In Farrell Till's article. "Yahweh, the God of Gods," he took the position that "(m)onotheism or the belief that Yahweh was the only God was a late development in Jewish theology." Mr. Till affirms that the early Hebrews believed in polytheism.
Let it first be said that Abram was the first person referred to as a Hebrew. In fact, he is "the Hebrew" (Gen. 14:13). From the time that Jehovah called Abram out of Ur of the Chaldees to the time of his death, there is no evidence of his adopting a polytheistic stance. He was one who trusted the pronouncements of Jehovah, and he was characterized by unwavering obedience (cf. Gen. 15:6; 22:9-19; Rom. 4:16-25). He recognized Jehovah as the Judge of all the earth (Gen. 18:25).
That some of Abram's descendants came to be influenced by pagan views, this writer would not begin to deny. At times many Israelites adopted views of their neighbors. But to suggest that monotheism was a late development in Jewish theology is wrong.
Even Jehovah would speak of "gods." But such did not mean that He was affirming their actual or ontological existence. He forbade Israel's having "gods" of silver or gold (Ex. 20:23), reference being made not to metaphysical existents but to idols. He would tolerate no graven images (Ex. 20:4-5). When Israel attempted to identify Jehovah with idols or when she adopted pagan views regarding the actual existence of some other god or gods other than Jehovah, she sinned (Ex. 20:3,23; 32:4ff; Num. 25:1-5).
Mr. Till thinks that the use of Elohiym in Genesis 1 indicates that the Bible writer was polytheistic in thinking. But this is a mistake. Though Mr. Till discounts it, it is still true that reference is being made to the Godhead (cf. Col. 2:9; Acts 17:29). Verses 26-27 indicate plural personality sharing divine essence or nature. Clearly, the words "Let us make man in our image" would be confusing if plural personality were not intended. Elohiym when referring to Jehovah refers to that plural personality aspect of the One ultimate divine essence. The word has both singular and plural uses. That is, this plural form word can be used with reference to several gods (Ex. 18:11), or it can refer to only one (1 Sam. 17:26).
Mr. Till suggests that "Bible writers did in fact often use the singular word el (god) in obvious reference to Yahweh." But Bible writers also used the same singular form word to refer to a false god (Is. 43:10) that had no actual existence.
To suggest that Bible writers didn't have a clear concept of the one God because they would use El and then Elohiym is an inaccurate assessment. The basic idea conveyed by El seems to be that of power. But Elohiym when referring to Jehovah would capture the idea of plural personality. God is the sum of His parts. There are three parts which equal one God.
Mr. Till said, "In this article, I won't get involved in discussing the absurdities of the trinity doctrine except to say that the Hebrew usage of elohim to designate their tribal god could very well have been a vestigial expression from their distinctly polytheistic days." But the "could have" support for his view is no proof.
The fact that a Bible writer will use El and then Elohiym in the same context in reference to the same Being shows that the procedure is (1) deliberate, (2) significant, and (3) consistent.
Consider Genesis 35:1-2:
Surely, no one wants to contend that the God who talked to Jacob and instructed him to build an altar was authorizing Jacob to build it to an entirely different God. And yet, without hesitancy, both El and Elohiym are employed. And then in verse 2, foreign or strange gods are referred to by elohiym as well. Thus, Elohiym can be utilized in reference to plural false gods or to plural personalities composing the one true God.
When Mr. Till says, "If space permitted, I could cite many examples like this where English translations have deceptively rendered ha-elohim as God and its plural verbs as singulars," he wrongly makes accusation. Consider that in Genesis 35:1 it is said that God El appeared to Jacob when he fled from Esau. In verse 7 it is said that God (Elohiym) appeared to him when he fled from Esau. So, both a singular form word and a plural form word are used to refer to the same divine Being. Since this God claims to be One in actual divine nature (Dt. 6:4), there would be no point to represent Him in language that would suggest a polytheism. And the writer of the first five books of the Bible, when referring to God and to gods, must be understood in the light of his own view that there were actually existing no gods at all. Jehovah does exist (Dt. 4:35).
Mr. Till suggests that in Exodus 22:28 "the gods" is probably intended to be "gods in general." I would suggest that it would be more in keeping with other pronouncements of Jehovah as well as with the remainder of the verse to suggest that "the gods" in this passage refer to human leaders (cf. Ex. 21:6; Ps. 82:6; Jn. 10:34).
The position is taken by Mr. Till that in Leviticus 24:15 "God" (Elohiym, MD) should be translated "gods." This writer concurs with the translation "God" as referring to the Lord (cf. v. 16). If "gods" were the correct translation, it would be a reference to human leaders, not to false foreign gods.
Mr. Till cites several passages that, according to him, prove an early Hebrew belief in polytheism. He referred to Exodus 15:11, Psalm 95:3, Psalm 86:8, II Chronicles 2:5, I Kings 11:4-8, Deuteronomy 10:17, Joshua 22:22, and Psalm 136:2-3. And he then pointed out that certain passages like I Kings 8:60 and Deuteronomy 4:35 affirm the existence of only one God. So Mr. Till concludes that the Bible contradicts itself. He concluded his article by saying that "whoever wrote Exodus 12:12 clearly believed that the gods of Egypt were real gods."
Without going into a detailed response to each passage, I desire here to merely make several observations that must be kept in mind when dealing with these passages.
ONE: It is a fact that the Old Testament teaches the actual existence of only one God (Dt. 4:35,39; 6:4; 32:39). Any interpretation of any passage that puts Bible writers in contradiction with themselves in this basic affirmation is forced, unnecessary, and unwarranted.
FOUR: When a Bible writer records the failure of Israelites to faithfully adhere to the worship of the one true God, such records do not show that the writer himself is involved in such failure (Jer. 9:14; 17:1-2).
FIVE: Bible writers at times compare God with gods, but such a comparison in language does not commit the writer to affirming the actual existence of any god. Such a comparison is made because the "gods" are thought to exist by some, and the comparison made indicates the powerfulness of God, and the powerlessness of the gods. A Bible writer can do what Elijah did (I Kings 18). Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, "And call ye on the name of your god, and I will call on the name of Jehovah: and the God that answereth by fire, let him be God..." (v. 24). Such terminology does not prove that Elijah actually thought that Baal had real ontological existence at all, but that a comparison between Baal and Jehovah was intended at the contest on Mt. Carmel is clear. Some thought Baal was real, and so Elijah's comments indicated that, but he never affirmed the existence of such (cf. v. 21).
SIX: The failure of pagans (or Israelites even) to realize that Jehovah was the only God and not merely a superior god in no way implicates Bible writers as participants in the failure. At times, pagans thought of Israel's God as simply one among many (I Kings 20:23; Num. 14:15-16; II Chron. 32:9-14). Some non-Jews came to realize that Jehovah was the only God (cf. Josh. 2:11; II Kings 5:17-19).
SEVEN: If Jehovah could speak of "gods" and not affirm their actual existence, the Bible writers could do the same. Israel was to have no other gods (Ex. 20:3). This was a prohibition against all false gods (gods--supposed deities who are not real). There are, according to Paul, "gods many, and lords many" as far as human thinking goes, and yet there really is one God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ (I Cor. 8:5-6). But one can talk of "gods" as concepts in the minds of men without affirming their actual existence.
The real issue between Mr. Till and me on this topic is not whether at some point non-Jews and Jews themselves were polytheists but whether when a Bible writer speaks of "gods" he has automatically committed himself to the affirmation of their actual existence as ontological beings. If Jehovah can claim to be the only God and yet speak of "gods" (thus not affirming their existence), then no one can prove that a Bible writer when speaking of "gods" must mean that they really do exist as actual beings.
(Mac Deaver's address is 1200 Bowie, Wellington, TX 79095.)
EDITOR'S NOTE: In reference to my suggestion that the Hebrew usage of the plural elohim could have been "a vestigial expression from their distinctly polytheistic days," Mr. Deaver said that "'could have' support for his (Till's) view is no proof" and then proceeded to give us could-have, would-be, and seems-to-be "explanations" of why apparent polytheistic applications of elohim didn't necessarily mean that the writers believed in the real existence of gods. He theorized, for example, that Bible writers in using both el and elohim to refer to Yahweh seemed to be making a distinction between his power and his plural personality. By his own rule of hermeneutics, however, he can't resort to this explanation as a way out of the problem, because "seems-to-be support" for his view is no proof.
Hebrew scholars do think that the word el was derived from a root that meant "strength or power," but elohim is a plural derivative of the same root. A plural of anything is always more or greater than a singular, so why would the Hebrew writers have resorted to the singular el to convey an idea of power when the plural could have conveyed it even better? In this seems-to- be solution, Mr. Deaver actually has no solution at all. We still must wonder why Bible writers seemed confused about whether to call Yahweh elohim or simply el.
Mr. Deaver asserts that the usage of el and elohim "in the same context in reference to the same Being shows that the procedure is... deliberate." In this, he shows a profound misunderstanding of the mechanics of writing. In twenty-six years of teaching college writing, I have learned that writers unconsciously make all sorts of mistakes in the struggle to transfer ideas from the mind to the writing surface. In the same context, they will use both singular and plural pronouns to refer to the same antecedent. This process is not deliberate; it is an act of carelessness done while the writer is striving to shape his thoughts into comprehensible language.
How then can we know that the use of both el and elohim in the same context to refer to the same entity was the result of deliberation rather than the confusion of writers who lacked clear concepts of monotheism? Mr. Deaver quoted Genesis 35:1-2 as an example of where Yahweh was called elohim in one sentence and then el in the next. In the same context, elohim was used in reference to the "strange gods" in the land Jacob was then living in. Mr. Deaver doesn't see anything confusing about this?
In this passage, Yahweh was speaking (allegedly) and referred to himself as both elohim and el. "Surely," Deaver said, "no one wants to contend that the God who talked to Jacob and instructed him to build an altar was authorizing Jacob to build it to an entirely different God." Deaver then cited other passages where Yahweh (allegedly) referred to pagan gods as elohim. "If Jehovah could speak of 'gods' and not affirm their actual existence," Deaver concluded, "the Bible writers could do the same." However, I must call Mr. Deaver's attention to the word I have twice used parenthetically in this paragraph. Yahweh allegedly referred to himself as both el and elohim, and Yahweh allegedly used elohim in reference to pagan gods. Just because a Bible writer said that Yahweh said thus-and-so doesn't automatically make it true. It just could be that the ones who wrote these passages only thought that Yahweh had appeared to so-and-so and said this- or-that. Mr. Deaver wants us to give him the concession all fundamentalists insist upon. He wants us to assume that everything the Bible says, no matter what it may be, is absolute truth. But we won't concede him that advantage. He cannot prove Bible inerrancy by simply assuming Bible inerrancy.
He said "(i)t is a fact that the old Testament teaches the actual existence of only one God" and then concluded from this that (a)ny interpretation of any passage that puts Bible writers in contradiction with themselves in this basic affirmation is forced, unnecessary, and unwarranted," but to take such a position is a resort to the logical fallacy I just noted: trying to prove Bible inerrancy by simply assuming Bible inerrancy. I have admitted (p. 4) that many passages in the Bible clearly teach monotheism. That does not mean, however, that other passages do not convey polytheistic concepts. To argue that no passage in the Bible could possibly be teaching polytheistic concepts because some passages undeniably teach monotheism is to assume that the Bible does not contradict itself. This is unsound, illogical reasoning. The meaning of an idea must be determined within the context of what that writer said and not by comparison to what another writer said somewhere else. On the matter now in dispute, it would be possible that one writer was polytheistic whereas the other was monotheistic.
Of all the shortcomings of Deaver's rebuttal, however, the most damaging was his failure to explain away statements made by Bible characters and writers that showed an obvious belief in the reality of pagan gods. To express the majesty and greatness of Yahweh, Bible writers called him "the God of gods," but if there were no other gods, the comparison is totally meaningless. Although he sacrificed his own daughter as a burnt-offering, Jephthah was nevertheless listed as a great hero of faith in Hebrews 11:32. He considered Chemosh to be elohim to the Amorites as much as Yahweh was elohim to the Israelites. He thought that Chemosh had given the Amorites certain territory to possess in the same way that Yahweh had given the Israelites a territory to possess (Judges 11:24). Passages like this pose a serious problem for Mr. Deaver that he did not and cannot explain away.
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