“Worship Him, All You Gods”: The Role of the Gods in the Development of Jewish Monotheism
The meaning of monotheism and its development remains one of the most important areas of inquiry in the study of the theology of the Hebrew Bible. Most scholars today find the first explicit manifestations of strict monotheism in the rhetoric of Isaiah 40–55. According to this consensus, Deutero-Isaiah explicitly denies the existence of other deities, which constitutes the most common definition of monotheism. However, the existence and value of multiple divine beings remains affirmed in numerous biblical and extra-biblical texts. Postexilic Judaism found no significant theological conflict between those texts and the rhetoric of Deutero-Isaiah. In addition, that rhetoric is best understood as a rejection of potency, not of ontological existence. A proper definition of biblical monotheism must account for the recognition of other deities.
This paper proposes the threshold of monotheism is found not at the rejection of the existence of other deities, but at the conflation of the gods with a theologically harmless classification of divine being, the angels of God. The clearest example of this conflation is found in LXX Deut 32:43, where the original “worship him all you gods” (4QDeutq: השתחוו לו כל אלהים) is expanded to two cola which place the sons of God (υἱοὶ θεοῦ) parallel to the angels of God (ἄγγελοι θεοῦ). This text manifests an attempt, either on the part of the translator or his Vorlage, to accommodate Judaism’s scriptural heritage to a theology which was comfortable with the existence of other deities, provided they were confined to a distinct taxonomy that existed only to obediently serve Israel’s God. The early Hellenistic period, not the Babylonian exile, thus marks the transition from the monolatry of the Hebrew Bible to the monotheism of early Judaism.
UPDATE: Duane has pointed to some abnormal parallels in Deut 32:43a to Akkadian formulas of praise.