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Archive for August 6th, 2007

Parasha Re’eh – “other gods whom you have not experienced”

Posted by Henric C. Jensen on August 6, 2007

Parasha Re’eh Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17 – Haftarah (Readings from the Prophets): Isaiah 54:11-55:5


“In this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, Moses warns the Israelites against giving in to the temptation to worship “other gods whom you have not experienced” (elohim acherim asher lo-y’datam.) Even if that urging comes from “your brother, your own mother’s son, or your son or daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your closest friend” — if any of these dear people entices you to worship another god “whom neither you nor your fathers have experienced,” Just Say No.Like most of Torah, this text presumes that other gods exist; they’re just not appropriate loci for worship. (Ah, monolatry.) “Pray to the God you know,” Moses seems to be saying. “Pray to the God Who brought you out of Egypt — the one your ancestors knew, the one you know so intimately and so well.””(The God we know- Radical Torah)

It’s good to see that there are others that acknowledge the idea of Judaism originally being Henotheistic or Monolatrist.To me that is the solution to a problem that originally cause me to seek out Judaism – it makes it possible for me to be tolerant.Here’s an essay I wrote on the matter of Henotheism in Tanakh. It falls right into the above quest and this weeks Parasha.

Is there support for Henotheism in Torah and Tanakh?

My Problem

When G-D speaks about ‘other g-ds’ at Har Sinai He says:” Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” (Ex. 20:3) This sentence presents me with a logical problem – why would G-d command Israel not to worship other g-ds, if in fact no such g-ds exist? Why would worship of other g-ds be the major Problem G-d is faced with throughout the History of His People? If you were G-d, and the only existing at that, would you worry about sharing the devotions of your People with something that does not exist?

My intention

I have no illusions about coming up with any revolutionary findings or theories about G-d – my sole intention with this is to attempt to show that while Judaism today may be considered Monotheistic, it has not always been so, and that there is room in Torah and Tanakh for a Henotheistic view of G-d. A view that accepts the existence of other G-ds, but in practice excludes those other G-ds from personal belief and worship.

My search for answers

Five years ago, I was studying on-line with a Rabbi on-line – he suggested I study the 613 mitzvot and explain them one by one, to formulate my own understanding of the Foundation of Jewish Law and Thought. The first Positive Mitzvah (According to Maimonides Sefer HaMitzvot) is: “Know that there is a G-d” – this comes in Rambam’s list with a reference to Ex. 20:2; and Deut. 5:6: “I am the LORD thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” – I wondered how this could be read as a command to know/believe that there is a G-d, and started searching for more appropriate references – I eventually found Devarim 4:39 “know this day, and lay it to thy heart, that the LORD, He is God in heaven above and upon the earth beneath; there is none else.”. While I was searching the Scripture I discovered that Torah and Tanakh again and again make references to ‘other g-ds’ – in reference as well as by name – and it wasn’t random, it was systematic. It seemed to me that Torah and Tanakh were suggesting that Judaism was not entirely, what we would call Monotheistic.

Could it be that Judaism, despite its Monotheistic coat, had room for the acceptance, even acknowledgment, of the existence of other G-ds than Hashem?

To answer the question I had to look at the context – where did the Jewish People originate? What were its cultural and sociological roots? What was the religious soil like, in which the seed of Judaism was planted and grew to fruition?

Most scholars agree that the area, which we today call the Middle East, was comprised of loosely connected City States and Nomadic Tribes that each had their own pantheons of deities that varied in function and in importance. Some were powerful Head Deities that were worshiped by a larger number of people, others were very localized Semi-deities that drew a few worshipers. We know their names, both from Biblical accounts and extra-Biblical accounts.[1]

Having this in mind I was struck by another question: Is it logical to draw the conclusion that a small, nomadic People in an area that is full of Deities, would come up with the novel Idea that there is One Single Deity that Rules the entire Universe and no other Deities exist at all? It did not seem logical to me – on the contrary, it became highly unlikely that such a clearly Monotheistic thought would spring out of such a religiously diverse area. Furthermore – if Judaism and the Tanakh were strictly Monotheistic, why would Tanakh give account of the very names of these Deities? Especially since Torah actually prohibits the mentioning of the names of ‘other g-ds’. “And in all things that I have said unto you take ye heed; and make no mention of the name of other gods, neither let it be heard out of thy mouth.” (Ex. 23:13)

The Shema (Devarim 6:4) states: “Hear Israel, the LORD OUR G-D (Adonay Eloheynu[2]) is One!”[3] – It would have been sufficient to state – The LORD G-D (Adonay Elohey/Elohim) is One! It would still have been a valid ‘preamble’ to the Treaty between G-D and the Jewish People, so why this emphasis on making sure Israel HEARD that G-D is OUR G-D, if there exists only ONE G-d? There would be no reason, unless this was not true in the mind of Tanakh.

There I was, trained to think of Judaism and the Tanakh as strictly Monotheistic – “One G-d, One People, One Twofold Law”, and it did not make sense to me.

This confusion was further elevated when I read Maimonides 13 Principles of Faith:

2. I believe with perfect faith that G-d is One. There is no unity that is in any way like His. He alone is our G-d. He was, He is, and He will be.

“He alone is our G-d” – I noted this ‘alone is our’ and thought it odd that Maimonides would say this – it would have been sufficient to simply state: “G-d is One. There is no unity that is in any way like His. He was, He is, and He will be.” So why emphasize that G-d alone is our G-d, unless it has some sort of significance?

Judaism is fundamentally Henotheistic or least Monolatrist! Well, at least it has been during some time of its history, and that is why Tanakh refers to ‘other g-ds’.

Henotheism/Monolatrism suggested within the Tanakh

Tanakh uses two words to designate ‘g-ds’: Elim and Elohim (and forms of these two) – the latter is also used to designate G-D – especially throughout Torah (Bereshit/Genesis – Devarim/Deuteronomy).

“Who is like unto Thee, O LORD, among the mighty? Who is like unto Thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders? (Ex. 15:11)

Mi-chamocha ba’elim Adonay mi kamocha ne’edar bakodesh nora tehilot oseh-fele.”[4]

Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” (Ex. 20:3)

“Lo yihyeh lecha elohim acherim al-panay”[5].

It is clear from the text that Tanakh differentiates between ‘g-d, g-ds’ (el, elim, elohim, eloheyhem) and ‘idols’ (el-ha’elilim – lit ‘a nothing’, giluleychem – lit. ‘logs’, etc) or ‘images of these ‘g-ds’ (matsevoteyhem – lit standing [sacred] stone or pillar). The repeated warnings against worshipping ‘other g-ds’ cannot have been warnings against merely ‘inanimate things’. Tanakh clearly reckognizes the REALITY behind those ‘inanimate things’ – this becomes clear in f.i Ex. 23:24 where the text first speaks about ‘g-ds’ (eloheyhem) and then goes on to enumerate the practices surrounding these ‘g-ds’:

“Thou shalt not bow down to their gods, nor serve them, nor do after their doings; but thou shalt utterly overthrow them, and break in pieces their pillars.”

“Lo-tishtachaveh le’eloheyhem velo to’ovdem velo ta’aseh kema’aseyhem ki hares teharsem veshaber teshaber matsevoteyhem”[6]

Some translators make a couple of additions, that seems to be intended as clarification with a theological slant –

“Do not bow down to their gods and do not serve them. Do not follow the ways of [these nations]. You must tear down [their idols] and break their sacred pillars.”

I might be wrong, but it seems to me that the text is speaking not about the ‘ways of the nations’ worshiping these g-ds, but about the religious practices associated with the ‘g-ds’ mentioned at the beginning of the verse. I am basing this on how it reads. The first ‘their’ is referring to ‘the Seven Nations’ enumerated in verse 23, but the rest is logically referring to the ‘g-ds’.

Before Har Sinai

The first time we encounter a G-d that is revered, but not worshipped, by anyone significant in the Tanakh, is in the story of Avraham and Melchizedek. It says:

“And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine; and he was priest of God (the) Most High. And he blessed him, and said: ‘Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God (the) Most High, who hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand.’ And he gave him a tenth of all. (Gen 14:18-20)

“U’Malki-Tsedek melech Shalem hotsi lechem vayayin vehu chohen le-El Elyon. Vayevarechehu vayomar baruch Avram le-El Elyon Koneh shamayim va’arets. Uvaruch El Elyon asher-migen tsareycha beyadecha vayiten-lo ma’aser mikol.[7]

Who is this El-Elyon – G-d Most High? It’s not Avraham’s G-d, the One that introduces Himself as El Shadday in Gen. 17:1 and Who has been spoken to as Y-wh, by Noach in Gen. 9:2 – but He is clearly someone Avraham or at the very least the Text of Tanakh accepts as a Deity to be revered. It is also interesting to note that El Elyon is mentioned in a way that does not entail the usual paraphernalia associated with ‘other g-ds’ in Tanakh, standing stones, pillars, trees and such, yet is explicitly said to have a ‘resident priest’ who speaks and acts on his behalf. A Deity that is significant enough to be mentioned together with the Greatest of the Patriarchs. However, He is not the same as Avraham’s G-d:

Gen 17:1 states:

“And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him: ‘I am God Almighty; walk before Me, and be thou wholehearted.”

“Vayehi Avram ben-tish’im shanah vetesha shanim vayera Adonay el-Avram vayomer elav ani El-Shadday hithalech lefanay veheyeh tamim.”[8]
He specifically says, “I am G-d-Almighty.” Ani El-Shadday.

From the text about Noach and later text we are informed that the G-d calling Himself G-d-Almighty is identical with the G-d that introduces himself to Moshe as Y-wh, so who ever wrote the text thought of or knew El-Shaday and Y-wh to be the same G-d – but not El-Elyon – what makes me draw that conclusion? Through context and the explicit text.

In Gen 14:18-20 El-Elyon is spoken of in third person as an entity that is being referenced in association with a priest that is clearly not of the Hebrew tribe – while in Gen 17:1 and Ex 3:6, 14, El-Shaday/Y-wh is an active speaker, interacting directly with the person He is speaking to, and that person is a Hebrew. Moreover, in Ex.3 the G-d speaking is identifying as the G-d of Avraham, whom we already know to be El-Shaday, and he later also identifies as Y-wh. The two G-ds El Elyon and El-Shaday/Y-wh, are very clearly two different Deities. Another thing that differentiates these two is the fact that, at least as much as I can deduce from context, is that the former is resident in Shalem, while El-Shaday/Y-wh appears to different persons at different locations.

It is interesting to see how some translators have sought to obscure the textual fact that we are looking at two different Deities. King James Version render Gen 14:18-20 like this:

“And Melchizedek king of Salem brought forth bread and wine: and he was the priest of the most high God. And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of the most high God, possessor of heaven and earth: And blessed be the most high God, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he gave him tithes of all.”

At first glance, it does not seem that much of a difference – but it is in fact an act of transformation – by changing ‘most high’ to an adjective form and putting ‘the’ in front, the translator has changed what is obviously a NAME to an ATTRIBUTE ascribed to this G-d. King James Version does the same to Genesis 17:1

“And when Abram was ninety years old and nine, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said unto him, I am the Almighty God; walk before me, and be thou perfect.”

Thus making it appear as if El Elyon and El Shadday are one and the same – which they are not.

Jewish translations from Hebrew to English takes this into consideration and does render, in most cases, the NAME as a NAME without the addition of “the” or a reversal of the order of the words.

As I went about exploring Tanakh for references to ‘g-ds’, ‘idols’, I also decided to look for references to ‘false g-ds’, because this was what I had been trained to think that ‘other g-ds’ meant. The funny thing was I found none – not in JPS nor in King James version – despite their obvious ‘attempts’ to, through the translation of the text, teach that any reference to ‘other g-ds’ automatically meant those were not g-ds in the Hebrew mind and therefore the Hebrews were Monotheists. I did find ONE such reference – in the American Standard Version – Jer. 18:15! That does speak volumes, at least to my mind.

At Har Sinai

As I said in the beginning of this document, what caused my problem was the statement made by G-d in Ex 20:3 :”Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” – so who were those ‘other g-ds’? I have identified one: El-Elyon. But there are more, throughtout Tanak. Here is a list of some of them:

Baal and Aserah (a g-d and consort) – Num. 25:3, 5; Deu. 4:3; Jdg. 2:13; 6:32; 8:33; 9:4; 1Ki. 16:31, 32; 18:21, 26; 19:18; 22:53; 2Ki. 1:2, 3, 6, 16; 10:18, 19, 20, 23, 28; 17:16; 21:3; 23:4, 5; 1Ch. 4:33; 9:36; Psa. 106:28; Jer. 7:9; 11:13, 17; 12:16; 19:5; 23:27; 32:29; Hos. 2:16; 9:10; 13:1. Many place names in Tanakh starts with ’Baal-’ which could be either an indication that a ’Baal-’ was worshiped there, or that Baal is just a Title and the second part is the actual name of the g-d – in that case the list of references is not complete, as I have removed those references that ‘seemed to be’ a place name.

Moloch – Lev. 18:21; 20:2, 3, 4, 5; 1Ki. 11:7; 2Ki. 23:10; Jer. 32:35.

Chemosh – Num. 21:29; Jdg. 11:24; 1Ki. 11:7, 33; 2Ki. 23:13; Jer. 48:7, 13, 46.

It is also clear from the references that these g-ds were the g-ds of the peoples living either with the People or in the neighboring Nations, such as the ones mentioned in Ex 23:24.

Those were regarded as REAL g-ds by the People and their neighbors at one time or other – and they were definitely considered ’competition’ by G-d.

So when G-d says:” Thou shalt have no other gods before Me.” He is demanding that The People reserve their devotion for Him alone – as He consider Himself to be THEIR G-d.

“And I will walk among you, and will be your God, and ye shall be My People” (Lev 26:12)

And the Jewish People have since then answered: HEAR, O ISRAEL: THE LORD OUR GOD, THE LORD IS ONE.

How to reconcile…

How does one reconcile other passages in Tanakh, that speak of G-d’s Omnipotence, describe Him as the Creator of the Universe and so on and so forth?

There are several options available.

One is to read the Tanakh in its cultural/sociological and religious/geographical context, and assume that when Tanakh f.i speak of ‘Elohim’ in Genesis as the Creator, it is in fact speaking of a congregation of g-ds, all somehow participating in the creation process. Which then would be indicated by the use of words like ‘Let us’,‘our image’ and ‘our likeness’ (Gen 1:26) This way of reading could also be supported by Psa 82:1 which states: “God stands in the assembly of the mighty; He judges in the midst of the gods.”. And Y-wh then becomes another Tribal G-d among other Tribal G-ds, Whose quest for a People to call His Own ensues straight after Man is expelled from Gan Eden.

Another is to see the text of the Tanakh as an account exclusively meant for the Hebrews – and that they, just as the other peoples did with their g-ds, viewed G-D, by Avraham, Yitzchack, and Yaakov known as El-Shadday and by Moshe as Y-wh as their National G-D, and to them there is no other G-d worthy of their devotion and worship – they all have ‘Property of Y-wh’ stamped on their foreheads and wrote the account from that perspective. This would account for f.i the pasuk (verse) in Deut 4:39. “…there is noone else…” (‘for us…’ is implicit.)

A third is to accept that both Henotheism and Monotheism is present in the Tanakh and thus equally as true, which is, in my thinking, always the case when Tanakh ‘contradicts’ itself – this is after all not uncommon in Judaism. Talmud are full of Sages that contradict each other yet are held as equals in their rulings. This way the Tanakh leaves room for those of us who are faint at heart and prefer not to offend others with claims that our G-D is the Only One Universally – just the Only One for us.

Finally let’s contemplate what the prophet Micah says about what it will be like when the Moshiach comes:

Micah 4:5 “For let all the peoples walk each one in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the LORD our God for ever and ever.”

Shema Yisrael, Adonay Eloheynu, Adonay ECHAD! Amen!



[2] Hebrew text and transliteration:

[3] שׁמע ישׂראל יהוה אלהינו יהוה אחד

[4] מי־כמכה באלם יהוה מי כמכה נאדר בקדשׁ נורא תהלת עשׂה פלא

[5] לא יהיה־לך אלהים אחרים על־פנ

[6] לא־תשׁתחוה לאלהיהם ולא תעבדם ולא תעשׂה כמעשׂיהם כי הרס תהרסם ושׁבר תשׁבר מצבתיהם׃

[7]ומלכי־צדק מלך שׁלם הוציא לחם ויין והוא כהן לאל עליון

ויברכהו ויאמר ברוך אברם לאל עליון קנה שׁמים וארץ׃

וברוך אל עליון אשׁר־מגן צריך בידך ויתן־לו מעשׂר מכל׃

[8] ויהי אברם בן־תשׁעים שׁנה ותשׁע שׁנים וירא יהוה אל־אברם ויאמר אליו אני־אל שׁדי התהלך לפני והיה תמים׃


Posted in Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17, Haftarah, Henotheism, monolatry, other gods..., Parasha Re'eh, Torah, Weekly Parasha | 4 Comments »

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