I am making my recently defended master’s thesis available in PDF format at this link. The title and an abbreviated abstract are below.
“You Will Be Like the Gods”: The Conceptualization of Deity in the Hebrew Bible in Cognitive Perspective
This thesis has two primary goals: (1) to analyze the contours and extent of the generic category of deity in the Hebrew Bible, and (2) to propose a semantic base for the term. It begins with a description of the fields associated with cognitive theory, and particularly cognitive linguistics. Chapter 2 examines the cognitive origins of notions of deity and discusses how this heritage is reflected within the biblical texts. The third chapter examines the conceptualization of Israel’s prototypical deity, YHWH, beginning from the earliest divine profiles detectable within the text. In Chapter 4 the discussion returns to the generic notion of deity, highlighting references within the biblical text to deities other than YHWH. The conclusion synthesizes the different sections of the thesis, sketching the origins and development of the Hebrew Bible’s representation of both prototypical and non-prototypical notions of deity. Implications for further research are then briefly discussed.
Maybe someone out there will find this useful. I’ve been analyzing the semantic ranges of the different ways the authors use the words that mean “deity.” As part of this research, I’ve been putting together a document that lists every occurrence of the three Hebrew words and one Aramaic word that mean “deity,” both generic (“god[s]“) and appellative (“God”): elohim, el, eloah, and elah. I finally finished and thought I would share. You can find the Word doc here and the PDF here. I list the word, the number of occurrences, the individual references, and then the number of occurrences by book. I go from the most common word (elohim: 2600 occurrences) to the least common (eloah: 58 occurrences). The next step is to separate out the references to Yhwh from the references to other deities.
In my previous post I mentioned two books that I bought at SBL and have already begun to read, namely Reconsidering the Concept of Revolutionary Monotheism and The Son of God in the Roman World. Both touch in some way on my thesis topic, the development of monotheism, and both treat contemporary academic positions regarding the nature of divinity in very similar ways. Specifically, both highlight a trend away from viewing divinity and humanity as separated by an ontological barrier, and toward viewing them as somewhat overlapping fields within a continuous spectrum. This insight is borrowed by both authors from scholarship on Roman emperor worship (both even cite the same author), but both insist it has explanatory power in their respective spheres (Assyro-Babylonian religion and early Christianity). I’ve found this understanding also alleviates a lot of issues scholars have had with understanding early Israelite and formative Jewish ideologies. Both authors go on at length about how this insight informs their particular interest in the divine, but two quotes show the similar approaches and similar influences. From Pongratz-Leisten’s article, “Divine Agency and Astralization of the Gods in Ancient Mesopotamia”:
Ittai Gradel’s approach to the notion of the divine in his book Emperor Worship and Roman Religion is inspiring when applied to religions of the ancient Near East. In the introduction to his book, Gradel cautions us against viewing ancient religions as an independent dimension, separable from other spheres of human experience and capable of being independently dissected. Based on the practice of ritual and sacrifice, he interprets the man-god divide, which clearly existed also in antiquity, as a reflection of a distinction in status rather than a distinction between their respective natures of “species.” He suggests that we speak of divinity as a “relative category” rather than beginning with the rather diffuse notion of “the Holy” and the “Numinous” and from the concept of the gods as a species. . . . Rather than conceptualizing the divine and human worlds as distinct realms, the human sphere gradually merges with the realm of the divine.
And from Peppard’s book:
Scholars such as Simon Price, Ittai Gradel, and Clifford Ando articulate interpretations of divinity that confound the categories customarily used by Roman historians and scholars of religion. In their view, divinity in the Roman world was not an essence or a nature, but a concept of status and power in a cosmic spectrum that had no absolute dividing lines. The realm of the gods was not, in the famous maxim of Rudolf Otto, “wholly Other.” In this chapter, I survey and synthesize the current conclusions of this burgeoning field of research, in order to encourage fellow scholars to question their presuppositions about divinity in the Roman world, just as I have scrutinized and reoriented my own. My approach to the matter draws especially from recent studies of emperor worship, while also making some analogies to scholarship on Judaism and Christianity in their Roman context.
In the study of ancient Near Eastern religion, it’s widely recognized that deities which rule over other deities tend to assimilate the attributes and responsibilities of their subordinates. In early Israel Yhwh likely had a consort named Asherah, who was a mother goddess and fertility deity of some kind (the boundaries of these deities are blurry and overlap). By the end of the exile she seems to have been scrubbed clean from Judaism’s theological landscape, and Yhwh seems to have absorbed her attributes. There are a few different metaphorical references to Yhwh as a mother and even a midwife in exilic literature, for instance. This process likely began as far back as the monarchic period, though. As I’ve argued elsewhere, the asherim which were ostensibly taken from the temple and destroyed during Josiah’s reforms may have had no connection to Asherah by that time period, but rather may have been residual cultic representations of divine power over fertility and childbirth, now attributed to Yhwh.
Other ways this kind of assimilation seeps into Israelite literature is in Yhwh’s nature as both storm god and sun god. A fascinating article by Paul E. Dion (“YHWH as Storm-God and Sun-God: The Double Legacy of Egypt and Canaan as Reflected in Psalm 104,” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 103.1 (1991): 43–71) points out elements of both storm-god imagery and sun-god imagery in Psalm 104. This psalm is famous for its relationship to the much older Hymn to Aten, but Dion argues there is a great deal of storm-god imagery as well. We know Yhwh was viewed as a storm deity very early in Israelite history. Yhwh is said to make the “clouds his chariot” (עבים רכובו – Ps 104:3) echoing Baal’s title as “Rider of the Clouds” (rkb ‘rpt – KTU 1.2 iv 8). Psalm 29 shares very close affinities with praise given to Baal for his storm-god status.
Later in Israelite history Yhwh seems to be associated with solar imagery. Hezekiah’s seals on a number of jar handles discovered in and around Jerusalem have a scarab with a sun disk or a bird with a sun disc. This is closely related to Egyptian iconography, which makes sense given his relationship with Egypt at the time. It goes back further than this, though. In the 10th century Taanach cult stand Yhwh appears to be represented as a horse below a sun disc (I discuss these issue here). The popularity of these two divine attributes goes back even further in the wider ancient Near East. In the Amarna letters the pharaoh is sometimes addressed as “My Sun” (EA 45, 49, 60, 61), but is also addressed at least once as “My Storm-God” (EA 52). At Ugarit the king as addressed as “the Sun” as well (KTU 2.81.19, 30). Mark Smith suggests Byblos and Tyre represent the points of contacts for the ideologies of Egypt and Iron Age Syria-Palestine (p. 72 here). It seems Yhwh’s assimilation of these roles is not just a result of his perceived kingship over the gods, but may also be part of a campaign to make sure Yhwh is represented with all the popular imagery.
Most informed readers of the Bible are familiar with the witch of Endor’s reference to the deceased Samuel as an אלהים, or “deity.” She uses the plural participle עלים (“ones rising up”) with אלהים, but Saul asks מה תארו “what is his (singular) form,” in response. The participle may then be morphologically assimilating to the plural form of אלהים. Another text that may provide a few more clues regarding Israel’s view of its deceased is found in Ezekiel 32:21, which reads as follows:
ידברו־לו אלי גבורים מתוך שׁאול את־עזריו
ירדו שׁכבו הערלים חללי־חרב
The mighty gods shall speak to him out of the midst of Sheol with those that help him
They descend. The uncircumcised lay down, slain by the sword.
Most translations render אלי גבורים with “mighty chiefs,” or “the strong and the mighty” or something similar, but I don’t believe this reading is warranted. I’m not convinced אל ever means anything other than “divinity,” although it is often presupposed by exegetes. The phrase is the plural of אל גבור, which is found in reference to Hezekiah in Isa 9:6 and in reference to God in Isa 10:21.
The context is a prophecy about the destruction of Egypt, who will descend to Sheol and find the uncircumcised nations of the earth there. I suggest the אלי גבורים are the deceased kings. This would align with Assyro-Babylonian and Syro-Palestinian ideologies concerning kings as deities both in life and death.
CSBS, the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies, is holding their annual meeting at the University of New Brunswick on May 29–31. I’m submitting to the general programme, which requires a 100 word paper proposal. Here’s what I managed to shrink down to around 100 words:
Monotheism—Still a Misused Word in Jewish Studies?
This paper will take up Peter Hayman’s 1991 Journal of Jewish Studies discussion of “monotheism” as an inadequate descriptor for ancient Jewish belief regarding deity. It will align with Hayman’s argument against the applicability of the term from an etymological point of view, but will depart from Hayman in suggesting that “monotheism,” which developed as a descriptive term, can still adequately describe formative Judaism. It will show that “monotheism” comprises a specific view of the nature and function of other divine beings in relation to Yhwh, and will describe this view and its development within formative Judaism.
Hayman’s paper, which I highly recommend, is briefly described here.
I recently submitted a term paper on Psalm 82 that I’ve put online here. I hope to further develop the paper (my term papers are usually only half-baked), so I appreciate any feedback. I would point out that I have shifted positions on what I think to be one of the more important aspects of modern study of the psalm, namely the distinction in the psalm between Yhwh and Elyon. I have concluded that the psalm likely comes from the exilic period, which is much too late for Yhwh to be distinguished from Elyon. Rather, I feel the author has drawn his narrative framework from an older northern tradition that likely made the distinction, but understood the two deities to be identical, and organized the content of the psalm accordingly. I also provide what I believe to be a rather unique discussion of the psalm’s genre. I hope you are able to get something useful out of it.