Since the middle of the twentieth century there have been a number of scholars who have argued against reading strict monotheism in the statements of exclusivity and incomparability in Deutero-Isaiah. Here’s a brief list for those interested:
P. de Boer, Second Isaiah’s Message (Leiden: Brill, 1956), 47.
James Barr, “The Problem of Israelite Monotheism,” Transactions of the Glasgow University Oriental Society 17 (1957–58): 52–62.
Ulrich Mauser, “One God Alone: A Pillar of Biblical Theology,” Princeton Seminary Bulletin 12.3 (1991), 259.
R.W.L. Moberly, “How Appropriate is ‘Monotheism’ as a Category for Biblical Interpretation?” in Early Jewish and Christian Monotheism (Loren T. Stuckenbruck and Wendy E.S. North, eds.; London: T&T Clark, 2004), 229–31.
Michael Heiser, “Monotheism, Polytheism, Monolatry, or Henotheism? Toward an Assessment of Divine Plurality in the Hebrew Bible,” Bulletin of Biblical Research 18.1 (2008): 9–15.
In the recently published proceedings of the Oxford Old Testament Seminar (here) an article by Hywel Clifford entitled “Deutero-Isaiah and Monotheism,” among other discussions, argues against these scholars. He divides this section of his article into two parts, one discussing Deutero-Isaiah’s rhetoric of incomparability (“there is no one like me”) and another discussing his rhetoric of exclusivity (“there is no one besides me”). In the first he points out what has been pointed out by many others, namely that this same rhetoric is found in numerous other ancient Near Eastern texts. The Great Cairo Hymn of Praise to Amun-Re, for instance, refers to Amun-Re as “Unique One, like whom among the gods?” “Chief of all the gods,” and “Sole One, who made all that exists” (COS 1.25.i and iii). Clifford recognizes this, but goes on to argue that the rhetoric is likely different in Deutero-Isaiah. He spends most of his time explaining what it means if the rhetoric is different, and his only real argument for this difference is an appeal to Rechenmacher, who argues that incomparability in Deutero-Isaiah must be equated with exclusivity. Clifford states, “there is a semantic equivalence between incomparability and exclusivity: the former, liturgical and emotional, serves the cognitive and theological assertions of the latter, so that Yahweh is utterly incomparable outright.” Essentially, Clifford is arguing that Deutero-Isaiah is appealing to traditional vernacular to say something entirely different from the traditional vernacular. He knows this is the case not because the author qualifies his use of the vernacular, but because the statements occur in the same chapters as statements of exlusivity, which he will later conclude are also to be read absolutely.
Addressing the second part, Clifford further divides his discussion into two main arguments against absolute exclusivity (he misses a third, in which MacDonald responds to Rechenmacher’s analysis of the particles of negation, showing that absolute negation is not in view): First, the rhetoric of exclusivity is also found in Isa 47:8, 10, where it is put in the mouth of personified Babylon. Obviously Babylon does not imagine herself to be the only city in existence. Second, we would expect ‘ên ’aḥer or ‘ên ‘ĕlōhîm ’ăḥērîm if this rhetoric were answering the question, “Do any other gods exist?” That wording is never used here, though. The question that seems to be answered is more along the lines of, “Who else can save us?”
On Babylon’s appeal to rhetoric of exclusivity in Isa 47:8, 10, Clifford argues, “the rhetoric attributed to Babylon is a tradition-bound parody of Yahweh’s words: she aspires to a god-like status when in reality she is as vulnerable to civic misfortune as any other. Babylon’s hubristic claims are thus no analogy for the gods as idols.” Babylon’s comments are not an “analogy for the gods as idols,” though, they are an analogy for Yhwh’s claims of exclusivity. Additionally, Deutero-Isaiah does not present the “daughter Chaldea” as an aspiring deity, or as the city’s divine patroness, he presents her as “the mistress of kingdoms” who hopes to “be mistress forever” (47:5‒7). Lastly, were this a “tradition-bound parody” rather than simply another manifestation of a literary convention, we would expect the same words to be used rather than merely similar words (‘epeś is not used by the author in Yhwh’s rhetoric of exclusivity).
In responding to arguments regarding the degree of exclusivity expressed by ‘ên ‘ôd, Clifford provides two arguments. First, he seems to claim that it would be “undesirable” to assume Deutero-Isaiah was unaware of concepts of ontological existence/non-existence, and so we must assume he was aware of the concepts. Since the notion was developed within Greek philosophical circles, I see no reason to avoid the conclusion that the ancient Hebrews had not formulated a rejection of the ontological existence of other deities. Second, he asserts that ’aḥer is indeed employed in reference to idols vis-à-vis Yhwh, pointing to Isa 42:8 and 48:11. In both scriptures, however, the statement is “my glory I give to no other.” In the former, this is followed by “nor my praise to idols,” and so Clifford must be asserting the formal equivalence of the parallelism in 42:8 and reading that parallel into 48:11. Even if this tenuous identification is allowed, there is no rejection of the existence of that “other,” since that would also require that “gods” and “idols” be absoltuely formal equivalents.
I’m not convinced by Clifford’s argument. I think it still make much more sense to read the statements of incomparability and exclusivity in Deutero-Isaiah as assertions of the impotence and irrelevance of the gods rather than there non-existence. Indeed, later literature made frequent and often complementary reference to the existence of other gods. Even if one doesn’t like the word “gods,” there are and always have been innumerable divine beings inhabiting the Judeo-Christian heavens. If Deutero-Isaiah does indeed reject the existence of all other divine beings, that position was immediately abandoned. This undermines the definition of monotheism that Clifford teases from Deutero-Isaiah: “The contrast in Isaiah 40-48 of the creator God versus gods as idols, which employs a spiritual/material polarity, encourage the inference that divinity is a class of being with Yahweh as its only member.”