All the Gods of the Nations are Idols

Both 1 Chr 16:26 and Ps 96:5 state that “For all the gods of the nations are idols, but YHWH made the heavens” (כי כל-אלהי העמים אלילים ויהוה שמים עשה). This has long been appealed to in scholarship addressing monotheism in the Hebrew Bible as an example of the text’s denial of the existence of the gods of the nations. They are idols, not gods. I recently ran across this reading in James Anderson’s new book, Monotheism and Yahweh’s Appropriation of Baal:

It is to Psalm 96 that one must turn to find a more pointed affirmation of Yahweh’s uniqueness: ‘For great is Yahweh, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but Yahweh made the heavens.’ (Ps. 96.4–5) There, the onslaught against idols is complete with a clear statement that the other gods are no gods. The claim that Yahweh is the only god has to be backed up by the claim that he created the heavens. This massive theological claim was a novelty.

The problem is that “idols” is a terrible translation that completely obscures the rhetorical force of the verse and facilitates the incorrect interpretation of these verses as denying the existence of other gods. The word translated “idols” is אלילים, but that word does not mean “idols,” it means “worthless things.” It is a play on words that works because if looks and sounds so similar to the Hebrew word אלהים. It would become a lexical substitute for “idol” similar to the way “abomination” (שקוץ) functions as a substitute for “god” in places like Exod 8:26; 1 Kgs 11:7; and 2 Kgs 23:13. The text is not saying the other gods are not gods, it’s saying they’re worthless and powerless—and here comes the rhetorical hook—but YHWH made the freakin’ heavens! That’s how much more he is to be revered over all those puny gods. This is the rhetorical force this text was supposed to have, but too many scholars are too concerned about finding monotheism in the Bible to pay close attention to that.


21 responses to “All the Gods of the Nations are Idols

  • kgreifer

    Daniel,

    Since there are many quotes that call idols “worthless things”, you can’t be sure if the gods of the peoples are being called “worthless things” because they are idols or because they can’t do what G-d can do. Psalm 96 does not mention them being idols, but since the word was used for idols often, it might have been understood that way by people who spoke Biblical Hebrew.

    Kenneth Greifer

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Thanks for the comment, Kenneth! My primary evidence for concluding that the authors, readers, and listeners of the Hebrew Bible did not reject the existence of other deities is that their existence is recognized throughout the Hebrew Bible (look at Deut 32:8 in the LXX and the Dead Sea Scrolls, for instance, or Gen 6:2–4; Job 1:6; 2:1; Ps 82) and down through the history of early Judaism (Second Temple Jewish literature repeatedly refers to other gods). Even Paul in 1 Cor 10:20 insists that idols are indices for spiritual beings, they’re just demons for him.

  • kgreifer

    Daniel,

    I think there were two groups of people in Israel at the same time. One group believed in many gods with G-d as the highest one, and the other group that believed only in G-d. I think Psalm 82 was written for one of the groups, but eventually accepted by the other one too with a different interpretation about human judges being called gods. I don’t think Psalm 82 was written by a prophet who had the same religious beliefs as Isaiah, and I don’t think that psalm would have been approved by Isaiah either.

    I can’t prove which group was first, but I think they existed at the same time, and their different beliefs show up in several quotes like Deuteronomy 32:8-9 and Psalm 82.

    Kenneth Greifer

  • kgreifer

    Daniel,

    I tried to show Dr. Heiser my alternative translation of Deuteronomy 32:8-9 based on the Masoretic text on his blog recently, but he hated it. I wonder if you would consider it.

    I think it could say when G-d gave nations inheritances, “…He will set up borders of peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel because the L-rd DIVIDED his people, Jacob, the portion of His inheritance.”

    I think it says “divided” and not the usual “because the portion of the L-rd is His people…”

    Maybe G-d set up borders for the tribes of Israel because He divided the sons of Israel into tribes. Genesis 28:3 and 48:4 say that Jacob will become an assembly of peoples. It doesn’t have to mean that the borders of all of the nations were set up according to the number of Israel’s sons, but only their borders were set up that way. People assume that the quote is about the nations totally, but I think it starts off discussing the nations getting inheritances and then discusses the borders of Israel specifically. I also have several other alternative translations that might be true, but I can’t put all of them here.

    Kenneth Greifer

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    There are two big problems with that translation. First, you’re not following the Masoretic Text. You’re rejecting their vocalization of חלק in favor of a verbal reading, which leads to the second problem: that verb doesn’t mean “divided.” If you’re interpreting it as a verb, it means “to take possession/inherit” or “to give as an inheritance.” My biggest concern is that the Masoretic Text is demonstrably in error here. We have manuscripts that show the text originally said the boundaries of the people were divided up according to the number of the sons of God.

  • kgreifer

    You can’t say the Masoretic text is wrong because there are other versions. You are just assuming which is right. The older copy is not necessarily the original one. Also, I think you are wrong to say it can’t mean to divide. Not only land was divided. Did you look at all of the quotes with the word as a verb?

    Kenneth Greifer

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      I say the Masoretic Text is wrong because it doesn’t make sense the way it stands and because we have multiple manuscripts that are up to 1000 years older than the Masoretic Text that attest to the reading I mentioned. There is simply no reason to prefer the reading of the Masoretic Text except just dogmatism. And I have to apologize, I was looking at a different root for some reason. חלק could mean “divide” in the qal, but in the sense of dividing among partners. Who are his partners? And why would we assert a qal affix reading here against MT when the prefix form is used in the verse before and the verse after? Hardly makes sense.

  • kgreifer

    Even if it meant “to give inheritances”, it still fits because He will give His people inheritances (portions) according to the number of the sons of Israel which is 12 portions for the 12 peoples or tribes. Actually, I think it means to give portions and not inheritances in many quotes because it is not only used for inheritances given to the tribes. Or maybe it means He divided them into portions.

    Kenneth Greifer

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      But that doesn’t match the way the tradition is represented elsewhere in early Judaism. The tradition developed that there were seventy nations overseen by seventy angels. These are the “princes” of the nations found in Daniel. This is how they interpreted the tradition that the head god divided up the nations to his sons, who always number seventy. There was never a tradition about 12 nations. They’re always seventy, as we see in the table of nations in Genesis. This tradition is where the idea of guardian angels came from. Also, “his people” have never inherited other nations, they’ve only ever had the land of Israel, which, as Deut 32:8–9 make clear, is YHWH’s own inheritance. Whether it’s portions or inheritances, it has absolutely nothing to do with the history of Israel.

  • kgreifer

    I did not say there were 12 nations. I said it starts off discussing the nations getting inheritances and then specifically Israel getting it’s inheritance which is divided into 12 parts for the tribes, which I said could be called peoples. Maybe you can look at what I wrote originally because you are saying I am discussing 12 nations which I did not do.

    I also don’t care about the tradition. I am looking at what the quote says only.

    Kenneth Greifer

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      1. That’s even further from what the text says. V. 8 says the peoples were divided up according to the number of the sons of God. If you read it as “sons of Israel,” then the people were divided up into twelve nations. You can’t take the reference to twelve out of the context of the division of the nations and insist it’s only a reference to inside Israel. The tribes were never referred to with עמים, that is a synonym for גוים, which appears in the other half of the two parallel verses. V. 9 refers to “his people” as Jacob, or “Israel,” and that was YHWH’s own portion of that division of the nations. That is the only reasonable reading. Yours has to ignore how Hebrew works as well as the logic of the whole thing.

      2. The tradition is important because it shows how the text was understood in antiquity.

  • kgreifer

    I also never mentioned Israel inheriting the nations. I think you are misreading what I said. I am saying first it discusses the nations getting inheritances and then Israel getting it’s inheritance which is in 12 parts according to the number of the tribes who are Israel’s sons. The tribes could be called peoples and I gave some quotes for proof. These quotes are poetic, so people are seeing them as only about the nations and not noticing that it goes from the nations to the inheritance Israel got. Prose would have been easier to understand than poetry, but that is how it is.

    Kenneth Greifer

  • kgreifer

    What does peoples mean in Genesis 28:3 and 48:4? Jacob will become an assembly of peoples or tribes.You can’t say that the tribes can’t be called peoples for sure. His inheritance might be called 12 peoples who were the sons of Israel. The beginning could be just a setup for His discussion of how He set up the borders for His people Israel as the 12 tribes.

    It is also possible that it starts out with “when the highest of nations (Israel) was inherited (niphal infinitive) (instead of hiphil without the yud), when G-d separated sons of man…” (Israel was called the highest of nations in Deuteronomy 26:9 and 28:1. I didn’t want to mention this and add confusion to the discussion, but this is also a possible reading.) Then it could say “He will set up borders of peoples (the tribes) according to the number of the sons of Israel because the L-rd divided His people, Jacob, the portion of His inheritance.”

    Kenneth Greifer

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      Both have קהל עמים, a much more specific phrase than just עמים, especially when עמים is occurring directly parallel to גוים. That’s synonymous parallelism you can’t just ignore because you feel like it.

      Next, נחל does not occur in the Niphal, and 4QDeut-j (which dates to before the Common Era) has the yod in the infinitive. It is not a niphal. It is a hiphil.

      Next, no, Israel was not called the highest of nations. Deut 26:9 says absolutely nothing about “high,” and 28:1 says, “I will set you high above all the nations of the earth.”

      Your readings are nonsensical. Why are you trying so hard to insist the text does not say what it unquestionably says?

  • kgreifer

    Are you saying that the tribes can only be called “an assembly of peoples”, but not “peoples” ?

    The quote saying Israel is high above the nations is Deuteronomy 26:19, not Deuteronomy 26:9, but still the meaning is the same anyway. If you are high above everyone else, then you are highest of the nations.

    I think that there were 2 versions of Deuteronomy 32:8-9 for people who believed in one G-d only and for people who believed in many gods with one highest G-d.

    Before you said the word “divide” has to refer to dividing among partners, but what about Ezek. 5:1, Amos 7:17, and Joel 4:2?

    Kenneth Greifer

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      I’m very clearly not saying that tribes can ONLY be called “an assembly of people.” What I’m saying is that עמים has a salient semantic sense, and that when it occurs across from גוים in synonymous parallelism, there is absolutely no justification whatsoever for asserting an unattested usage.

      Yes, the semantic load of Deut 26:19, etc., is synonymous with them being “the highest of the nation,” but that in no way, shape, or form justifies asserting an unattested reading over and against the very clear meaning of this synonymous parallelism. Who is the subject of the verb in the second colon if not Elyon? Who is the referent of the 3ms pronominal suffix on בהפרידו?

      Lastly, there is no evidence whatsoever that there was anyone in ancient Israel or Judah when Deuteronomy 32 was composed who believed that only one god existed.

  • kgreifer

    I would like to clarify something. I never said the Masoretic text was the correct version. I am only saying that I think it is misunderstood. I also gave more than one possible reading. I am just trying out ideas. That is how you figure out things, I think.

    Also, we know from the prophets that many people in Israel were worshiping idols and other gods for a very long time, so there should be no surprise that they would have prophets and scriptures to fit their beliefs. I am surprised that you don’t consider the possibility that they would have different scriptures than the people with other beliefs. What would you like for proof that there were people who only believed in G-d or that there might have been more than one version of some scriptures depending on the people’s beliefs? I imagine that it is easier to find physical evidence of idol worship than of the worship of G-d without any idols.

    Kenneth Greifer

  • kgreifer

    I just noticed some parallels in the Masoretic version. When G-d gave the nations inheritance, He divided the sons of man. When He set up the borders of peoples (the 12 tribes of Israel) which means He set up their inheritances, He divided the sons of Israel because He divided His people, His inheritance.

    Kenneth Greifer

    • Daniel O. McClellan

      The text doesn’t say he gave the nations inheritance, it says he apportioned the nations. They are the entity being divided up, not the recipients of the apportioning. You’re still doing damage to the text by trying to force it to say things it was never intended to say.

  • kgreifer

    So then He apportioned the nations and He apportioned His people into 12 peoples (tribes) with borders for all of them.

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