New Master’s Thesis on the Divine Council

I just ran across a new master’s thesis related to the Divine Council. It’s from a Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary alum named Daniel Porter and is entitled “God among the Gods: An Analysis of the Function of Yahweh in the Divine Council of Deuteronomy 32 and Psalm 82.” Here’s the abstract:

The importance of the Ugaritic texts discovered in 1929 to ancient Near Eastern and Biblical Studies is one of constant debate. The Ugaritic texts offer a window into the cosmology that shaped the ancient Near East and Semitic religions. One of the profound concepts is the idea of a divine council and its function in maintaining order in the cosmos. Over this council sits a high god identified as El in the Ugaritic texts whose divine function is to maintain order in the divine realm as well on earth. Due to Ugarit‟s involvement in the ancient world and the text‟s representation of Canaanite cosmology, scholars have argued that the Ugaritic pantheon is evidenced in the Hebrew Bible where Yahweh appears in conjunction with other divine beings. Drawing on imagery from both the Ugaritic and Hebrew texts, scholars argue that Yahweh was not originally the high god of Israel, and the idea of “Yahweh alone” was a progression throughout the biblical record. However, there are scholars who understand the divine council motif as a common image among all ancient Semitic peoples, and while the biblical writers use the imagery of divine council, they do not adopt the theology. The questions that arise are: do the Hebrew Scriptures allow for Ugaritic parallelism? Is the divine council in the Hebrew Scriptures an import from Ugarit? And if so, what is the function of Yahweh in these council settings? To answer these questions, this thesis explores the views and responses presented by scholars who analyze two key passages in the debate where the Yahweh/El polemic is suggested: Deuteronomy 32:8-9 and Psalm 82.

I will get to details shortly, but the thrust of Porter’s thesis is neatly conveyed in the following:

What can be observed is the tendency of scholars such as Smith and Parker to insert the Ugaritic myth into the Hebrew texts where it does not belong. It was observed that to separate Yahweh and El in Deuteronomy 32 and Psalm 82 is incoherent with Old Testament theology.

Guiding this conclusion is obviously the presumption of a univocal biblical text. For the author, Old Testament theology as a whole must be coherent. I have discussed this previously, but will address it again in this post.

Now, as a master’s thesis it’s not expected to have an absolutely comprehensive bibliography, but some rather striking omissions from Porter’s bib include Jan Joosten’s VT article, “A Note on the Text of Deuteronomy xxxiii 8,” Smith’s God in Translation (now available in paperback!), the vast majority of Nicolas Wyatt’s publications (only one is referenced), and numerous Divine Council articles by scholars like Kee, Cross, Kingsbury, Cooke, Morgenstern, Patai, van der Toorn, and others. The bibliography is also heavy with commentaries (some of them very old), although the author does aim his thesis at past academic treatment of the topic.

Regarding the text itself, I found it quite rudimentary and peppered with assumption and specious argumentation. For instance, this unsupported assumption is found near the conclusion:

Given the fact that the Hebrew Scriptures clearly present Yahweh as the supreme creator deity, he alone possesses true immortality.

Where “true immortality” is ascribed exclusively to the “supreme creator deity” in Hebrew Bible theology is left for the reader to guess. This is found in the introduction:

In Mesopotamia, the Gilgamesh Epic, Epic of Atrahasis, and the Enuma Elish are examples of the use of divine council imagery. In these accounts, Anu is the high god of the pantheon who presides over the council until Marduk is chosen as king of the gods in the Enuma Elish.

This presumes an entirely unified and consistent worldview between these three texts, as if Enuma Elish is the concluding chapter of a book comprising all three texts. Porter seems to view all the religious texts of each culture as reflecting a single, unified worldview. Thus, he says of the Ugaritic texts, “The Baal Cycle and the Keret Epic give the clearest understanding of divine council in the Ugaritic texts.” This neglects the fact that the DC in Ugaritic texts takes on various forms. For instance, Baal is said both to be the son of Dagan and the son of El. Whether intentional or otherwise, the ideologies are not perfectly consistent. It is not helpful to impose upon one’s evaluation of the texts the notion that they univocal. Unfortunately, all our data does not plug into a single equation for each culture.

The language of the thesis is also basic and in many places, confusing. The following illustrates this:

Excavations have unearthed remnants of metal workers along the coast which provided weapons for export and use in the army.

Have excavations unearthed remnants of the workers themselves (their corpses), or of metallurgy as a practice? The above indicates only the former, but the latter is clearly intended. Elsewhere:

The kingdom comprised of approximately 200 villages.

This is simply poor grammar. Again:

He explains the reason why Baal became superior was due to the area‟s total dependency on rain.

Another lengthy section on the geography and history of Ugarit is entirely superfluous. It feels to me like little more than fluff.

In other places Porter misunderstands the scholarship. The author criticizes scholarship’s use of Ugaritic literature as a way to inform our reading of the biblical texts in the following manner:

The evidence these scholars use are the similarities in terminology, and characteristics between the gods (more specifically El and Baal) and Yahweh. These scholars see the parallels specifically in the divine council references as indications of polytheism in the biblical record. Their understanding is the Ugaritic council, with El as high god, was the source of the Israelite council.

Scholars don’t posit the Ugaritic DC as the source of the Israelite DC, they see both as separate manifestations of a shared worldview. Both cultures draw from the same ideological matrix, adapting them to their particular cultural characteristics and expediencies. There is not a linear and genetic relationship between the two.

Other misunderstandings are more basic. In the following the author confuses Mark Smith’s argument for the conflation of Yhwh and El as an argument simply for Yhwh’s identification with El:

Scholars note that there are many similarities between the Ugaritic god, El and the Israelite deity, Yahweh. The similarities are so convincing that some scholars equate Yahweh and El as being the same deity. Mark Smith argues that the similar characteristics and designations for El and Yahweh command their unity. He presents two arguments: first, “Israel is not a Yahwistic name” and “Yahweh and El were identified at an early stage since there are no biblical polemics against El.”

Elsewhere the author begs the question. A key discussion in the thesis is the identification of Yhwh and El within the DC. Given that, it is odd to find the following at the beginning of the discussion of the biblical manifestation of the DC, rather than after the conclusion, since it presupposes it:

In the previous chapter, attention was given to the Ugaritic pantheon. However, the biblical council is not as complex as their neighbor‟s to the north. Instead, the Bible presents Yahweh as the sole authority for the functions of the council and ultimately the functions of the cosmos. Therefore, it is only necessary to discuss how Yahweh and his council functioned.

Then again:

Unlike El of the Ugaritic texts, Yahweh is classified as an “active” god.

Here the author presupposes Yhwh is to be identified with the Ugaritic El, an “authoritative deity,” rather than to Baal, an Ugaritic “active deity.” He completely dismisses the theory against which he is trying to argue.

Elsewhere dogmatism more explicitly governs his interpretation of the material. Regarding 1 Kings 22, Porter dismisses the most common critical reading (Yhwh sought counsel, received it, and accepted it) in favor of a more orthodox reading, characterized by Paul R. House, which precludes the notion that Yhwh would ever send someone to lie to Ahab, or would ever be in need of counsel.

After discussing the “critical scholar’s” assessment of Deuteronomy’s provenance, Porter states, “Most confessional scholars attribute the book and therefore the Song to Moses which will date the Song to the fifteenth century B.C.” This is based on a rather fundamentalist reading of the text. I don’t know any mainstream scholars, confessional or otherwise, who prefer a 15th century date for Moses. A 13th or even early 12th century date (Rendsburg) is far more common among those who accept his reality (at least as far as I am aware).

Elsewhere Porter shows rather superficial familiarity with his sources. For instance, he explains that scholars who accept an adversative reading of the כי in Deut 32:9 conclude it presents a contrast between Elyon and Yhwh. Although he elsewhere cites Paul Sanders’ The Provenance of Deuteronomy 32, he fails to mention that Sanders finds the adversative as indicative of the identification of Yhwh and El. Heiser points this out as well in another article that Porter cites.

Porter rejects that the adversative indicates a distinction between the two by simply asserting that the context simply precludes a distinction:

The overall context of the verse in relation to the whole song supports the view that the two epithets refer to the same God.

He cites Christopher Wright: “there is no possibility that Yahweh is simply one of the ‘sons of god’ to whom nations are allocated.” He also cites Richard Nelson: “both the context and poetic parallelism make clear that these two designations refer to the same God.” He also argues that Elyon is never used in reference to El in the Ugaritic texts (which is completely irrelevant—Yhwh is also never used in reference to El in the Ugaritic texts). The fact that the כי is not original doesn’t enter the equation (v. 9 originally began with ויהי – see LXX Deut 32:9). The subordinate clause manifested in the original version supports the identification of Yhwh as one of the בני אלהים. This discussion is far more complicated that Porter seems aware. He attributes the entire disagreement to the כי, despite the fact that the scholars he cites give far more reasons for their reading. Additionally, no real argument is given by Porter, he simply asserts that it cannot be so and cites other scholars who assert the same with no further argument.

Regarding the context of the Song of Moses as a whole, Porter states that it comprises a rib, giving the following incredibly myopic definition for an ancient Near Eastern rib:

The rib was a formal lawsuit document presented to a rebellious vassal accusing them of disloyalty to their overlord.

This narrow definition becomes critical later, however, when it is all that holds together the notion that Yhwh cannot be subordinate in Deut 32:8:

If the rib pattern is understood to be of royal judiciary proceedings as demonstrated earlier, this would indicate that Yahweh as supreme deity was issuing a complaint, not as the accuser, but as the offended suzerain.

In truth, a rib can be logged by more than just an offended suzerain. Parker points to two examples of a rib brought forth by a subordinate; one from the Hebrew Bible, and one from Ugarit. Neither Porter nor Heiser mentions either.

Only one publication is cited regarding the form and function of Deuteronomy 32. Those of Thiessen, Nigosian, Weitzman, Skehan, Mendenhall, and Britt are completely neglected. The one publication used is preferred because it allows Porter to come to the following conclusion: “the rib pattern does not support Yahweh being subordinate to any other deity.”

The problems with this passage don’t end there. Regarding the most common reading of Deut 32:8, that the sons of God are patron deities assigned to the nations of the earth, Porter states the following:

That conclusion would be acceptable if the biblical texts presented the Israelite religion as another polytheistic system. The fact, however, is that the biblical religion is interpreted as monotheistic.

Again, a unified and consistent theology from beginning to end is presupposed. The Bible presents one single religion. Porter points to Deut 4:19 as an indication that the text accepts Yhwh as the supreme deity. That Deut 4:19 was not written by the same author as Deut 32:8 is never considered.

In his discussion of Psalm 82 Porter continues to beg the question by arguing that a reading that distinguishes between Yhwh and El is unlikely because Yhwh and El were considered the same deity. He then cites Heiser’s notion that the conflation of Yhwh and El “could have been a combining of the high gods of two different religions.” Thus, according to Porter, the father/son relationship espoused by Smith and Parker is unjustified. That his conclusion hangs exclusively on Heiser’s supposition (“could have been”) seems to escape him. That Yhwh represents the Israelite storm deity and thus does not represent the conflation of two cross-cultural high gods is nowhere even considered. He continues to cite Heiser concerning Yhwh’s early kingship over the gods. My discussion of Heiser’s arguments associated with that point is here. Porter finds no reason to even question Heiser, though, appealing, once again, to a univocal reading of the Bible:

The argument that Parker and Smith would take is that v.8 calls for Yahweh to assume authority that previously he was not understood to have. This is incoherent with Old Testament theology as Yahweh is repeatedly proclaimed as universal king.

And again:

While the mythic background to the psalm’s theme is clearly seen, the direct involvement of the Ugaritic El is unfounded. This is a common complaint about Ugaritic studies in that scholars attempt to impose mythic elements where the elements do not belong. It is seen by many scholars that the psalmist sees no other God, but Yahweh as being the active sovereign in the psalm. This conclusion is attested not only from the context of the passage, but also from the whole of Old Testament theology.

Porter next addresses the problem of presenting Yhwh as the main character while at the same time keeping him in a motif where he is subordinate. Heiser states, “neither Smith nor Parker offer any explanation as to why, in the scene they are creating, El the seated judge does not pronounce the sentence. In this reconstruction El apparently has no real function in the council.” Porter need only review his introduction of the Ugaritic pantheon to undermine that point:

The classifications of “active” and “inactive” deities become problematic when discussing the functions of the gods. As Walton states, “a god who does not function or act fades into virtual nonexistence.” El, for all practical purposes, is an “inactive” god. He is the creator god who creates the “active” gods who rule in the natural realm. Walton references J. Assmann in his observation that it was the creator gods‟ inactivity that led to them being replaced by active deities. De Moor explains this dilemma by chronicling the struggle between Baal and El in the Ugaritic texts. He observes that Baal is in constant struggle to overthrow his father-in-law El. He further comments that this progressive move from El to Baal was slow, but by the first millennium B.C. Baal is presented as the victor and El is only mentioned occasionally.

Regarding Psalm 82, Porter also neglects a critical scripture:

The consensus view which attempts to use Psalm 82 as proof text for Israel‟s ancient polytheism is not contextually founded. The psalm only names one deity and the other deities are never given names or fully defined.

Of course, the author of Psalm 82 would have been aware of Exod 23:13:

And you shall keep all things which I tell you, and you shall not make mention of the names of other gods, nor shall they be heard in your mouth.

Porter goes on to conclude that the proclivity of critical scholars to draw parallels between the Ugaritic texts and the Bible neglects the fact that the authors of the Hebrew Bible were all staunch monotheists. This conclusion is not based on any direct confrontation of the arguments against that notion, but only on the evidence brought forth in favor of rejecting the notion that Yhwh and El were considered separate deities. The author, to my pleasant surprise, did not fall back on the tired old notion that the elohim of Psalm 82 and other texts are human judges. He recognizes they were considered divine beings, but this introduces another concern of which Porter seems unaware: what is “monotheism” if other gods were believed to exist? How can he call upon the staunch monotheism of the biblical authors to govern our interpretation of certain texts if he recognizes in other texts the existence of numerous other deities. That Yhwh was superior or over “species unique” (to follow Heiser) does not solve the problem.

Your thoughts?

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11 responses to “New Master’s Thesis on the Divine Council

  • Daniel

    From what I’ve read, I do not agree with Porter’s tentative thesis..

    Among other issues that I had, I took issue with describing YHWH as ‘active’ in supposed contrast to El.

    More often than not, YHWH is inactive. For the most part, he has the other elohim to do his bidding.

    In my mind, YHWH is relatively equivalent to Anu (the creator god of the Sumerian pantheon) and somewhat of Khronos in the Greek.

    These are creators who are later ‘usurped’ by their sons (Enlil and Zeus respectively), just as YHWH is usurped by ‘Ha Satan’.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the comment, Daniel. I agree that Handy’s model (“authoritative” vs. “active” deities) has limited applicability when it comes to the pantheon of the Hebrew Bible, but both ha-Satan and Yhwh are described in different places as “sons of El,” and Yhwh’s manipulation of lesser deities is more common in exilic and post-exilic literature (and really flowers in the Greco-Roman period with the angelic hierarchy). In my reading, El’s activity is emphasized by the Elohists, and Yhwh’s by the Yahwists, and there is a roughly even representation once the two are firmly conflated.

  • Daniel

    i wonder if the term ‘El Shaddai’ (the most high god) was simply another title for YHWH and seen as equivalent in Jewish thought

    i will have to look into that as i have only briefly read Psalm 82 in one of my courses in discussing the divine council.

    also i am wondering if you know why ‘elohim’ remains pluralized even when one god is specified (e.g. why is it ‘YHWH elohim’ rather than ‘YHWH El’.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      A good discussion of El Shaddai is found in Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic. It likely means “El of the Mountains,” and refer to a patriarchal-era deity not associated with Yhwh.

      Elohim is plural because it is a concretized abstract plural. Biblical Hebrew would use the plural to refer to an abstraction of a noun. For instance, the plural of “lord” can mean “lordship,” and the plural of “father” can mean fatherhood. Similarly, the plural of “god” means “deity,” or “divinity.” This is how deities were referenced well before Hebrew hit the scene. Some of the Amarna letters even refer to pharaoh with the plural form of their word for “god.” In Israel the term was used so frequently in reference to El that it became concretized, or became an epithet specifically for El. The best discussion on the topic is Joel Burnett, A Reassessment of Biblical Elohim.

  • Paul Dentler

    An issue in Ps 82:6-7 that I cannot get anyone to focus on with regards to the Divine Council. When did these elohoim of the Council die as God stated they must? From all appearnces, Christ was one the the “sons” of this council, we know he died as the “firstborn of many brethren”.

    I received an email from Heiser stated the deaths of these “sons” is eschatological. Huh? What’s that mean? I replied to him for a clearer explanation but have gotten no response. Anybody else want to take a stab at this?

    I am not a theologian, so go easy on me here.

    Regards, Paul Dentler

    • Brent

      There is a dot, here, that the Christian world consistently refuses to connect, and it is the reference to “gods” both on Psalm 82:6 and John 10:34. The connection is the term “ye”. In both instances, the Lord was speaking to Israel. With this in mind, consider the ramifications of our belief that Jesus is our “brother”.

  • Bob Misst

    My Question is:
    What is the significance of the divine council in the NT and in our faith in Jesus today and in the second coming of Jesus back to the earth?

  • Russell Brown

    Psalm 82:6 and John 10:34 proves humans were intended in Ps 82 and does not support the idea of an angelic rebellion, however the implications of Col 2:18 certainly refer back to a problem of an earlier polytheism. We also see that hinted at in the plural of Gen 1:26 which is why the problem is immediately corrected in the next verse where the Divine council is (personified) in the singular.

    Personification is one way of getting around polytheism and polytheism is only a problem (in Gods eyes) because it does not lead to the worship of One higher ideal, i.e “God is Love”. God is only a jealous God as a means to an end for our own benefit, not His (polytheism diverts us from that one higher conceptual idea of God) as Love/mind.

    While Ps 82 must refer to a human Divine council in light of the reference Jesus makes to humans being called gods, The implications in the statement of COLOSSIANS 2:18 (previous angel worship) and the context in DANIEL 10:20 (in which angels are called princes) and the surrounding narrative and context of II CHRONICLES 18:18 (in which a heavently Divine Council cannot be avoided), albeit it is a vision, all point to the reality for those of us who are Theists of a Bibilical Divine Council, but not just that as Gen 1:26 and 1:27 imply a Divine Council that immediately personified themselves as ‘God’ and probably personified God as a Higher conceptual Ideal which they then attached to themselves i.e “Love = the Father”, not for their benefit, but for ours, so we could focus on the idea of One God or One conceptual higher ideal (i.e Love).

    The fact that there are similarities between the Ugaritic idea of a Divine Authority or Divine Council does not negate the idea in the Biblical context as being valid any more than the fact the pagans had their own idea of Creation negates the possibility that God Created. What was most interesting in the observations made by the scholars, was that while the structural idea of a Divine Council or Divine Authority is similar the theology is strikingly different. This reminds us of Genesis 1, which in structure and in the literal sense is clearly intended to parody the Babylonian myth only to subvert it to what God wants to say in the metaphoric (accommodate existing beliefs in order to correct them theologically), as is the consistant Bible style.

    As for Heiser, I have read alot of his material over the years, not because I read scholarly works, but because it is hard to avoid him as his material is rather sensational and commercial (i.e he wants to link the idea of fallen angels/gods with UFOs). I find it interesting, but he seems to have a vested interest in finding polytheistic heavenly rebellion in as many places as possible because it sells books, especially to the UFO community.

  • Russell Brown

    Having said that, it looks like I am saying polytheism is a reality and that a decision was made in the Divine Council to get around that by use of personification (a common Biblical proveable formula and style), as we see from Gen 1:26 to 1:27, God is telling us of the reality of polytheism in the Divine Council and yet in the next verse clearly telling us He is solving that problem by means of personification, but that is not exactly what I am saying.

    There is One Lord God Almighty and there are other gods/angels that serve Him, all Christians accept this, the necessity in personifying the entire Divine Council of gods/angels (including the One True God, Yahweh/Jesus, the Lord God Almighty), is so when the Lord God Almighty manifested Himself on earth by means of the Holy Spirit (artificial insemination by angels) and became born into time as the “Son of God”, that is to say fully man with no extra benefits whatsoever and being tempted in all ways as the rest of us, by personifying the Divine Council or the universal mind of Love as the Father (a conceptual idea of God), then as a man He could also be our perfect example in participation by Himself appealing to a higher conceptual ideal (although He was already that ideal), He could nevertheless humble Himself and show us the Way.

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