Interviewee: Dr. Michael S. Heiser
- Academic Editor, Logos Bible Software, Bellingham, WA
- Dissertation entitled “The Divine Council in Late Canonical and Non-Canonical Second Temple Jewish Literature”
- Authors the blog entitled: “The Naked Bible: Biblical Theology, Stripped Bare of Denominational Confessions and Theological Systems”
1. How do we define “monotheism”?
It all depends. Is the question how do “we” (moderns) tend to define monotheism? Or, how we should define monotheism? Or how ancient Israelites defined monotheism? Moderns would define it as a belief in one God, but “belief in one God” is itself vague. That phrase probably means “belief that one God, and only one God, exists.” As Nathan MacDonald points out (in “Deuteronomy and the Meaning of Monotheism”), the term is a modern one (17th century) and so, therefore, would the definition be modern. I’ll still use the term since I live in the modern age (!) but I don’t care for the modern definition as someone who accepts the Judeo-Christian canon.
The biblical writers used the term elohim to refer to half a dozen figures or entities in the unseen spiritual world (Yahweh, the elohim of Yahweh’s council, “demons” [Deut 32:17], the disembodied human dead [1 Sam 28:13], and angels [at least I’d argue for that on the basis of the plural verb in Gen 35:7 and its referent point]). The fact that they do that should tell us loudly and clearly that that they did not associate the term elohim with a specific set of attributes. We do that reflexively as moderns—we use “g-o-d” thinking of the singular being we know as the God of the Bible. Consequently, we feel uncomfortable with other elohim no matter how clear the biblical text is in that regard. The biblical writer did not think about elohim the way we think of “g-o-d.” They did not presume that elohim spoke of specific attributes that might be shared equally between Yahweh and other entities called elohim. It would have been absurd to the biblical writer to suggest that dear, departed uncle Jehoshaphat and aunt Rivka were on an ontological par with Yahweh and the elohim of His council, or that the members of Yahweh’s council and the elohim of the nations were on par with Yahweh *simply because they were all elohim.” And yet this is precisely what is assumed when people argue about Israelite monotheism.
The most straightforward way to understand the biblical use of elohim is to divorce it from attribute ontology. Elohim is what I like to call a “place of residence” term. It doesn’t tell me what a thing is in terms of attributes; it tells me the proper domain of a thing. All elohim are members of the unseen spiritual world, their place of residence. In that realm there is rank, and hierarchy, and in the case of Yahweh, uniqueness in attribute ontology. Those concepts are conveyed by other words and descriptions, not the word elohim. Yahweh is an elohim, but no other elohim is Yahweh. Yahweh was not one among equals; he was what I like to call “species unique.” That is what the biblical writers believed, so that is how I’d “define” monotheism, even though the term is awkward because of the modern baggage. However, the thought behind the term—that Yahweh is utterly and eternally unique—remains completely intact.
2. In the text of the Hebrew Bible, do you see a progression or development to monotheism? If so, is that progression a development in kind or a development of degree (or both)?
No. I believe the biblical writers believed Yahweh was unique among all elohim. I don’t care if our modern term “monotheism” fits that or not – but as I noted in the last question, it fits the spirit of the term. I’m delivering a paper on why I reject the evolutionary idea *for the biblical writers* at the annual ETS meeting, so people can read that paper. I can’t reproduce it here. The paper will be available after ETS/SBL next week (David will include the link then to the paper). I think the view is at least in part based not on what we have in the Hebrew Bible, but from what people imagine once existed. I don’t like to speculate; I’d rather go with what’s there – the final form of the text. I tend to like to draw conclusions deriving from exegesis of what we’ve received rather than on speculative texts that don’t exist. And when it comes to what we do have, I think the evidence offered for the idea is pretty much read into the text on the basis of certain assumptions.
Aside from the writers, though, I think that among Israelites there was a wide diversity of opinion or belief at all periods about how to talk about God, the gods, and the unseen world. Lots of people who today would appropriate the label “Christian” don’t even agree on this, so how much more the ancient Israelites who didn’t have direct access to most of their Scriptures for most of their history? My view is that there was theological diversity here. The biblical writers were part of that diversity, and what they believed has been given to us in the text as we have it.
4. Is the distinction between “polytheism” and “henotheism” necessary or helpful?
It’s helpful in that henotheism is monarchic polytheism, but that doesn’t say enough, especially about Israelite belief (as it’s reflected in the text). Henotheism operates without forbidding praying or offering sacrifices to many gods; it requires only the recognition of a supreme deity. But a henotheist would not see the top deity as utterly unique in attributes; he was only at the top through an imagined conquest of the pantheon, or perhaps earthly popularity. That is why I don’t think it is an adequate term for what the biblical writers believed. I’d need to see textual evidence that the biblical writers thought Yahweh could be toppled, or that they believed other gods had the same set of attributes before I’d consider them henotheists. Monolatry is better—monolatry is the rejection of worship and sacrifice to any deity other than the supreme deity. The biblical writers were certainly that, but again, that doesn’t say enough. I believe they also believed in Yahweh’s uniqueness. In other words, the biblical writers weren’t just monolatrous; they had certain beliefs about Yahweh that mattered, too (the reason he was the deity that should be worshiped).
5. What major texts are central to your view and why?
Passages that contain elohim. My view is based on the usage of the term as the biblical writers use it. It’s no more complicated than that.
6. What major texts are the most problematic to your view and why?
I can’t think of any, but that’s because I don’t accept the standard meaning of elohim. I can’t figure out why the biblical writers’ own use of elohim has escaped attention. If they use it of more than one being, and the beings of which it is used are described with other terms as greater or lesser in attributes and rank, then elohim cannot be a term that has to do with one set of attributes.
7. What would be the top 3 books you would recommend to students interested in the study of characterizing the kind of theism in the Hebrew bible/OT and ancient Israelite religion?
This is tough, since my view of elohim seems to be an actual contribution (or at least Nicholas Wyatt seemed to suggest that when he heard a paper of mine back at ISBL in Edinburgh). I think MacDonald’s book (noted above – “Deuteronomy and the Meaning of ‘Monotheism’“) is pretty helpful (it was to me anyway). I can’t think of any that subject the consensus view to any serious questioning. I’d have lots of recommendations for the divine council and binitarian monotheism, but that seems outside the question.