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God and the Gods: War Between the Gods

December 10, 2012

If you aren’t going to deny the existence of other gods one of the simplest of the ways to handle them is through warfare.  The theme of divine warfare is pretty well developed in the Old Testament (much to the consternation of many) but the war of Yahweh against other gods is not normally the part of this theme which draws our focus.  However, for Ancient Near Easterners this is a fairly ordinary idea.  When nations go to war their gods do to and so the gods are at war.  For instance, in is 1 Kings 20:23 the Arameans explain the defeat of their recent invasion of Israel by saying that the gods of the Israelites are hill-gods and suggest that the next battle be fought in the plains.  If two nations fight and each has a god fighting for them then surely the gods fight against one another.  Moreover, since Near Eastern gods are generally quite human in their behavior there are many myths where gods fight other gods without any human involvement.

I would like to begin by describing three instances of war between Yahweh and other gods.  (There are more than three instances in the Bible but I will only examine three.)  After I have reviewed all three instances I will discuss how one might approach this difficult issue.

The first instance that I wish to examine is Jeremiah 45-51.  This is an extended series of pronouncements of doom upon other nations and their gods.  In 46:25 war is declared upon “Amon of Thebes [the god of Thebes], and upon Pharaoh [who claimed to be a living god], and upon Egypt, and upon her gods”.  In 48:7 the Moabite god Chemosh is depicted being sent into exile and in 49:3 the same happens to Molek of the Ammonites.  In 50:2 “Bel will be put to shame, Marduk filled with terror, her [Babylon’s] images will be put to shame and her idols filled with terror”.  Bel and Marduk are, unsurprisingly, two important gods of Babylon.  50:38 speaks of Babylon’s idols again, declaring that they will go mad with terror and 51:52 speaks of punishing Babylon’s idols.

The second instance of warfare between the gods that I will examine is in 1 Samuel 5.  In the previous chapters a disobedient Israel has brought the Ark of the Covenant into battle presumably to force Yahweh to fight for them because now His Ark is at risk.  (When the Ark arrives the Philistines cry out in dismay that a god has come into the Israelite camp, supporting the idea that Israel is trying to force Yahweh’s hand by putting Him at risk if they should lose.)  However, Yahweh does not fight for Israel and the Ark is captured.  This begins a period in which Yahweh fights against the Philistines by Himself thereby demonstrating that it was not through incompetence but unwillingness that He did not save Israel.

The drama begins in the Temple of Dagon where the Ark is left, presumably as a celebration of Dagon’s defeat of Yahweh.  (Why else would you bring another god into your god’s temple unless to gloat?)  However, in the morning Dagon is prostrate before the Ark of the Covenant.  Dagon’s priests set his image back upright but the next morning Dagon is not merely in a posture of supplication before Yahweh’s Ark, he is shattered with his head and hands broken off.  It seems clear that this is war between Yahweh and Dagon.  At first Dagon is rendered supplicant, prostrate before Yahweh the King.  However, when this does not work Dagon is executed.  This conflict then proceeds to spill over to the Philistine people and eventually the Philistines send the Ark back to Israel to save themselves.

One final, familiar story is enhanced by understanding this war-between-the-gods motif.: the Ten Plagues (Exodus 7-12).  One of the often-overlooked aspects of the Ten Plagues is that the Egyptian magicians attempt to replicate the plagues.  In fact, they begin with replicating the miracle where Aaron’s staff becomes a snake.  In this case they succeed but Aaron’s staff-snake eats the staff-snakes of the magicians signaling that the power he draws on is greater than theirs.  Of course, Egyptian magic was based in part on their religion.  The Egyptian magicians are almost certainly also priests and Pharaoh is regarded as an incarnate god.  This is a war of gods.  The progress of this war is easy to see.  In the first plague, that of blood, the Egyptian magicians replicate the plague and so Pharaoh sees no need to listen to Moses.  Pharaoh probably believes that his power matches or exceeds that of Yahweh.  The plague of frogs is also replicated.  However, when the Egyptian magicians attempt to replicate the plague of gnats they fail and because they fail they say to Pharaoh, “This is the finger of God/a god1.”  Essentially, they are claiming to be outgunned.  They then disappear from the story until three plagues later, in the plague of boils, when they are in such bad condition that they cannot even stand before Moses.  After this they drop out of the story entirely. It’s important to see this as the Egyptians would see it.  Here is a living god, Pharaoh, surrounded by his magic men who wield divine powers on his behalf, beaten down by another god who the Egyptians have never heard of.  Indeed, in the last plague, the plague on the firstborn, this is made explicit.  God says (Exodus 12:12), “I will cross over the land of Egypt in that night and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, man and beast, and I will judge the gods of Egypt.  I am Yahweh.”  The destruction of Egypt is judgment on Egypt’s gods (and vindication of Yahweh), the very last act of which is Pharaoh’s own death at Yahweh’s hand.

So what do we do with all of this?  There are two aspects of these stories that need to be examined.  The first is that war between the gods does not conflict with denial of the gods.  In Jeremiah the Babylonian gods are depicted as being scared in one case literally out of their minds, something that indicates that these gods are sentient beings.  However, in Jeremiah 51:17-19 (smack in the middle of the passages about driving idols mad with terror) there is a section claiming that the idols are nothing but statues and not gods at all.  So which are they?  I would argue that the idols are nothing but statues all along and that the depictions of their defeat as sentient beings is in the service of discussing their defeat.  In essence, the statement is being made that, “Your gods are loser gods,” because of the value of stating that they are losers even though stating that they are gods at all is inaccurate.  This closely parallels the discussion of sea monsters in the Old Testament where it is more important to state that Yahweh can defeat the monsters of myth than it is to set the record straight about their existence.

However, sometimes the other gods show power that seems to demonstrate that they are not mere myth.  The Egyptian magicians really do replicate a few miracles.  In an extremely short story in 2 Kings 3 it seems that a Moabite king successfully draws on the power of a god or gods to drive away Israel’s army2.  Now, the nature of these gods is not discussed.  Many Christians, ancient and modern, would assert that they are demons and indeed by the first century the prince of demons in Jewish thought is named after a Canaanite god.  However, an opportunity is missed to state explicitly that these gods are not real gods.  Why?  I think that again the answer is that their defeat is what matters.  For Jeremiah it matters that God will overthrow Israel’s enemies and defeat their gods.  For 1 Samuel it matters that Yahweh can take on the Philistines and their gods by Himself and win.  For Exodus it matters that that Yahweh goes ten rounds with Egypt, gods and all, and beats the snot out of all of them.

The end result of all of this is, I think, denial of the gods.  The gods are being obliterated before Yahweh in all of these stories and in some of them the claim is even made that this is because they are not gods at all.  The difficulty of these stories, if there is any, is that the Old Testament is less concerned with a correct accounting of all the gods than it is that we know which God matters.

[1] The difference between “God” and “a god” in Hebrew is entirely dependent on context and this context is unclear.  Are the magicians confirming that Moses is drawing on the power of the Most High or merely that he is drawing on power that comes directly from a divine being?

[2] Judah, Israel, and Edom are at war with Moab.  The three allies are running out of water in the desert and Yahweh sends them water (Elisha the prophet stewards the miracle).  In this exchange it seems that Yahweh is acting to save Judah and that Israel, ruled by Ahab’s evil son, is out of favor.  The miracle of water becomes a victory for Israel through some odd circumstances but when Israel tries to push this victory and take the Moabite capital the Moabite king sacrifices the crown prince on the wall.  It works.  There is “great rage” against Israel and Israel is forced to withdraw.  While the source of the rage is not mentioned the story as it runs is fairly simple: the king of Moab implores his god or gods through a terrible sacrifice and Israel is stopped in its tracks.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. December 15, 2012 12:12 pm

    In his commentary on 1-2 Kings, Marvin Sweeney argues that the text of 2 Kings 3 has been misunderstood by scholars and translators. He writes: “Although the term qesep, “wrath”, generally describes YHWH’s anger “against” (‘al) wrongdoers (see Num 18:5; Deut 29:27; Josh 9:20; 22:20; Cogan and Tadmor 47), the phrase here can hardly refer to wrath directed “against” Israel. Such an interpretation requires that YHWH’s oracle concerning the defeat of Moab would remain unfulfilled and thereby raises doubts about its legitimacy. There is otherwise no indication in this narrative that YHWH’s oracle is to be considered as false. The reference to anger must be read as “upon” (‘al) Israel, that is, Israel became angry at the sight of Mesha’s sacrifice of his son, and consequently withdrew from Kir Haresheth. Israel/Jehoram – and not YHWH – would be responsible for the failure to achieve victory over the Moabites. The scenario provides a parallel to the wilderness tradition – for example, the Israelite spies refused to accept YHWH’s guarantees of victory and suffered as a result (Num 14).” I’m not sure that I agree with Sweeney. I think that his reading of the passage is a possible one, but I’m not convinced that it is the correct one. Still, I hope that Sweeney is right, because I don’t see how else one can avoid reading the passage to imply that the the Moabite god (Chemosh) is real, even if God will eventually destroy him. And I think that it would be a bad result, to say the least, if the Bible recognized that any gods other than YHWH are real (again, even if they are eventually defeated). I realize that some people will want to take the line that such gods are just demons, or national angels, or whatever, but I don’t think that such readings are justified when it comes to OT texts like 1-2 Kings. I suppose that there is some chance that some such position might be plausible for texts like 1-2 Kings, but I would think that the chance is small, and that admitting the small chance of the correctness of such readings does not alleviate the problem but rather exacerbate it (e.g., the text would be destabilized).

    At any rate, I think that this is a great series, and that your analyses of the relevant passages are astute and convincing. In particular, I think that your general conclusions about the Bible’s treatment of gods other than YHWH are spot on. They have certainly improved my understanding of the issues. The only passage that really concerns me is 2 Kings 3, which is why I have said so much about it here.

    • Eric permalink
      December 15, 2012 3:47 pm

      So what do you do with the Egyptian magicians?

      • December 17, 2012 1:22 am

        Good question. I haven’t had time to re-read the relevant portions of Exodus, but here is what I would say about the magicians off the top of my head, so to speak. First, I don’t think that Exodus states, presupposes, or implies that the magical/miraculous actions of the magicians are produced by Egyptian gods, or indeed by any gods. I don’t claim that there is no chance whatsoever that Exodus states, presupposes, or implies this, but I think that it is very unlikely – if, indeed, it is likely at all – that such a reading of Exodus is correct. And, indeed, I think that it is far more natural not to read Exodus as stating, presupposing, or implying this. I say this for several reasons. Some reasons concern literary features of the plague narratives themselves. Other reasons concern what Exodus and other books of the OT say (or seem to say) about magic generally. And still other reasons concern what I understand (which is admittedly very little) about ANE thinking about magic. I understand that the text of Exodus suggests (or even states) that, at least in some sense, YHWH defeated (or humiliated) the gods of Egypt through the plagues. I also understand that the Hebrew term (‘hartummim’) often translated as ‘magicians’ may derive from an Egyptian term often applied to priests or high priests. Still, I don’t think that these observations undermine my reading of the plague narratives. Even if the text of Exodus contains some sentence like ‘the magicians beseeched their god(s) to perform magical/miraculous result x, and then x happened’, I don’t think that my reading of the plague narratives would be undermined. (And Exodus might contain some such sentence – it’s been a while since I read the narratives carefully.) To defend my reading fully, I would need to elaborate on the reasons to which I alluded above. And, though I wouldn’t mind doing that, I’m not sure that I should add even more paragraphs to this note. At any rate, perhaps you will agree that there is good reason for thinking that Exodus does not really attribute the magical/miraculous actions of the Egyptian magicians to the intervention of Egyptian gods (despite any appearances to the contrary).

        There is another point that I want to address. Personally, I highly doubt that there is anything remotely historical about the plague narratives. I am strongly inclined to regard the plague narratives – and indeed the whole exodus narrative – as being (almost) entirely fictional. And, while I wouldn’t go so far as to claim that the authors of the plague narratives themselves would have agreed with this statement (though I don’t think that it can be ruled out), I must say that I highly doubt that the authors of the plague narratives (either the authors of the sources or the redactor(s) who produced the composite text that appears in our Pentateuch) believed that the plague narratives were purely historical. In particular, I see no strong reason for thinking that the authors of the text believed that there were any magicians who battled with Moses, or, if there were, that they produced any magical/miraculous results. My reasons for saying this aren’t terribly complicated, but they would take some time to explain. Seeing as how this post is already quite long, let me summarize by saying that I believe that (1) there is good reason for thinking that Exodus does not attribute the magical/miraculous actions of the magicians to the intervention of Egyptian gods even if the text of Exodus treats those actions as historical, yet (2) there is also good reason for thinking that Exodus may not treat those actions as historical after all. If (1) and (2) are defensible, then they would rescue the plague narratives from a problematic commitment to the existence of Egyptian gods (which, after all, never existed).

        Can such a strategy be made to work in the case of 2 Kings 3? I am inclined to think not. In particular, I am inclined to think that if something like Sweeney’s reading of 2 Kings 3 cannot be made to work, then the defeat of Israel must be attributed to the Moabite god(s), in which case the passage would be logically committed to the existence of that/those Moabite god(s). Moreover, I am inclined to think for several reasons that while the authors of 1-2 Kings did not regard everything they recorded as being purely historical, they likely did regard the passage in question as being historical both in the events that it records and the causes for these events that it proffers. (Mordechai Cogan mentions some readings of the passage other than Sweeney’s that would dissolve the problem in his commentary on 2 Kings, but they all strike me as quite farfetched. I would like to know what Iain Provan says about the passage in his 1-2 Kings commentary, but I left it in Chicago.)

        To be honest, I’m not sure that anything that I’ve said here is correct. I’ve just described how I’ve been inclined to read the plague narratives and 2 Kings 3 in recent years, but I’m no longer convinced that I understand the Bible (or at least the OT) very well. (I have always been convinced that I don’t understand it well; recently I’ve begun to suspect that I may hardly understand it at all.) Most of my readings of such OT texts are influenced by theory that I can’t adequately defend and/or intuitions about ancient texts that I can’t defend at all. I suspect that I probably need to rethink my whole approach to OT interpretation from scratch. So, what I’ve said above represents how I’ve tended to think about the respective texts in the past, but it might be bunk.

        Anyway, I think that your central conclusions in this series are spot on.

  2. Eric permalink
    December 17, 2012 2:12 pm

    While your statements about Egyptian magic are interesting I think they ignore the central issue: the text of Exodus claims that there are powers that produce supernatural effects that are not Yahweh. Whatever solution you apply to the Egyptian magicians should be transferable to the Moabite priests. The fact that the Egyptian magicians are magicians and not priests seems to be a red herring to me. If there are forces that are not God that can produce seemingly miraculous effects then there is no reason to presuppose that a Moabites aren’t drawing on that same source. After all, there’s a good line of church thought that would just say “demons” to both of these events and I don’t just mean recent church thought.

    • December 17, 2012 3:51 pm

      I am inclined to disagree for a number of reasons, some literary, some non-literary. I guess that we read Exodus (and perhaps 2 Kings 3) differently. However, if pressed, I suppose that I would say that both Exodus and 2 Kings 3 contain an ineliminable ontological commitment to deities other than YHWH. (Again, I don’t think that the demon/national angel/etc. reading is legitimate.) When I have some time, I’ll study the passages again and see if I come to a different conclusion.

    • December 17, 2012 5:35 pm

      This is a quick follow up. I haven’t said much about my reasons (literary and non-literary) for reading the plague narratives and 2 Kings 3 in the ways that I do, as this would take up a lot of space. However, I probably should say something about why I distinguish between the treatment of Egyptian (priestly?) magic in Exodus and (if Sweeney is wrong) Moabite blood sacrifice in 2 Kings 3. Again, I have several literary reasons for doing so – reasons which concern, e.g., (a) the language of the relevant passages, (b) the genres of the relevant passages, and (c) the general “drift” (Duktus) of each of those passages (which, of course, involves the larger context in which each passage occurs) – all of which I think differ in salient ways. (There are other literary reasons I could cite, but I’ll leave them aside here.) However, let me concentrate on some non-literary (or at least not purely literary) reasons for distinguishing between the Egyptian magic of Exodus and the Moabite blood sacrifice of 2 Kings 3. As I read the Bible, magic is a real phenomenon whose performance does not require the existence or intervention of any gods – much as modern physics (at least naively interpreted) regards gravity as a force that does not require God for its existence or operation. Of course, people might attribute the workings of magic to the gods, just as people might attribute the workings of gravity to the gods. But magic does not require the existence or intervention of gods (or God – i.e., YHWH) in biblical thought, as I understand it. And, by the way, many scholars of ANE society would agree that much ANE thinking about magic agrees with the Bible here (or at least that is my impression). So, when someone in the Bible performs an apparent feat of magic, regardless of whether or not gods may be invoked, I see no reason to think that the Bible attributes the magical action to the intervention of the gods invoked unless there is strong literary evidence for thinking otherwise – evidence which I don’t see in the plague narratives. (Compare the witch of Endor.) Matters are different, however, when it comes to sacrifice. Sacrifice – or at least blood sacrifice of the kind found in Leviticus and 2 Kings 3 – is not magic. Indeed, I would take the blood sacrifices of Leviticus and 2 Kings 3 to be quite different phenomena. For, it seems to me that it is best to understand the blood sacrifice of 2 Kings 3 (as with child sacrifice to Moloch etc.) as an act of propitiation, and I think it is quite clear that neither the blood sacrifice to YHWH in Leviticus nor magic generally should be understood (in biblical or ANE thought) as an act of propitiation. (Does this mean that no magic is the result of appeals to the divine in ANE thought? No, of course not, but I see no reason to think that Exodus attributes the magic of the Egyptian magicians to Egyptian gods even if Exodus claims that the magicians really existed, really performed the magic, and really invoked their gods – though, again, I must say that I am skeptical of this reading of Exodus.) At any rate, I think that the successful blood sacrifice to the Moabite god(s) of 2 Kings 3 would demand the existence of that god (those gods). Why? Because the sacrifice isn’t magic, and it isn’t physics, and (I presume) it isn’t the work of YHWH – and this means that it can only be the work of the Moabite god(s). So, I think that there are strong literary and non-literary reasons for distinguishing sharply between – and, more relevantly, for taking the Bible to distinguish sharply between – the Egyptian magic of Exodus and the blood sacrifice of 2 Kings 3. And, in particular, it seems to me that there is good reason for taking the effectiveness of the latter but not the former to require the existence of gods (i.e., gods other than YHWH). At any rate, I find it deeply problematic that the Bible regards magic (including necromancy) as a real phenomenon, regardless of the mechanism that explains it. Still, as I say, I need to rethink all these issues very carefully.

  3. Eric permalink
    December 17, 2012 10:00 pm

    I’m interested that you are so quick to reject the demon angle when it appears that by the first century this is the answer that many Jews had reached. When the Pharisees accuse Jesus of working for Beelzebul (or, in the parallel story, Beelzebub) it is clear that the prince of demons has been identified with Ba’al Zebul who Elisha mocks as Ba’al Zebub.

    • December 18, 2012 1:10 pm

      Right. It seems to me that the demon angle was a later development. At any rate, I see no evidence for it in the relevant OT texts; and, in fact, I find it most natural to read the relevant OT texts very differently. Someone who is an inerrantist might argue (and probably should argue) that the demon angle must be right if there are really OT passages that contain an ineliminable ontological commitment to “gods” (which could then be safely explained away as demons). I have to say, I have a great deal of respect for inerrantist readings, but I don’t subscribe to them myself, and so I won’t accept any solutions for textual problems that aren’t decently supported (or at least plausibly allowed) by the texts themselves. Anyway, I want to stress that I am convinced by your arguments that at least in many (most) cases where the OT seems to refer to gods other than YHWH, the text is not really committed to the existence of those supposed gods, and in fact the text undermines belief in those gods (without making the blunder of simultaneously requiring their existence – as, for example, in participants in a true divine battle between really existing divinities). I think that your arguments here are not just convincing, but also impressive, as they involve sophisticated readings of the text. (Reading this blog has made me a better reader of Scripture.) Anyway, I think that you have made some great progress on this issue.

      • Eric permalink
        December 18, 2012 4:46 pm

        I think this is only true if you load up “demon” with a lot of modern baggage. In Greek the term initially refers only to minor non-corporeal entities. Judaism uses this term only for minor, non-corporeal entities that are not angels (because those are already named) and so the term comes to mean minor, evil, non-corporeal entities. It’s a short step from there to say, “These things are behind the various supernatural manifestations that are opposed to the work of Yahweh, both those that pose as gods and those that grant powers.”

        In 1892 Dmitri Ivanovsky discovers viruses and we end up with an old term for all sorts of noxious agents being used in a specific way that refers only to what are essentially rogue strands of coding nucleic acids. Is it fair to say that earlier texts lack any attestation to viruses? Yes and no. Earlier texts will not identify viruses or invoke the ideas about viruses to explain the phenomena that they discuss but they do attest to diseases that we would now call viral. The only difference is that we now have an umbrella term that gives us an understanding of the general case that we lacked before. I see the appearance of the term, and idea, of demons in much the same way. It is not really a new idea (there are already ideas about supernatural entities opposed to Yahweh) but it is a new frame for this idea.

      • December 19, 2012 1:29 pm

        I think that you are right to draw attention to the biblical understanding of demons and the distinction, if any, between demons and gods. As I see it, there are a number of ontological distinctions between demons and gods that are suggested by Scripture, but perhaps the most relevant are these: (1) sphere of action, (2) power. Let’s take (1). Many books of the Bible suggest that angels are spiritual beings that serve as intermediaries between God and man and that serve God in various other tasks. The national angels of Daniel would fit this model, but there are other texts that could be brought forward as well. Now, the OT recognizes various kinds of evil spirits, and presumably some of these could be fairly described as demons. Are all these evil spirits fallen angels? I have no idea, and I don’t think that the OT takes a real stand on the issue. Suppose that the Bible does recognize the existence of gods other than YHWH (even if they are eventually eliminated). Are these spirits? I suppose so. Are they demons? Well, I don’t know. I wouldn’t assume that they are necessarily all evil in the sense that we tend to think of demons being evil (and I think that I could use Daniel and other texts to back this up), but perhaps we shouldn’t assume that all demons need to be thoroughly evil. Do I think that ANE thought generally and Biblical thought in particular recognizes a distinction between run-of-the-mill evil spirits (demons) and gods? Yes, I do. In fact, I think that they recognize a significant distinction between them. But is the distinction relevant to the present discussion? In particular, should the Bible’s recognition of gods be considered problematic if its recognition of demons is not? That depends. (Actually, I think that the Bible’s recognition of demons and magic are plenty problematic, but let’s set that aside.) We have now reached one of the most important issues in this discussion, and it’s hard to proceed, because the Bible really doesn’t say a whole lot about the metaphysics of demons and gods. However, I think that there is at least one metaphysical distinction that the Bible does draw, and that is relevant here. If the naive reading of 2 Kings 3 is correct, then some Moabite god or gods – let’s just say it’s Chemosh for the sake of simplicity – managed to successfully oppose the Israelite army. One question that we need to ask ourselves here is this – if Chemosh successfully opposed the Israelite army, then did Chemosh successfully oppose YHWH? If so, then regardless of whether we call Chemosh a demon, god, or gnome, we’ve got problems. For, if Chemosh can successfully oppose YHWH, then something can successfully oppose YHWH, and so the Bible would (wrongfully) claim that something can successfully oppose YHWH. So, does Chemosh successfully oppose YHWH on the naive reading of 2 Kings 3? Yes, I think so. When I read the passage in context, it seems to me that that is what the naive reading says; and, while I’m not convinced that the naive reading is correct, I think that there is strong reason to think that it is right. Of course, one can always challenge the naive reading. And there are ways in which that can be done. But there is another way to make the problem disappear. Namely, one can accept the naive reading on which Chemosh successfully opposes YHWH and then devise a more or less sophisticated means of explaining away the apparent difficulty. For example, one might say that YHWH allowed Chemosh to oppose Him for the moment, or some such thing. My complaint is this – I think that any such attempt to accept the naive reading and explain away the resulting problems will be too clever be half – unless, of course, one isn’t concerned to respect the literary features of the text itself, in which case one can always make a problem disappear through clever readings. To repeat, my suggestion is not that there is no means of explaining away the difficulties of the naive reading. Rather, my suggestion is that there is no means of explaining away the difficulties of the naive reading that it is faithful to the literary features of the text itself. Then again, as I mentioned in an earlier comment, someone who thinks that the Bible is incapable to making such a blunder can justify any solution to the problem that runs roughshod over the literary features of the text. I don’t think that such readings are correct, but I respect the view of Scripture that motivates them. Anyway, perhaps there is also the possibility that the naive reading is wrong. After all, naive readings are often wrong.

        As regards your point about viruses, I think that there is clear evidence of theological development in the Bible, and I think it is illegitimate to impose later theological developments on earlier texts with different theological views. This is not to say that the only permissible readings are historical-critical readings. It is to say, though, that later theological ideas do not displace earlier theological ideas.

        Anyway, I think that we are just going to disagree on 2 Kings 3. That’s ok. It happens. The discussion has certainly been engaging. I wish I could have discussions like this more frequently, but I don’t want to dominate the blog with my comments in the future.

  4. Eric permalink
    December 19, 2012 2:42 pm

    The critical thing here appears to be this: “So, does Chemosh successfully oppose YHWH on the naive reading of 2 Kings 3? Yes, I think so.”
    I don’t. I think that the text of 2 Kings 3 makes it clear that Yahweh is acting on behalf of Judah and not Israel and that Israel’s inability to close the deal can easily be attributed to that. In fact, it appears from the formulas in the text that the prophecy against Moab does come to pass – Moab is ruined – but that Israel and its wicked king also fail to gain from this. I see this as a section of text much like the beginning of Samuel where wicked people try to force Yahweh’s hand (in this case by recruiting Judah to join them) and fail.

    • December 21, 2012 12:16 am

      Interesting. I am still inclined to disagree. But that’s ok. Thanks for giving my comments such careful attention.

      • December 21, 2012 12:59 am

        I just wanted to clarify one last point in case we misunderstood one another. When I said that Chemosh successfully opposed YHWH on the naive reading of 2 Kings 3, I meant nothing more than this – on the naive reading, the retreat of Israel in v.27 is due to the intervention of Chemosh, who intervenes as a result of the blood sacrifice described in the same verse. I think it is trivial that this is what the passages means on the naive reading. After all, this is how I defined the naive reading; I think that the term “naive” is appropriate to that reading since many readers and commentators have found that reading natural, and every commentator I know who rejects that reading nonetheless treats it as a kind of standard, default reading. (Of course, that doesn’t mean that the reading is correct.) I think that in your last comment you actually didn’t disagree with anything that I have said about the consequences of the naive reading, but that you instead rejected the naive reading itself, though perhaps for different reasons than Sweeney. At any rate, as I said before, I’m not convinced that the naive reading is right, but I am strongly inclined to believe that it is right. I’m still not sure that I understand how you read the passage. What you said in your last comment was actually consistent with a range of readings, including the naive reading, though I gather you reject the latter. Perhaps the problem is simply that I am being dense. That happens a lot. Anyway, not sure whether any of that helps. I guess I’m still confused.

  5. December 21, 2012 2:17 am

    Sorry to intrude again, but I was watching an episode of Star Trek TNG and had another thought on the issue. I am really confused by your last comment. Here’s why. I thought that perhaps you accepted the naive reading on which Chemosh exists and intervenes in the action of 2 Kings 3, but that you wanted to argue that we need only say that Chemosh is a demon, or that he is a demon and a god in some sense, but that the sense in which he is a god does not contradict the OT teachings on monotheism (presumably because Chemosh is a demon). But perhaps you didn’t mean to accept the naive reading, but only to allow it as being one of several possibilities, and perhaps not even the most likely possibility. At any rate, given that position, I don’t see why you would dispute the claim that Chemosh was successful against YHWH in 2 Kings 3. Rather, I would expect you to concede that point but to deny its significance, e.g., on the grounds that demons are always opposing God, or at least interfering in the world. Perhaps the fault is mine for sloppily writing “Chemosh successfully opposed YHWH” instead of “Chemosh successfully opposed the Israelites”. And perhaps this goes to the heart of the issue for you – perhaps you will want to say that a demon could not oppose YHWH, but that it could oppose the Israelites if God isn’t backing them at the time. To that I might say that we’re now making exceptionally subtle judgments about the biblical metaphysics of gods and demons, and that I’m not sure we’re in a position to do that. But then you might say that this is precisely what I originally did when I started discussing the powers of gods and demons. I should be clear that I regard most talk about the biblical view of the metaphysics of gods and demons to be highly speculative, and perhaps you will agree. However, it should be noted that such a conclusion potentially – though perhaps not necessarily – threatens to undermine any fixed reading of the text, a result that I think you would rather avoid. (If there is no fixed reading of the text, then the claim that the text of 2 Kings 3 presupposes the existence of gods other than YHWH could neither be determinately ruled in nor determinately ruled out. Personally, I’m inclined to think that there is a small possibility that this is actually the case. However, it could be that the possibility must be large – and, indeed, decisive – given what little the Bible says about the metaphysics of gods and demons. Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to consider this question carefully at present, but I hope to do so in the future. Until the question is resolved, the discussion can’t really be brought to a satisfying conclusion.)

    Unfortunately, I don’t think that this last exchange has really advanced the discussion. I’m still inclined for numerous reasons to say that whatever the authors of texts like Isaiah 40-55 had in mind when they declared there to be no God but YHWH, they almost certainly meant to deny that there were national gods like Chemosh and that such beings could be successfully propitiated (non-existent things can’t be successfully propitiated). Accordingly, I can’t accept the demon angle. But then I think we’re back at the argument over the demon angle, and I don’t think that either of us is going to budge on that issue, at least any time soon. I don’t really think that there’s much more to be said here. I would like to wrap up and say that even if I’m right and 2 Kings 3 presupposes the existence of gods other than YHWH, I don’t think that this is significant as regards the authority of the Bible. As I see it, the OT is loaded with problems far more serious than that, of which its apparent acceptance of the reality of magic (something I would deny) is not close to being the largest. But, even if I’m wrong about these other problems and the only problematic passage in the OT were 2 Kings 3, I still can’t see how that would damage the authority of Scripture, unless of course one held to a very conservative understanding of biblical inspiration and authority. Phew! I hope that what I just wrote makes sense – it’s quite late, and I’m quite sleepy.

  6. Eric permalink
    December 21, 2012 10:58 am

    Let me try to rectify that confusion about what I said.

    1) First, the point of these war-between-the-gods passages is that Yahweh can beat up anything else out there. This would make it problematic if in fact 2 Kings 3 depicted the opposite.

    2) Denial of these beings is less important. As long as they are less powerful than Yahweh they are no different than what the New Testament calls demons – lesser supernatural beings opposed to Yahweh but unable to match His power.

    3) Therefore, I don’t think it is nearly as problematic that a being named Chemosh might exist and might be propitiated as it would be if Chemosh defeated Yahweh. This would also be a very odd thing to find in this passage for all number of literary reasons and so I would actually say that it does not matter what one thinks about the inspiration of Scripture, the idea that the authors of 2 Kings 3 would write down a story in which Yahweh gets defeated by Chemosh is a pretty strange one. (This is perhaps a point less to what you said than it is a building block in a complete case.)

    4) The solution to this is either that we are reading this bit of the text wrong or that Yahweh was not in support of Israel. If Yahweh is not in support of Israel (something there is textual warrant for) then we have exactly the sort of story we would expect from 2 Kings 3: Israel learns that without Yahweh they are screwed and the implication is that Yahweh could have dealt with Chemosh easily allowing Israel to finish subjugating Moab.


  1. God and the Gods: Rule of the Assembly « The Jawbone Of an Ass

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