“Worship Him, All You Gods”

Following is the proposal I just submitted for the upcoming annual meeting of the SBL. Feel free to share any thoughts, criticisms, chistes, or chismes:

“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.


4 responses to ““Worship Him, All You Gods”

  • Duane

    Thanks for posting this. Your paper sounds interesting and even the proposal is helpful. Because my discussion was a little long for a comment, I suggested a parallel to the LXX over at my place.

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Hey, thanks for the comment Duane. That is a fascinating parallel, and I think it definitely shows all these cultures are drawing on the same literary-theological matrix.

      I am working on other research related to the Syro-Palestinian epithet ‘l qn ‘rṣ (which I believe is best translated “El, Begetter of Earth”), and while there are no direct lexical parallels in Akkadian, it seems the concept is paralleled in a number of texts.

      Is the text you cited from a much earlier time period?

      • Duane

        There are 13 witnesses to this prayer, some more complete than others. BMS 6:97-132 is the most complete. Among the witnesses are a number of interesting variants. While several were found in neo-Assyrian contexts, they all appear to be in the neo-Babylonian dialect. Beyond that, they are not easy to date. The extent to which they may reflect earlier traditions is hard to guess.

  • Aaron Christianson

    I’ve been thinking about this myself quite a bit, but I’ve never done any serious work on it. I’d be very interested to hear more.

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