Tags: Baal, Canaanite religion, henotheism, monotheism, other gods, polytheism, Psalm 29, Psalm 82, Psalm 97, Ten Commandments
(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
The Song of the Sea, in last week’s Torah portion, includes the verse:
Who is like You among the eilim, Y-h-w-h?
Who is like You, glorious in holiness,
Awesome, praiseworthy, doing wonders! (Exodus 15:11)
Y-h-w-h (י־ה־ו־ה) = God’s personal four-letter name. (Many English translations substitute “LORD” for this name, even though it is spelled using letters from several forms of the Hebrew verb “to be” rather than from the Hebrew noun for “lord”.)1
eilim (אֵלִם) = plural of eil (אֵל) = a god. (In some Canaanite religions, Eil was the founding god of a pantheon.)
The Song of the Sea assumes that other gods exist, and rejoices that the God of Israel, Y-h-w-h, is so powerful. Since the Song of the Sea is one of the oldest poems in the Bible, dating to around 1100 B.C.E., one might dismiss its polytheism as an archaic remnant. Yet this verse is included in the daily Jewish liturgy, morning and evening. When Jews sing “Mi chamokha” (“Who is like You?”) we do not always remember that we are comparing our God with other gods.
Yitro and the First Commandment
In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, the Midianite priest Yitro meets his son-in-law Moses near Mt. Sinai a few days after God and Moses have brought the Israelites out of Egypt.
And Yitro said: “Blessed be Y-h-w-h, Who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh…Now I know that Y-h-w-h is greater than all the elohim…” (Exodus/Shemot 18:11)
elohim (אֱלֺהִים) = gods, god, God. (Grammatically elohim is the plural of eloha, a rarely used word for a god. But the Bible uses the word elohim to refer to a single god as well as to multiple gods. Elohim refers occasionally to a foreign god2, and frequently to the God of Israel, Y-h-w-h.)
Does Yitro believe in the existence of multiple gods only because he is a Midianite? No; many passages in the Bible that were originally written before the destruction of the first temple in 587 B.C.E. share this belief. Even the first of the “Ten Commandments” in this week’s Torah portion does not require monotheism, but only a henotheistic religion in which Y-h-w-h is the best god and the only one the people are allowed to worship.
I am Y-h-w-h, your elohim, Who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of servitude. You shall have no other elohim over and above My presence. (Exodus/Shemot 20:2-3)
(For other translations, see my post Yitro: Not in My Face.)
Y-h-w-h does not say that there are no other gods, but only that the Israelites must not have them.
A number of psalms3 are similarly henotheistic, at least in the Hebrew. (Some translators strain to make them sound as monotheistic as later Biblical writings.) These psalms treat other gods as real, but emphasize that they are weak and worthless compared with Y-h-w-h, the God of Israel. Here are three examples:
Psalm 29 is probably the oldest of the henotheistic psalms. It opens:
Grant to Y-h-w-h, children of eilim,
Grant to Y-h-w-h magnificence and might!
Grant to Y-h-w-h the magnificence of Its name,
Bow down to Y-h-w-h of holy beauty!
The voice of Y-h-w-h is over the waters;
The eil of magnificence is thundering. (Psalm 29:1-3)
Canaanite poems describe the god Baal as the weather god who speaks in thunder and makes lightning and earthquakes. Psalm 29 goes on to describe the voice of Y-h-w-h as shattering cedars, making the mountains of Lebanon dance, kindling fire, shaking the wilderness, and startling does into giving birth—all images related to thunderstorms and earthquakes.
Then the psalm declares:
And in Its palace everyone says: Magnificent!
Y-h-w-h sat [enthroned] for the flood,
And Y-h-w-h sits [enthroned as] king forever. (Exodus 29:10)
Similarly, in Canaanite literature the god Baal conquers the waters of chaos, builds a palace on a mountaintop, and becomes king over all the other gods except his father, Eil.
The purpose of Psalm 29 may have been to replace Baal-worship among the Israelites with the worship of Y-h-w-h, and to persuade them that all the other gods are less powerful than Y-h-w-h, the mere “children of eilim”. These inferior gods acclaim and bow down to Y-h-w-h in Its palace.
In Canaanite religious writings from Ugarit, the father god Eil periodically convenes an assembly of the gods, each of whom has its own sphere of power. With advice from the other gods, Eil makes the major decisions about the world.4
Psalm 82, however, takes the idea a divine assembly in a different direction.
Elohim takes a stand in the assembly of Eil,
Among elohim he pronounces judgment. (Psalm 82:1)
In the first line “Elohim” refers to Y-h-w-h; in the second line “elohim” refers to all the assembled gods. “Eil” in the first line might be either Y-h-w-h or the Canaanite father god.
Y-h-w-h then accuses the other gods of unjust rulings that favor the wicked and fail to rescue the poor. But the other gods don’t get it.
They neither know nor understand,
They walk around in darkness;
Causing all the foundations of the earth to totter. (Psalm 82:5)
Without true justice, the whole human world is threatened. So Y-h-w-h gets rid of the ignorant lesser gods, commenting:
I used to say to myself: You are elohim,
And children of the Most High, all of you.
Nevertheless, you will die like humans,
And you will fall like one of the princes. (Psalm 82:6-7)
Psalm 82 might be an explanation of why the wicked are not always punished: inferior gods have been acting as judges.
On the other hand, this psalm might be a story exhorting the Israelites to abandon other gods because they are wicked, stupid, and no longer immortal. Only Y-h-w-h is worth worshiping, because only Y-h-w-h administers true justice and lives forever.
The heavens told of [God’s] true justice;
All the peoples saw Its magnificence.
Every worshiper of a carved idol is shamed,
Those who boast of the elilim.
All elohim bowed down to It! (Psalm 97:6-7)
elilim (אֱלִילִים) = worthless gods, nonentities, not-gods, insignificant gods.
“The heavens” in verse 6 probably refers not to the inanimate sky, but to the gods (including stars) who dwell in the heavens. Since even the other gods bow down to Y-h-w-h and acknowledge Its justice, anyone silly enough to worship these insignificant gods should be ashamed.
According to the Bible, it took many centuries for the Israelites to stop worshiping the old gods. The people would declare their allegiance to Y-h-w-h, and then slide back into worshiping some other god, a god “everyone” knew was especially effective at inflicting or solving the problem they were dealing with at the moment.
Henotheism was a hard enough concept. Monotheism was truly radical. After second Isaiah started preaching true monotheism during the Babylonian exile, who knows how long it took before most Israelites believed there was only one god in the universe?
I suspect that psalms and hymns were the most effective way to change the people’s beliefs. The “Ten Commandments” are powerful, but not persuasive. The Bible often shows Moses and other prophets and priests scolding the Israelites for straying after other gods, but the scoldings must have been ineffective, since the people kept on backsliding.
A message embedded in a psalm is different. Music kindles people’s emotions. When I read the words of a psalm or hymn silently, I often have theological objections. But when I sing at services, I am often carried away with the feeling of the song. And the underlying message of the song stays with me, in my heart or my gut.
My advice to religious seekers is to choose your religion carefully, so you do not get emotionally carried away in the wrong direction. And my advice to religious leaders is to make sure the singing is good.
1 I usually translate the four-letter name as “God”, but in this post it is important to distinguish Y-h-w-h from elohim. I insert hyphens because according to Jewish tradition, God’s personal name must not be spelled correctly in writings that are neither biblical nor liturgical. For many Jews this applies even to spelling the name with Roman letters.
The Hebrew for “lord” or “master” is adon (אָדוֹן). When Jews read out loud in religious services, we often substitute adonai (“my lords”) for the four-letter name of God.
2 The Bible uses “elohim” as a singular noun for the gods Baal, Baal-berit, Baal-zebub, Dagon, Kemosh, Milkom, and Nisrach; the goddesses Astarte and Ashtoret; and the golden calf.
3 Psalms 29, 82, 86, 89, 95, 96, 97, 135, and 136 all assume the existence of other gods.
4 A divine assembly also appears in the book of Job and in Psalms 82 and 89.
Tags: chosen people, haftarah, monotheism, prophet Amos, torah portion
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). This week the Torah portion is Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27) and the haftarah is Amos 9:7-15.
Because God chose to rescue the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, the Israelites owe God their fealty and obedience. This idea appears throughout the Hebrew Bible and Jewish liturgy, including this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim (“Holy”):
I myself am God, your god, who brought you out from the land of Egypt. And you must observe all my decrees and all my laws and do them; I am God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 19:36)
And you shall be holy to me, because I, God, am holy, and I separated you from the other peoples to be mine. (Leviticus 20:26)
Other peoples have their own gods. But the god that chose the Israelites as its own people is superior to all those other gods, according to the early books of the Torah. The miracles God made in Egypt prove it.
The book of Deuteronomy, which was probably written in the mid-seventh century B.C.E., offers the Bible’s first definite statement of monotheism, the belief that there is only one god in the whole universe.
God is “the gods” in the heavens above and on the earth below; there is no other. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 4:39)
In this book the Israelites become the chosen people of the one and only god.
For you are a sacred people for God, your god, and God chose you to be Its am segulah out of all the peoples that are on the face of the earth. (Deuteronomy 14:2)
am segulah (עַם סְגֻלָּה) = a people (am) of personal possession (segulah); personally chosen people.
Yet a hundred years earlier the prophet Amos had already hinted at monotheism with his claim that the same God is in charge of all the nations on earth. Amos was the first prophet to declare that God punishes wrong-doers in every country, not just the two kingdoms of the Israelites.
The book of Amos begins with dire prophecies of the downfall of every small country in the region: Aram and its capital, Damascus; the four city-states of the Philistines, from Gaza to Ekron; the Phoenician city-state of Tyre; the kingdoms of Edom, Ammon, and Moab; the southern Israelite kingdom of Judah; and the northern Israelite kingdom of Israel.
Amos says God will decree their destruction because of their various misdeeds. He does not mention the rising Assyrian Empire, which had already begun conquering or subjugating the small states to its west. But most prophets assumed that God used foreign armies to punish people. (See my post Haftarah for Bo—Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies.)
In the last chapter, this week’s haftarah, Amos questions the whole idea that God and the Israelites have a special relationship.
“Didn’t I bring Israel up from the land of Egypt,
“And the Philistines from Crete,
“And Aram from Kyr?
Hey! The eyes of my master, God
Are on the sinful kingdom.
“And I will wipe it off from the face of the earth.
“However, I will certainly not wipe out the house of Jacob”
—declares God. (Amos 9:7-8)
Kushiyim (כֻשִׁיִּים) = Kushites, black-skinned people, people from Kush (a region identified with Sudan and Ethiopia). Elsewhere the Bible treats Kushites like other foreigners from distant lands, countries with which Israel and Judah had no quarrel.
So what if God brought the Israelites out of Egypt? God also brought other peoples to new lands. In the book of Amos, God does not play favorites. In fact, Amos predicts that God is about to wipe out the northern kingdom of Israel—though some Israelites (a.k.a. the house of Jacob) will survive, and someday their descendants will return.
(The Assyrians did capture the capital of Israel, Samaria, in 720 B.C.E., and deported much of its population. Some northern Israelites fled south to the kingdom of Judah, which also considered itself part of the house of Jacob. Judah survived as a semi-independent vassal state of Assyria until the empire was conquered by the Babylonians around 610 B.C.E.)
It is tempting to read this week’s haftarah as an early statement of universalism: “Everyone is special, everyone is chosen in a different way.” At least Amos, unlike many other books in the Hebrew Bible, avoids triumphalism: “Only we are special, only we are chosen.” But I suspect Amos’s real point is: “Who do you think you are? You’re not so special!”
Nevertheless, the book of Amos is a good antidote to the common late biblical view that there is only one god, and God singled out the Israelites to be Its personal possession.
Today, nobody follows the religion of the ancient Israelites, with its animal sacrifices and its laws about the sub-human status of slaves, women, children, and innocent bystanders in war. The Jewish religion has become much more ethical than the Israelite religion portrayed in the Torah.
Yet many people today, Jews and non-Jews, believe that their own religion is the only right one, the only true religion—and therefore they and their co-religionists are God’s chosen people.
I pray that we all receive the divine inspiration Amos received, and realize that God is not like a biased parent or teacher, singling out one child for extra benefits. God rescues lots of people and brings them to new lands. In God’s eyes, Israelites are the same as Kushiyim.
None of us are chosen ahead of time. We must make our own choices to become holy people.