Seidensticker Folly #19: Torah & OT Teach Polytheism?

Seidensticker Folly #19: Torah & OT Teach Polytheism? September 18, 2018

Atheist and anti-theist Bob Seidensticker runs the influential Cross Examined blog. He asked me there, on 8-11-18“I’ve got 1000+ posts here attacking your worldview. You just going to let that stand? Or could you present a helpful new perspective that I’ve ignored on one or two of those posts?” He also made a general statement on 6-22-17“In this blog, I’ve responded to many Christian arguments . . . Christians’ arguments are easy to refute.” He added in the combox“If I’ve misunderstood the Christian position or Christian arguments, point that out. Show me where I’ve mischaracterized them.” I’m always one to oblige people’s wishes if I am able, so I decided to do a series of posts in reply.

It’s also been said, “be careful what you wish for.”  If Bob responds to this post, and makes me aware of it, his reply will be added to the end along with my counter-reply. If you don’t see that at the end, rest assured that he either hasn’t replied, or didn’t inform me that he did. But don’t hold your breath. On 8-24-18 Bob wrote (after having virtually begged to dialogue with me back in May) that my alleged “disinterest in the truth reflects poorly” on me. What are we to make, then, of his utter “disinterest” in defending his opinions against serious critique?

Bob’s words will be in blue. To find these posts, word-search “Seidensticker” on my atheist page or in my sidebar search (near the top).

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In his article, “The Great Debate: Theism vs. Naturalism. Where Does the Evidence Point?” (11-17-16), Bob pontificated:

The Bible itself documents how God’s fundamental properties have evolved. . . . God was initially part of a pantheon, and only later do we get a clear statement of monotheism (Isaiah 43:10, for example). [“. . . Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me”: RSV]

He links to a full treatment of this latest falsehood that he seeks to promulgate about the Judaeo-Christian God and the Old Testament: “Biblical Polytheism” (2-13-13; rev. 1-6-16). He’s filled with self-deluded “confidence” in this one. He clearly thinks he has hit a home run. So sorry to disappoint him . . . Biblical ignorance “triumphs” yet again.

The first of the Ten Commandments says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). (There are two very different sets of Ten Commandments in Exodus, but let’s ignore that for now.) [yeah, I refuted that ludicrous claim, too, not long ago]

Have you ever thought much about the wording of this commandment? Why doesn’t it say that Jehovah is the only god? It’s because this section of the Bible was written in roughly the 10th century BCE, the early days of the Israelite religion, when it was still polytheistic. . . . The next commandment notes, “I, Jehovah, your God, am a jealous God”—jealous because there were indeed other viable options, and Jehovah insisted on a commitment.

Sure, I’ve thought about it. The answer is simple: people were in fact worshiping other [nonexistent] gods; polytheism was the norm in the cultures surrounding the ancient Israelites, so God addressed the issue in this fashion. It’s another way of saying, “Don’t worship any other gods.” We Christians talk in this way all the time. We might say, for example, “Joe has replaced God in his heart with the god of money [or fame, or hedonism, or power, or lust or any number of other idols]”. This is idolatry: putting anything else in place of the one true God; usurping His preeminence over all. This sort of thinking will be explained further as we go along.

The notion of God being “jealous” is clearly anthropopathism: a very poorly understood aspect of the Bible and God’s revelation of Himself (condescending to human understanding) that is virtually never understood by atheists (nor — unfortunately — by many undereducated Christians, for that matter). A search of that word yielded nothing whatsoever on his voluminous blog. He does, however briefly allude to the related concept of anthropomorphism in one post: put up just about a month ago (showing the potential of perhaps actually understanding it to some extent). In the same post, he opined: “The Bible evolved over time. In the early years, the Bible’s religion was polytheistic. Yahweh was similar to the Greek and Roman gods, . . .”

Jewish Henotheism

Let’s use the proper term for this, henotheism. Polytheists acknowledge many gods and worship many gods, while henotheists acknowledge many gods but worship only one. In this view, different gods ruled different territories just as kings did, and tribes owed allegiance to whichever god protected them.

This is asinine. Yes, non-observant Jews who went astray and didn’t follow the Mosaic Law may have done / believed this (as a species of idolatry), but the Bible (even the early — first five — books, or Torah) clearly doesn’t teach it. It teaches monotheism: one true God and no other gods, no matter how many people may worship them. I will elaborate upon this as we proceed.

The Song of Moses in Deuteronomy 32 is considered to be some of the oldest material in the Bible—dating to the mid-13th century BCE. We have several somewhat-inconsistent copies, the oldest being from the Dead Sea Scrolls:

When Elyon divided the nations, when he separated the sons of Adam, he established the borders of the nations according to the number of the sons of the gods. Yahweh’s portion was his people, [Israel] his allotted inheritance. (Deut. 32:8–9)

Here we see Elyon, the head of the divine pantheon, dividing humankind among his children, giving each his inheritance. The idea of a divine pantheon with a chief deity, his consort, and their children (the council of the gods) was widespread through the Ancient Near East.

The Dead Sea Scrolls are not the Bible, and so should not be discussed in a debate about same. The RSV version (which I shall use here when I cite Scripture), reads:

Deuteronomy 32:8-9 When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of men, he fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. [9] For the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.

Verse 9 refers to the notion of “God’s chosen people” (Ex 3:7, 10; 6:7; 7:4; Lev 26:12; 2 Sam 3:18; many more). Perhaps Bob has heard of that? Or is that not in the Bible, either? Now since Bob brought up Deuteronomy 32, and indeed, states himself that it issome of the oldest material in the Bible,” he might be interested in discovering another portion of it that decisively refutes his silly hypothesis of “early biblical polytheism”:

Deuteronomy 32:39 See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.

That’s one God, folks: monotheism: right in what Bob concedes is a very old portion of Scripture. His case is virtually demolished already, but I have much more and am not nearly done! There is more in the same chapter:

Deuteronomy 32:17, 21 They sacrificed to demons which were no gods, . . . They have stirred me to jealousy with what is no god; they have provoked me with their idols. . . . 

Huh?! This reinforces the point I made earlier. The Bible refers to other gods, but in the sense that they exist in other religious belief-systems: not because they exist in fact or reality. This verse proves this sort of understanding among the Jews, in (again) a very early passage and part of the Torah. Deuteronomy 28:64 refers to “other gods, of wood and stone” (cf. 28:36 and 4:28, which adds, “the work of men’s hands”). Obviously, the text is saying (along with the noted related ones) that this is all these supposed “gods” are: wood and stone. They have no conscious existence. It’s classic idolatry: that the Jews were judged for again and again throughout the period of the Old Testament.

The Bible consistently condemns other reputed gods as actually no gods at all (i.e., merely imaginary; pieces of wood and stone):

2 Kings 19:15-19 And Hezeki’ah prayed before the LORD, and said: “O LORD the God of Israel, who art enthroned above the cherubim, thou art the God, thou alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; thou hast made heaven and earth. [16] Incline thy ear, O LORD, and hear; open thy eyes, O LORD, and see; and hear the words of Sennach’erib, which he has sent to mock the living God. [17] Of a truth, O LORD, the kings of Assyria have laid waste the nations and their lands, [18] and have cast their gods into the fire; for they were no gods, but the work of men’s hands, wood and stone; therefore they were destroyed. [19] So now, O LORD our God, save us, I beseech thee, from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that thou, O LORD, art God alone.” (cf. Is 37:19; 45:20)

2 Chronicles 13:9 . . . Whoever comes to consecrate himself with a young bull or seven rams becomes a priest of what are no gods.

Jeremiah 2:11  Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? . . .

Jeremiah 5:7 . . . Your children have forsaken me, and have sworn by those who are no gods. . . . (cf. 10:14)

Jeremiah 16:20 Can man make for himself gods? Such are no gods! (cf. 51:17)

1 Corinthians 8:4-6 Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” [5] For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth — as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords” — [6] yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

Galatians 4:8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature are no gods;

The Old Testament is full of clues pointing to multiple gods. Genesis is a good place to start.

Then [Elohim] said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness” (Genesis 1:26).

We also see plural gods when Jehovah warns them that man mustn’t eat the tree of life (Gen. 3:22) . . . 

[Genesis 3:22 Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever” –]

The nearly magisterial Keil & Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament states at Genesis 1:22:

No other explanation is left, therefore, than to regard it as pluralis majestatis , – an interpretation which comprehends in its deepest and most intensive form (God speaking of Himself and with Himself in the plural number, not reverentiae causa, but with reference to the fullness of the divine powers and essences which He possesses) . . .

Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics explains pluralis majestatis:

The term ‘majestic plural’ or pluralis majestatis refers to the use of a plural word to refer honorifically to a single person or entity. It is also called the ‘plural of respect’, the ‘honorific plural’, the ‘plural of excellence’, or the ‘plural of intensity’. In the Hebrew Bible such plural forms are most commonly used when referring to the God of Israel, e.g., אֲדוֹנִ֣ים אָנִי֩ ʾăḏōnīm ʾå̄nī ‘I am a master (lit. ‘masters’)’ (Mal. 1.6), although it can also be used when referring to a human, e.g., אַבְרָהָ֖ם אֲדֹנָ֑יו ʾaḇrå̄hå̄m ʾăḏōnå̄w ‘Abraham his master (lit. ‘masters’)’ . . . [Genesis 24]

Wikipedia, “Royal we (the English equivalent) further explains:

The royal we, or majestic plural (pluralis maiestatis), is the use of a plural pronoun (or corresponding plural-inflected verb forms) to refer to a single person who is a monarch. The more general word for the use of a weus, or our to refer to oneself is nosism. . . .

It is commonly employed by a person of high office, such as a monarch, earl, or pope. It is also used in certain formal contexts by bishops and university rectors. William Longchamp is credited with its introduction to England in the late 12th century, following the practice of the Chancery of Apostolic Briefs.

A Jewish article, “The Genesis Plurals,” by Paul Sumner, takes a different view: “Historically, most Jewish commentators have said the Creator is here speaking to the angels of the heavenly assembly, his divine court.” Either way, a reasonable non-polytheistic interpretation is possible and plausible.

Bob anticipates the angelic interpretation and replies as follows: “[W]hy imagine an angelic assembly when the polytheistic interpretation of Genesis simply growing out of preceding Canaanite culture is available and plausible?”

Well, it’s because that interpretation has already been blown out of the water by the arguments above. Deuteronomy 32: believed by Bob to besome of the oldest material in the Bible,” expressly renounces polytheism and asserts monotheism (32:17, 39; cf. 4:28; 28:36, 64). 

Psalms is another old book that has fossilized the earliest forms of Judaism. We see the assembly of the gods mentioned several times.

[Elohim] stands in the assembly of El; in the midst of the gods he renders judgment (Psalm 82:1). . . . 

And many more verses celebrate Jehovah while acknowledging the existence of others.

For [Jehovah] is the great God, and the great King above all gods (Ps. 95:3).

All the gods bow down before [Jehovah] (Ps. 97:7).

I know [Jehovah] is great, and our Lord is superior to all gods. (Ps. 135:5)

All of this has already been explained, too. It’s simply a manner of speaking (more poetic). The bottom line, in any event, is that there is but one true God, and other reputed “gods” “are no gods,” as we saw above: stated repeatedly in the Bible. The Psalms include this understanding as well (thus are neither polytheistic nor henotheistic, as Bob claims):

Psalm 40:4 . . . those who go astray after false gods!

Psalm 83:18 Let them know that thou alone, whose name is the LORD, art the Most High over all the earth.

Psalm 86:10 For thou art great and doest wondrous things, thou alone art God.

Psalm 89:6 For who in the skies can be compared to the LORD? Who among the heavenly beings is like the LORD,

Psalm 96:5 For all the gods of the peoples are idols; but the LORD made the heavens. (cf. 97:7; 115:4; 135:15)

In a recent post, we’ve seen where the Bible documents how Yahweh lost a fight with the Moabite god Chemosh (2 Kings 3:27).

Nonsense. I have already refuted this “exegesis” in installment #12 of this series.

Deuteronomy [apparently excluding the Song of Moses / chapter 32 portion: according to Bob] was written after the conquest of Israel and before the conquest of Judah, in the 7th century BCE. The philosophy has now moved from henotheism to monolatry. Like henotheism, many gods are accepted and only one is worshipped, but now worship of other gods is forbidden.

Hogwash. The other “gods” of other cultures were never accepted — never allowed to be worshiped in the Mosaic law — and were renounced as nonexistent, as I’ve already shown from Deuteronomy 4:28 and 28:36, 64. Moreover, Exodus and Deuteronomy clearly teach an exclusive monotheism:

Exodus 8:10 . . . there is no one like the LORD our God. (cf. 1 Chr 17:20; 2 Chr 6:14)

Deuteronomy 4:35, 39 To you it was shown, that you might know that the LORD is God; there is no other besides him. . . . [39] . . . the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other. (cf. Neh 9:6; 2 Sam 7:22; 1 Kgs 8:23; Is 43:10; 44:6, 8; 45:5-6, 14, 18, 21-22; 46:9; 47:8; Hos 13:4)

Deuteronomy 6:4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD

Second Isaiah (the second part of Isaiah) was written later, near the end of the Babylonian exile. Here we find the transition to monotheism is complete.

Monotheism and the forbidding of worshiping other imaginary “gods” was already in place in the Torah, as shown above and below.

The very idea of an idol is ridiculed in Isaiah 44:9–20. Can a man cook his meal over a fire made from half of the tree he used to carve his idol and imagine that an idol from so unrefined an origin is really a god?

What explains this migration to monotheism? A major factor was the Babylonian exile. 

There was no “migration” because the mockery of false, nonexistent gods and material idols representing them was already present in Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy:

Genesis 31:19 . . . Rachel stole her father’s household gods.

Genesis 35:2, 4 So Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, “Put away the foreign gods that are among you, and purify yourselves, and change your garments; . . . [4] So they gave to Jacob all the foreign gods that they had, and the rings that were in their ears; and Jacob hid them under the oak which was near Shechem.

Exodus 20:23 You shall not make gods of silver to be with me, nor shall you make for yourselves gods of gold.

Leviticus 19:4 Do not turn to idols or make for yourselves molten gods: I am the LORD your God.

Deuteronomy 4:27-28 And the LORD will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where the LORD will drive you. [28] And there you will serve gods of wood and stone, the work of men’s hands, that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell. (cf. 29:17; 1 Chr 16:26; Is 2:8, 20; 31:7; 37:19; 44:10, 15, 17; 46:6; Jer 1:16)

The Babylonian exile (after 586 BC) took place after even Bob’s dating of Deuteronomy (7th c. BC). Therefore it can hardly have caused this supposed “migration” or evolution into true monotheism.

Checkmate. Game, match, set.

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Photo credit: Duncan Hull (8-9-08): “Greek gods, take your pick” [Flickr / CC BY 2.0 license]

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