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God and the Gods: Rule of the Assembly

December 24, 2012
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I have saved the discussion of henotheism for last as it is in some ways the most complicated of the ways that the Old Testament deals with other gods. However, with the previous two articles behind us it is also much easier to see what is happening in the passages that we will deal with.

First, it is worth dealing with a few instances of what we might regard as weak henotheism or even outright polytheism. Henotheistic characters almost certainly do appear in the pages of the Old Testament but this is really not a major problem. For instance, when Rachel steals her father’s household gods in Genesis 31 she may, in fact, believe that these gods are worth something (or at least that they might possess the power to curse her if she did not remove them from her father). Is this an issue? Not really. In Genesis 35:2 Jacob addresses the fact that some in his household have foreign gods and that it is time to get rid of them. Rachel’s actions may demonstrate a positive belief in other gods but it is not one that is endorsed. Similarly, in Genesis 24 Abraham’s servant is charged with finding a suitable bride for Isaac and is made to swear by “Yahweh, the God of heaven and the God of earth”. However, once the servant arrives in Aram he prays and addresses Yahweh as “God of my master Abraham” and later thanks the Lord using the same terms. Does this servant believe that Yahweh is Lord of Heaven and Earth? Maybe not. Maybe he thinks Yahweh is a restricted tribal deity who will only answer his prayer because he is working on Abraham’s behalf. However, again, the servant’s religious views are not endorsed.

In fact, in reading the story of Jacob one finds that it is full of phrases like “the God of my father Isaac”. It is actually somewhat unclear what Jacob knows about God when he leaves to go find Laban. It is perfectly possible that he regards the god his father worships as one god among many. However, even this tentative hypothesis would not be worrisome because the story of Jacob’s flight from Esau and his eventual return is also the story of Jacob coming to understand his father’s God and forming a relationship of faith with him. If Jacob is initially misinformed and if his wife steals household idols because she is a polytheist, what of it? Jacob eventually reaches a point where he demands that his household be purged of foreign gods and he has therefore quite obviously pledged himself to Yahweh alone. This is what actually matters in the Old Testament: that people worship Yahweh alone and not that they are technically correct about the number of gods.

However, there is another set of texts (primarily in the Psalms) that are strongly henotheistic in that they literally depict Yahweh as the king of the gods. Psalm 82, for instance, opens by describing Yahweh as the judge in the assembly of the gods. Psalm 95 tells us that “Yahweh is a great god and a great king over all gods”. Psalm 136 describes Yahweh as “God of gods”. In Psalm 138 the psalmist declares that he will sing Yahweh’s praises before the gods. All of these depictions indicate that Yahweh is not the sole god but simply the most powerful one.

However, there are further complications. First, “god” in the Ancient Near East is a broad category. One of the words for a god (אל) is also used for heroes and other powerful people or things. In fact, defining a god is not a particularly easy thing for most monotheists since we believe that there is only one god and that is one of his defining features! Determining the difference between a god and, say, an angel when you think there could be multiple gods is much harder. Part of what this means is that statements about multiple gods may not really match with our categories of gods. If God rules the angelic council would that be described as a council of gods in Ancient Near Eastern terms? Possibly.

Second, some of these statements that endorse the idea of Yahweh ruling over the gods do so in order to drive home more monotheistic points. For instance, Psalm 82 begins by depicting Yahweh ruling over the assembly of the gods but continues on to say that the other gods are nothing. Apparently Yahweh rules over them because He is the only one who is actually a god. Indeed, phrases indicating Yahweh’s kingship over the gods also appear in places where they are explicitly designed to suppress the worship of other gods. For instance, Exodus 18:11 Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, states that Yahweh is greater than all other gods in order to emphasize the uselessness of those other gods. Deuteronomy 10:17 describes Yahweh as “god of gods” again in order to focus worship on him alone. Psalm 86:8 states that the other gods cannot compare to Yahweh. Psalm 97 actually goes so far as to state that the idols are worthless and then order all the gods to worship Yahweh!

Like the other ways that we have discussed of dealing with foreign gods, the apparently henotheistic passages in the Old Testament are still focused around the centrality of Yahweh. While they may allow some flexibility on the exact number of gods that exist this is, I suspect, because this simply isn’t the point. The point is that Yahweh is the only god that matters and so whether the other gods exist (or qualify as gods) isn’t nearly as important.

In fact, the often-proposed scheme in which Israel moves from henotheism to monotheism over a long period of time is simply not worrisome once we take this into account. Take, for instance, the command to make no idols. If this command is given amongst people who believe that these images actually represent and channel the power of gods is that religiously problematic provided that they obey the command? Only sort of. It is simply far more important that Israel worships Yahweh alone and recognizes his singularly special nature than that they extend this on to a complete denial of the existence of other gods.

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