(One of a series of posts comparing ideas in the book of Exodus/Shemot with related ideas in the book of Psalms.)
The “Song of the Sea”, a psalm in last week’s Torah portion, Beshallach, includes the verse:
Who is like You among the eilim, Y-h-w-h?
Who is like You, glorious in holiness,
Awesome, praiseworthy, doing wonders! (Exodus 15:11)
Y-h-w-h (י־ה־ו־ה) = God’s personal four-letter name. (Many English translations substitute “LORD” for this name, even though it is spelled using letters from several forms of the Hebrew verb “to be”, rather than from the Hebrew noun for “lord”.)1
eilim (אֵלִם) = plural of eil (אֵל) = a god. (In some Canaanite religions, Eil was the founding god of the pantheon. In the Torah, Eil is another name for Y-h-w-h, but eilim always means multiple other gods.)
The Song of the Sea assumes that other gods exist, and rejoices that the God of Israel, Y-h-w-h, is more powerful than any of them. This verse is included in the daily Jewish liturgy, morning and evening. When Jews sing “Mi chamokha” (“Who is like You?”) we do not always remember that we are comparing our God with other gods.
Yitro and the First Commandment
In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, the Midianite priest Yitro travels to Mount Sinai to meet his son-in-law Moses shortly after God and Moses have brought the Israelites out of Egypt.
And Yitro said: “Blessed be Y-h-w-h, Who rescued you from the hand of the Egyptians and from the hand of Pharaoh… Now I know that Y-h-w-h is greater than all the elohim…” (Exodus/Shemot 18:11)
elohim (אֱלֺהִים) = gods, a god, God. (Grammatically elohim is the plural of eloha, a rarely used word for a god. The Torah uses the word elohim to refer to both multiple gods, as with eilim, and to a single god. Sometimes elohim refers to a single foreign god2, but more often the word refers to the God of Israel, Y-h-w-h.)
Does Yitro believe in the existence of multiple gods only because he is a Midianite? No; many passages in the Bible that were originally written before the destruction of the first temple in 587 B.C.E. share this belief. Even the first of the “Ten Commandments” in this week’s Torah portion does not require monotheism, but only a henotheistic religion in which Y-h-w-h is the best god and the only one the people are allowed to worship:
I am Y-h-w-h, your elohim, Who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of servitude. You shall have no other elohim over and above My presence. (Exodus/Shemot 20:2-3)
(For other translations of this commandment, see my post Yitro: Not in My Face.)
Y-h-w-h does not say that there are no other gods, but only that the Israelites must not serve them.
A number of psalms3 are similarly henotheistic in the original Hebrew (though some translators strain to make them sound as monotheistic as later Biblical writings.) These psalms treat other gods as real, but emphasize that they are weak and worthless compared with Y-h-w-h, the God of Israel. Here are three examples:
Psalm 29 is probably the oldest of the henotheistic psalms. Its opening addresses the “children” or dependents of other gods:
Assign to Y-h-w-h, children of eilim,
Assign to Y-h-w-h magnificence and might!
Assign to Y-h-w-h the magnificence of [God’s] name,
Bow down to Y-h-w-h of holy beauty!
The voice of Y-h-w-h is over the waters;
The eil of magnificence is thundering. (Psalm 29:1-3)
“Children of eilim” might mean those dependent on other gods, i.e. their human worshipers. Or, according to Ibn Ezra4 in his commentary on Exodus 15:11 (above), “children of eilim” refers to the stars, which were considered divine.
Psalm 29 goes on to describe the voice of Y-h-w-h as shattering cedars, making the mountains of Lebanon dance, kindling fire, shaking the wilderness, and startling deer into giving birth—all images related to thunderstorms and earthquakes. Canaanite poems describe the god Baal as the weather god who speaks in thunder and makes lightning and earthquakes, but this Israelite poem says that God does all that.
In Canaanite literature the god Baal conquers the waters of chaos, builds a palace on a mountaintop, and becomes king over all the other gods except his father, Eil.
Psalm 29 gives God a palace and a throne:
And in [God’s] palace everyone says: Magnificent!
Y-h-w-h sat enthroned for the flood,
And Y-h-w-h sits enthroned as king forever. (Exodus 29:10)
The purpose of Psalm 29 may have been to replace Baal-worship among the Israelites with the worship of Y-h-w-h, and to persuade them that all the other eilim are less powerful than Y-h-w-h. These inferior gods acclaim and bow down to Y-h-w-h in God’s palace.
In Canaanite writings from Ugarit, the father god Eil periodically convenes an assembly of the gods, each of whom has its own sphere of power. After receiving advice from the other gods, Eil makes the major decisions about the world.5
Psalm 82 takes the idea a divine assembly in a different direction.
Elohim takes a stand in the assembly of Eil,
Among elohim he pronounces judgment. (Psalm 82:1)
In the first line, “Elohim” refers to Y-h-w-h; in the second line “elohim” refers to all the assembled gods. “Eil” in the first line might be either Y-h-w-h or the Canaanite father god.
Y-h-w-h then accuses the other gods of unjust rulings that favor the wicked and fail to rescue the poor. But the other gods don’t get it.
They neither know nor understand,
They walk around in darkness;
Causing all the foundations of the earth to totter. (Psalm 82:5)
Without true divine justice, the whole human world is threatened. So Y-h-w-h gets rid of the ignorant lesser gods, commenting:
I used to say to myself: You are elohim,
And children of the Most High, all of you.
Nevertheless, you will die like humans,
And you will fall like one of the princes. (Psalm 82:6-7)
Psalm 82 might be an explanation of why the wicked are not always punished: inferior gods have been acting as their judges.
On the other hand, this psalm might be a story exhorting the Israelites to abandon other gods because those gods are wicked, stupid, and no longer immortal. Only Y-h-w-h is worth worshiping, because only Y-h-w-h administers true justice and lives forever.
The heavens told of [God’s] true justice;
All the peoples saw [God’s] magnificence.
Every worshiper of a carved idol is shamed,
Those who boast of the elilim.
All elohim bowed down to [God]! (Psalm 97:6-7)
elilim (אֱלִילִים) = worthless gods, nonentities, not-gods, insignificant gods.
“The heavens” in verse 6 probably refers not to the sky, but to the gods (including stars) who dwell in the heavens. Since even the other gods bow down to Y-h-w-h and acknowledge God’s justice, anyone silly enough to worship these insignificant gods should be ashamed.
It took many centuries for the Israelites to stop worshiping the old gods. People would declare their allegiance to Y-h-w-h, and then slide back into worshiping some other god, a god that “everyone” knew was especially effective at dealing with their current problem. The Bible repeatedly shows Moses and other prophets scolding the Israelites for straying after other gods, but the scoldings must have been ineffective, since the people kept on backsliding.
It was hard for the Israelites to stick to henotheism, in which their God was supreme and the others were not worth worshiping. How could they manage the radical idea of monotheism, which the Torah first introduced in Deuteronomy 4:35? How long did it take, after the second Isaiah preached monotheism during the Babylonian exile, before most Israelites believed there was only one god in the universe?
1 I usually translate the four-letter name as “God”, but in this post it is important to distinguish Y-h-w-h from elohim. I insert hyphens because according to Jewish tradition, God’s personal name must not be spelled correctly in writings that are neither biblical nor liturgical. For many Jews this applies even to spelling the name with Roman letters.
The Hebrew for “lord” or “master” is adon (אָדוֹן). When Jews read out loud in religious services, we often substitute adonai (“my lords”) for the four-letter name of God.
2 The Bible uses “elohim” as a singular noun for the gods Baal, Baal-berit, Baal-zebub, Dagon, Kemosh, Milkom, and Nisrach; the goddesses Astarte and Ashtoret; and the golden calf.
3 Psalms 29, 82, 86, 89, 95, 96, 97, 135, and 136 all assume the existence of other gods.
4 Ibn Ezra was the 12th-century Spanish theologian Abraham ben Meir Ibn Ezra.
5 A divine assembly also appears in the book of Job and in Psalms 82 and 89.