What is a Monotheist?

I was listening to an old podcast of Higgaion (a good, if recently quiet, OT blog by Christopher Heard) about the divine council, a topic I tangentially referred to a couple of weeks ago.

The guest presenter, Michael Heiser, is describing the recurrent idea in the OT that God is assisted or advised by a council of other gods or spiritual beings.

He discusses whether the ancient Israelites could be described as monotheist at all:

“The term was coined in the 17th C. So its a bit unfair to use it on Israelite religion. Yet that’s what scholars do. Opting for terms like henotheism or polytheism as well. Those are also modern terms. Frankly, we ought not to impose our terms on the ancients in such matter. What Israelites believed about God is better described than defined with a single word.”

And then goes on to talk a bit more about the problems with the word Elohim as ‘God’ in the sense that we think — a reference to a particular theistic supreme being:

“In the hebrew bible several different individuals or groups are described as Elohim. There’s Jahweh, the God of Israel. There are the Gods of the [divine] council, Demons in Deut 32:17…. And there are angels. And the spirit of the deceased prophet Samuel [1 Samuel 28:13].”

(square brackets mine)

Both excellent quotes.

I would want to stress one thing that Heiser doesn’t go into, however: the chronological differences.

Although the text of the OT dates to only the first few centuries BCE, some of the source material is much, much older. And that will reflect a differing view of God. We have to be sensitive to those issues. Older passages sit alongside those centuries newer with no division or indication. And in those years the religion of the Israelites inevitably changed. This is particularly true of compilations of literature such as Genesis, the Psalms, or Isaiah.

Seems that the Higgaion podcast was a 5-episode run, shame no more were made – I was really enjoying them.

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