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: Behar, God, holy place, idols, Leviticus, other gods, religion, torah portion
Feeling a sense of the numinous or the divine, from time to time, is human nature. So is the impulse to acknowledge and reach out to the ineffable. For thousands of years, many human beings have channeled this impulse into worship of one or more gods.
The Hebrew Bible does not have a separate word corresponding to the English word “worship”. But it does have words for prayer (tefillah), bowing down or prostrating oneself (hishtachavot), service (avodah—often meaning the tasks of priests), and bringing offerings to a god (hakriv korban). Prayer and prostration usually happen on the impulse of the moment in the Torah. Priestly service and bringing offerings, on the other hand, are rituals for which the book of Leviticus/Vayikra gives detailed rules.
But the most important thing is which god one is addressing. The Torah repeatedly warms its readers to restrict themselves to only one god out of the many available in the ancient Middle East. This week’s Torah portion, Behar (“on the mountain”) ends with these instructions:
You must not make for yourselves eliylim, or a pesel; and a matzeivah you must not erect for yourselves; and a maskit stone you must not place in your land for prostrations upon it; because I, God, am your elohim. (Leviticus/Vayikra 26:1)
eliylim (אֱלִילִם) = pseudo-gods (often used to refer to gods in other religions)
pesel (פֶּסֶל) = carved image; idol of cut stone or wood (from the verb pasal = carve)
matzeivah (מַצֵּבָה) = standing-stone
maskit (מַשׂכּית) = paving-stone with a design on it, set into the floor of a shrine
elohim (אֱלֹהִים) = gods (plural of eloha = god); God
What strikes me about this warning is that after the general reference to pseudo-gods, we get three examples of idols associated with stone. In contrast, the God of the four-letter name (approximated in English by Y-H-V-H) is associated with a day of rest and a holy place in the next verse:
Shabbetotai you must guard, and mikdashi you must hold in awe; I am God. (Leviticus 26:2)
shabbetotai (שַׁבְּתֹתַי) = my sabbaths
mikdashi (מִקְדָּשִׁי) = my holy place
Shabbat, the sabbath, is a holy time: one day a week when the people must refrain from labor and honor God. A mikdash is a holy place. A shrine with a pesel, matzeivah, or maskit stone might be a mikdash for another god. But this week’s Torah portion quotes the god of Israel as saying mikdashi, MY mikdash. Throughout the book of Leviticus, God’s mikdash is the portable sanctuary Moses assembles in the book of Exodus; God becomes present above the ark in the sanctuary’s innermost chamber. Later in the Bible, the holy place where God becomes present is the temple in Jerusalem. Since the fall of the second temple, some Jews have viewed Jerusalem as God’s holy place, while others have said holy place is any spot where God becomes present to a human being—as long as it is the correct god.
Both the pseudo-gods and the God of Israel require human actions before they can be worshipped. Humans carve the pseudo-gods out of stones. Humans set aside times and places as holy to the God of the four-letter name.
Like many religious seekers today, I like the more abstract idea of how to approach God. Thinking about time and space dazzles me; looking at a stone sculpture only stimulates my aesthetic sense. But in Biblical times, the sanctuary or the temple was full of tangible objects and decorations made of metals, wood, and thread. Gold flashed, rich colors glowed. And the second temple was built of stone.
A visit to the temple meant not only a feast for the eyes, but an overwhelming experience for the other senses. The Levites chanted psalms and played musical instruments. Priests burned aromatic incense. When you brought any animal offering, you laid your hands on the beast’s hairy head. When you brought a wholeness-offering, a priest burned selected portions into smoke for God, and ate his own portion, but the donor and his guests ate the rest of the meat and bread.
When we make God too abstract, we approach the divine with only one part of ourselves, the rational function of our minds. But our minds are much bigger than that. Reading a prayer silently makes me think about the meaning of words; singing a prayer lifts my spirit. Thinking about time and space dazzles my intellect; looking at a blossoming tree or a smiling face moves my heart with a feeling of the divine.
So I have to reinterpret the phrase: I, God (the four-letter Y-H-V-H name), am your elohim. Most translations use “the LORD”, a variation of “Y-H-V-H”, or Hashem (“the Name”) for the first god-word, and “God” (always capitalized) for elohim. Yet elohim is a plural, and the Torah occasionally uses the word to refer to multiple gods worshipped by other peoples.
When I come to that phrase, in prayers or in this passage from the portion Behar, I think: I, God, am all gods to you.
In other words, do not get stranded in abstract theories, however dazzling to the intellect. And do not get stuck at the level of a stone carving. Let the stone, or the singing of psalms, or the taste of bread move your heart. Use your head to recognize that the divine is also more than an exalted feeling. And then acknowledge that these things are all part of the holy One.