Wait, that’s in the Bible?! Israelite Polytheism or Monotheism?

God ['elohim] has taken his place in the divine council ['adat 'el];

in the midst of the gods ['elohim] he holds judgement.

Ps. 82.1 (NRSV)

References to a divine council or heavenly assembly are found frequently throughout the Hebrew Bible [1]. Simply, the divine council is the heavenly royal court over which Yahweh, the God of Israel, presides as heavenly king. The members of this heavenly court or assembly are referred to in the Hebrew Bible by such terms as: bene (ha)’elohim “sons of God” (Gen. 6.2, 4; Deut. 32.8-9; Job 1.6, 2.2, 38.7), ‘elohim “gods” (Ps. 82.1, 6), bene elim “sons of gods” (Ps. 29.1, 89.7), and bene ‘elyon “sons of the Most High” (Ps. 82.6). Moreover, the council itself is referred to by such appellations as the adat ‘el “council/assembly/congregation of ‘El/God” (Ps. 82.1), sod qedoshim rabbah “great council of the holy ones” (Ps. 89.8), sod YHWH “the council of Yahweh” (Jer. 23.18), and sod eloah “council of God” (Job 15.8).

The members of the divine council–the “sons of god” or “gods” as they are often described–served various functions. Yahweh’s heavenly council was frequently depicted in terms analogous to that of the royal court of an earthly king or monarch. Thus, just as a king presides over a body of counselors and administrators with whom he counsels and to whom he issues decrees, so too Yahweh was surrounded by an assemblage of heavenly beings with whom he counseled and to whom he issued decrees. For this reason the God of Israel is designated as ‘el ‘elyon “the Most High God” (Gen.14.18-19; Ps. 78.35; cf. Ps. 82.6), because there are other, lower gods who serve him and praise him in his heavenly divine council. The God of Israel is the Most High (God) because there are other, subordinate gods in his heavenly council. These gods obey Yahweh’s decrees and pay deference to Yahweh because he is the supreme God of the pantheon–but they too are still gods nonetheless. Like many ancient Near Eastern texts which exult a particular earthly king as supreme over all the kings or rulers of other nations, so Yahweh is supreme in relation to the other gods of his council and those of other nations. The relevant issue in these texts is not one of “ontology” or species, of course, but one of power, might, and glory. Thus we read in Ps. 29.1 (NRSV, alternate translation):

Ascribe to Yahweh, O sons of gods [bene 'elim],

ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength.

In light of the preceding discussion, other biblical passages which directly state or imply the other existence of gods also make much more sense. For instance, Exodus 15.11 (NRSV) states:

Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods ['elim]?

Who is like you, majestic in holiness,

awesome in splendour, doing wonders?

And Psalm 95.3 (NRSV) reads:

For the Lord is a great God,

and a great King above all gods ['elohim].

The notion of the divine council in the Hebrew Bible has become more prominent and clearly defined in light of the important discoveries from ancient Ugarit, which discoveries provide perhaps the most important ancient literary and linguistic parallels to the Hebrew Bible to date (although there are noteworthy differences to be sure). In the texts from ancient Ugarit, the Canaanite high god ‘El presides over an large heavenly assembly (phr, dr, or ‘dt), the highest tier of which was composed of his sons (bn ‘il ). From KTU2 1.4.VI.46 we learn that El and Athirat (biblical Asherah), the consort of ‘El, had seventy divine sons. Such details recovered from the texts of ancient Ugarit very likely relate to the biblical descriptions of the divine council. For instance, in the table of nations in Genesis 10 there are exactly seventy nations listed, and in Deut. 32.8-9 the nations of the earth are divided among the sons of God, each of whom is given their own dominion or stewardship (this theme is also present in Psalm 82). Later Jewish tradition also asserted that there were seventy nations on earth, and other later texts confirm that there were seventy guardian angels which watched over them (Targum Pseudo-Jonathan on Deut. 32.8; 1 En. 89.59-77, 90.22-27). This tradition is clearly dependent on these earlier notions found in Genesis 10 and Deut. 32.8-9 (and Psalm 82) concerning the number of the nations and the sons of god appointed over them, and these biblical texts, in turn, are informed by the older traditions connected with the texts discovered at the ancient city of Ugarit. Thus Deut. 32.8-9 (NRSV, adapted) reads:

When the Most High ['elyon] apportioned the nations,

when he divided humankind,

he fixed the boundaries of the peoples

according to the number of the sons of God/gods [bene 'elohim];

YHWH’s portion was/is his people,

Jacob his allotted share.

The Masoretic Text (MT) which was followed by the King James Translators has “sons of Israel” instead of “sons of God.” However, the LXX and manuscript 4QDeut from the Dead Sea Scrolls, as well as several other ancient versions support the reading of the “sons of God.” The MT reading thus appears to be a deliberate alteration to change what was otherwise seen by an ancient scribe as a reference to the existence of other gods. Additionally, it should be noted that the sons of god/gods are never called the “sons of Yahweh;” except for Ps. 82.6, references to the sons of God virtually always occur with the root ‘l in the word for God. This is additional evidence that the notion of the divine council found in the Hebrew Bible is most likely heavily indebted to that of ‘El and his assembly of divine sons as found in the Ugaritic texts. Furthermore, Is. 14.13 pictures the assembly meeting upon the divine mountain of assembly, which notion is consistent with the depiction of the council as found in the Ugaritic texts as well.

There are thus numerous biblical passages which clearly state or imply that there are other real gods in existence, although Yahweh is seen as supreme among them. In addition to those verses cited above, consider also Psalm 89.6 (NRSV, adapted), which reads: “For who in the skies can be compared to Yahweh? Who among the sons of God is like Yahweh…?”, as well as Psalm 99.2 (4QPsalm), which states: “Yahweh is great in Zion, he is exalted over all the gods.” Furthermore, Deuteronomy 32.43 (NRSV) goes on to affirm that, “Praise, O heavens, his people, worship him, all you gods!” Finally, Job 38.4-7 (cf. Genesis 1.26-27; 3.22) (NRSV, adapted) declares: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” These are just a sample of the biblical texts which demonstrate that the biblical authors believed that there were other real gods in existence besides Yahweh.

Reflections

I have purposely failed to define either the concepts of monotheism or polytheism in the post, and I will leave such discussion for the comments below. I will note again, however, that the difference between Yahweh and the gods of his council (or the gods of other nations) was not seen by the ancient Israelites in terms of a difference in species or kind, but in degree of power, might, and glory. I would also note that passages such as Deuteronomy 32.8-9 clearly demonstrate that these other gods held dominions or stewardships over other nations, just as Yahweh possessed Israel. Moreover, it seems clear based on passages such Job 38.4-7 and Genesis 1.26-27 (as well as Genesis 3.22) that these other gods participated in the creation of the world and were considered to be like God (i.e., having knowledge of good and evil and being immortal). What then do these texts imply or entail for those monotheistic Judeo-Christian religious traditions–including LDS Christianity–that lay claim to the Bible as a religiously authoritative text in some sense? How can or should such ancient Israelite views be dealt with in these faith traditions?

Notes

[1] For this post I have drawn heavily from John Day’s section “The Sons of El (God)” in his book Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan. Journal for the study of the Old Testament, 265. (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000), 22-24.

  • http://heartissuesforlds.wordpress.com Todd Wood

    I thought Yahweh was the lesser god for many LDS.

    Who is the proper authority that I can talk to for clearing up my confusion, YD? A Prophet? Any Apostle?

    And if the NRSV is authoritative, why doesn’t the modern First Presidency correct this in the KJV?

  • SmallAxe

    Wree… wree… wree…. The sound of Todd winding his reel as the bait dangles on the hook.

  • http://www.newcoolthang.com Jacob J

    Todd,

    You really need to come up with some new things to whine about. This routine about who is the proper authority and why doesn’t the First Presidency do this or that is getting pretty stale.

  • http://heartissuesforlds.wordpress.com Todd Wood

    Jacob, when you live in the Corridor, the proper human authority in speaking for God is a chief emphasis. Have you ever had LDS elders knock on your door and ask you in the conversation, “What is the basis for your authority?” Talk about standard routine, come over to S.E. Idaho for a spell.

    Can I not basically chalk up this whole detailed post by TYD to LDS speculation and nothing more? I wonder how many Ammonites I could find tomorrow who would agree with me.

    We are talking about more than a mere “whine”, this is a big wall of LDS cultural reality, friend.

    And don’t you ever find First Presidency platitudes to be stale. We believe the Bible as far as it has been translated correctly – pious words, no action. How many years has it been?

    YD is asking serious questions in the title of this post. It’s about God Almighty. So why can’t LDS Prophets and Apostles answer the questions clearly? The Church boast is in them.

  • http://heartissuesforlds.wordpress.com Todd Wood

    Jacob, if people want to continue to use the KJV, please don’t let them whine to me over the “corrupt” translation wording in relation of YHWH to Father, Son, and Spirit.

    Or let the Authorities follow John Day in what he thinks of the KJV view of God.

    Or is that unfair to request?

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com The Yellow Dart

    Oy vei!

    Todd,

    The NRSV is a translation of the biblical texts. The Bible is an authoritative text for LDS Christians, not some particular translation. The LDS Church uses other translations in other countries outside of the US, as you probably well know. Moreover, some of the translations are my own, not the NRSV.

    Todd, perhaps you’d like to actually engage the arguments and discussion of the post from your own religious perspective. I’d personally like to hear your analysis of many of the issues that I raised and the biblical passages I analyzed; I have never seen you really tackle them in a serious fashion. Since you already believe that the Bible is authoritative, maybe you should just worry right now about actually dealing with what the biblical texts say.

    Best wishes,

    TYD

  • Paul B

    The LDS beliefs regarding relationships among the gods was in flux until the 1916(?) FP statement regarding the Father and the Son. The “Adam-God” hypothesis was a part of it. After Talmadge wrote the FP statement, LDS teachings regarding the Gods has been (fairly) consistent.

  • http://adrr.com/ Stephen M (Ethesis)

    Guys, people use the KJV for written communication about 75% of the time when they don’t use it otherwise …. because of copyright issues.

    That was the big push behind the .NET Bible, an attempt to get an updated text that would be free of copyright issues and easy to use in print and public.

    Todd Wood just needs to get a grip with the reality of the constraints of complying with licensing and copyright law.

    Or maybe just to get a grip, period. /Sigh.

  • http://adrr.com/ Stephen M (Ethesis)

    Not to mention, that the text obviously has multiple applications and interpretations. Just look at the scriptures that are cited in the N.T. that Christ is fulfilling. Then look at a classic Jewish commentary.

    Once you lay aside quests for inerrancy and single meaning for texts, Todd’s point of view (which appears to intentionally misapprehend LDS doctrine and teachings) ceases to have relevance.

    The texts do not have single meanings or single applications, but each generation is expected to liken the texts to themselves and make a new application.

    Given that, multiple depths of meaning, application and readings are not only to be expected and appropriate, they are obviously part of how God means to communicate with us.

    Why, oh why Todd, would any prophet or any person touched by the Spirit try to change that, other than in places where an approach or interpretation goes far astray and takes people in the wrong direction?

  • http://adrr.com/ Stephen M (Ethesis)

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Day for those who are curious about John Day who Todd seems to cite as an authority. I’ll leave it to the reader to wonder just which John Day he meant.

  • http://jettboy.blogspot.com Jettboy

    Although Todd has a slight point, it isn’t one based on Mormon doctrine, but Mormon culture. The answer to his question about clearing things up is actually very easy. You ask G-d since Mormons believe in personal revelation as much as priesthood authority. It also assumes Mormonism has inflexible doctrines typical of orthodox creedal Christianity. His questions also hold to primitive (yes, I said it that way) ideas about scripture that again is not based on Mormon doctrine, but culture that has been borrowed from creedal Protestantism.

    To clear it up as much as possible for those listening to Todd, and not Todd himself who seems to not care:

    Mormon belief in prophetic authority is not based on what they teach (although they have the authority to make and clear up doctrinal statements), but on their right of governance. Not anyone can do just anything within the LDS Church, as they must be called and ordained for such actions or positions.

    Theology is always in flux in Mormonism at the individual and sometimes institutional level, and that drives creedal Christians crazy. As long as teachings don’t go outside the boundaries of a few sometimes indefinite main beliefs, teachings and doctrine is debatable.

    The KJV has been used by the LDS Church because it is a foundational document that ties all scripture together in the English language. However, even in General Conference where prophets and apostles pontificate, other Biblical translations have been used on occasional for authoritative quotes. Pointed out above, the KJV is an English translation and is not used for other language additions, and of course cannot be. My guess is that NO Christian church uses ONLY the KJV when preaching to those of other languages.

    Hope that helps, although Todd is probably the only one that will read this who needs this information. I really wish the general Mormon membership would drop the theory that the KJV represents an inerrancy translation of the Bible. I believe it does represent the best translation with the most literary aesthetics available. However, taken too far, learning and doctrinal understanding becomes hindered.

  • smallaxe

    Alright, I’m sensing that this discussion has long since left the initial topic; although I’d love to here Todd’s thoughts on these passages. For those wanting to debate the question of LDS theology and authority, take it here: http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/2009/04/where-todd-wood-and-jettboy-can-have-it-out/

  • http://www.newcoolthang.com Jacob J

    TYD,

    Nice job on this post. I think it is very interesting that (as you note) we like to point to the OT pantheon of gods but the model we find there with many gods all overseeing this world is not the standard LDS view. I think the LDS tradition has less to fear from such ideas, but the still don’t fit very well. I personally find the view of this God who clearly does not have all the omnis to be more like my view of God than the one found in traditional theism, but I don’t know how widespread that reaction would be in Mormonism. And, at the same time, I read these religious views from the OT and I feel that I am reading about their view of God in the OT, not the one and only truth about God.

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com The Yellow Dart

    Oh man, what happened here?

    Jacob J,

    Thanks for your comment! I will be back around later…

    TYD

  • http://www.LehisLibrary.wordpress.com James

    TYD, Great post! I really enjoy studying the divine council theme in the OT.

    Regarding the definition of monotheism and polytheism, and how it applies to the OT, I like this quote by Mark Smith (its kind of long):

    “Because of this great historical divide, it is difficult to remember that comparing ancient polytheistic religions with a monotheistic one is anachronistic, as the term “polytheism” only has any meaning or sense because it is contrasted with monotheism. Accordingly, monotheism and polytheism in themselves hold little meaning for the ancients apart from the identity of the deities whom they revered and served. No polytheist thought of his belief-system as polytheistic per se. If you asked ancient Mesopotamians if they were polytheists, they question would make no sense. If you asked them if they or other people they knew acknowledge a variety of deities, that’s a different question, because for them the deities in question mattered, not the theoretical position of polytheism. This point applies to monotheism as well. If you asked ancient Israelites around the Exilic period (587-538) if they were monotheists, they would not have understood the question. If you asked them if there is any deity apart from Yahweh, then that’s also another question, because for them what mattered was the exclusive claim and relationship of the Israelite people and their deity.”

    Smith, Mark S. The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. pg. 11

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com The Yellow Dart

    Jacob J.,

    Thanks again for your comment. It represents the type of reaction(s) I anticipated in the comments! I think you are right to highlight the fact that ancient Israelite views (note that I used the plural, since they are not uniform themselves) concerning the divine council of gods does not square perfectly with LDS Christian thought. I agree, however, that the notion of the divine council of gods tends to fit LDS theology better than most other Judeo-Christian religious traditions that I am aware of. David Bokovoy said some thing similar in his response to Michael Heiser:

    “…Latter-day Saint scholars acknowledge that an LDS understanding of the council does not precisely mirror the perspectives manifested in the Bible. That having been said, most Latter-day Saints certainly accept the view advocated by Peterson that the biblical perspective of the heavenly council of deities is in greater harmony with LDS belief than with any other contemporary Christian tradition.”

    http://farms.byu.edu/publications/review/?vol=19&num=1&id=644

    James,

    Thanks for stopping by. Did you read my other post about biblical monotheism? Your quote by Mark Smith fits well with what evangelical scholar Larry Hurtado says there, I think.

    http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com/2009/04/what-is-biblical-monotheism/

    Best wishes,

    TYD

  • http://www.faithpromotingrumor.com The Yellow Dart

    Oh and Todd, I would appreciate your interaction with my comment number 6 .

    Best wishes,

    TYD

  • Hannah Rebekah

    I found this while Googling….great post. Thank you. If you have not see this then it may be of interest to you and especially the non-LDS here:
    http://www.theology.edu/ugarbib.htm
    Quartz Hill Community Church is a member of the Southern Baptist Convention

  • umesh prasad singh

    mono-theism and poly-theism in the holy bible indicates the philosophical enunciations in detail and non-detail fashion . the concept of singularity and plurality approach resonates in the new and the old testament in a biblical forte of ideas in realism and creativity . the aspects revolved in this holy text reveals the power of fortification of theory in relation to love and compassion in totality and enthusiastic movements of idea in stoic sense and perceptual detail study of decoration of ideas in a scientific manner. in kings james version of the bible published in 1611 the universalistic mode of monotheism and polytheism is revolutionized and rejuvenated in a stylistic trend.-umesh prasad singh.


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