Title: God Alone


Bibliography included in the book


Michael S. Heiser, “Monotheism, Polytheism, Monolatry, or Henotheism? Toward an Assessment of Divine Plurality in the Hebrew BibleBulletin of Biblical Research 18:1 (2008): 1-30.


Michael S. Heiser, “Does Divine Plurality in the Hebrew Bible Demonstrate an Evolution from Polytheism to Monotheism in Israelite Religion?” Journal for the Evangelical Study of the Old Testament 1:1 (2012): 1-24


Jan Assmann, “Monotheism and Polytheism,” in Ancient Religions (ed. Sarah Iles Johnston; Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 17-31 (esp. 17-20).

  • Polytheism is a religious system—not a vocabulary word like elohim. Assmann’s work discusses the necessary components of polytheistic religion. I draw from the essay in my Tyndale Bulletin article listed below.


Michael S. Heiser, “Monotheism and the Language of Divine Plurality in the Hebrew Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Tyndale Bulletin 65:1 (2014): 85-100


 Michael S. Heiser, “Does Deuteronomy 32:17 Assume or Deny the Reality of Other Gods?” Bible Translator 59:3 (July 2008): 137-145

  • The answer is that it affirms the existence of other elohim. The article is an analysis of the syntax of Deut. 32:17. Paul of course tracks on Deut. 32 (including v. 17) in his discussion of demons in 1 Cor 10 (see Waters below). To deny the reality of plural elohim in Deut. 32:17 is to deny the existence of demons.


Guy Waters, The End of Deuteronomy in the Epistles of Paul (WUNT 221; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2006)


Michael P. Dick, Born in Heaven, Made on Earth: The Making of the Cult Image in the Ancient Near East (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1999)


Additional Bibliography


Continuing with bibliography on these subjects (Note: several of these sources will espouse the idea that biblical monotheism arose out of polytheistic roots).


Casper J. Labuschagne, The Incomparability of Yahweh in the Old Testament (E. J. Brill, 1966)


Catrin H. Williams, “I am He”: The Meaning and Interpretation of “ANI HU” in Jewish and Early Christian Literature (WUNT 113, Reihe 2; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1999)


Nathan MacDonald, Deuteronomy and the Meaning of” Monotheism (FZAT 1, Reihe 2; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2012)


Mark S. Smith, The origins of biblical monotheism: Israel’s polytheistic background and the Ugaritic texts. Oxford University Press, 2001


Michael S. Heiser, “The Divine Council in Late Canonical and Non-Canonical Second Temple Jewish Literature.” PhD diss., UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MADISON, 2004


Michael S. Heiser, “Should אלהים (ʾelōhîm) with Plural Predication be Translated “Gods”? Bible Translator 61:3 (July 2010): 123-136


Susan Ackerman, Under Every Green Tree: Popular Religion in Sixth-Century Judah (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992)


David Penchansky, Twilight of the Gods: Polytheism in the Hebrew Bible (Westminster John Knox Press, 2005)


Michael S. Heiser, Review of Twilight of the Gods: Polytheism in the Hebrew Bible, by David Penchansky (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005), Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 6 (2006-2007); online journal.


Content Discussion


This chapter raised a number of content trajectories that need follow-up, some in considerable detail. I have numbered and titled them for convenience.


1. My rejection of the dominant critical view that the Yahwism of the biblical authors evolved from polytheism.


Many scholars take the view that the religion of biblical Israel evolved from polytheism to monotheism, and that the Hebrew Bible evinces this evolution. I reject that idea for the biblical writers, but acknowledge (in accord with the biblical description, especially during the monarchy) that many Israelites were polytheistic in their own thinking and practice. Like today, when many Christians hold to flawed theological ideas (realizing that or not), so it was in the biblical period – when there was little or no written Bible. My rejection of the presumed evolution of Yahwism out of polytheism speaks only to the beliefs of the biblical writers.


My rejection of this view is not driven by evangelical confession. Those familiar with evangelical theology are familiar with the concept of “progressive revelation”—basically the idea that God did not reveal all truth about himself to biblical writers at one time, that revelation was incremental. It would be very easy for me to adopt the standard view of biblical monotheism in mainstream scholarship—that it evolved out of polytheism—and just assign that to progressive revelation (“God straightened the Israelites out in stages”). I don’t do that because I genuinely find the arguments for this presumed evolution hopelessly circular and dependent on psychologizing the biblical writers (requiring near omniscience at that). I just don’t find the standard model at all persuasive. My dissertation and articles have (hopefully) explained the problems I see with that model.


2. The relationship of Jesus to the divine council.


Readers of The Unseen Realm will know I identify Jesus with Yahweh, who is Lord of the council. More specifically, though, I wrote a paper for a regional SBL conference a few years ago that addressed the use of Psalm 82:6 in John 10:34. The link to that paper is below. I am currently in the process of revising that paper for submission to an academic journal. If and when that is published, I may have to remove this link. (Note that some excerpts of that paper/article are found below under number 6 – the flaws of presuming elohim in Psalm 82 are humans (the “human elohim” view).


I should also note here that readers have asked for documentation about Greek monogenes meaning “unique”. Here are the entries from Moulton and Milligan and the most recent BDAG:


μονογενής      3439 is literally “one of a kind,” “only,” “unique” (unicus), not “only-begotten,” which would be μονογέννητος (unigenitus), and is common in the LXX in this sense (e.g. Judg 11:34, Ps 21 (22):21, 24 (25):16, Tob 3:15). It is similarly used in the NT of “only” sons and daughters (Lk 7:12, 8:42, 9:38), and is so applied in a special sense to Christ in Jn 1:14, 18, 3:16, 18, 1 Jn 4:9, where the emphasis is on the thought that, as the “only” Son of God, He has no equal and is able fully to reveal the Father. We cannot enter here into the doctrinal aspects of the word, or into a discussion on the sources, Orphic or Gnostic, from which John is sometimes supposed to have drawn his use of it, but reference may be made to the art. by Kattenbusch “Only Begotten” in Hastings’ DCG ii. p. 281f. where the relative literature is given. A few exx. of the title from non-Biblical sources will, however, be of interest. In an imprecatory tablet from Carthage of iii/A.D., Wünsch AF p. 1837, we find—ὁρκίζω σε τὸν θεὸν . . . τὸν μονογενῆ τὸν ἐξ αὑτοῦ ἀναφανέντα, where the editor cites the great magical Paris papyrus, 1585 εἰσάκουσόν μου ὁ εἷς μονογενής. With this may be compared P Leid Vv. 34 (iii/iv A.D.) (= II. p. 21) εὐχαριστῶ σοι κύριε ὅ[τι] μοι [ἔλυσεν] τὸ ἅγιον πνεῦμα, τὸ μονογενές, τὸ ζωόν. See also Vett. Val. p. 1132. An inscr. in memory of a certain Plutarchus, Kaibel 1464 (iii/iv A.D.) describes him as μουνογενής περ ἐὼν καὶ πατέρεσσι φίλος. And the word is apparently used as a proper name in C. and B. i. p. 115, No. 17 (Hierapolis) Φλαβιανὸς ὁ καὶ Μονογονις εὐχαριστῶ τῇ θεῷ, where Ramsay thinks that we should probably read Μονογένης or Μηνογένης. For the true reading in Jn 1:18 it is hardly necessary to refer to Hort’s classical discussion in Two Dissertations, p. 1ff.

James Hope Moulton and George Milligan, The Vocabulary of the Greek Testament (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1930), 416–417.


μονογενής, ές (μόνος, γένος; Hes.; LXX; PsSol 18, 4; TestSol 20:2; TestBenj 9:2; ParJer 7:26; ApcEsdr 6:16; ApcSed 9:2; Joseph., Just.; loanw. in rabb.) acc. μονογενῆ (-ῆν J 3:16 v.l.; Hb 11:17 D; also ApcEsdr 6:16)

① pert. to being the only one of its kind within a specific relationship, one and only, only (so mostly, incl. Judg 11:34; Tob 3:15; 8:17) of children: of Isaac, Abraham’s only son (Jos., Ant. 1, 222) Hb 11:17. Of an only son (PsSol 18:4; TestSol 20:2; ParJer 7:26; Plut., Lycurgus 59 [31, 8]; Jos., Ant. 20, 20) Lk 7:12; 9:38. Of a daughter (Diod S 4, 73, 2) of Jairus 8:42. (On the motif of a child’s death before that of a parent s. EpigrAnat 13, ’89, 128f, no. 2; 18, ’91, 94 no. 4 [244/45 A.D.]; GVI nos. 1663–69.)

② pert. to being the only one of its kind or class, unique (in kind) of someth. that is the only example of its category (Cornutus 27 p, 49, 13 εἷς κ. μονογενὴς ὁ κόσμος ἐστί. μονογενῆ κ. μόνα ἐστίν=‘unique and alone’; Pla., Timaeus 92c; Theosophien 181, §56, 27). Of a mysterious bird, the Phoenix 1 Cl 25:2.—In the Johannine lit. (s. also ApcEsdr and ApcSed: ὁ μονογενής υἱός; Hippol., Ref. 8, 10, 3; Did., Gen. 89, 18; ὑμνοῦμέν γε θεὸν καὶ τὸν μ. αὐτοῦ Orig., C. Cels. 8, 67, 14; cp. ἡ δύναμις ἐκείνη ἡ μ. Hippol., Ref. 10, 16, 6) μονογενὴς υἱός is used only of Jesus. The renderings only, unique may be quite adequate for all its occurrences here (so M-M., NRSV et al.; DMoody, JBL 72, ’53, 213–19; FGrant, ATR 36, ’54, 284–87; GPendrick, NTS 41, ’95, 587–600). τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μ. ἔδωκεν J 3:16 (Philo Bybl. [100 A.D.]: 790 Fgm. 2 ch. 10, 33 Jac. [in Eus., PE 1, 10, 33]: Cronus offers up his μονογενὴς υἱός). ὁ μ. υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ vs. 18; τὸν υἱὸν τὸν μ. ἀπέσταλκεν ὁ θεός 1J 4:9; cp. Dg 10:2. On the expr. δόξαν ὡς μονογενοῦς παρὰ πατρός J 1:14 s. Hdb. ad loc. and PWinter, Zeitschrift für Rel. u. Geistesgeschichte 5, ’53, 335–65 (Engl.). See also Hdb. on vs. 18 where, beside the rdg. μονογενὴς θεός (considered by many the orig.) an only-begotten one, God (acc. to his real being; i.e. uniquely divine as God’s son and transcending all others alleged to be gods) or a uniquely begotten deity (for the perspective s. J 10:33–36), another rdg. ὁ μονογενὴς υἱός is found. MPol 20:2 in the doxology διὰ παιδὸς αὐτοῦ τοῦ μονογενοῦς Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ. Some (e.g. WBauer, Hdb.; JBulman, Calvin Theological Journal 16, ’81, 56–79; JDahms, NTS 29, ’83, 222–32) prefer to regard μ. as somewhat heightened in mng. in J and 1J to only-begotten or begotten of the Only One, in view of the emphasis on γεννᾶσθαι ἐκ θεοῦ (J 1:13 al.); in this case it would be analogous to πρωτότοκος (Ro 8:29; Col 1:15 al.).—On the mng. of μονογενής in history of religion s. the material in Hdb.3 25f on J 1:14 (also Plut., Mor. 423a Πλάτων … αὐτῷ δή φησι δοκεῖν ἕνα τοῦτον [sc. τὸν κόσμον] εἶναι μονογενῆ τῷ θεῷ καὶ ἀγαπητόν; Wsd 7:22 of σοφία: ἔστι ἐν αὐτῇ πνεῦμα νοερὸν ἅγιον μονογενές.—Vett. Val. 11, 32) as well as the lit. given there, also HLeisegang, Der Bruder des Erlösers: Αγγελος I 1925, 24–33; RBultmann J (comm., KEK) ’50, 47 n. 2; 55f.—DELG s.v. μένω. M-M. EDNT. TW. Sv.

William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 658.


3. How does the matter of biblical divine plurality (plural elohim that are real) relate to the Shema?


Another issue is how the divine council relates to the Shema (Deut. 6:4). There is no conflict since the term elohim is not tied to a specific set of attributes. When Israelites affirmed the Shema, a creed that says “Yahweh our God . . . ” it was not a denial that other elohim existed (something the Old Testament elsewhere presumes and affirms). Rather, the claim was specific loyalty to Yahweh and recognition of his unique covenant relationship to Israel. That loyalty was in turn tied to certain beliefs about Yahweh—e.g., that he was incomparable and unique among the elohim. These points of uniqueness are part of the discussion in Chapter 4. See the brief discussion (and the footnotes) of the Shema in Chapter 38 of The Unseen Realm along with other bibliographic items for this chapter.


4. The elohim of Psalm 82 are not humans; the “human elohim” view lacks coherence and biblical support.


Elements of this flawed perception are addressed in several of my published journal articles listed under the additional bibliography, particularly the Bible Translator article on elohim with plural predication. However, more detail in this regard can be found in a paper I wrote for the 2010 annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society: Should the Plural אלהים of Psalm 82 Be Understood as Men or Divine Beings?” The paper is available here, but I have excerpted portions below.


The “human elohim” view proceeds along certain trajectories, all of which fail to find support in the biblical text.


Perhaps the most familiar argument for the human view of אלהים is the one that insists certain Old Testament passages name the elders of Israel as אלהים judges. Once we look at the passages used for that argument, we’ll see that the argument lacks credibility.


Exodus 22:6-8 [Eng., 22:7-9] is an important text in this argument. The translation used here is from the JPS Tanakh:


6 When a man gives money or goods to another for safekeeping, and they are stolen from the man’s house—if the thief is caught, he shall pay double; 7 if the thief is not caught, the owner of the house shall come near (נקרב) to God (האלהים) that he has not laid hands on the other’s property. 8 In all charges of misappropriation—pertaining to an ox, an ass, a sheep, a garment, or any other loss, whereof one party alleges, “This is it”—the case of both parties shall come before God (האלהים): he whom God (אלהים) declares guilty (ירשׁיען) shall pay double to the other (JPS Tanakh, 1985).


Scholars who deny that the plural אלהים in Ps 82:1 are divine beings assume that אלהים and האלהים in Exod 22:6-8 are human beings (the elder-judges of Israel) and take the results of that assumption to argue that Psalm 82 is describing Israelite judges, not gods in a divine council. The plural predicate in Exod 22:8 (ירשׁיען) allegedly supports this view, for surely the passage speaks of Israel’s judges rendering decisions for the people. There are several problems with this use of the passage.


It is worth noting that these judges (if we presume for the moment that האלהים and אלהים are plural and referring to people) are rendering decisions for the nation of Israel – not the nations of the world as is the case in Psalm 82 and Deut 32. This contextual disconnect alone raises suspicions about the merits of the use of the passage. The contextual incongruence aside, the argument here actually depends on whether אלהים and האלהים in verse 8 is to be taken as singular (as the Tanakh translation has) or plural, and whether it in fact refers to human beings. As I demonstrate in my Bible Translator article on elohim with plural predication, such grammatical-syntactical instances do not point to plural elohim. In several cases, there are other clear grammatical sign-posts that indicate that, despite the plural predication, the singular God of Israel is in view. I submit that the translation of the JPS Tanakh above is perfectly fine and linguistically coherent. We do not have plurality of elohim in Exod 22, and so we do not have plural human “elohim judges”.


Behind the assumption that אלהים and האלהים in Exod 22:8 are to be understood as semantically plural human beings is the earlier story in Exodus, where Moses appointed judges at the suggestion of his father-in-law, Jethro. This account is found in Exod 18:13-24. Note the occurrences of אלהים and האלהים carefully (ESV):


13 The next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening. 14 But when Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?” 15 Moses replied to his father-in-law, “It is because the people come to me to inquire of God (אלהים). 16 When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.” 17 But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not right; 18 you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. 19 Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God (אלהים) be with you! You represent the people before God (האלהים): you bring the disputes before God (האלהים), 20 and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow. 21 You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and 22 let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you. 23 If you do this—and God so commands you—you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied.” 24 Moses heeded his father-in-law and did just as he had said.


Taken straightforwardly, there is nothing in Exodus 18 that compels us to understand אלהים or האלהים as semantically plural, something that is essential for the notion that the men appointed in the episode are a convenient explanation for the אלהים and האלהים of both Exod 22:8 and Psa 82. Each occurrence of אלהים or האלהים in this passage can quite readily refer to the singular God of Israel (as the ESV has). The same is true of Exodus 22. There is nothing in either passage that compels a plural translation. A singular translation referring to God himself makes for a clear reading. Without compelling evidence for a plural translation, the argument that the elders of Israel were אלהים judges turns to vapor. But even damaging is the fact that the men appointed by Moses in Exodus 18 are never actually called אלהים or האלהים in the text. This account of the appointment of judges, then, is no support for seeing human elohim in Psalm 82.


There is one other passage that speaks of אלהים in a context similar to that of Exod 22:8. Exodus 21:2-6 must be brought into the discussion:


2 When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. 3 If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. 4 If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out alone. 5 But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ 6 then his master shall bring him to God (האלהים), and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.


The interpretation is put forth that the master is commanded to bring the slave before the elder-judges of Israel before piercing his ear, and that these judges are called האלהים. This position appears coherent, but there are obstacles to its lucidity.


First, האלהים could easily be semantically singular, referring to the God of Israel, as was the case with Exod 18 and Exod 22. The promise about the status of the slave is being made in truth before God (akin to our “so help me God” pledge in a courtroom). This is the simplest reading. Some scholars, like Tigay, suggest that “God” could have been deleted from the ceremony if it was secularized (Deuteronomy; The JPS Torah Commentary, 15). But there is no obvious rationale why Israelites would have stripped God out of a traditional ceremony. Ancient Israelites weren’t modern rationalists.


There is evidence that the redactor-scribes responsible for the final form of the text did not interpret האלהים as singular—and also did not interpret the resulting plurality as referring to human beings!


The key is the parallel passage in Deuteronomy 15. Later redactors apparently saw האלהים as semantically plural since the parallel to it found in Deut 15:17 removes the word האלהים from the instruction. This omission is inexplicable if the term was taken as singular, referring to YHWH. Why would the God of Israel need to be removed from this text? Moreover, if האלהים had been construed as plural humans, Israel’s judges, the deletion is just as puzzling. What harm would there be if the point of the passage was that Israel’s judges needed to approve the status of the slave?


The excision on the part of the writer is quite understandable, though, if האלהים was intended as a semantically plural word that referred to gods. Seventy years ago Cyrus Gordon pointed out that the omission in Deuteronomy appears to have been theologically motivated (Cyrus H. Gordon, “אלהים in Its Reputed Meaning of Rulers, Judges,” Journal of Biblical Literature 54 [1935]: 139-44.). Gordon argued that האלהים in Exod 21:6 referred to “household gods” like the teraphim of other passages. Bringing a slave into one’s home in patriarchal culture required the consent and approval of one’s ancestors—departed human dead who were אלהים as we saw much earlier was the case in 1 Sam 28:13. Teraphim figurines commemorated the dead, much in the way pictures of departed loved ones do now in our culture. Ancient Israelites would bring offerings to teraphim, not as acts of worship (though for sure some could have crossed the line to idolatry), but as a goodwill gesture or to please the deceased (as we lay flowers or other objects at graves), who were still thought to be alive in the realm of the dead (Sheol, or what we might call “the other side” or “the spiritual world”). Under a later redaction of the Torah after the horror of the exile—brought on by idolatry—this phrase was omitted in the wake of Israel’s struggle failure and second chance in returning to the land.


The point is that only a plural referring to multiple divine beings can coherently explain the deletion. There is no theological purpose for deleting God or human judges from the passage. As a result, this passage is no support for the plural human אלהים view.


5. Psalm 45:7 has the Israelite king being called elohim.


This objection presumes two things that are problematic: (1) That the psalmist’s statement, “Your Throne, O God, is forever and ever” must refer to the Israelite king; and (2) That the statement can apply to humans generally.


The original orientation of אֱלֹהִים in Psalm 45:6-7 can quite coherently be God himself. For example, Goldingay, an evangelical, noting the structure of the psalm’s statement renders the passage this way:


5 Your arrows are sharpened—peoples are beneath your feet—
they fall in the heart of the king’s enemies;
6a the throne, God’s, is yours forever and ever.


Goldingay comments (underlining mine):


“As the king acts in the pursuit of truthfulness and faithfulness, expecting to see God doing marvels, then opponents will fall before him. On any reading the order of the cola is jerky; [Many English versions] reverse some of the phrases to make the text read more smoothly. Verse 5 is yet another pair of four-stress cola, with the second clause in v. 5a forming a parenthesis; the “they” is the arrows. The declaration in v. 6a then closes off these comments on the king’s power. His victories reflect the fact that he sits on God’s throne (e.g., 1 Chron. 29:23), ruling Israel on God’s behalf, and destined to rule the world on God’s behalf (cf. Ps. 2). That in itself would make the king’s throne last forever. The fact that God made a lasting commitment to the Davidic king’s throne would also have that implication. It is a further reason for the king to go out confidently to impose truthfulness and faithfulness on the nations, and the fact that he does so victoriously is an indication that he indeed sits on this throne.


6b Your royal rod is an upright rod;
7a you have dedicated yourself to faithfulness and thus been against faithlessness.


I thus take vv. 6b–7a as a pair of parallel cola, reverting to the moral implications of that power of the king.”


Source: J. Goldingay, Baker Commentary on the Old Testament: Psalms 42–89 (ed. Tremper Longman III; vol. 2; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006), 58.


In any event, if one considers the term as describing the king in divine terms as an adaptation of ancient Near Eastern thought, the term cannot be extended to anyone who was not the king. Psalm 45:7 cannot justify saying the term elohim refers broadly to human judges.


6. Jesus’ Use of Psalm 82:6 in John 10:34


A second strategy for arguing the plural אלהים of Psalm 82 are humans attempts to utilize the quotation of Psalm 82:6 by Jesus in John 10:34. I would suggest that this text has been fundamentally misunderstood by New Testament scholars who approach it with little or no background knowledge of the divine council.


Briefly, the context of Jesus’ quotation is crucial. In John 10:30 he has just told his audience that he and the Father were one. Jesus isn’t going to follow that statement by essentially saying “I get to call myself God because you mere mortals do it too by virtue of Psalm 82.” That approach undermines John’s presentation in this chapter of the deity of Jesus, yet this is precisely the trajectory one finds of all the published material on John 10:34 and its use of Psalm 82.


This backdrop is important for interpreting the significance of Jesus’ quotation of Psalm 82:6 in John 10:34-35. I have never come across the view I have of this issue in print, and so it seems best to give the full context of Jesus’ quotation in order to make my thoughts clear (John 10:22-42):


22 And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. 23 And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon’s porch. 24 Then came the Jews round about him, and said to him, “How long are you going to make us doubt? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you believed not: the works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness of me. 26 But you believe not, because you are not of my sheep, as I said to you. 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: 28 And I give to them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall anyone pluck them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who gave them to me, is greater than all; and no one is able to pluck them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and my Father are one.” 31 Then the Jews took up stones again to stone him. 32 Jesus answered them, “Many good works have I shown you from my Father; for which of those works do you stone me?” 33 The Jews answered him, saying, “For a good work we would not stone you; but for blasphemy; and because that you, being a man, make yourself God.”


The quotation of Psalm 82:6 follows:


34 Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law: ‘I said, you are gods?’ 35 If he [God] called them gods, to whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken; 36 do you say of him whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world, ‘You blaspheme!’ because I said, I am the Son of God? 37 If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not. 38 But if I do, though you don’t believe me, believe the works: that you may know, and believe, that the Father is in me, and I in him.” 39 Therefore they sought again to take him: but he escaped out of their hand, 40 And went away again beyond Jordan into the place where John at first baptized; and there he abode. 41 And many resorted unto him, and said, John did no miracle: but all things that John spake of this man were true. 42 And many believed on him there.


Here is what we can glean without interpretive disagreement:


  1. Jesus’ prefaced his quotation by asserting that he and the Father were one (10:30).
  2. This claim was regarded as blasphemy in that Jesus was making himself out to be God (10:33).
  3. In defense of his assertion, Jesus quoted Psalm 82:6. That is, to establish his claim to be God, Jesus went to Psalm 82:6.
  4. He follows the quotation with the statement that the Father was in him, and he was in the Father.


The consensus view of this quotation is that Jesus was endorsing the human אלהים view and thereby arguing, “I have every right to call myself divine—you guys can do it as well on the basis of Psalm 82:6.” The problem, of course, is that this amounts to Jesus saying “you mere mortals can call yourself gods, so I can, too.” If this is what John intends to communicate to go along with verse 30 to put forth the idea of Jesus’ deity, it’s an inept strategy.


I propose that Jesus knew the אלהים of Psalm 82 were not human, and that Jesus was in fact asserting his own unique ontological oneness with the Father.[1] The human אלהים view derives from two assumptions brought to the text: (1) that it is required by the assumed impossibility of there being other אלהים because of Judeo-Christian monotheism; and (2) that the phrase “to whom the word of God came” refers to the Jews who received the law at Sinai (i.e., the Pharisees’ forefathers).


I would suggest that what first needs to be done is to come to terms with what is meant by “the word of God” and who it is that receives that word in Psalm 82:6-7:


I said, ‘You are gods (אלהים), even sons of the Most High (בני עליון), all of you; nevertheless, like humans you will die, and fall like any prince.’


The speaker (“I”) in the passage is the God of Israel, the God who is standing in the council in 82:1 among the אלהים. God announces that the אלהים of the council are his sons, but because of their corruption (vv. 2-5), they will lose their immortality. I believe that Jesus was referring to this utterance itself when he quoted the psalm, not the Jewish nation receiving the law at Sinai or the revelation that would become the Old Testament. To illustrate the difference in the views:


Common Interpretation /Jesus’ strategy assumes אלהים are human
My view / Jesus’ strategy assumes אלהים are divine
The “word of God that came” = revelation from God at Sinai, or the entire OT“to whom the word of God came” = the Jews at Sinai, or the Jews generally
Result = the Jews are the “sons of the Most High” and אלהים — so Jesus can call himself an אלהים as well, since he’s a Jew, too.
The “word of God that came” = the utterance itself in Psalm 82:6 – the pronouncement from God“to whom the word of God came” = the אלהים of the divine council in 82:1Result = The Jews are not אלהים, and Jesus reminds his enemies that their Scriptures say there are other אלהים who are divine sons—and this on the heels of declaring himself one with the Father (John 10:30) puts him in the position of not only claiming divinity as a son of the Most High, but by claiming to be above the sons of God since he is one with the Father.


Nowhere in Psalm 82 do we have any hint of the Mosaic Law, Sinai, a Jewish nation, or the canonical revelation given to the Jews. Every element in the commonly held view must be inserted into the passage. My view is that Jesus is quoting Psalm 82:6 to put forth the idea that he was more than human. He reminds his Jewish audience that there were in fact other אלהים besides the God of Israel, and those אלהים were God’s sons. Because he calls himself the son of God and has in fact just claimed to be one with Yahweh, not only puts himself in the class of the sons of the Most High of Psalm 82:6—divine אלהים—but implies that he is Lord of the council. This particular son of the Most High is one with the Father. The Jewish authorities got the message, too—they charged him with blasphemy. Now ask yourself, why would they do that if all Jesus was saying was “you mortal Jews get to call yourselves sons of God, and אלהים, so I can, too.” That makes no sense at all.


7. The elohim as “demons” (shedim) in Deut 32:17.


Some recent work on demons by evangelical scholar John Walton requires some comment.


John Walton, “Demons in Mesopotamia and Israel: Exploring the Category of Non-Divine but Supernatural Entities,” in Windows to the Ancient World of the Hebrew Bible: Essays in Honor of Samuel Greengus (ed. Bill T. Arnold, Nancy L. Erickson, and John H. Walton; Winona Lake, Ind.; Eisenbrauns, 2014), 229-246.


Walton’s article is helpful and informative in many respects, but its content in certain places could be unnecessarily misunderstood. There may be a couple of problematic statements in the essay, but I must admit that I’m not exactly sure what Walton is and isn’t saying. The wording in the article is unclear at points.


To begin, it should be reiterated that Deut. 32:17 transparently and explicitly refers to “demons” (Hebrew: shedim) as elohim. Many modern translations muddle this point or even violate the text. Unfortunately, many readers (even scholars) who presume elohim refers to a single set of unique attributes never look past the poor translations of the verse. For those who read Hebrew, the point of Deut. 32:17 is straightforward. Things only go awry when assumptions about elohim are brought to the text.


יִזְבְּח֗וּ לַשֵּׁדִים֙ לֹ֣א אֱלֹ֔הַ אֱלֹהִ֖ים לֹ֣א יְדָע֑וּם חֲדָשִׁים֙ מִקָּרֹ֣ב בָּ֔אוּ לֹ֥א שְׂעָר֖וּם אֲבֹתֵיכֶֽם׃


The verse in Hebrew is clear. “They (the Israelites) sacrificed to demons (shedim), not God (Hebrew: Eloah; אֱלֹ֔הַ; ʾeloah), gods (elohim) they had not known—new ones (i.e., new gods) that had come recently, whom your fathers did not dread.” In other words, rather than deny shedim are gods (as some translations wind up saying), it says the opposite explicitly.


Some translators are confused by the defective spelling of אֱלֹ֔הַ, a term that never refers to plural gods, but only God (hence my translation above, which follows other translations). Any translation that has “not gods” in Deut. 32:17 is simply wrong. I discuss that issue and the translation of this verse at length in my journal article:


“Does Deuteronomy 32:17 Assume or Deny the Reality of Other Gods?” Bible Translator 59:3 (July 2008): 137-145


Walton’s goal in the article is to articulate a taxonomy of divine beings that allows alignment between the spiritual worldviews of Mesopotamia and Israel. Consequently, he excludes civilizations like that of Egypt and ancient Canaan (e.g., Ugarit) from focus. While the title of the article is clear (its focus is Mesopotamia), these exclusions will cause some consternation with the contents among those familiar with the other material, especially that of Ugarit. To make claims about Israel’s divine council without appeal to Ugaritic material—which all scholars in the field note constitutes the closest parallels in this regard to Israelite religion—will produce statements that can be misconstrued.


Walton begins by rightly pointing out the problem of “demonic” terminology:


“No general term for ‘demons’ exists in any of the major cultures of the ancient Near East or in the Hebrew Bible. They are generally considered one of the categories of “spirit beings” (along with gods and ghosts). The term demons has had a checkered history; in today’s theological usage the term denotes beings, often fallen angels, who are intrinsically evil and who do the bidding of their master, Satan. This definition, however, only became commonplace long after the Hebrew Bible was complete. The idea of evil spirits under the control of a chief demon cannot be assumed for the ancient Near East or for the Hebrew Bible, and even for the New Testament requires careful assessment. . . . The Hellenistic period has creatures referred to as daimon in the hierarchy of spirit beings. Yet the term demon is simply a Latinized spelling of this word, and cannot be used to label the Hellenistic category, because etymologically, the Greek term daimon can refer to spirit beings who are either protagonist or antagonist, beneficial or harmful, benign or sinister. The term daimon could be applied to any being that was higher than a human and lower than a god. These beings were morally neutral. Thus the English term demon is already a prejudicial label that undermines the investigation due to anachronism.” (229-230)


I would agree with what Walton says here, except to note that it isn’t correct that Greek daimon is not a word used of gods in classical Greek literature. (Walton does not say that directly, but his wording implies it). On daimon, see the discussion in E. Rexine, “Daimon in classical Greek literature,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 37 (1985): 29-52.


Walton proceeds from this note to sketch a taxonomic hierarchy. In simplest terms that hierarchy for divine beings for Mesopotamia and the Hebrew Bible looks like this:


Gods (Class I): defined as those who receive sacrifices; Walton reserves the term elohim (singular or plural, or with a qualifier like “sons of”) for this class


Functionaries (Class II): Walton assigns malʾakim (“angels”), cherubim, seraphim, shedim, etc. to this class; malevolent spirits go here as well


Ghosts (Class III): spirits of the dead


Walton’s article references Deut. 32:17 in two places: page 239 (footnote 46) and page 240 (footnote 49). In his discussion of shedim, Walton writes:


“There is no precedent for class II spirits to be equated with the class I members of the divine council, even after they are largely domesticated in later Mesopotamian literature. Since the šedîm in the Hebrew Bible are receiving sacrifices, they have more in common with the class I šdyn from Transjordan than with the class II šedu in Akkadian literature. Transjordanian gods would also be more likely to have been part of the syncretism of the wilderness generation than Babylonian guardian figures. Therefore, šedîm most likely refers to class I spirits from the Mesopotamian side of the ledger, who are illegitimately treated as class I spirits in syncretistic Israel.”


The first sentence could be confused to the effect that Walton is claiming that angels (malʾakim – a Class II term in his scheme) are not part of the divine council. Such a claim would, of course, be disputed by a number of studies on the divine council. Walton is aware of this material. His point is that shedim (plural) comes from Akkadian shedu (singular form), which in Mesopotamian religion is a term used for a “Class II” being (guardian). This isn’t a denial that angels are included in Israel’s divine council, nor is it a statement that the Hebrew Bible wrongly includes Class II beings in the divine council. Walton, as I read him, is simply talking about mixed terminology. But the wording is admittedly a bit difficult to navigate.


If I am reading Walton correctly, the observation above is not at odds with the plain reading (in Hebrew) of Deut. 32:17.


However, there are still points of confusion. On the same page Walton says:


“If one is considering a contextual understanding of the Hebrew Bible, there is no basis for considering śĕ‘irîm or šedîm to be “demons” or class II spirits in Israelite thinking. With no clearly established demonology in the Hebrew Bible it is also questionable whether we can say that the Israelites believed the foreign gods to be demons. If the textual variant in Deuteronomy 32 reading ‘Sons of God’ rather than ‘Sons of Israel’ is to be preferred, as I think it is, the foreign gods would be associated with the divine council and class II spirits are never part of the divine council.”


I’m not sure what Walton is claiming here, and so I’m not sure if I disagree. I think it best to state what I think is clear from the biblical text. I’ll try to explain.


One on hand, Walton says “it is also questionable whether we can say that the Israelites believed the foreign gods to be demons,” but follows with “the foreign gods would be associated with the divine council and class II spirits are never part of the divine council.” The first part seems to contradict Walton’s earlier statement that the Israelites worshipped gods that they presumed were shedim—unless Walton’s point is that Israel erroneously called them shedim. I’m not sure. The second meaning would remove a contradiction for what he says, but it (possibly) puts him at odds with Paul. As many scholars have noted, Paul is following Deut. 32 in 1 Cor 10, and therefore clearly does see the shedim-elohim in Deut. 32:17 as malevolent spirits in 1 Cor. 10:21-22). I don’t think what Walton says here is intended to contradict Paul, or even must be viewed as a contradiction. Knowing him and his work in the field, Walton wouldn’t do that. My point is that, unfortunately, he could be read that way and the wording is confusing.


Walton’s reference to textual issues in “Deuteronomy 32” is imprecise, which in turn adds to the uncertainty of what he’s saying. The issue at hand concerns Deut. 32:17, not Deut. 32:8, the location of the textual variant to which he refers. His prose isn’t clear. He doesn’t deal with Paul’s use of Deuteronomy, nor does he track the references to divine beings worshipped by the Israelites through Deuteronomy that guide the reader to the statement in Deut 32:17. There is an unambiguous relationship between Deut. 4:19-20; 17:1-3; 29:24-28; 32:8-9, 17, 43 (also with DSS in v. 43). The beney elohim allotted to the nations at the Babel event are the elohim of Deut 32:17 and the elohim to whom Israel wrongly sacrificed. Deuteronomy’s treatment of the subject as a whole is clear. Psalm 82 has God judging these beings in connection with the psalmist’s prayer that God rise up and take control of all the nations, rectifying the situation that arose at Babel. This judgment takes place in the divine council.


But now we have to deal with the second part of the excerpt: “… the foreign gods would be associated with the divine council and class II spirits are never part of the divine council.” I think the best way to parse this is that Walton is saying that “the foreign gods of the nations (via Deut. 32:8-9) were part of the divine council, but they aren’t actually shedim, even though Israelites called them that—shedim are Class II.”


If my parsing is correct, Walton is interpreting “divine council” as those entities in the spiritual world that have decision-making rank. That’s semantics, since it isn’t the only way council language (in these texts and familiar normative discourse) can be understood.


The divine council need not necessarily be conceptually restricted to decision makers. Indeed, the analogy of human government in civilizations that had a conception of a divine council makes the point clear. Not all members of a king’s “government” would be directly involved in decision making. There are layers of advisors who have input. Part of any government or bureaucracy has staff or “lesser bureaucrats” who are nevertheless part of the administration. In Chapter 3 I used the analogy of Pharaoh’s household. That household included members who were not decision makers but who, nevertheless, were part of Pharaoh’s entourage.


Perhaps a modern analogy of government in the United States will help make the point. We can speak of the federal legislature, by which we mean that branch of government responsible for passing laws. The term “Congress” is a synonym. However, our Congress has two parts: the Senate and the House. Decision-making members of these two bodies, and hence the Congress, are elected. The House and Senate both have “guardian officers” (e.g., the Sergeant at Arms) who are appointed, not elected. Though they have no decision-making power, they are nevertheless part of “Congress” in certain contexts where that term is used. “Congress” can therefore refer to only those elected officials who make laws, or can refer to the entire bureaucratic apparatus of the federal legislature.


Lastly, Walton’s restriction (in the chart on page 231; the discussion is a bit more elastic) of the term elohim to Class I beings could be construed as unwarranted and even wrong, not because of passages like Deut. 32:17, but also material from Ugarit (for example) that has messengers (mlʾakm) that are clearly gods in Ugaritic religion. As Korpel notes, “… even though their status is low, they are clearly divine beings, and are reightfully called gods [ʾilm]” (Marjo C. A Korpel, A Rift in the Clouds: Ugaritic and Hebrew Descriptions of the Divine (Ugarit-Verlag, 1980), 292). But we must remember that Walton’s focus is Mesopotamia. That said, the exclusion of other material for understanding Israel’s conception of the divine council produces the sort of semantic disconnect we’ve been discussing.


If we understand elohim to be a term that refers to the realm in which an entity normally resides (i.e., the spiritual world, as I have done in Chapters 3-4 of The Unseen Realm), then all spirit beings, including the disembodied human dead (1 Sam. 28:13) are elohim. Those elohim who serve Yahweh in any capacity are part of his bureaucracy (council) in the broadest sense—there is no “second council,” nor are there unattached lone wolves in Yahweh’s administration. Psalm 82 (and Genesis 3) shows us there can be rebellion, though.


[1] The notion that John 10:33 has Jesus only claiming to be a god (a la Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness theology) is not tenable. A syntactical search of the Greek New Testament, however, reveals that the identical construction found in John 10:33 occurs elsewhere in contexts referring specifically to God the Father. The search is accomplished via the syntactically-tagged Greek New Testament database in the Libronix platform developed by Logos Bible Software. The search query asks for all clauses where the predicator of the clause can be any finite verb except εἰμί where the subject complement is the lexeme θεός with no definite article present. Any clause component can intervene between these two elements. Other than John 10:33, the following hits are yielded by the query: Acts 5:29; Gal. 4:8, 9; 1 Thess. 1:9; 4:1; 2 Thess. 1:8; Titus 3:8; Heb. 9:14. It is incoherent within the immediate and broader context of the book in which each passage hit occurs to translate θεός as “a god.”