not to have any reasonable etymology. Exodus 3:14 (Ehyeh ašer ehyeh, or "I Am that I Am"), has not found favour among scholars and has been viewed as a late theological gloss invented after the true meaning of Yahweh's had been lost

In Joshua and Judges he does seem to be employed as a war god, with no central shrine.

There is one intriguing theory I'll mention: the Kenite Hypothesis. The earliest references to YHWH* we have come from Egyptian sources, and place his worshipers in the northern part of Arabia. The ancestors of the Hebrews were not living there (despite what Exodus may imply). So the idea is that YHW was borrowed from those people, perhaps through trading links. There are some interesting mentions of Midians and Edomites in the Hebrew writings, most notably including Moses' father-in-law in Exodus. But again, there is no universally accepted theory. This is just the best of a bad lot.

* - Semitic languages tend to be written in Alphabets that contain no vowel glyphs, since their vowels are generally predictable.


Some people associate Yah- with the Akkadian God Ea, which is Enki in Sumerian. Enki's cult belongs to the oldest city, Eridu. The temple, in the same location, is present in the oldest layers of the city (4,500 B.C.). It appears that the temple was originally dedicated to a non-anthropomorphic god, Abzu, the watery deep. Later, anthropomorphic deities emerged. It's thought that he was originally subservient to the godess Ninhursag.

The original pool of water (Abzu) remained in front of the temple. This later became common for Mesopotamian temples. It might be the origin of holy water and baptisms. There wasn't much else in common with Yahweh, but were talking about 1,500 years between them. The cult worshipped fishes and had fish feasts. They've left a lot of fish bones behind. Enki had a major position in Sumer as the father of Inanna (Ishtar). Enki appears to have a supportive role in the creation myths of Babylon and Marduk.

You might be interested in the Ebla Bible Controversy. These may have been Nabi'utum (prophets) from Mari.

Israelites are believed to have received Yahweh from Midianites, caravan traders around the Red Sea.


What led to the emergence of monotheism?

Our modern understanding of monotheism is more recent than the religions it describes.

Over half the world practices Christianity, Islam or Judaism, according to Pew Research Center. These religions are all monotheistic, involving the worship of one God. But according to scholars, our modern understanding of monotheism is a recent phenomenon — more recent even than the religions it describes.

So, how did monotheism emerge?

The answer is complicated. Monotheism didn't emerge with Judaism, nor Christianity, nor Islam, according to scholars. It's a modern concept. And depending on how you define it, it either emerged thousands of years before these major religions, or hundreds of years later.

At a surface level, many ancient religions look polytheistic. Whether you're looking at Mesopotamia or ancient Egypt, Greece or Rome, the Kingdom of Aksum in northern Africa or ancient Israel: all of these civilizations once worshipped many gods. The reality is a little more complicated, said Andrew Durdin, a religious historian at Florida State University.

"When you look across human history, the distinction between polytheism and monotheism kind of falls apart," Durdin told Live Science.

Across cultures, pantheons, or groups of deities specific to a particular religion, were often written about as expressions of the same divine entity, similar to how Christians worship the Holy Trinity — the father, the son and the holy spirit — as different manifestations of God. For example, in the second millennium B.C., the ancient Mesopotamian epic poem, "Enuma Elish," calls the chief god Marduk by 50 names: the names of those gods subordinate to him. The implication is that these lower gods were really manifestations of one god: Marduk, wrote Jan Assman in the book "Religions of the Ancient World: A Guide" (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2004).

This concept of divine unity wasn&rsquot unique to Mesopotamia this same concept existed in ancient Greece, Egypt and Rome. In ancient Rome around the third century B.C., a philosophical group called the Stoics maintained that there was only one God, whose names only differed according to his or her role in the heavens and on Earth, Assman wrote. Increasing connectivity between civilizations may have encouraged the belief in divine unity, Assman wrote. People drew connections between their own gods and those of other societies. They began to see different gods and pantheons not in opposition to one another, but as expressions of the same concept. Some scholars compare the idea of divine unity to monotheism. Assman calls it "evolutionary monotheism" Durdin calls it "philosophical monotheism." However, not all scholars of religion agree with this interpretation.

Put another way, ancient people may have viewed multiple gods from different cultures as all emanating from the same holy source.

It was in this context that religious movements began demanding exclusive worship of one God. In the 14th century B.C., the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaten established a cult devoted only to the sun god, Aton. He closed temples and destroyed images of other gods. And some scholars believe it was up to a thousand years later that early Israelites began worshipping only one god: Yahweh, said Matthew Chalmers, a theorist of religion at Northwestern University in Illinois. It was a transition that took centuries, and it would be centuries more before the belief that only one God exists became cemented in Judaism, Chalmers said.

It's important to note that these people didn't think of themselves as monotheists or polytheists. "I don't think it was something ancient people were really interested in," Chalmers told Live Science. These movements didn't deny the existence of other gods. They just demanded that people stop worshipping them.

Similarly, early Christians didn't explicitly declare other gods nonexistent they began referring to them as demons, Chalmers said. Proclamations that there was only one God show up in portions of the Hebrew Bible written around the fifth century B.C. — however, sections written earlier in Jewish history made no such claims, Chalmers said. And it wasn&rsquot until the third and fourth centuries A.D., that the concept of one God finally began appearing in Christian liturgy. However, scholars disagree on the exact timeline, he added. Islam was slightly a different story. The Quran, which was penned within decades of Islam's emergence in the seventh century, explicitly stated that there was only one God from the get-go, said Chad Haines, a historian of religion at Arizona State University. That doesn&rsquot mean that monotheism emerged with Islam, however — this was a development that built on earlier religious traditions and continued to evolve over time.

So what was so significant about these periods in history, when religions began out-right declaring that there was only one God? It's impossible to elucidate cause-and-effect. But there were a few significant changes. More people were writing down their ideas, especially elites, Chalmers said. Owning a religious text became a mark of social status. And states began throwing themselves behind specific religious movements. For example, in Rome's later days, the idea of one God appealed to emperor Constantine as a way to pull together the crumbling empire, Durdin said.

Still, it wasn't until 1660 that the term monotheism was first used, and decades later the term polytheism, Chalmers said. Later, the distinction was made as a way to help explain why some societies were "civilized" and others were "primitive."

"I don't think there is a transition to monotheism," Chalmers said. After all, not everyone even agrees that Christianity, the largest ostensible monotheistic religion, is monotheistic at all, he added — some Jewish and Muslim writers interpreted the Holy Trinity as three gods rather than one. Instead, the distinction between polytheism and monotheism is one we've made in retrospect to try and make sense of our own history.

"It's a modern imposition," Haines said, "It allows us to map monotheism as a move towards progress."


Did Yahweh Begin in the Canaanite Pantheon?

I've heard many times that Yahweh began as a local war/storm god before eventually taking on monotheistic characteristics and becoming God Almighty around the time of the Babylonian captivity, but I'm wondering how well accepted this idea is in Biblical scholarship, and what the arguments for and against it are. If Yahweh did originate in this pantheon, how does this affect our faith?

I had a great couple articles about just this question. I'll rummage around and find them. Ultimately, it's a pretty big reach to suggest that Yahweh was adopted from the Canaanite pantheon. There can be various debates about the extent to which Yahweh was viewed as the supreme god vs the one god, but all the arguments suggesting the storm god idea are pretty tenuous. I'll get back to you!

EDIT: My efforts to find said sources has thus far been fruitless, but I thought this was a pretty good(if very condensed) explanation https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/2ehewd/how_well_supported_is_the_theory_that_yahweh/

I can't argue for the biblical scholarship, but it only means that Israel has never truly followed God faithfully. It was always in adulterous relationships with other gods so much that it developed as an apparently normative polytheistic religious system.

But the problem with history such as this is the extrapolation of conclusion based on minimal evidence. They usually make conclusions out of available data, and only correct it with more data that become available later on, such as the case of the origin of civilization that always gets pushed back whenever new, older artifacts/fossils are found.

But the same can be said of the Church today. Imagine, if archaeologists in the future see indication of abortion, homosexual relationship, and whatnot in catholic populations, they could simply assume that the Christian religion is ɿlexible enough to permit these things', or that the Christian religion is ɿull of diversity of teachings', from those acknowledging Jesus as God to those who only allow him to be a human messiah. But they will never know that the true christian religion is embodied in orthodox Christianity.

Similarly, historians today can only see the multiple facets of Israelite religious system that has for the most part undergone corruption, much like ours, and so cannot distinguish the true monotheistic belief from the varieties that include polytheistic beliefs, even if this 'variety' is practically 99% of the population.


47 Answer s

Not the Christians. The Hebrews.

Jeruba ( 51652 />) “Great Answer” ( 6 />) Flag as… />¶ Shuttle128 ( 2986 />) “Great Answer” ( 2 />) Flag as… />¶

One superwizard is easier to worship than 20 superwizards.

ragingloli ( 48497 />) “Great Answer” ( 2 />) Flag as… />¶

you can’t make any money from your god if you acknowledge other religions gods existing too

tyrantxseries ( 4722 />) “Great Answer” ( 1 />) Flag as… />¶

Colonization… (it was not spread by and large by choice).

RedPowerLady ( 12576 />) “Great Answer” ( 2 />) Flag as… />¶

lol, first by Christians, learn to history

Monotheism is incredibly useful in the way it limits any living rulers detractors. In a polytheistic culture you will eventually have living people who specialise in being in touch with the individual gods, you will also have their followers, if they get too big because that god is cool and doesn’t make them do what your god does then your in the shit. If you can persuade everyone that there is only one god and what you are telling them is what he says, well you are gonna have a helleva lot less hassle from the people.

RareDenver ( 13163 />) “Great Answer” ( 1 />) Flag as… />¶

The threat of eternal damnation and torment.

Grisaille ( 12043 />) “Great Answer” ( 1 />) Flag as… />¶

@Jeruba- Actually, Zoroastrianism predates Judaism. This may be the world’s first monotheistic religion.

AstroChuck ( 37461 />) “Great Answer” ( 3 />) Flag as… />¶

I want to say power. so I did

faye ( 17839 />) “Great Answer” ( 1 />) Flag as… />¶ majorrich ( 14711 />) “Great Answer” ( 0 />) Flag as… />¶

by not washing your hands correctly , if only we had purel back them godsdammit….frak.

evil2 ( 1028 />) “Great Answer” ( 1 />) Flag as… />¶

Imperialism
Destruction of local cultures
Murder of pagans and other heathens
Other atrocities

tinyfaery ( 42902 />) “Great Answer” ( 1 />) Flag as… />¶

The Chinese have held that there is a single ‘creator’ as an omnipotent force since the earliest records.

Another early major monotheist teaching was with the Egyptians. I just read a theory that the multitude of “Gods” we have heard about was really just the different aspects of “the divine” or the One God.

YARNLADY ( 45100 />) “Great Answer” ( 0 />) Flag as… />¶

christian wars like the inquisition or the roman catholic army actually a combination of both created suppression and force to peaceful pagan society’s either fight and die or abandon and join us ideals is what created monotheism

you know there is no other force since the dawn of humanity that has created more hate crime rape murder and pillage not to mention destruction of societies and entire cultures than the christian religion

master_mind413 ( 891 />) “Great Answer” ( 1 />) Flag as… />¶

I don’t want to be a nitpicker, just want to let you know. “Moslem” isn’t really correct to use anymore. The preferred spelling is “Muslim” now because the English mispronunciation of the former word has a bad meaning in Arabic.

Christianity and Islam spread through a combination of colonialism (the Roman and Arab empires, and the colonization of the Americas), trade, and missionaries. Judaism spread through a diaspora of the Jewish people. Civilization had kind of the same outward spread from the Middle East, so maybe something about that area is very well-situated to be influential.

Haleth ( 19538 />) “Great Answer” ( 3 />) Flag as… />¶

@tinyfaery: empires didn’t start with monotheism.

Ria777 ( 2687 />) “Great Answer” ( 0 />) Flag as… />¶

The ability of the Hebrews to maintain their culture despite obvious disadvantages. While he doesn’t directly address this topic, I highly recommend that anyone interested in early modern human history read “Guns Germs and Steel” by Jared Diamond.

Mamradpivo ( 9655 />) “Great Answer” ( 3 />) Flag as… />¶

@Mamradpivo That’s a great book! I’d definitely recommend it. Diamond gives human history a very impartial treatment and debunks some outdated conventional wisdom.

Haleth ( 19538 />) “Great Answer” ( 1 />) Flag as… />¶

I have read Guns, Germs and Steel and agree with your assessment.

The point about the Jews is an important one. Polytheism is associated with a particular nation. The usual reaction of conquered peoples was to acquire the religion of the conquerors on the assumption that their gods were superior. To the consternation of their various conquerors, the Jews refused to do this. Their religion did not emphasize warrior characteristics, but focused on morality. I believe Zoroastrianism is similar, but for some reason its practice is largely confined to Iran. Christianity and Islam are also international religions in this sense.

I think the emphasis on morality represented a sea change in thought. When I read the Iliad I was struck by how small a role morality played in the book. It can be argued that horrible acts have been carried out in the name of Christianity and Islam, but I believe these religions represent a major change in the way the world is perceived as compared to polytheism.

LostInParadise ( 28690 />) “Great Answer” ( 2 />) Flag as… />¶

@LostInParadise Without the socio-political strives of Emperor Constantin, there would most likely not be a Christian religion, if so, absolutely not in the way we know it.

And if you want to believe the bible, the origin of the Hebrews are the fertile cresent of todays Iraq, and if one examines the geographics of the Levant, one would probably have needed to be in a coma to not be aware of the ideas and principles of Zoroastrianism among the Hebrews. Furthermore – in believing the bible – it is clear that the Hebrews were not all monotheistic. There are, in the bible stories, several attempts to rid the people of polytheistic belief.

Reading the Bible and the Koran, I have trouble seeing that monotheistic religions have a higher moral standard than Pagan religions of their time.

oratio ( 8920 />) “Great Answer” ( 3 />) Flag as… />¶

Pesticides had yet to be invented.

ratboy ( 15162 />) “Great Answer” ( 0 />) Flag as… />¶

A couple of things, people.

• Monotheism was not first started by the Hebrews (let alone the Christians). Before several hundred years before the first archaeological record of the Hebrews, the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten started a monotheistic cult based around the Sun God Aten. He basically “retconned” the entire Egyptian religion and replaced it with his new cult, starting a period in Egypt known as the Amarna Period.

• The cult of Aten, like the early Hebrew religion, was not strictly monotheistic in the sense that Aten (or Yahweh) was the only supernatural being that existed. The Hebrews acknowledged the existences of other Gods. The commandment “You shall have no other gods before me” shows this, as does the references to “heavenly beings” and other beings in heaven that Yahweh directly speaks to/of. The fancy religious studies word for this is “henotheism” where there’s a “high god” that ranks above the other gods. But henotheism is not really a relic of ancient Judaism in modern Christianity and Islam too, with their angels and djinn and other supernatural beings are similar to “lower gods” in early henotheistic religions, completely subservient to the high god.

• The first instance of philosophical monotheism was probably Aristotle’s idea of the “unmoved mover.” Philosophical monotheism was later appropriated by Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to describe attributes of their high god Yahweh/Allah. But really, philosophical monotheism has nothing to do with this particular deity (Aristotle was certainly aware of him) and could really be said to just describe the nature of a certain abstract paradox in logic and philosophy (i.e. since everything that moves has a “mover,” is there a first mover? Or is there an infinite chain of movers that goes on forever?) Later followers of religion agreed with Aristotle that there must be some kind of “first mover” and simply slapped on the name of their preferred cult’s high god.

Qingu ( 21175 />) “Great Answer” ( 2 />) Flag as… />¶

As to why monotheism spread, it’s basically an accident of history. Followers of the henotheistic Hebrew high god Yahweh, whose subsequent cults (Christianity and Islam) spread far and wide, for no rational reason whatsoever slapped on his name to Aristotle’s “unmoved mover.”

As Christianity, Islam, and Aristotle’s philosophy all became politically entrenched in the areas conquered by their followers, so did their ideas about monotheism.

Qingu ( 21175 />) “Great Answer” ( 1 />) Flag as… />¶

@LostInParadise and others, you are giving “the Jews” far more credit than they deserve for inventing and spreading monotheism. Their religion wasn’t even strictly monotheistic it was henotheistic, just like the dominant Babylonian religion at the time of the ancient Hebrews (Marduk, the head Babylonian god, was the “high god” of a pantheon of heavenly beings just like Yahweh was).

The ancient Hebrews did not believe Yahweh was an “unmoved mover.” Like every other ancient people at the time, they saw the act of creation as a kind of intelligent sculpting of raw material that already existed (in Babylonian religion, the body of the defeated Ocean goddess in the Hebrew religion, the “formless waters” that Yahweh divides and separates).

Yahweh didn’t become the “only god” in a philosophical sense of the “unmoved mover” until the Jews met the Greek philosophers. And the Christians deserve as much credit for this syncretism as the Jews. The Jews also didn’t do much to spread their religion. That’s more of a Christian and Muslim thing.

Qingu ( 21175 />) “Great Answer” ( 1 />) Flag as… />¶

@AstroChuck Actually Atenism is usually attributed as the first monotheistic religion starting in the 14th century BC.

Shuttle128 ( 2986 />) “Great Answer” ( 0 />) Flag as… />¶

@Qingu The Old Testament is all about the relation of the Jews to the one god. If they believed in other gods, they do not have much significance. For all practical purposes the religion depicted in the Old Testament is an example of monotheism.

LostInParadise ( 28690 />) “Great Answer” ( 0 />) Flag as… />¶

@LostInParadise, the line between henotheism and monotheism is not very distinct. In Hinduism (for most of its history), Hindus worshipped either Shiva or Vishnu as a “supreme god” and believed all other gods existed as manifestations of Shiva or Vishnu. The religion typically involved “bahkti” (devotion) to Shiva or Vishnu, or for the Vishnu-worshippers, Vishnu’s avatars Krishna and Rama. Does it count as monotheism if you believe in multiple gods but think they’re all parts or enumerations of a singular high god that you focus all your worship towards?

And most religions, even “monotheistic” ones, are borderline cases like this. I can’t really think of any popular religion where there is only one supernatural being. Usually, in “monotheistic” religions, there are a bunch of supernatural djinn, angels, cherubim, magical saints, and etc, and then there’s an even more powerful supernatural being above the rest, called “God.”

Also, the central idea of the ancient Hebrew religion—the covenant with Yahweh—doesn’t really make sense in a context outside of henotheism/polytheism. The idea of the covenant is that, instead of having to worship a rain god for rain, fertility god for farming, a war god for war, this one god Yahweh will take care of all of that in exchange for exclusivity. It’s sort of like pagan debt consolidation.

Qingu ( 21175 />) “Great Answer” ( 2 />) Flag as… />¶

But what you call “pagan debt consolidation” is the whole point. If there is one central agent in charge of everything, does that not suggest, or at least make easier to accept, that there are a set of consistent natural laws governing the universe?

LostInParadise ( 28690 />) “Great Answer” ( 0 />) Flag as… />¶

@Qingu- And let’s not for get about the Christian faith with their Holy Trinity.

AstroChuck ( 37461 />) “Great Answer” ( 0 />) Flag as… />¶

For theists another factor is logic when it comes to the issue of creation. If there is more than one god, what about a god capable of creating another god? Possible or not? I think this is how this kind of thinking got started in Zoroastrianism, Judaism or even by Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten etc.

mattbrowne ( 31648 />) “Great Answer” ( 0 />) Flag as… />¶

@LostInParadise, I suppose you could argue that. Though I think that has much more to do with the philosophical side of monotheism, i.e. Aristotle’s “unmoved mover.”

The laws of the universe promoted in the Hebrew Bible are extremely arbitrary, even with a single top dog deity in control. In Job, the power and dominance of this deity is used to criticize any questioning of those laws or attempts to make sense out of them because we are just puny humans compared to Yahweh.

Qingu ( 21175 />) “Great Answer” ( 1 />) Flag as… />¶ CyanoticWasp ( 20072 />) “Great Answer” ( 1 />) Flag as… />¶

The Persians were practicing a monotheistic faith (Parsee or Zoroastrianism) at least 500 BCE, around the same time as the Hebrew faith was being codified. The two major monotheistic religions that actively sought to spread their faith were Christianity, then Islam. Many Muslims do not consider Christianity monotheistic, however, because of the doctrine of the Trinity.

stranger_in_a_strange_land ( 18335 />) “Great Answer” ( 1 />) Flag as… />¶

I disagree with the statement “The idea of a universe governed by scientific law is much more compatible with the idea of a single god than with a group of them”. If you wanted a scientific religion, you could look at the god of thermodynamics, or the god of atomic fact. Even the god of water because water does not act like a normal material as it freezes or boils. Regardless, I think that monotheism came into fashion because the rulers realized that it was easier the control their subjects if they only had one god that did everything.

Don’t forget, the major path to conversion was to convert the king or leader. That is the way the Christians and Muslims worked their massive conversion scams. Conquer the country and convert the rulers. The people were whatever religion their rulers decide.

The fact that the renaissance occurred with monotheism is more a result of consolidating the populace, reducing wars that wasted the best minds, and having more leisure time for the growing middle class encouraged an increase in knowledge.

I think that the best minds were religious because the church controlled a disproportionate amount of grant money.

Ron_C ( 14465 />) “Great Answer” ( 0 />) Flag as… />¶

@Ron_C I am not endorsing any religion but only giving a historical overview.

stranger_in_a_strange_land ( 18335 />) “Great Answer” ( 0 />) Flag as… />¶

@stranger_in_a_strange_land I’m not suggesting that you are endorsing it but I don’t see how having a single god over many advances science. It is much harder to rationalize a single god, involved in everything rather than multiple gods that split the labor of running the universe. Naming one god instead of many, as Richard Dawkins would say, “is approaching the correct number”.

Ron_C ( 14465 />) “Great Answer” ( 0 />) Flag as… />¶

@Ron_C Also the “one god” paradigm lead to fanatical absolutism where in a polytheistic culture one must at least be respecfully polite to other god-cults. E.g. Following the cult of Serapis does not enable you to mock the cult of Aphrodite.

stranger_in_a_strange_land ( 18335 />) “Great Answer” ( 0 />) Flag as… />¶

The way that having a single god is conducive to scientific advancement is that it suggests a single set of laws that govern the universe rather than multiple stories. With polytheism there may be one story for why the sun appears to circle the earth and another story for why there are different seasons. Having a single god at least suggests that there may be one set of laws that help to explain both phenomena.

LostInParadise ( 28690 />) “Great Answer” ( 0 />) Flag as… />¶

@LostInParadise sounds good but in reality, monotheism didn’t do much to promote the single set of law theories. In fact, it allows the clergy the right to suppress any theory that has not already been accepted. Polytheism, at least, as @stranger_in_a_strange_land says, cause other theologies to “be respectfully polite to other god-cults. E.g. Following the cult of Serapis does not enable you to mock the cult of Aphrodite.”

When you have the One True God, you give yourself license to commit innumerable atrocities in HIS name.

My opinion is, still, that monotheism has done more to retard progress than advance science. Look at the last eight years. Politicians used religion to divide the country and foster the current state of revolt in the U.S. They are even claiming that this is a “Christian” country which puts us on the same level as Iran which actually allows clerics to have the final say on law. Only oppression and suffering can come from such a policy.

Ron_C ( 14465 />) “Great Answer” ( 2 />) Flag as… />¶

@Ron_C Bravo! +GA Better atriculated than my answer.

stranger_in_a_strange_land ( 18335 />) “Great Answer” ( 1 />) Flag as… />¶

@stranger_in_a_strange_land thank you very much. I really appreciate your comments.

Ron_C ( 14465 />) “Great Answer” ( 0 />) Flag as… />¶

@LostInParadise A dominant monotheistic religion actually retards rather than advances scientific inquiry. Remember the case of Galileo. Also remember legislators trying to surpress the teaching of evolutionary biology.

stranger_in_a_strange_land ( 18335 />) “Great Answer” ( 1 />) Flag as… />¶

You have to separate the religious authorities from the relgion. Galileo’s problem was with the Church, not Christianity, which he embraced. I am suggesting that there is an irony in that the Church tried to suppress the inquiry encouraged by the religion.

LostInParadise ( 28690 />) “Great Answer” ( 0 />) Flag as… />¶

@LostInParadise In a dominant religion, the religion is whatever its leaders say it is. Those who disagree are outcasts and “enemies of the people”.

stranger_in_a_strange_land ( 18335 />) “Great Answer” ( 0 />) Flag as… />¶

No matter how you look at it @LostInParadise the religious authorities are the religion. Very few religion gain large followings without strong leadership. Look at the relative size of the Quakers verses the size of the Baptists. The main difference is that Quakers consider their services meeting between friends.and the Baptists have strong pastors. You could close down the Quakers by closing down their meeting house. Baptists have all the guns, I wouldn’t mess with them.

Ron_C ( 14465 />) “Great Answer” ( 0 />) Flag as… />¶

@Mamradpivo I second @Haleth s assessment of “Guns, Germs and Steel”.

stranger_in_a_strange_land ( 18335 />) “Great Answer” ( 0 />) Flag as… />¶

In the case of Galileo, the Church had exceeded its authority. There was nothing that Galileo said that in any way conflicted with the Bible, and Galileo well knew this. He said that the purpose of the Church was to tell “how to get to Heaven, not how the heavens go.” When Newton provided theoretical confirmation of what Galileo said, the Church eventually accepted it. For one thing, it provided a more accurate way of determining when Easter would occur.

LostInParadise ( 28690 />) “Great Answer” ( 0 />) Flag as… />¶

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But mysteries remain: where did the YHWH cult originate? Who were the first people to worship him? And how did he end up being the sole deity of a group called Israel, who, as their very name says (in Hebrew), didn’t even start out as a Yahwistic people, but as followers of El, the main god of the Canaanite pantheon?

Fire and brimstone

Most scholars already believe that the cult of Yahweh first emerged somewhere in the southern Levant, partly based on Egyptian texts from the late second millennium B.C.E. These documents describe groups of Canaanite nomads collectively known as Shasu, including one tribe named Shasu Yhw(h) – perhaps the first recorded Yahweh worshippers in history.

The Bible itself may contain a memory of this southern origin of Yahweh, as it tells us explicitly that God “came from Teman” (Habbakuk 3:3) or that he “went out of Seir” and “marched out of Edom” (Judges 5:4-5) – all toponyms associated with the area ranging from Sinai to the Negev and northern Arabia.

Was Hathor's temple converted to a temple for Yahweh the metal god? At the Timna copper mine Ariel David

“Everybody recognizes these southern origins of Yahweh, but most scholars stop there,” Amzallag says. “This forms the basis of my theory as well, but I take it a step forward.”

Reading between the lines, the Bible contains clues pointing to an original identity for Yahweh as a metallurgical deity, he says.

In the Bible, Yahweh’s appearance is usually accompanied by volcanic-like phenomena. When he descends upon Mt. Sinai to reveal the Torah to the Jews, the mountain erupts in fire, spewing lava and billowing clouds accompanied by earthquakes and thunderstorms (Exodus 19:16-19).

In antiquity, metallurgical deities like the Greek Hephaestus or his eponymous Roman equivalent, Vulcan, were associated with volcanic descriptions - which closely mirror the smoke, fire, black slag and molten red metal produced in the smelting process, Amzallag says.

Poetic metaphors throughout the Bible describe Yahweh as a fiery deity who makes the mountains smoke (Psalms 144:5) and melts them down (Isaiah 63:19b), just like smelters melt down ore to obtain copper and other metals, the researcher notes. In fact, in Psalm 18:18 Yahweh is depicted as anthropomorphized furnace: “smoke rose from his nostrils consuming fire came from his mouth, burning coals blazed out of it.

To ancient people, the process of melting down rocks to extract metal would have “appeared completely preternatural and required a divine explanation,” Amzallag told Haaretz.

Yahweh’s metallurgical attributes were also on display in the pillar of fire and smoke by which he guides the Hebrews in the desert (Exodus 13:21) and the cloud that accompanies his visits to the Tent of Meeting (Exodus 33:9-10), a simpler version of the Tabernacle in which Moses speaks face to face with God.

The description of this tent bears remarkable similarities to the sanctuary in Timna, further suggesting that 3,000 years ago, this place may have been dedicated to the worship of Yahweh, Amzallag maintains.

Yahweh, god of the Edomites?

But wait a minute - the Bible and most archaeologists agree that after the collapse of the Egyptian empire in the 12th century B.C.E., Timna was taken over by the Edomites, not the Israelites. https://www.haaretz.com/archaeology/.premium-davidian-era-textiles-found-at-timna-1.5408868

While the Bible goes to great lengths to describe Israel’s neighbors – such as the Edomites, the Midianites and the Moabites – as dastardly pagans, the text also betrays that Yahweh was worshipped by these nations too, possibly even before the Israelites did so, Amzallag notes. Genesis 36, for example, makes it clear that the Edomites are descendants of Esau, Jacob’s brother, and lists Edomite monarchs who ruled “before any Israelite king reigned” (Genesis 36:31).

The Ammonites and Moabites are listed as descendants of Lot (Genesis 19:37-38), the nephew of Abraham and pious Yahweh-believer who escaped the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

In other words, the genealogies of the Bible contain the memory of an ancient confederation of Canaanite peoples, who may have considered themselves all descendants of Abraham and who all worshipped Yahweh alongside other gods, Amzallag posits.

We should trust the Bible on this, he says, because its editors wouldn't have wanted to admit that the cult of Yahweh was not exclusive to Israel. "So, if they reference it, it must be true,” Amzallag concludes.

Further biblical evidence of this broadened base of worshippers can be found in the Book of Exodus, where a key role is played by Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, who lives near the mountain of God (alternatively called Horeb and Sinai).

It is Jethro who indirectly leads Moses to his first meeting with Yahweh at the burning bush. And it is he who inaugurates the Tent of Meeting with a sacrifice and proclaims that “Yahweh is greater than all other gods” for having freed the Hebrew slaves from Egypt (Exodus 18:7-12).

But Moses’ father-in-law is not an Israelite: he is described alternatively as a Midianite priest (Exodus 3:1) and a Kenite (Judges 1:16).

Now, according to Bible, the Midianites were descendants of Midian, another son of Abraham, which again supports the idea of the existence of an extended family of Yahwistic peoples. The Kenites, on the other hand, are a tribe descended from Cain and described as living among all the peoples of the Levant and specializing in crafts and metalworking, which, according to Amzallag, is further evidence that Yahweh’s first incarnation was as a smelting god.

Note that the so-called Midianite-Kenite hypothesis goes back to the 19th century, when biblical scholars saw Jethro’s story as evidence that these groups introduced the Israelites to the worship of Yahweh. Amzallag seems to be the first to stress the metallurgical side of this hypothesis and link Yahweh specifically to the rites and cults of ancient miners and smelters.

An 1890 illustration of the Tabernacle, with the presence of Yahweh signalled by a cloud of dark smoke. Holman Bible

Copper mining at Timna and at other remote sites like Faynan, today in southern Jordan, was central to the region’s economy, employing not just miners and smelters, but blacksmiths, traders and other workers in every town and village of Canaan. These people, identifiable as the biblical Kenites, would have been held in high regard and seen as being close to the divine because they possessed knowledge about the secret and mysterious process of copper smelting, Amzallag says.

Or maybe the god of storms

“There is no doubt that at least for the Edomites, and possibly for their neighbors, religion had to go hand in hand with what was their most important activity,” says Erez Ben-Yosef, an archaeologist from Tel Aviv University who leads a team excavating at Timna. “They depended on the success of these operations and they definitely would have felt they needed the help of a god in the complex smelting process and in organizing these mining expeditions to distant, arid areas.”

We have no direct proof that the metallurgical god, worshipped at the Edomite sanctuary in Timna from the 12th to the 10th century B.C.E., was Yahweh: there is no inscription invoking his name. But the kinship described in the Bible between the Israelites and the Edomites, and the metallurgical attributes of Yahweh in the holy text, are “compelling arguments” supporting Amzallag’s theory that this god was worshipped by multiple peoples as a deity connected to metallurgy, Ben-Yosef concludes.

“The theory is interesting but I don’t think there is enough evidence to say that the first worshippers of Yahweh were metallurgists,” says Thomas Romer, a world-renowned expert in the Hebrew Bible and a professor at the College de France and the University of Lausanne. There is strong evidence connecting the Israelites and the Edomites, and maybe the latter worshipped Yahweh as well, says Romer, author of “The Invention of God,” a book about the history of Yahweh and the biblical text.

However, Romer disagrees with Amzallag’s interpretation of the supposed volcanic phenomena described in the Bible. He thinks they are more indicative of a god of storms and fertility, similar to the Canaanite god Baal.

“It is quite common for storm gods in antiquity to make the mountains tremble, but is this really an allusion to volcanism or is it just showing the power of the god?” Romer says.

Iron trumps bronze

If, and that’s a big if, Amzallag’s theory is correct, a niggling question remains: how did this smelting god, worshipped by the semi-nomadic peoples all over the southern Levant become the solitary national deity of just one of these nations, the Israelites?

That may have had to do with the rise of the Iron Age, Amzallag says. Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, two relatively rare elements. Iron is much easier to find and just needs to be combined with another common element, carbon, to produce one of the strongest metals known to man: steel.

By the 9th century B.C.E., copper production at Timna and the rest of the Levant had all but shut down and the process of smelting had lost much of its mystique. In the Iron Age, Mediterranean metal workers lost their elite status and were simply seen as skilled craftsmen rather than quasi-priests or magicians.

In parallel, their gods either lost their importance in the local pantheon and were forgotten, or were transformed, acquiring different attributes and characteristics, Amzallag says. Meanwhile, the loose coalition of Canaanite nomadic tribes who once saw themselves as descendants of the same patriarch, had morphed into a patchwork of small, centralized kingdoms, each vying for the status of regional power. Conflict became inevitable, and indeed the Bible is filled with stories of wars between the Israelites and their neighbors, who are invariably depicted as evil.

As each nation attempted to gain political and military supremacy over the other, the Israelites may have also tried to establish their spiritual superiority, depicting themselves as favored children of a powerful god, or, to use a biblical turn of phrase - a Chosen People.

“To gain primacy and become the chosen people of God, they had to remove the metallurgical origins of Yahwism and disconnect him from the other nations,” says Amzallag. But while weeding out explicit mentions of Yahweh’s roots, the editors of the Bible could not completely ignore the traditions and stories that were already an integral part of the identity of this cult, he suggests.

Yahweh’s fiery attributes or the stories of a shared Abrahamic origin for the peoples of the Levant are echoes of more ancient beliefs, he says, clues that remind us that “once there was no exclusive connection between God and Israel. Initially, God belonged to all.”


Private Religion and Monotheism in Ancient Egypt

Bes, one of the domestic deities of the private ancient Egyptian religion, was primarily worshipped by the ordinary Egyptians. (Image: Eleni Mac/Shutterstock)

Private Religion of Ancient Egypt and its Deities

Apart from the official religion and deities, ancient Egyptians also had a private religion and deities. Ancient Egyptians mainly prayed to these domestic deities whenever they needed their assistance. One of the most frequently invoked domestic deities was Bes, a grinning male dwarf with the facial features, feet, and a tail of a lion, and a bloated stomach.

Bes guarded people’s homes, in part by warding off snakes—always a danger in Egypt. Women also invoked Bes when they were giving birth. We find his image depicted on headrests, beds, mirror-handles, and other domestic objects, and on amulets that have been carved from hippopotamus ivory.

Taweret, the private ancient Egyptian deity of ordinary people, protected the women in labor. (Image: Walters Art Museum/Public domain)

Another domestic deity was Taweret. Taweret was depicted as a pregnant hippopotamus, standing upright on the lion’s feet and carrying a crocodile on her back. She also protected women in labor.

One might also occasionally pray to one of the major gods. We have a prayer that was written by a workman called Neferabu, who lived in Deir el-Medina, in which he confesses that he has sworn falsely by the god Ptah who has now blinded him as a punishment, and he humbly asks for Ptah’s mercy and forgiveness.

This is a transcript from the video series The Other Side of History: Daily Life in the Ancient World. Watch it now, Wondrium.

Monotheism or Henotheism in Ancient Egypt

Religion was a stabilizing force in Egyptian society. Only once was there any attempt to shift its course dramatically. The attempt was made by the pharaoh Amenhotep IV, who reigned from 1350 to 1334 B.C. Amenhotep took the bold and revolutionary step of seeking to replace polytheism with monotheism—or at least something close to monotheism.

Akhenaten abolished the worship of all the private and official Egyptian gods except for Aten. (Image: Choipan/Shutterstock)

He abolished the worship of the traditional gods and promulgated the sun disk, the Aten, and changed his name to Akhenaten, which means ‘Beneficial to the Aten’. He sent his agents up and down the land, armed with their chisels to expunge the names of all the traditional gods from the temples and other monuments that bore their names.

The experiment to replace the traditional gods was deeply resented by the priesthood, who saw their livelihoods put at risk. Imagine, being an ordinary Egyptian. Everything that everyone had believed in for 1,500 years was denounced. Certainly, everyone was deeply concerned.

Unfortunately, we know very little about what steps Akhenaten took to educate the ordinary Egyptian people into this new belief. Indeed, we don’t know actually whether he took any steps at all. He may simply have handed down a directive forbidding the worship of the traditional gods and closing their temples. Whatever the facts, it’s more appropriate to think of Akhenaten’s bold venture as an experiment in henotheism—the elevation of one deity above all others—rather than as monotheism tout court with a single transcendent godhead.

Our best insight in the challenge that many people face in making the switch from polytheism to monotheism is provided by the Book of Exodus, which describes the first fumbling attempts by the Hebrews to abandon polytheism in favor of monotheism. “Thou shalt worship no other gods before me”, says the First Commandment, implying that there are other gods around whom other peoples worship. Henceforth, however, you’re only permitted to worship the one God, Yahweh.

In the course of their exodus, after their escape from Egypt, we see the Hebrews constantly complaining and even reverting to polytheism by worshiping a golden calf.

Religion in Ancient Egypt: Return to Polytheism

Akhenaten was way ahead of his time, but when he died Egypt returned to its old ways. No doubt the traditional priesthood breathed a collective sigh of relief.

In conclusion, Egyptian religion seems to have placed remarkably few demands upon the common man and woman. The Hebrew God, as we learn from the Jewish Bible, was a jealous God, who struck terror and guilt into the entire race. The Egyptians, by contrast, were spared both terror and guilt.

They didn’t have to worry about placating angry gods—that was handled by experts. This was why they paid the taxes—to leave the difficult and mysterious business of handling the gods to those best qualified. And if things did go wrong, they could always blame the priests or the pharaoh.

If there was a domestic difficulty or anxiety, people could invoke Bes or Taweret since one didn’t need any expertise for that.

For the state gods, however, all one had to do was to turn up to the festivals, and that meant having a good time: drinking, dancing, and merrymaking. One didn’t need to seek spiritual guidance or to conduct oneself in accordance with a moral code that was sanctioned by religion.

So people just got on with their daily life secure in the knowledge that the Nile will flood, the crops will sprout up, your wife will give birth to a healthy child, Egypt will stand firm against its enemies, and all will continue as before in its time-hallowed way.

Common Questions about Private Religion and Monotheism in Ancient Egypt

Kemetic orthodoxy is a modern reconstruction of the ancient religious traditions of Ancient Egypt . It is a special type of polytheism, which follows monolatry ways of worship.

Egyptian gods mostly represented some natural phenomena, ranging from physical objects like the earth or the sun to abstract forces like knowledge and creativity.

Ancient Egyptian polytheistic religion lasted for 3000 years and on its way, it influenced many past and future religions.

Religion played a very important role in ancient Egyptians as it helped explain their surroundings, such as the annual Nile flooding. daily sun setting and rising.


30 thoughts on &ldquo The Most Heiser: Yahweh and Elyon in Psalm 82 and Deuteronomy 32 &rdquo

So is this about two different takes on the material or is this once again coming from the need to demonstrate that the O.T. was inerrant? Is he really opposing the evolution idea on the basis of this text or because a polytheistic Israel is unacceptable? I’m no scholar but from a simple reading it seems Heiser has to work much harder, and ask us to do the same, in order to arrive at his conclusion. Which leads me to wonder why it’s so important?

Thanks Thom! I feel like I’m getting a better grasp of the arguments after reading this. It was very helpful. I’m glad I stumbled upon you as you’re a great resource (and you’re very thorough).

Brian, I won’t speculate as to Heiser’s motives, but I will point you to the institutional logo at the top of his essay, linked at the beginning of this post.

For further parallels between OT representations of “God” and those of high moral henotheistic gods of the ANE see my chapter, “The Cosmology of the Bible,” in this book: http://www.amazon.com/Christian-Delusion-Why-Faith-Fails/dp/1616141689/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1310843216&sr=8-1 Use Amazon’s “LOOK INSIDE” feature to read pages 116-118 where a lot of the parallels are concentrated. But there’s other parallels pointed out throughout the rest of the chapter whose pages might unfortunately be restricted viewing. Still, anyone with a free amazon.com account should be able to view those pages.

Enjoyed your post, stimulating. I’ve enjoyed Heiser’s work and friendship for a few years now and like where he’s going with much of it. The question as to whether “sui generis” is the right terminology to use may be still remain, but Heiser’s point I think is correct. He is well aware of the other texts you sighted demonstrating the incomparability. The statement that each of these texts use of incomparability language, including the biblical ones, is merely hyperbolic may be an oversimplification and possibly a unfaithful to the ancient authors’ intent in stating it the way they did. It seems as though each of these cultures genuinely believe their tribal deity is legitimately “elyon”. So for Heiser to say that ancient Israelites had, as he puts it, “the idea that Yahweh was “species unique” in the Israelite mind” would seem like an adequate articulation to me. Simply citing other primary sources with similar language isn’t enough to deem it “fallacious”.

Thanks for your comments. I do continue to find Heiser’s reasoning fallacious, and I think you’re missing an element of the argument I made. I did not merely cite the sources and assert they were merely hyperbolic. As I discussed toward the end, the incomparability language is applied to gods who are clearly still subordinate to other deities, higher gods, or their progenitors.

For instance, I mentioned that Shamash, while said to be without rival among the gods, is clearly subordinate to Sin, not to mention his mother Nannar. The same is true of Nanshe. Here is the text I cited in broader context:

My lady, your divine powers are mighty powers, surpassing all other divine powers Nanshe, there are no divine powers matching your powers. An, the king, looks joyfully at you, as you sit with Enlil on the throne-dais where the fates are to be determined. Father Enki determined a fate for you. Nanshe, child born in Eridug, sweet is your praise.

Clearly Nanshe is not superior to Enlil, the king. Neither is she superior to Enki, her father, who “determined a fate” for Nanshe. In other words, Enki is the one who exalted her. She, along with Enlil, determines the fate of humankind, but her own fate is determined by a higher god, her father Enki. She reigns at the top of the second tier, but the higher gods remain in position above her.

Another example is Ishtar. The same hyperbolic language is used for her, but she is clearly subordinate to gods higher than she. Note:

I pray to thee, O Lady of ladies, goddess of goddesses.
O Ishtar, queen of all peoples, who guides mankind aright,
O Irnini ever exalted, greatest of the Igigi,
O most mighty of princesses, exalted is thy name.
Thou art indeed the light of heaven and earth,
O valiant daughter of Sin.
O supporter of arms, who determines battles,
O possessor of all divine power, who wears the crown of dominion,
O Lady, glorious is thy greatness over all the gods it is exalted.
Anu, Enlil and Ea have made thee high among the gods they have caused thy dominion to be great.
They have made thee high among all the Igigi they have made thy position pre-eminent.

Once again, Ishtar is described as the greatest of all the gods, but this clearly does not include the higher gods Anu, Enlil, and Ea, who are the ones responsible for her exaltation. They established her preeminence. Clearly that her greatness is exalted “over all the gods” does not and cannot mean that it is exalted over the higher tier of deities, which would include also her father Sin.

As I stated in my post above, the language of incomparability applies to gods within one’s own tier, not to the higher gods. Thus, if Deut 32:8-9 does speak of Yahweh receiving his position from his father Elyon, then clearly 32:39 and other such statements would not be in conflict with Yahweh’s status as a subordinate to Elyon. Thus, the appeal to the incomparability language as an argument against the distinction between the two deities does not work.

But what is very obvious is that in nowise does any of this language constitute anything remotely like “species uniqueness.” Nowhere does the incomparability language imply that Ishtar, Nanshe, Shamash, etc., are somehow deities of a different kind altogether from the other gods. Each of these is in fact a child of higher gods. To posit “species uniqueness” here would be absurd, and this is the same language used of Yahweh, thus it is fallacious to attribute “species uniqueness” to him based on the same language.

I apologize for the seemingly extensive counter-critique but I can’t help but notice some flaws in your strong critique of Heiser. The so-called “clear parallel to the Ugaritic Baal Cycle” you find in Ps 82 is unfortunately conjectural at best. There is a possibility that this assumption is formulated based off a common religionsgeschichte move where much of the passage’s uniqueness is lost an attempt to drown it out with the overly simplistic appeal to commonality. This may not be intentional, but it does leave out a further step in the historical-critical process austerely leaving the comparison at the level of shared cosmological dethroning narratives on the positive side, while ignoring the more subtle nuances that may end up being deemed as distinctives. This can only be done once the general and more broad conceptual have been acknowledged and a more thorough reading of the respective texts in their similar contexts has been done revealing possible exclusivities that would formally go unnoticed.

This does not constitute a valid criticism of my use of the Baal Cycle. Obviously there are very important differences, but my point was not at all to cite it as a variation of the same episode. The point was simply that Heiser’s contention that El’s silence in Psalm 82 should serve as an indicator that Yahweh is El is not a valid argument. He claimed that because Yahweh pronounces sentence upon the other gods, Yahweh must be presiding. But there is no indication in the text that Yahweh’s judgment should be understood as a formal sentence. My primary point in appealing to the Baal Cycle is that there, Baal rebukes the gods and ignores the decree of El. He then kills the guilty gods and restores justice. This leads to his enthronement. Thus, there is no reason why the rebuke and judgment against the gods put on Yahweh’s lips must be the judgment of the presider. I did not claim that the two were variants of the same episode, but that Heiser’s requirement that a judgment against the gods could come only from the high god is clearly not a requirement that the Baal Cycle recognizes. Thus, his objection was strained.

Obviously there are very clear differences between the two myths, but the similarities are also very clear. I did not need to offer an extended and exhaustive presentation of all of the similarities and differences between the two myths in order to establish my primary point that Heiser’s objection was contrived.

For the record, I have found Heiser’s work to be very helpful as well. But this particular article of his, I’ve argued, obfuscates more than it clarifies. Moreover, I did not appreciate the main contention of the article, which was to establish that the consensus interprets the data to fit a presupposition. I have shown that not only is this not the case, distorting the data to fit a presupposition is something that Heiser himself has done in several places in this selfsame article. If my critique was strong in tone at all, it is because of my lack of appreciation for the tone of Heiser’s article.

Your responses are welcomed and well received. I am still leery of the hermeneutics behind much use of these ANE primary texts in relation to these particular biblical texts. The possibility of hidden presuppositions behind a particular way of casting these texts always lurks in the background of these conversations in scholarship it seems. Mostly between what some might characterize as “liberals” and “conservatives” there remains consciously or unconsciously for some a leaning toward the commonalizing (coining a term here) of these texts (on the far left side of the spectrum), while for others a leaning toward determining the uniqueness of these texts (on the far right side of the spectrum). It seems as though where someone falls on this spectrum will determine their conclusions about much of this literature. Interacting with this article is an exercise in seeing where I fall in relationship to these kind of questions. I have a hard time with this issue so thanks for your persistent dialogue.

Thanks, David. I appreciate the dialogue. I agree that presuppositions often play a role in interpretation. But I disagree that the potential for this is equal on both sides of the ideological divide. I don’t think that the so-called liberal have any reason to be committed to reducing everything to commonalities. Critical scholars tend to identify the differences as much as they do the commonalities. It’s those who are committed to portraying Israel’s theology as unique that have the vested interest necessary to distort interpretation, such as we see with Bauckham very clearly. I’m not denying that critical scholars have sometimes allowed presuppositions to obstruct interpretation, but I’ve argued that this isn’t the case in this instance. Regardless, it’s bad critical scholarship when this occurs. But for those committed to inerrancy, playing down the similarities is part and parcel of the method.

I don’t really like the idea of using words like “liberal” or “conserative” to describe how a scholar handles an ancient text. Such terms, to me, seem a bit meaningless and inaccurate, since they seem to imply that liberal scholars aren’t devout or that they lack personal interest in what they are interpreting, same goes for conseratives. A better term would be “critical”, as it implies nothing about the scholar in question and it’s more accurate in my opinion.
Though it would seem that it’s not so much that we are reducing Israelite religion to commonalities or focusing to much on the differences between it and other near eastern religions but rather we have limited access to the past, if that makes any sense. We should remember that our reconstruction is only a shadowy outline and we can never know just how similar or different the various ANE religions were. Though, I wish to clarify that just because we don’t know the full picture, that our reconstructions are accurate. But rather that they are incomplete.

@Thom: I wouldn’t necessarily say that the so-called liberal never has any reason to be committed to reducing everything to commonalities. I have witness just the opposite at times. There are many scholars (or pseudo-scholars) who have come out of a fundamentalist kind of background or have consistently found attacks coming from that side (such as card carrying inerrantists) and have moved to a conscious position of reaction against them and their scholarship is predominantly fueled by reactionary hermeneutics striving on the quest for commonalities in order to discredit any form of faith in those texts. I see much of the work of Bart Erhman in this light. To me, they are no more helpful then these card carrying fundies who will never listen to critical comparative scholarship to begin with. So in turn to say “those who are committed to portraying Israel’s theology as unique… have the vested interest necessary to distort interpretation” may be an unfair critique and and polarizing one side of that spectrum unnecessarily. I believe what I am looking for is less grenade throwing from the fringes of the interpretive spectrum and more actual rational and balanced conversation in the middle. I was giving you the benefit of the doubt that you were not simply the reactionary type. I truly enjoyed this post and look forward to further dialogue in the future.

@Brian: The use of the terms “liberal” and “conservative” were used simply to illustrate the characterizations that typically take place for those on both ends of the interpretive spectrum, I wasn’t trying to insinuate anything by it. I’m not sure I would go as far to say that they are meaningless, simply due to the fact that both ends of the interpretive spectrum both say they are using “critical” methodology.

Once again, I’m not denying that critical scholars can have distorting biases. My point is simply that where such biases exist, they tend to be personal, as you noted. On the inerrantist side, however, the biases are intrinsic. The more honest inerrantists will admit this and defend the bias.

Anyway, I don’t want to get into a discussion about biases. What matters are the arguments.


Yahweh

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Yahweh, the god of the Israelites, whose name was revealed to Moses as four Hebrew consonants (YHWH) called the tetragrammaton.

After the Babylonian Exile (6th century bce ), and especially from the 3rd century bce on, Jews ceased to use the name Yahweh for two reasons. As Judaism became a universal rather than merely a local religion, the more common Hebrew noun Elohim (plural in form but understood in the singular), meaning “God,” tended to replace Yahweh to demonstrate the universal sovereignty of Israel’s God over all others. At the same time, the divine name was increasingly regarded as too sacred to be uttered it was thus replaced vocally in the synagogue ritual by the Hebrew word Adonai (“My Lord”), which was translated as Kyrios (“Lord”) in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Scriptures.

The Masoretes, who from about the 6th to the 10th century ce worked to reproduce the original text of the Hebrew Bible, replaced the vowels of the name YHWH with the vowel signs of the Hebrew words Adonai or Elohim. Latin-speaking Christian scholars replaced the Y (which does not exist in Latin) with an I or a J (the latter of which exists in Latin as a variant form of I). Thus, the tetragrammaton became the artificial Latinized name Jehovah (JeHoWaH). As the use of the name spread throughout medieval Europe, the initial letter J was pronounced according to the local vernacular language rather than Latin.

Although Christian scholars after the Renaissance and Reformation periods used the term Jehovah for YHWH, in the 19th and 20th centuries biblical scholars again began to use the form Yahweh. Early Christian writers, such as St. Clement of Alexandria in the 2nd century, had used a form like Yahweh, and this pronunciation of the tetragrammaton was never really lost. Many Greek transcriptions also indicated that YHWH should be pronounced Yahweh.

The meaning of the personal name of the Israelite God has been variously interpreted. Many scholars believe that the most proper meaning may be “He Brings into Existence Whatever Exists” (Yahweh-Asher-Yahweh). In I Samuel, God is known by the name Yahweh Teva-ʿot, or “He Brings the Hosts into Existence,” in which “Hosts” possibly refers to the heavenly court or to Israel.

The personal name of God was probably known long before the time of Moses. Moses’ mother was called Jochebed (Yokheved), a name based on the name Yahweh. Thus, the tribe of Levi, to which Moses belonged, probably knew the name Yahweh, which originally may have been (in its short form Yo, Yah, or Yahu) a religious invocation of no precise meaning evoked by the mysterious and awesome splendour of the manifestation of the holy.

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Brian Duignan, Senior Editor.


7. God Is Wise – He Is Full of Perfect, Unchanging Wisdom

“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” – Romans 11:33

Wisdom is more than just head knowledge and intelligence. A truly wise person is someone who understands all the facts and makes the best decisions. A wise person uses his heart, soul and mind together with skill and competence. But even the wisest man on earth would never come close to being as wise as God.

God is infinitely wise, consistently wise, perfectly wise. Tozer writes, “Wisdom, among other things, is the ability to devise perfect ends and to achieve those ends by the most perfect means. It sees the end from the beginning, so there can be no need to guess or conjecture. Wisdom sees everything in focus, each in proper relation to all, and is thus able to work toward predestined goals with flawless precision.”

Indeed, when we see wisdom like this, we realize just how much our limited, finite wisdom compares with the limitless, infinite wisdom of God. And how comforting and wonderful this is for man to dwell on! The fact that God can never be more wise means he is always doing the wisest thing in our lives. No plan we could make for our lives could be better than the plan he has already crafted and is carrying out for us. We might not understand his ways today, but we can trust that because God is infinitely wise, he truly is working all things out in the best possible way.


5 Answers 5

The New American Bible, in note 4 to 2 Kings chapter 3, does initially attribute this triumph to the god Chemosh. However, the New American Bible then suggests an alternative, monotheistic explanation, which inevitably recognises the polytheistic beliefs of the early Israelites and their belief in the efficacy of child sacrifice:

The wrath against Israel: probably the wrath of Chemosh, the Moabite god to whom the child was offered. He was feared by the Israelites who lost heart on foreign soil.

As some background, there are several different verses in the Old Testament where Israelites and Jews performed child sacrifice, leading some scholars to believe that this was not an uncommon practice in pre-Exilic times, especially in times of national emergency. For example, 2 Kings 16:3 reports that King Ahaz sacrificed a son, but the author is at pains to say that God this was a heathen practice:

2 Kings 16:3: But he walked in the way of the kings of Israel, yea, and made his son to pass through the fire, according to the abominations of the heathen, whom the LORD cast out from before the children of Israel.

This establishes that the Israelites practised child sacrifice when they believed the occasion demanded it, even if the biblical authors denied it as a heathen practice. Mark S. Smith (Skirball Professor of Bible and Ancient Near Eastern Studies, NYU) says in The Early History of God, page 171, denials such as this may suggest that the sacrifice did occur in Yahweh's name.

If the Israelites believed in the efficacy of child sacrifice, they could have seen defeat as inevitable once the opposing king visibly sacrificed his own son. It only remains that they believed in the existence and power of gods other than their own chief God, Yahweh, for them to accept defeat and retreat. And Mark S. Smith says (Ibid, page 64) that on the available evidence, Israelite religion in its earliest form was polytheistic. So, God did not suffer a defeat by another god, but the Israelites feared that other god, not thinking him to be merely imaginary, because they expected the god to reciprocate the sacrifice to him and assist in an Israelite defeat.


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