Jon Levenson & The Henotheism of Israel

In both Sinai&Zion: An Entry Into the Jewish Bible and Creation & the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence Levenson makes use of the argument that Israel in its beginnings was not in fact monotheistic but actually affirmed the existence of other gods, of whom YHWH was supreme (henotheism).

Levenson points out several texts in the Hebrew Bible that affirm this reading:

You shall have no other gods (elohim) before me (Exodus 20:3)

Who is like you, YHWH, among the gods (ba’elim) (Exodus 15:11)

For a great God is YHWH,
The great king over all the gods (elohim) (Pslam 95:3)

Now, the purpose of this post is not to engage in the implications of these texts but to point out how amazed I am at my own situatedness in my “interpreted Bible.” In the “interpreted Bible” I have inherited from those before me, I have always read the above in light of prophetic tradition that in good orthodox fashion proclaims, “They have thrown their gods into the fire and destroyed them, for they were not gods but only wood and stone, fashioned by human hands” (Isaiah 37:19).

Instead of reading, “You shall have no other gods before me,” I have always read, “Of course you shouldn’t have any so-called gods before me, there is no such thing.” A huge difference. So now, ironically, I might seem like a fundamentalist here, but, I think it’s time we get back to the plain reading of the text. On the one hand, it might be that this is an unfair reading of the text. On the other hand, it might not be. But we’ll never know if we don’t ask the questions…

11 responses to “Jon Levenson & The Henotheism of Israel

  1. As a person from the sciences and not theology; I have no idea about the Henotheism of Isreal, but I have been having some interesting reading on “plain” reading of the Bible.

    I do not believe God expected the majority of people to be theologians, nor to have theologians at their disposal to interact with, so plain (or in some cases literal–though I believe this implies some baggage, so I like the word plain) reading would be the natural course for most.

    One example that you touch on in your next post is the creation account of which I believe (and would argue all believers need to believe if they are to accept Jesus’ purpose) is quite clear if read plainly.

    On the other hand, isn’t it telling that an omnipotent and omniscient God would have written even more (in the sense of layered meanings) to those who would take the time to study it! To continue your line of thinking, how often are these theological ideas replacing the plain meaning of the text? Are they being used (by those of us that are not schooled) to underscore misconceptions about God’s Word?

    Would you say on the whole, that theological debates augment rather than supplement plain reading?

  2. What things have you been reading on the ‘plain’ reading of the text? I am always on the lookout for a good read.

    I certainly agree with you that God does not expect people to be theologians or to have them at their disposal. This has actually got me thinking about what the role then is of the theologian. Is there any if what God wants us to do is simply read the text ‘plainly’? Interesting question.

    However, I am having a hard time understanding what you mean by your final two questions. I think they probably have some good things in them but I am just confused about what you’re getting at. Maybe you could reword the last two paragraphs for me?

    Thanks for the thoughtful comments by the way.

  3. Do theological discussions blur the ‘plain meaning’ of the text or does it expand upon it?

    I guess this may be what I’m driving at. I’ve been thinking since I saw your response yesterday, on how to boil an incomplete thought (my incomplete thought) down to a coherent couple of paragraphs. (I can find “discussions” via writing difficult because of the lack of feedback. It does not help when I do not do it often or if I only know the person superficially! 🙂 )

    An analogy came to mind. (Maybe not a good one, but it came to mind…) Common Sense verses a specialized skill. I know people who are very smart, very educated—brilliant-but do not have any common sense. They are unable to grasp a simple concept, but they can discuss subjects I can’t even pronounce. Do theologians (generally speaking) seem to be like this? Or is common sense a requirement?

    Is there a base of general agreement that is necessary; a base that includes all the “non-negotiables” of the Christian faith? Then from that point, discussions abound on whether or not the wine turns into blood or baptism is a requirement for entry to heaven, etc? (Assuming my assumption is ok) Is there a point that these ideas encroach on the “non-negotiables?”

    To the un-educated (I’m talking about myself); at times; theological differences seem to create contradictions with in the Word of God. To me, contradictions spell doubt, which can create confusion for people who are not grounded in their relationship with Christ.

    I guess that is my question. Does digging deeper seem to create contradictions? Or is this just a misunderstanding to someone that has trouble even following along with the dialog! 🙂

    Thanks for letting me put my two cents in!

  4. i think a question might be, what is a “plain reading” of the text? you’ve made the point that you’re situated in your “interpreted” bible, but if we’re expecting people to not (in general) be theologians or philosophers, then isn’t their interpreted context going to, necessarily, inform their “plain reading” of the text?

    i do think God does expect people to have theologians at their disposal, or what else is a pastor? or maybe a teacher. every local church has someone, usually academically trained, to whom people can go with questions. maybe that’s more of a jewish perspective… an obervant jewish woman can expect to be able to call her rabbi at home and ask him advice while she’s preparing dinner so she can keep it kosher, to pull up one easy example. why couldn’t an ordinary person be able to email the, say, teaching pastor or doctrinal authority in their church with questions they have on reading the text of the bible? and hey, we don’t even have a talmud to deal with 😉

    i’m still working through the implications of this in my mind… i do think God knew what modernism and subsequently postmodernism would do with His words… maybe now that modernism has spread the Good Word to the whole world, it’s time for postmodernism to make people aware of the context they bring to it? that’s kind of a freaky thought. it just came to me right now as i was typing. feel free to ignore it, or tell me i’m way full of crap 🙂

  5. …isn’t their interpreted context going to, necessarily, inform their “plain reading” of the text?

    I agree. It does in someway. But, how does anyone have an objective view of something? (Objectivity itself is subjective; not?)

    So does this mean everything is a matter of (and up to) interpretation? I don’t particularly agree with that….I like balance…

    I think probably most people have listened to a teaching or had a discussion where things are taken out of context or stretched pretty far to fit a point. I wouldn’t call this type of behavior plain reading. Of course, like you mention, this could be different for each person!

    Boy, it’s easy to see how things can get so far out of wack! I guess that is (one of) the purpose(s) of the Holy Spirit; to keep things in wack? 🙂

    So to answer the question, What is plain reading?? I do not know a good definition of it. But context and life experience cannot obscure the reading of the Bible. Wouldn’t these pieces just be perspectives to the meaning of God’s Word? They do not change the Words, but I would see some Words being more important than others because of the reader’s perspective.

    ..I don’t know?…

  6. Wow, there is a whole lot of great verbage going on in those comments, I don’t really even know where to start…great questions and comments.

    I honestly don’t know where I stand on the importance of the availability of theologians/pastors on hand, as etc said, that’s what we’re here for. But on the other hand, being the product of the Reformations that I am, I also want to talk about the perspicuity or clarity of Scripture. And maybe we can have both. It seems that the core of the Gospel is very common-sensical so that anyone (of normal mental capacity) who picks up any of the Gospels or hears about this gospel will be able to discern the heart of what salvation means. So then no theologians aren’t needed to understand the salvation message. On the other hand, we can’t limit the gospel to just the salvation message. Becoming a disciple of Christ and growing in a deeper understanding of our Scriptures is also part of the gospel and in this sense, the Church has done rightly by having pastors/theologians standing by to primarily equip the church (notice I said church, that is, those already with a basic personal salvation understanding). So then maybe, practically speaking, it’s a both/and.

    I’ll write about the other issues (which are legion in the above comments by the way) a little later on. Any thoughts or disagreements about what I said?

  7. Being the good postmodern that I am I understand that there is no such thing as a plain, un-interpreted meaning but there is something to coming to understand things in their historical context. In the example I used in this post, I would argue that given the evidence it is most easily (Ockham’s Razor?) read as affirming the existence of other gods. Could it not be the case? Absolutely, but I have to go where the text and context leads.

  8. I guess that is my question. Does digging deeper seem to create contradictions?

    Now, I agree with you that theology sometimes isn’t helpful. It’s like thinking through something for so long that you start confusing yourself with even where you started. But the statement above we have to be careful with. I know this wasn’t your intention but it could be read as acknowledging that Christianity isn’t true so we need to make sure we don’t dig too deep or we’ll find that out. Digging deeper does create some tensions and some problems that I don’t think the normal believer should worry about. In that way, I think theologizing could create some problems.

    Does that make sense?

  9. i think part of what i was trying to say was, now that we have postmodernism, we can actually look at context. prior to this century, the “plain reading” of those passasges was what we now consider to be our interpretated position. but without the postmodern philosophies of text and context, an attempt at “plain reading” took much less account of, if not ignored completely, the context of both the reader and the original audience.

    i haven’t entirely worked this out in my head yet, but it was a concept that definitely came up in university in terms of straight-up literary or artistic criticism. it may be off-base when applied from a theological standpoint… i’m not sure yet.

  10. On the availability of theologians/pastors

    I agree with you. It has to be a both/and. Seeing that relationships are a foundation of our lives here on earth, I wonder whether a theologian off by themselves (or anyone off by themselves for that matter..) would have as much purpose as a theologian that interacts and discusses with others what is being revealed to them by the Holy Spirit—i.e. a pastor.

    …but I have to go where the text and context leads.

    Definitely! I think that secondary (or tertiary) meanings can be pulled out of the verses, but there was (is) a primary point that the author was making and the context should bring that out.

    Digging deeper does create some tensions and some problems that I don’t think the normal believer should worry about. In that way, I think theologizing could create some problems.

    Yep it makes sense to me. This was what I was trying to get from you (someone who studies theology) when I said, Would you say on the whole, that theological debates augment rather than supplement plain reading?

    My perspective is that supposed contradictions are not contradictions of the Bible, but contradictions of interpretation—in other words something is interpreted incorrectly. But, I accept that the Bible is the infallable Word of God. A preface that seems to be in question even more since the postmodern view has taken hold of our schools. (Currently I enjoy reading/learning apologetics from organizations like Stand To Reason ( or Answers in Genesis ( which delve into digging deeper so we are able to explain our faith.)

    I was curious from one immersed in theology, whether this (augment/supplement idea) gets lost after a while….hence your post and the call to “plain reading”…and that the theology begins to supplement instead of augment the text.


  11. Hi, I have been reading about Jewish henotheism myself, and found your blog post while searching for more information.

    What I am finding is that the Jews were henotheistic for a long time. They believed that each nation on earth had their own god(s), and each of those gods was real. They believed that the One God, YWWH, was above all these other gods (that we would call pagan).

    We see this in the ten plagues visited upon Egypt, where the Hebrew God is shown to be more powerful than the Egyptian gods.

    Later, the Jews and Israelites came to understand that the “other” gods were not actually gods at all. After the destruction of the first temple, they were scattered, and the first impulse was to worship the gods of the victorious nation.

    But, an understanding began to spread among them that the defeat of Judah and Israel were part of the Divine Plan of Yahweh. They then believed the gods of their conquerers to be false, and they no longer feared ignoring them. And so they began to think as monotheists.

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