Monday, June 24, 2013

What Do We Mean by "Monotheism"?

[Addendum] The ensuing is adapted from a recent paper of mine.  It scolds the categorical monkeying around we evangelicals are used to committing to make sense of the term ‘monotheism.’  The end proposes clarification for how evangelicals should understand the term. (For those new to the blog, yes I am a Biblical monotheist.)  The issue is primarily important for its apologetic value in responding to consensus modern source-critical reconstructions of Israelite religion which propose an evolution from polytheism to monotheism throughout the Biblical text.  I reject the notion that the Biblical texts reflect a chronological evolution from polytheism to monotheism.  If the concept of non-angelic deities existing within Israelite religion is new to you, you can read an introduction by a specialist in the source material here.

A modern term applied to ancient religion

Over the past 35 years Old Testament scholars have wrestled with the value of applying the term “monotheism” to the religion of the Bible. The problem, as Nathan McDonald’s doctoral thesis relates, is due to the original coining of the term “monotheism” in the 17th century by the Cambridge neo-Platonist Henry More as an antonym of atheism, not polytheism. The Cambridge Platonists were deposed by Locke and deist rationalists who would “ensure the term’s survival and led to its established place in philosophical and theological discourse.”[1]  This Enlightenment climate eventually injected the term with its modern connotations, especially with regard to Israelite religion.[2]  I’d agree with the dissertations of Michael S. Heiser and McDonald: The term “monotheism” is useful in expressing the uniqueness of the ancient Israelite God.  It does this in a way in which other terms like henotheism and monolatrism don’t.  At the same time “a yawning gap exists between ‘monotheism’ and the Old Testament.”[3]  That yawning gap is represented in how we moderns use the term as an antonym for polytheism. (i.e. defining “monotheism” as what “polytheism” is not and “polytheism” as what “monotheism” is not.)

Categorically inconsistent and tautological

Frankly, it’s incoherent and tautological when we moderns use “monotheism” as an antonym for “polytheism.” The reason is that when we use these two terms in this mutually defining apposition of each other we must equivocate on what we mean by (G/g)od in order to render the two categories mutually exclusive.  When we use the term “mono-theism” the theos in that phrase designates a being who is eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, self-sufficient, etc. When we use the term “poly-theism” the meaning of the term theos becomes something much different.  In this case the term comes to refer to a sort of super-person, usually with a limited realm of preternatural powers (such as the Egyptian deities, gods of ancient Greece or the superhumans of Celtic mythology).  The term theos in this case cannot have the same definition as the one we were assuming in the term monotheism because the notion of many gods all possessing an attribute like omnipotence would itself be absurd and inconceivable. It follows also the term “monotheism” is tautological then because it reiterates the mono-ness of a Being, the definition of which, necessarily includes singularity.

What is a god?: defining deity

The other option for the defender of the common definition of monotheism (as an antonym for divine plurality) to circumvent the above charges of equivocation and tautology is to object that the term theos in both cases merely refers to any being who is at the level of a preternatural super-being or greater.  The problem with this type of response is that it fails to account for the inconsistencies in the way in which we categorize the divine beings in the monotheistic religions.  Before the founding of Islam jinni were considered tutelary gods.[4]‘ifrits have been considered particularly powerful and marids also share many of the natural associations we would expect of an Ancient Middle Eastern deity.  They are powerful, vatic creatures with freewill; they have shape shifting abilities, their ire is often feared, and the beings were considered deities before being appropriated by Islam.[5]   If we are going to identify the Qur’an or texts like The Arabian Nights as monotheistic documents we have conceded our equivocation of theos in our use of the terms monotheism and polytheism and so, have forfeited the notion that those two terms describe mutually exclusive categories.  David Penchansky (who believes in a source-critical evolving Israelite monotheism which he parallels with Islam’s evolution of the jinn) has pounded on this here.   It is intractable to attempt to define the theos of polytheism in a way which circumscribes all the minor deities of ancient Egypt, Canaan, or Central American religions and yet extrudes those pesky jinni of folk Islam and the Quran.

Gods other than Yahweh in the Bible?

Again, what in our modern thinking qualifies the super-humans of Celtic mythology, or Aken, the mere ferryman of the Egyptian underworld, as gods yet makes an exception in the “divine” category for jinni?  A clear answer isn’t obvious. Why do Deber and Resheph, both fierce soldiers in Yahweh’s military retinue not make the cut when they are considered gods when they appear in the Ugaritic and other West-Semitic texts?[6] Why are the beings assuming the divine council thrones of Daniel 7 excluded from the category of deity, yet the beings of the Ugaritic divine council are considered gods?  Certainly the Qumran community was monotheistic and revered those texts like Isaiah and Deuteronomy which are usually upheld as the paragons of matured monotheism.  Why then do they identify the singular elohim of Ps. 82 as Melchizedek?  Why are there 185 occurrences in the extra-biblical DSS texts where a variation of elohim or elim appears in the plural?  What about the elohim of Duet. 32.8 who are geographically portioned and hold all the same functions as gods? Why do scholars refer to a Ugaritic ml’k as a “messenger deity” yet a מלאך of the Bible gets excluded?  Why are the seventy sons of god in the Ugaritic texts divine but not their 70 cognates in the Bible in texts like Ps. 82 and Duet. 32.8?  What standard happens to qualify a lowly artisan god of Canaanite religion in the divine category yet happens to extrude a powerful angel like Michael or the Sons of God of Gen. 6?

What a flurry of questions like these illustrates is that our modern, application of 17th century terminology (pre-dating all notions of modern archaeology and most comparative materials in the Near East) to ancient Israelite religion confounds clear thinking when evangelicals approach the topic of divine plurality in the Hebrew Bible. Consider how we usually perceive monotheism and polytheism as mutually exclusive opposites.  In the parlance of possible world theory it is recognized two mutually exclusive realities cannot both exist as conjuncts of any possible world. For example, there is no conceivable reality in which there could exist married bachelors or square circles.  These categories are genuinely mutually exclusive and are therefore not even conceivable.  “Monotheism” and “polytheism” cannot be mutually exclusive.  It is easy to conceive of a reality in which there might actually exist an eternal, omnipotent, omnipresent, self-sufficient being unlike any other who created any number of supernatural beings which administer affairs of the cosmos in many ways analogous to other Mesopotamian deities. 

What then do we mean by monotheism?

The term monotheism is here to stay.  When we use it, we should therefore take it to mean that one, incomparable, unique God exists who holds attributes such as omniscience, omnipotence and eternality and that this God created a host of lower subordinate others who administer the affairs of His cosmos.  The term monotheism should remain one of incomparability.  We should not use it as a declaration of singularity among an ambiguous category of beings we call gods. Evangelicals must embrace the highly supernatural worldview of scripture. It isn’t enough to depose of the existence of Yahweh’s divine council of gods by simply appealing to God’s “denial” statements in Isaiah in Deuteronomy since those same authors embrace the divine council in other places and Heiser and McDonald have demonstrated these statements must be understood as declarations of incomparability.  An example of this is readily found in the way Isaiah uses these same denial statements in reference to the incomparability of Babylon and Moab:
Is. 45.5
I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me 
Is. 47.8, 10
8Now therefore hear this, you [Babylon and Moab] lover of pleasures, who sit securely, who say in your heart, “I am, and there is no one besides me [אני ואפסי עוד לא]10…you said in your heart, “I am and there is no one besides me [אני ואפסי עוד].”
Those who offer a text like Isaiah 45.5 as an ontological statement of the non-existence of the divine council beings cannot maintain a consistent hermeneutic when approaching parallel denial texts like Isaiah 47, since it is obvious a text like Isaiah 47 is making a statement of incomparability (and not a statement of the ontological non-existence of any other city).  This reality applies not only to evangelicals but to source-critics who would wish to uphold texts like Isaiah as theological innovations of monotheism that are in contradiction with the divine plurality of earlier Biblical religion.





[1] Deuteronomy and the Meaning of ‘Monotheism’, (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003), 17.

[2] Ibid., 1-21.

[3] Ibid., 52.

[4] Inscriptions and reliefs at Palmyra depict the deities in warrior regalia protecting the city. An inscription near Palmyra reads, “the ginnaye of the village of Beth Fasi’el, the good and rewarding gods.” Robert G. Hoyland, Arabia and the Arabs: From the Bronze Age to the Coming of Islam (Routledge: New York 2002), 145.

[5] Though very dated, Thomas Patrick Huges provides a detailed explanation of Islamic jinni tradition. A Dictionary of Islam: Being Encyclopedia of the Doctrines, Rites, Ceremonies, and Customs, Together with the Technical and Theological Terms, of the Muhammadan Religion (London: H. Allen & Co. 1895), 133.  Diane Morgan offers a modern introduction in Essential Islam: A Comprehensive Guide to Belief and Practice (USA: Praeger, 2010), 15-6. In regards to jinni serving the function of tutelary deities in modern times, it is interesting that during the Rwandan genocide, Rwandan Muslim neighborhoods were avoided because of circulated fear that jinni protected Muslims and mosques.

[6] Cf. P. Xella., “Resheph in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. (hereafter DDD) (Brill: Grand Rapids 1999), 700-3. Resheph is a very popular West-Semitic chthonic god with Deber also present in the Akkadian and Ugaritic texts (cf. Duet 32.24 and Ps 78.48).  Hab. 3.5 has both serving at the heels of Yahweh.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

A Seminary Student Visits the Creation Museum: 27 Million Dollars of Bad Exegesis


Ken Ham here and Georgia Purdom here have made a response to this blog on the AiG website.

I just recently got back from Ken Ham's Creation Museum with a couple of other seminary friends. In this post I won’t be clamoring about the “abuse of science” or thundering party lines for either an old or young earth position like other reviews online. I also won't be discussing the length of the days of Genesis. (If you're wondering, I largely side with John Walton's discussion of the seven days in the context of ancient Mesopotamian temple cosmology.) Here we will be doing something much more radical—looking at a couple of Answers in Genesis’ (AiG) claims and examining what sorts of interpretations the original language texts can and cannot sustain. There I go again insisting on all that boring exegetical stuff.

The goal here is to simply ask what range of readings the plain text of the Bible allows in a few cases and whether or not AiG has exceeded that range of legitimate interpretations.

Walking through the museum, I was appalled by the colossal fortune expended on ideas that are obviously deficient in erudition within Ancient Near Eastern history and modern Biblical studies.

Take a gander at this exhibit of Moses holding the Ten Commandments next to Saruman.














Since this is a history museum, why are the Commandments written in the ashuri block script—a script that wasn't adopted until the 5th century? Why do the Ten Commandments contain diacritical vowel points which weren't invented until the Masoretes operating in the Middle Ages? Why did the creators of this exhibit go through the labors to add such anachronistic elements which are explained in the introductory pages of any Hebrew 101 textbook? Either they didn't care (but why then is so much pain dedicated to detail?), or this is indicative the persons behind it have never had the requisite Biblical training. But if they have never had requisite Biblical training why should we care what they have to say about other elements of Biblical interpretation? Surely I’m over exaggerating. I know what you’re thinking: “Ben, it’s not like historical issues like vowel points and scribes like the Masorites has significant impact on our theology, right?”

I’m sure the suspense from that rhetorical question is killing you. 

Is the Creation Museum based on a mistranslation of the first word of the Bible?

Much fuss has been made over James Ussher's attempt at dating the age of the earth by counting through the Bible's genealogies. Don’t worry, the subject is so hackneyed I’ll spare commenting.  A much more interesting (and very rarely asked question) is whether or not we can presume to date the universe with Genesis.

AiG believes the universe ought to be dated at 6,000. Walking through the exhibits, you are ejected from a Nietzschian void--navigate a concrete room of looping grey film of atom bomb explosions, dying children and goring wolves, through a hall depicting a porn addict, adulterer and a liberal pastor with a sith lord voice (past the demolition ball engraved “millions of years”). You are then taken into a room of looping TV screens and ubiquitous signs emphasizing the first clause of Genesis to justify a six thousand year old universe: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."

AiG assumes on the basis of traditional translations which understand Genesis 1.1 as an absolute temporal clause (*yawn,* I know) that the words "the beginning" circumscribe the creation of the universe itself.  They take “the beginning” to be the absolute beginning of our universe—of space-time.

So what’s the big deal, and why am I boring you with Hebrew grammar?  As a subsection of Robert Holmstedt’s Wisconsin-Madison doctoral dissertation demonstrates, the translation of Genesis 1.1 as an absolute temporal clause is “grammatically indefensible. Period. End of story.” (See Holmstedt’s blog post here.)  Modern Semitic grammarians have known this for a long time.  You can find it held in the work of scholars like Robert Alter at the University of California, Martin Baasten at the University of Leiden, Mark Smith from NYU, Ellan van Wolde from Radbound and Michael Heiser from Logos. If you are going to argue Genesis 1:1 should be translated “In the beginning” you must supply a vowel point within the first word of the Bible which exists in no Masoretic manuscript on earth and is contradicted by every Masoretic text on earth which includes vowels. (There I go, throwing another tantrum over scribes and their vowel points again!) You must also explain the parallel operation of this same syntactical pattern in other relative clause texts. The following quote from Holmstedt spells out the implications of the Hebrew grammar: 
“A young-earth person can say, ‘this is the only and first  ראשׁית,’ but such a claim does not proceed directly from the grammar; it interprets the meaning of the text in light of a view brought to the text from some other place. And an old-earth person can say, ‘this relativizes the claims Genesis 1.1-3 makes so that the old-earth and the big-bangity-bang are not disallowed by the text’. Take your pick, but you must do it based on texts or issues outside Gen 1.1-3; the decision cannot be tied directly to the grammar of the passage since the grammar allows for both.”
Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Athanaius of Alexandria, Augustine and Hilary of Poitier:
Not exactly "philosophers and scientists of the Enlightenment."
Did you catch that AiG?  You cannot cite Genesis 1:1 as a description of the absolute beginning of the universe. (Notice, this critique circumvents and is prior to any discussion of the length of the seven days.)  The grammar of the text allows for a pre-existing universe (or even pre-earth conditions), and we cannot know how long that universe may have been around before the proceeding creation events in the chapter.  You can’t date the universe with Genesis 1:1. That’s not a claim dictated by someone’s scientific agenda, but by the laws of the Hebrew grammar God’s words are inspired in.

So, how should the first verse of the Bible be translated? You can pursue those additional details with this lecture by Michael S. Heiser (PhD Semitic languages) here. Any lecture by Heiser is like the nerd version of six flags.

There be dragons:

Ken Ham is famous for claiming Leviathan and Behemoth are literal ancient marine reptiles like brontosaurs. This doctrine was taught by all my church youth-ministers and imparted to me through my parents. As you first enter the museum you will be introduced to a dozen exhibits supporting the teaching that dinosaurs and man co-habited; Beowulf, the Lockness monster, Saint John of the Cross, virtually any account of a dragon--modern or ancient--is taken as evidence for cohabitation of dinosaurs and man.


I’ve discussed Leviathan and Behemoth here. In summary, if you are going to say Leviathan is a plesiosaur you must be willing to live with the fact that the Bible’s historical-literary context outright tells us he is a mythological representation of chaos. You must also ignore texts in God’s word like Psalm 74 which explicitly says he has multiple heads (tellingly, Ham mysteriously DLs on the full text of Psalm 74) and Isaiah’s reference to the creature which also only makes sense as a metaphor for chaos in a polemic corresponding to ancient Near Eastern cosmogony. We know exactly what Leviathan is because the ancient sources name him and tell us. (The additional interpretation of Behemoth as a chaos deity follows from the Leviathan passage.)

Also, AiG’s linchpin verse for proving behemoth is a dinosaur, and not a hippo or elephant ('his tail is like a cedar'), might very easily be translated 'his phallus is like a cedar.'[1] That interpretation may not preach well on a Sunday morning, but it is at least as old as the Latin Vulgate.

In the poetic verse structure, “tail” (Hebrew: zanav) is paralleled with the Hebrew word pachad, translated “thighs.” This word “thighs” only appears once in the Bible, but we know its meaning through Aramaic and a cognate Arabic word (Hebrew, Aramaic and Arabic are related languages). In Aramaic literature, it refers to the testicles. This is why the KJV translates this word “stones,” and it’s why Jewish scholars like Rashi and Ibn Ezra interpreted it as “testicles.” The Latin Vulgate likewise uses the word testiculorum, and modern Hebrew experts like Stephen Mitchell and Robert Alter have also opted for translations reflecting language of virility.

In a nutshell, Behemoth was a bovine personification of cosmic chaos (the word Behemoth in Hebrew is an intensified form of a common word for cow and he is paired with the known chaos dragon Leviathan), and the reference to his "tail" is a Near Eastern euphemism for virility.  

Isaiah’s Fiery Flying Serpent

One example the museum raises that I’ve currently yet to address on this blog is Isaiah’s “fiery flying serpent.” Ham actually thinks this creature is also a possible dinosaur.  Following is the quote from the AiG website:
The museum has one of these "flying
serpents sitting over the gift shop 
“There is also mention of a flying serpent in the Bible: the ‘fiery flying serpent’ (Isaiah 30:6). This could be a reference to one of the pterodactyls, which are popularly thought of as flying dinosaurs, such as the Pteranodon, Rhamphorhynchus, or Ornithocheirus.”
 Isaiah 30:6 isn’t the only place where Isaiah refers to the “’fiery’ flying serpent.” Read the below “Seraph” entry in the Dictionary of Deities and Demons (written by the famous scholar T. N. D. Mettinger):

If you were reading closely you probably noticed that the Hebrew term used for “serpent” in these Isaiah passages is similar to the term Isaiah uses in the throne room scene of chapter 6 to describe a category of divine beings called seraphim. (Interpreting scripture with scripture, crazy idea, right!)  If you’re catching my drift, and you think it’s weird I’m suggesting the “fiery flying serpent” of Ham’s passage is actually a divine being, hold tight. I’ll let you in on a secret:

The seraph divine beings of the Bible are best understood as serpentine beings.

As a noun, the term means “serpent.” Numbers 21:8, which depicts Moses raising up the bronze serpent, is a more explicit example of seraph referring to a snake.  Mettinger belabors that as a double meaning the term is generally taken as derivative of the verb meaning “to burn” (notice certain translations of Ham’s Isaiah passage supply the adjective “fiery”). If the suggestion that seraphim are winged serpentine beings (and not the voluptuous, blonds of hallmark) still seems crazy to you, consider this other portion of Mettinger’s entry:


No Answers in Genesis.  The fiery flying serpent Isaiah associates with Egypt is not a dinosaur.  It’s a symbolic divine being represented by voluminous iconographic examples from Egypt and is well attested in Israel. See images of Judean seraphim seals here. That attribution by the Egyptians is entirely explicable within their own standards of symbolism and mythology. No dinosaurs needed. Those who wish for further reading on this will enjoy Karen Joines' article (Samford university) published here in the Journal of Biblical Literature .
Notice the creature was associated
with (and represented) the pharaoh's
throne as is obvious in this image of
Tutankhamun's throne.

Joines emphasizes the wealth of these
representations in the tombs of Rameses IV
and Tutankhamun.
  














Frankly, it’s rather silly to claim Jewish Babylonian exiles (who feared their scriptures were refuted and that God had finally abandoned them for good when Jerusalem fell) should have any reason to care about velociraptors, even if that alluring man in Song of Solomon mysteriously seems to be a description of Jeff Goldblum (been trying to work that Godblum reference in since the first paragraph).


Dragon Legends

What about all those worldwide dragon legends, Ben?  Surely those are evidence of human-dinosaur co-habitation and that Noah loaded T-Rexes on the Ark, right?


This is a bone I have with AiG. Adrienne Mayor from Stanford wrote a famous dissertation in which she pinpointed the geographic origins of dragons and other popular myths and found that those locations overlapped heavily with known ancient fossil beds. Her books trace ancient fossil hunting history and mythology in regions like Native North America, Greece and Rome. It’s not just dragons. People in the ancient world are known to have offered fossil remains of griffins, centaurs, cyclopes, and giants too. If you are an ancient Roman at a construction site and your team exhumes a giant reptilian skeleton, you are going to believe in a past age of dragons; if you are an ancient Scythian nomad and you encounter protoceratops remains in the desert you are going to interpret them as a griffin; if you are an ancient Sioux who finds himself upon pteranodon remains you are going to invent the thunderbird legend. In many cases it is certain that ancient people were offering extinct animal fossils as the origin of mythological creatures. We are able to go to the fossil beds and check for ourselves because, in a few cases, the ancients told us exactly where they were. (They named some of them!) This is the mainstream view of modern anthropology. If you were to visit the Mythic Creatures exhibit at the Fraizer History Museum here in Louisville, you would find Mayor cited ubiquitously on these issues. It’s an extremely powerful and convincing thesis.

If Creationists want to parade dragon legends as if they are moly herb--reducing conventional scientists to crying hissy fits, it would be comforting to at least know that the Creation Museum posse are even aware of Mayor’s dissertation. A Google search reveals they are not. 



I also got a kick out of the realization the museum perpetuates the myth that Voltaire’s mansion was turned into a printing house. You can read a refutation of the myth here.  The kicker, the Answers in Genesis website, in an article entitled, “Arguments Creationists Should Avoid” warns against Christians making this claim.

Note: A general editing overhaul was made of this post on 8/1/14.


[1] B. F. Batto, “Behemoth,” in the DDD (Netherlands: Brill, 1999), 166.