Is Polytheism in the Bible?

Recently, Dr. James White, the owner of the Prosapologian chat channel [a channel I would highly recommend by the way] brought this article to my attention, and I would like to address it here. When you are dealing with liberal OT scholarship, we must remember the crucial role of basic, fundamental assumptions in interpretation. If you approach the text with the fundamental assumption that Israel developed from polytheistic religions, and then only later became monotheistic, then that will affect how you read the scriptures. I mention this because some readings of individual passages, although possible in isolation, would be utterly impossible if we were to allow to text itself to define its own world. That is why liberals have to come up with theories of redaction because they know, if you take the Bible as a whole, there is no way you can take the statements they usually point to as meaning what they want it to mean.

This comes out very clearly in the beginning of the article:

The first of the Ten Commandments says, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3). (There are two very different sets of Ten Commandments in Exodus, but let’s ignore that for now.)

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 the early days of the Israelite religion (roughly 10th century BCE) 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.

As someone whose main area of linguistics is pragmatics, this is certainly a legitimate maneuver. It is based upon an area of pragmatics known as “presupposition.” Presupposition is define by Yan Huang as “an inference or proposition whose truth is taken for granted in the utterance of a sentence1. He goes on to point out that there are certain presupposition triggers which can trigger presuppositions:

The president of the company does not like coffee with his breakfast.
>>There is a president of the company.

I know you are sad.
>>You are sad.

Have you stopped beating your wife yet?
>>You were beating your wife.

I went back to Prince Edward Island.
>>I was at Prince Edward Island.

Before they came together, Mary was found to be with child.
>>They came together.

Many such triggers exist, but I list these just so that we can understand what we are talking about when we talk about linguistic presupposition. The argument of the author of this text is the following:

You shall have no other gods before Me.
>>There are other gods.

Such is perfectly legitimate, and is very similar to the first example I gave about the president of the company. Unfortunately, there is a problem with this analysis, and that is that one of the key elements of linguistic presupposition is its defeasability. Stephen C. Levinson writes:

One of the peculiar things about presuppositions is that they are liable to evaporate in certain contexts, either immediate linguistic context or the less immediate discourse context, or in circumstances where contrary assumptions are made2.

Let us take the example that Levinson himself uses, and that involves the usage of the word “know.” Normally, this is a presupposition trigger:

Katie knows that John has Asperger’s Syndrome.
>>John has Asperger’s Syndrome.

However, if we change from the third person to the first person, and we negate the verb, now the presupposition doesn’t come through:

I don’t know that John has Asperger’s Syndrome.
~>>John has Asperger Syndrome.

What is important to us here is that presuppositions can disappear, as Huang says, “in the face of inconsistencies with background assumptions or real-world knowledge3.” Take the following statement in the context of a boy opening up a baseball signed by Bob Lemon:

Wow, Grandpa! You are more generous than Santa Claus!
~>>There is a Santa Claus

The reason why this presupposition does not follow is because, although there is a presupposition trigger, our background knowledge that there is no Santa Claus will defeat the presupposition that there is a Santa Claus. This, of course, raises the question as to whether modal logic plays a role in presupposition4. In the example above, Santa Claus only exists in a possible world, and not in the actual world. Hence, because Santa Claus is a possible being and not an actual being, it will defeat the presupposition that there is a Santa Claus.

Wow, Grandpa! You are more generous than Santa Claus!
◇There is a Santa Claus
~>>There is a Santa Claus

The same analysis can be applied on the example the author of the article under review is using:

You shall have no other gods before Me.
◇There are other gods
~>>There are other gods.

However, again, all of this presumes that the existence of these other gods is only in possible worlds, and not in the actual world. It deals with theories of what is true in the actual world, versus what is only theoretical. The issue is whether or not the author of the text conceives of these other gods as possible beings or as actual beings. Of course, that is going to depend heavily on your background assumptions about the author himself. Indeed, I would argue that the issue of whether these gods exist in the actual world or the possible world is going to be based upon your fundamental assumptions about reality, and how those effect the development of religion. However, as long as one can simply argue that the author conceives of these gods as only existing in possible worlds, then the presupposition is cancelled.

There is one other argument that needs to be mentioned in passing at this point, and that is the argument that we have found idols to other gods from ancient Israel, and that proves that they conceived of these gods as real. Of course, that confuses the official religion of Israel as found in the Bible with the folk religion of the common people. In fact, the scriptures themselves tell us that the people of Israel went after other gods, and did, indeed, conceive of them as real, and the prophets condemn such action, which would indicate that these other gods were acceptable in the folk religion, but not in official Israelite religion.

After saying that he believes that Israelite religion is henotheistic, he writes:

The Song of Moses (Deut. 32) is considered to be some of the oldest material in the Bible—dating to the mid-13th c. 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. Elyon (short for El Elyon) is the chief god, not just in Jewish writings but in Canaanite literature. The passage concludes with Yahweh getting Israel as his inheritance.

First of all, it is difficult to understand what he means by “somewhat-inconsistent copies.” Is he referring to textual variation? Hard to say. I assume he is referring to the fact that there is a textual variant here [the phrase “sons of God” actually has a variant which reads “sons of Israel” which is found in the MT]. Also, I am wondering where he is getting this notion of “the sons of the gods.” I assume that he is thinking the original reading is אלהים, and because it is a plural, it must mean that we can translate it as “gods.” He might go to 4QDeutq where the original reading is אלוהים. However, it is also possible that the original reading was אל, and that it was expanded to אלהים. Sidnie White Crawford also states that this would explain the reading בני ישראל5. All one would need to do is insert the Hebrew term ישר before אל, and it would look like בני ישראל. She argues that this could have been done to make a polytheistic text a monotheistic text in its final redaction. I am not convinced that the postulation of redaction is necessary for this to be true. It might also simply be the case that, given the pagan god אל, a later scribe may have wanted to distinguish אל here from the pagan deity of the nations surrounding him6. However, even if the original is אלהים, one has to argue for the translation “gods,” and not just assume it. It would make perfect sense that God allots portions of lands to the nations, and that he then takes up Israel as his prized possession.

However, he has an argument for understanding אלהים as “gods” rather than “God” here. Here is how he explains it:

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. Elyon (short for El Elyon) is the chief god, not just in Jewish writings but in Canaanite literature. The passage concludes with Yahweh getting Israel as his inheritance.

We learn more about terms like “sons of the gods” by widening our focus to consider Ugaritic (Canaanite) texts. Ugarit was a Canaanite city destroyed along with much of the Ancient Near East during the Bronze Age Collapse in roughly 1200 BCE, a period of widespread chaos from which Israelite civilization seems to have grown.

The Ugaritic texts state that El and his consort Asherah had 70 sons, which may be the origin of the 70 nations (or 72) that came from Noah’s descendants listed in Genesis 10.

One of the problems with the line of argumentation in this article is the exegetical fallacy of parallelomania. You can find parallels to almost anything, but the question is whether the context and collocations of terms are sufficient to establish a parallel to a particular Ancient Near Eastern [ANE] text. However, even if a parallel is established, one must also note both similarities and differences. Even Dennis Pardee, who is one of the world’s experts on Ugaritic, stated that “identity or similarity of vocabulary may not be taken as indications that practice and ideology were the same7.” Indeed, our author falls badly into that trap here, taking the similarity in vocabulary between ‘ilu in Ugaritic and אלהים used here to mean exactly a similarity in ideology. Similarities as well as differences must be taken into account.

Aside from the mere fact that these two words come from the same root, he tries to argue that El and Asherah had 70 sons, and he tries to connect this to the 72 sons of Noah. What he is referring to is this text from Tablet IV column VI lines 44-46 of the Baal Epic:

ṣḥ aḫh bbhth
aryh bqrb hklh
ṣḥ šb‘m bn atrt8

He [Baal] invites his brothers into his house
his siblings into his temple.
He invites the seventy sons of Athirat.

Hence, because El had 70 sons, and Noah had about 70 sons, that must mean that this is where the story of Noah came from. Of course, the problem is that the term אלהים is used of God separate from Noah in the Genesis narrative itself [see, for example 6:13, 22]. Worse than that, it is not even an accurate understanding of the Baal epic. The context of tablet IV column VI is a banquet that Baal puts on for his brothers in his new house. The very next lines after the section which mentions his brothers, we find the following:

špq ilm krm
yšpq ilht ḫprt
špq ilm alpm
yšpq ilht arḫt

He brings out rams to the gods.
He brings out young lambs to the goddesses.
He brings out cows to the gods.
He brings out female cows to the goddesses.

Notice how, in the very next line Baal’s brothers, El’s children, are identified as gods. Why is it that Noah’s sons are not identified as gods in the Biblical text? Hence, the differences at this point between the Baal epic and the table of nations are far greater than the surface similarities. In the Genesis account, Noah and God are two different people, and his sons are mere humans. In the Baal epic, El is a deity who directly has sons who are likewise gods.

Our author continues:

The Old Testament is full of clues to the existence of 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) and that they must confused mankind’s languages lest their projects, like the Tower of Babel, succeed (Gen. 11:7).

A common Christian spin is either to say that the “us” is the Trinity or that it is a heavenly assembly of angels. But can we imagine that the original audience for Genesis would understand the Trinity? And why imagine an angelic assembly when the polytheistic interpretation of Genesis simply growing out of preceding Canaanite culture is available and plausible?

Again, this is simply not allowing for differences between the text and its neighbors, simply on the basis of the usage of plural pronouns. Let us take a look at all of these texts one by one, in their context:

Genesis 1:26-27 Then God said, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” 27 God created [ויברא] man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.

The reason I inserted the Hebrew for “created” is because the verb there is singular. And yet, it is parallel to Genesis 1:26:

ויאמר אלהים נעשה אדם בצלמנו :Genesis 1:26
ויברא אלהים את אדם בצלמו :Genesis 1:27

There are a few differences between these two texts. “Create” [ברא] is used in verse 27, while “make” [נעשה] is used in verse 26, and verse 26 adds “and God said.” Yet, nevertheless, the same word for God is used [אלהים], the same word for man is used [אדם], the same word for “image” is used [צלם], and even the same preposition “in” is used [ב]. And, although the two words “create” [ברא] and “make” [נעשה] are different, they are virtual synonyms, especially in the context of creation, and God [אלהים] is the subject of both! Yet, in the first verse the verb is plural, and in the second verse, the verb is singular. Would that not be an indication that we are dealing both with unity and plurality? That is why many Christians do believe that this is dealing with the persons of the Godhead. Now, that doesn’t mean that interpretation is correct, but it does show, at very least, that we are talking about one God creating, because the very next verse uses the singular. No pagan text does that, and that is why it is obvious that the parallels to pagan texts are being carefully avoided.

A similar refutation can be given of the other texts in Genesis he cites:

Genesis 3:22-23 Then the LORD God said, “Behold, the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever “– 23 therefore the LORD God sent him out [וישלחהו] from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken.

Again, וישלחהו is singular. It is as a result of man becoming like “one of us” [plural], that God [singular] sends him out of the garden. The use of the singular pronouns immediately after the plural, at very least, show that only one God is meant.

Genesis 11:7-9 “Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.” 8 So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. 9 Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.

Again, look at the parallel between verse 7 and verse 9:

הבה נרדה ונבלה שם שפתם :Genesis 11:7
כי שם בלל יהוה שפת כל הארץ :Genesis 11:9

Again, as with Genesis 1:26 and 1:27, the parallels are striking. The same word for “confound” [בלל] is used, the adverb “there” [שם] is the same, as is the word for language [שפה]. And yet, again, when Yhwh confounds the languages in verse 7 it is plural, and in verse 9 it is singular [בלל].

In all of these instances, the author switches back to the singular in the exact same context to make it clear that we are talking about only one God. As for the plurality, could it be the Trinity? It would certainly seem to be suggested with the singular and plural so closely linked. However, I would not rule out other [non-polytheistic] explanations.

Our author continues:

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 (Ps. 82:1).

For who in the skies can compare to [Jehovah]? Who is like [Jehovah] among the [sons of God], a God who is honored [in the great assembly of the holy ones], and more awesome than all who surround him? (Ps. 89:6–7)

We can use a similar analysis to refute his use of Psalm 82:1 as we used to refute his use of Exodus 20:3, however, I would modify it here to fit the context. These “gods” clearly do exist, as they judge. However, are they conceived of as gods in the actual world, or in a possible world? If the author conceives of these judges as gods in a possible world then then what would be the point of conceiving of them in this way? Simply to mock them. These judges think that they are gods, in that they get to judge however they want without any regard for the justice of Yhwh. Hence, Yhwh would be conceiving of them as gods in order to mock them, in the same way that people from the middle ages conceived of Satan as having horns, a pitchfork, and a pointy tail in order to mock him. These are unjust “gods,” but they do not know, understand, and walk around in darkness while the all the foundations of the earth is shaken. Yhwh would then be saying, “Okay, I will ‘give in’ and say you are gods; but you will die like men!” This is the language of mockery. They have set themselves up as gods and Yhwh picks up on that conception in order to mock them.

However, it is even more complicated than that. Another possibility, which is really attractive, is brought forward by Marvin Tate in his commentary. He actually believes that the author is conceiving of pagan gods and the unjust judges of earth as identical. You have to understand that the religions of the ANE saw an intimate connection between what happens with the gods up in heaven and what happens to men on earth, as can be seen in works like the Baal epic. Tate writes:

Despite its exegetical weakness, however, the old tradition of relating Ps 82 to human actions has a strong element of truth in it. Niehr (ZAW99 [1987] 94-98) argues that to conclude that Ps 82 must be understood as either relating to gods or to human beings is a false alternative. Both are involved because God’s judgment of the gods has its parallel in God’s judgment of the unjust human officials (Niehr attempts to ground God’s judgment in the psalm in the social critique of the rulers in the eighth century B.C.E., which need not detain us here). In the content of the Bible, there is a persistent nexus between the heavenly realm and the realm of the world. Judgmental activity on earth interacts with that administered by heavenly authorities (cf. Kraus I, 576). The gods as patrons of the various nations were responsible for the type of kings, judges, and officials they appointed and empowered; however, the gods, not even Yahweh, do not act directly. Their will is administered by human agents, who are extensions of the divine presence in earthly affairs. Thus the judgment of the gods is at the same time a judgment of their human agents8.

If this is the case, then the gods can still be seen as conceived of entirely in the possible world, but their conception still produces unjust actions in the real world. Indeed, what people believe does affect how they act in the real world, whether they conceive of it in actual worlds or possible worlds. This view is very attractive as it fits, not only with ANE pagan religion, but it also makes sense in the context, because Psalm 81 addressed the issue of idolatry in Israel [Psalm 81:9-10]. Hence, it would fit with the themes at this point in book III of the Psalms.

The next passage is very easy to answer, especially if you understand the theology of the Hebrew Bible. Our author quotes Psalm 89:6-7:

Psalm 89:6-7 For who in the skies is comparable to the LORD? Who among the sons of the mighty is like the LORD, 7 A God greatly feared in the council of the holy ones, And awesome above all those who are around Him?

He wants to say that “the council of the holy ones” is a reference to some council of gods. However, the context makes that impossible:

Psalm 89:1-7 Maskil of Ethan the Ezrahite. I will sing of the lovingkindness of the LORD forever; To all generations I will make known Your faithfulness with my mouth. 2 For I have said, “Lovingkindness will be built up forever; In the heavens You will establish Your faithfulness.” 3 “I have made a covenant with My chosen; I have sworn to David My servant, 4 I will establish your seed forever And build up your throne to all generations.” Selah. 5 The heavens will praise Your wonders, O LORD; Your faithfulness also in the assembly of the holy ones. 6 For who in the skies is comparable to the LORD? Who among the sons of the mighty is like the LORD, 7 A God greatly feared in the council of the holy ones, And awesome above all those who are around Him?

Notice that the context of this Psalm is God’s covenant faithfulness which he has shown to his people. Of course, Israel is called “holy” before God many times in the Hebrew scriptures, because God set them up as his special people to dwell among them. Hence, “the assembly of the holy ones” is not other gods, but it is the assembly of the people of Israel9. Either way, assuming we are dealing with pagan deities in this text shows a ton of bias.

Our author continues:

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)

Again, one must ask whether these gods are being conceived of in actual worlds or possible worlds. If someone said to the grandfather who gave the boy an autographed Bob Lemon baseball “Santa Claus needs to give you a certificate saying that you are the most generous person alive,” would that, again mean that Santa Claus exists? According to the way he treated Psalm 97:7 it would!

The problem is that the author does not share much of his presuppositions with us. He is an atheist, and he will not admit that it affects how he deals with the pragmatics of the text. It is amazing to see such blindness, but, then again, that is what the Bible says sin does to a person.

Our author continues:

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

Here is the post he is talking about. Here is the text with its context:

2 Kings 3:26-27 When the king of Moab saw that the battle was too fierce for him, he took with him 700 men who drew swords, to break through to the king of Edom; but they could not. 27 Then he took his oldest son who was to reign in his place, and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall. And there came great wrath against Israel, and they departed from him and returned to their own land.

The context is an attack of Moab against Israel to try to free the Moabites from subjection to the Israelites. He suggests here that the way we should understand this text is that Chemosh was the one who sent out the divine wrath. Of course, again, that is entirely questionable. Why do you suppose you have verses 1-3 of this chapter introducing the evil that Jehoram did in the eyes of Yhwh? What if the wrath was the wrath of Yhwh, and not the wrath of Chemosh? In fact, what is interesting is that Chemosh is not even mentioned in the Biblical text as the god to whom Mesha sacrificed. The only reason we know that is because of the Mesha inscription. The point is that God allowed the Israelites to be successful to a point, but his wrath was eventually kindled against them because of the disobedience mentioned in verses 1-3. If you don’t say that the wrath was the wrath of Yhwh, then you have verses 1-3 hanging out there with no relationship to the narrative that follows.

When you put the events together with the Mesha inscription, it really does make a lot of sense. Israel crushes the rebellion, but Moab still manages to push Israel out of their land. Thus, although the Moabites were delivered into their hands, they were unable to completely conquer Moab because of this divine wrath. Israel, didn’t “get their butt kicked,” as our author suggests. In fact, the text specifically said that the took victory after victory just as God had said:

2 Kings 3:24-25 But when they came to the camp of Israel, the Israelites arose and struck the Moabites, so that they fled before them; and they went forward into the land, slaughtering the Moabites. 25 Thus they destroyed the cities; and each one threw a stone on every piece of good land and filled it. So they stopped all the springs of water and felled all the good trees, until in Kir-hareseth only they left its stones; however, the slingers went about it and struck it.

The problem is, although they were able to crush the rebellion, would they end up with final victory, and be able to conquer Moab? God’s words were ambiguous. Would he deliver them over into their hand in the *individual battles* that would follow, or would he deliver them into their hands in terms of the *entire war?* God did not specifically say, because he was going to visit his wrath upon the disobedient Israelites. The point of the passage is that God cares more about the heart, and he wants the heart to be right. He was willing to crush the rebellion for the sake of the king of Judah, who was the promised seed of the line of David10 [2 Kings 3:14 also cf 2 Kings 8:19]. However, he would not allow them to finally conquer Moab, because their hearts were still not right with him [Deuteronomy 28:25-26].

We find one indication of the move from henotheism to monotheism in later versions of the Song of Moses (above). The phrase “sons of the gods” becomes “angels” in the Septuagint (3rd century BCE) and “sons of Israel” in the Masoretic text (7th through 10th centuries CE).

As I side note, I do reject his translation “the gods” as I believe he is engaging in parallelomania, but I would also say that the reason why the LXX has αγγελων θεου is because they are interpreting the phrase בני אלהים. The use of αγγελος to translate בני אלהים also occurs at Job 1:6, 2:1, and 38:7. Are these evidences of the suppression of polytheism too? No, it appears that the understanding of the phrase “the sons of God” [בני אלהים] as “angels” [αγγελοι] was a common interpretation.

Deuteronomy was written after the conquest of Israel and before the conquest of Judah, in the 7th century BCE. The philosophy has moved from henotheism to monolatry. Like henotheism, many gods are accepted and only one is worshipped, but now worship of other gods is forbidden.

Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you (Deut. 6:14)

But you must not turn away from all the commandments I am giving you today, to either the right or left, nor pursue other gods and worship them (Deut. 28:14–15).

It is amazing how someone can make a dogmatic statement about the book of Deuteronomy, and when it was written, especially since the book says that it is the words of Moses in the wilderness just before Israel enters the land. What we have here is an assumption of a theory of redaction of some kind [probably one of the millions of versions of JEDP], without any justification whatsoever. More than that, the man avoids the notion that this is a contradiction with his interpretation of Deuteronomy 32 by positing a redaction. The problem is, all of this is mere speculation. I can make any theory that I want about any text, and then, when the data doesn’t fit my theory, I can just say, “Well, that part of the data was inserted later.” It is arbitrary speculation. Here, a man who is an atheist, who is an empiricist has to totally abandon his empiricism, and posit a redaction to a text which he cannot empirically verify. However, as I have been saying all along, this is what sin does to a person.

Second Isaiah was written later, near the end of the Babylonian exile. Here we read that the move is complete.

Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me (Isa. 43:10)

The very idea of an idol is lampooned in Isa. 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. How could Yahweh, clearly defined as the most powerful of the assembly of gods, have been defeated by the puny Babylonian god Marduk?

Maybe Yahweh let it happen to teach Israel and Judah a lesson. Yeah, that’s the ticket! Babylon didn’t defeat Yahweh’s people; they were merely a pawn in his grand plan all along.

Of course, the notion of a “second Isaiah” which was written at the end of the Babylonian exile has been completely challenged as well, by many scholars who have noted the literary continuity between first an second Isaiah. At least this author is showing us the presuppositions with which he is approaching this text. He is an atheist and a humanist. However, he is simply getting rid of the data that doesn’t fit his theories about the text, and dating them to when he wants to. That is called being arbitrary.

Also, the notion of the exile was predicted long before it ever happened, clear back in the book of Deuteronomy, which he himself dates from the time period before the exile!:

Deuteronomy 29:22 – 30:6 “Now the generation to come, your sons who rise up after you and the foreigner who comes from a distant land, when they see the plagues of the land and the diseases with which the LORD has afflicted it, will say, 23 ‘All its land is brimstone and salt, a burning waste, unsown and unproductive, and no grass grows in it, like the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the LORD overthrew in His anger and in His wrath.’ 24 “All the nations will say, ‘Why has the LORD done thus to this land? Why this great outburst of anger?’ 25 “Then men will say, ‘Because they forsook the covenant of the LORD, the God of their fathers, which He made with them when He brought them out of the land of Egypt. 26 ‘They went and served other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they have not known and whom He had not allotted to them. 27 ‘Therefore, the anger of the LORD burned against that land, to bring upon it every curse which is written in this book; 28 and the LORD uprooted them from their land in anger and in fury and in great wrath, and cast them into another land, as it is this day.’ 29 “The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever, that we may observe all the words of this law. NAU Deuteronomy 30:1 “So it shall be when all of these things have come upon you, the blessing and the curse which I have set before you, and you call them to mind in all nations where the LORD your God has banished you, 2 and you return to the LORD your God and obey Him with all your heart and soul according to all that I command you today, you and your sons, 3 then the LORD your God will restore you from captivity, and have compassion on you, and will gather you again from all the peoples where the LORD your God has scattered you. 4 “If your outcasts are at the ends of the earth, from there the LORD your God will gather you, and from there He will bring you back. 5 “The LORD your God will bring you into the land which your fathers possessed, and you shall possess it; and He will prosper you and multiply you more than your fathers. 6 “Moreover the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your descendants, to love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, so that you may live.

Not only does this passage say that God would take them into exile, it says that he would do so because of their sin, and it says that he would restore them because of their repentance.

However, I guarantee you what he would do when faced with that prophecy of the exile which interprets the exile as happening because of their sin is he will say that this passage of Deuteronomy was added after the exile. You get the picture. If something refutes your theory, just redact it to a place where it fits your theory. Given this logic, any theory works. I can apply any theory to any text I want, and just redact the parts of the text to the places I want to make the theory work. It is nothing more than smoke an mirrors. It is molding the text like play-doh to mold it into your image.

That is why this article says more about the author than it does about the text itself. Here is a man who is running from God. He doesn’t want to believe what God has said, and is suppressing the truth in unrighteousness. Hence, he has to try to change God’s word from a reflection of God’s nature and character to a reflection of his own hatred for God.

Unfortunately, we do the same thing when we misuse God’s word to suit our own fancies. That is why it is so important to let God speak for himself, because when we tamper with the interpretation of his words, or when we take things out that we don’t like, we behave just like atheists. That is why I have written this blog post. I believe we can all learn lessons about handling God’s word aright. We should never be caught behaving like atheists when it comes to God’s word. We should let his word mold us into his image, rather than trying to mold his word into our image.


1Huang, Yan. Pragmatics; Oxford Textbooks in Linguistics. Oxford University Press. New York, NY. 2007. p.65.

2Levinson, Stephen C. Pragmatics; Cambridge Textbooks in Linguistics. Cambridge University Press. 1983 p.186.

3Huang, p.69.

4We do have to be very careful here, as presupposition can be sensitive to modalities, but it cannot be defined in terms of semantics. In fact, possibility is not the only modal operator a presupposition must survive [see Levinson, p.202-203]. Hence, while presupposition is sensitive to modality, it is not, in any way shape or form, defined by logical form.

5Crawford, Sidnie White. Joosten, Jan. Elrich, Eugene. Sample Editions of the Oxford Hebrew Bible:
Deuteronomy 32:1-9, 1 Kings 11:1-8, and Jeremiah 27:1-10 (34 G)
. Brill. Boston, Massachusetts. 2008. pgs.353-357. Available at

6John Hobbins suggests, following Jan Joosten, that the original was שר אל, “the bull El,” since “bull” is an related to the pagan deity El in Cannanite literature. Of course, he then has to argue that some manuscripts removed the “שר,” and simply had בני אל due to “later theological sensibilities,” and some added a yod, and combined the two to get בני ישראל. He rejects the above explanation on the grounds that בני אלהים is not an assimilation to the usual, since the more usual reading is בני האלהים. This explanation is very clumsy in that it postulates, not only two different variants that arose from the original, but that each one underwent one further emendation to get to בני אלהים and בני ישראל as we have it in today’s manuscripts. In addition to this, the maneuver from בני אל to בני אלהים, which we find in 4QDeutq, has to be explained, and he has already rejected Crawford’s explanation. Furthermore, if he can offer an explanation, Crawford can simply use it to explain how the reading she proposes, בני אל, can be used to get בני אלהים. Also, Crawford’s point was not that the *phrase* בני אלהים was an assimilation to the usual, but that *the word for “God”* was an assimilation to the usual. In fact, it would make sense, if the original were אל, that the assimilation to the more usual *word for God,* אלהים, would produce a phrase that is only found one other place.

7Pardee, Dennis. Ritual and Cult at Ugarit. Society of Biblical Literature. Atlanta, Georgia. 2002. p.233.

8The Ugaritic texts come from:

Parker, Simon B. Ugaritic Narrative Poetry SBL Writings from the Ancient World series. Scholars Press. 1997. p.134

The Ugaritic translation is my own.

8Tate, Marvin E. Psalms 51-100. Word Biblical Commentary. Thomas Nelson Publishers. 1990. p.341

9As a side note, John Calvin believed that “the assembly of the holy ones” referred to angels []. This view is possible, although I prefer understanding saints here as referring to the Israelites themselves.

10At this point, Judah is probably a vassal of Israel, and that is why the king of Judah joins forces to fight with Israel against Moab. This also suggests that the wrath found in verse 27 is the wrath of Yhwh, because Elisha said, were it not for the presence of the king of Judah, he would not even look at him nor would he see him.


6 Responses to “Is Polytheism in the Bible?”

  1. Is Polytheism in the Bible? | Says:

    […] Recommended Article FROM […]

  2. Bruce Says:

    So, good, as usual, Adam.

  3. otrmin Says:

    Thanks Pastor Bruce!

  4. Floyd Knight Says:

    Thanks for the article. I wish you would have spoken on syncreticism in the Hebrew Bible as it relates to this issue. Simon Parker and Gosta Ahlstrom were both profs of mine and were also very interested in this topic. This would have helped to explain the probable social-context and rhetorical antagonists to whom the Biblical writer was responding (i.e., syncretistic Yahweh followers) and, therefore, the presuppositions behind some of the statements.

    In regards to your Levinson’s footnote on presuppositions being confined to pragmatics, James McCawley would have disagreed. See his “Everything that Linguists have Always Wanted to Know about Logic . . . But Were Ashamed to Ask”. He is primarily noted for bridging syntax and possible world theory semantics, but one of his first publications was on Biblical Hebrew. See also his “The Syntactic Phenomena of English”. (I had McCawley for my 1st year graduate course on syntax at U of Chicago when I was a Hebrew Bible Ph.D. student. This was 20 yrs ago and before I took a leave of absence, got married . . . . McCawley was the reason why I wanted to incorporate linguistics into my Hebrew Bible scholarship.)

    There are also a group of semanticists who are associated with Gregory Ward, Betty Birner, Ellen Prince, and etc. who would also disagree with Levinson. They believe that semantics subsumes a large part of pragmatics, if not all of it. They also employ and use fuzzy logic, possible world theory, and modal logic. Like McCawley who incorporates the theories of C. I. Lewis to Kripke to Grice to the Optimality and Game theorectics into his linguistic theories, they have also done the same from their perspective. They too present a cognitive processing approach to their linguistic interpretations in either the language of “fuzzy logic” or “possible worlds semantics”.

    (I fear I will have to turn two blind eyes towards integrating these competing and various methodologies and presuppositions. I am already seeing that their are contradictory assumptions and different reading lists that will probably be required by my Harvard/MIT trained advisor (Gulsat Aygen) and by my Northwestern trained reader (Betty Birner) in these areas. I will probably delay including Levinson and the SIL International influenced scholars into my work until I have graduated and am working on my 2nd Ph.D. in Hebrew Bible. Since Levinson is rarely–if at all–cited by the Harvard/MIT, Stanford, Northwestern and U of Chicago linguists in semantics, pragmatics or syntax.

    I really enjoy your article! I wish all future scholars were incorporating linguistic methodology into their exegesis as you are doing and Watke and Silva and (in Spanish) Samuel Pagan have and are doing.


  5. otrmin Says:

    Thanks, Floyd! Yes, the issue of syncretism in ancient Israel is crucial, not only from the Biblical text, but also from the inscriptional material, such as Qhirbet El-Qom.

    Also, what you are saying about Levinson makes sense, because of a problem I keep on returning to called “Grice’s circle.” It seems like the line between pragmatics and semantics has not yet been drawn very well, and anytime you discuss pragmatics, you end up having to discuss semantics in some way, and vice versa. I hope to explore the problem of Grice’s circle and the Semantics/Pragmatics interface more, as it appears that understanding that interface goes a long way in understanding the relationship between semantics and various topics in pragmatics.

    Thanks again for your comments!

  6. Cruz Says:

    Excellent way of describing, and good article to get
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