Monday, February 29, 2016

What is the Divine Council in Biblical Literature?

The following is an excerpt on The Divine Council by Michael S. Heiser, from the Lexham Bible Dictionary.

Divine Council A term used by Hebrew Bible scholars for the heavenly host, the assembly of divine beings who administer the affairs of the cosmos under Yahweh, the God of Israel. All ancient Mediterranean cultures had some conception of a divine council, including Israel]. However, Israelite religion’s divine council was distinct. The structure of the Israelite divine council has implications for understanding God and the unseen world in biblical theology.

Textual Evidence and its Ancient Canaanite Context
The Council of the Gods/God
Most Bible translations show that Israel believed in an assembly of heavenly host under the authority of Yahweh. Modern translations do not show clearly that this assembly is similar to pantheons of ancient Near Eastern cultures. A close reading of the Hebrew text and comparisons with other ancient non-biblical texts from Canaan demonstrate this similarity (Mullen, Handy, “Host”; Cross “Epic”; Smith “Early”; Smith, “Origin”; Korpel, Rift in the Clouds).
The clearest example is the cuneiform literature from Ras Shamra (Ugarit), discovered in the late 1920s. As a Semitic language, Ugaritic is closely related to biblical Hebrew—it shares vocabulary, as well as morphological and syntactical features. Many of the Ugaritic tablets describe a council of gods in words and phrases that are conceptually and linguistically parallel to the Hebrew Bible. The Ugaritic divine council was led by El, the same word used in the Hebrew Bible for gods and as the proper name for the God of Israel (e.g., Isa 40:18; 43:12). References to the “council of El” include: pḫr ʾilm (assembly “of El” or “of the gods”; KTU 1.47:29, 1.118:28, 1.148:9); pḫr bn ʾilm (assembly “of the sons of El” or “of the gods”; KTU 1.4.III:14); mpḫrt bn ʾilm (“assembly of the sons of El”; KTU 1.65:3; compare 1.40:25, 42); and ʿdt ʾilm (assembly “of El” or “of the gods”; KTU 1.15.II:7, 11).
The Hebrew Bible has phrases that explicitly parallel these Ugaritic expressions (Parker, “Sons of [the] God[s]”; Cooke, “The Sons of [the] God[s]”). Psalm 82:1 is perhaps the best example. It calls the council (עֲדַת־אֵל, adath-el) and describes gods under the authority of Israel’s God: “God (אֱלֹהִים, elohim) stands in the council of El/the divine council (עֲדַת־אֵל, adath-el); among the gods (אֱלֹהִים, elohim) he passes judgment.” The second occurrence of אֱלֹהִים (elohim) must be semantically plural due to the preposition “in the midst of.” This does not refer to the Trinity—Psalm 82 goes on to describe how Israel’s God accuses the other אֱלֹהִים (elohim) of corruption and sentences them to die “like humankind.” This plurality does not refer to human beings. Psalm 89:5–7 places the God of Israel “in the assembly of the holy ones” (בִּקְהַל קְדֹשִׁים, biqhal qedoshim) and then asks “For who in the clouds (בַּשַּׁחַק, bashshachaq) can be compared to Yahweh? Who is like Yahweh among the sons of God (בְּנֵי אֵלִים, beney elim), a god greatly feared in the council of the holy ones (בְּסוֹד־קְדֹשִׁים, besod-qedoshim)?” Psalm 29:1 commands the same sons of God (בְּנֵי אֵלִים, beney elim) to praise Yahweh and give him due obeisance. Divine “sons of God” (בְּנֵי אֵלִים, beney elim, בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים, beney ha'elohim; or בְּנֵי אֱלֹהִים, beney elohim) appear in other biblical texts (Gen 6:2, 4; Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; and Deut 32:8–9, 43 (Septuagint; Qumran); Heiser, “Deuteronomy 32:8”).

The Divine Abode and Meeting Place of the Divine Council
At Ugarit, the council of El and its gods met on a mountain or lush garden (Clifford, The Cosmic Mountain). These descriptions are actually the same place. The abode of El was at the “source of the two rivers” (mbk nhrm) in the “midst of the fountains of the double-deep” (qrb ʾapq thmtm). El and his “assembled congregation” (pḫr mʿd) met to issue divine decrees from the “tents of El” (ḏd ʾil) and his “tent shrine” (qrš; KTU 1.1.III:23; 1.2.III:5; 1.3.V:20–21; 1.4.IV:22–23; 1.6.I:34–35; 1.17.VI:48). This description of gods living and meeting in “tents” (ʾahlm) or “tabernacles” (mšknt) is common at Ugarit (KTU–19). The Ugaritic god Baal, the deity who oversaw the council for El, held meetings on Mount Ṣpn. Baal’s palace had “paved bricks” (lbnt) that made Baal’s house “a house of the clearness of lapis lazuli” (bht ṭhrm ʾiqnʾum).
The Hebrew Bible uses similar place descriptions. The most obvious are the tabernacle (מִשְׁכַּן, mishkan) and Tent of Meeting (אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, ohel mo'ed), both common in the Old Testament narrative. Yahweh also dwelled on mountains (Sinai or Zion; e.g., Exod 34:26; 1 Kgs 8:10). In Psalm 48:3 the Jerusalem temple is said to be located in the “heights of the north” (יַרְכְּתֵי צָפוֹן, yarkethey tsaphon). Mount Zion is the “mount of assembly” (הַר־מוֹעֵד, har-mo'ed), again located in yarketê ṣpn (יַרְכְּתֵי צָפוֹן, yarkethey tsaphon; Isa 14:13). Additionally, Zion is described as a watery habitation (Isa 33:20–22; Ezek 47:1–12; Zech 14:8; Joel 3:18). Ezekiel 28:13–16 equates the “holy mountain of God” (הַר קֹדֶשׁ אֱלֹהִים, har qodesh elohim) with Eden, the “garden of God” (גַּן־אֱלֹהִים, gan-elohim). Eden appears in Ezek 28:2 as the “seat of the gods” (מוֹשַׁב אֱלֹהִים, moshav elohim). The description of Eden in Gen 2:6–15 refers to the “ground flow” that “watered the entire face of the earth.” At Sinai, Moses and others saw the seated God of Israel, under whose feet was a “pavement of sapphire stone” (לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר, livnath hassappir; Exod 24:9–10).

The Structure of the Divine Council
The divine council at Ugarit may have had four tiers, but the evidence is not conclusive (Smith, Origins, 41–53). A three-tiered understanding may be better.
The top tier consisted of El and his wife Athirat (Asherah). The second tier was the domain of their royal family (“sons of El”; “princes”). One member of this second tier, Baal, served as the co-regent of El. Despite being under El’s authority, he was called “most high” (Wyatt, “Titles”). A third tier was for “craftsman deities,” while the fourth and lowest tier was reserved for the messengers (mlʾkm), essentially servants or staff (Cho, Lesser Deities).
There is solid evidence in the Hebrew Bible for a three-tiered council. In the divine council of Israelite religion, Yahweh was the supreme authority over a divine bureaucracy that included a second tier of lesser אֱלֹהִים (elohim), also called the “sons of God” (בְּנֵי אֵלִים, beney elim, בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים, beney ha'elohim, or בְּנֵי אֱלֹהִים, beney elohim) or “sons of the Most High” (בְּנֵי עֶלְיוֹן, beney elyon). It may be significant that these “sons of God” are never clearly referred to as angels (מַלְאָכִים, mal'akhim) in the Hebrew Bible, as that word denoted the lowest tier of the Canaanite council, and thus a third tier in the Israelite version. Still, mlʾkm at Ugarit were considered gods, despite their subordinate role. It is possible that מַלְאָכִים (mal'akhim) are referred to as אֱלֹהִים (elohim) in the Hebrew Bible.
In Israel’s divine council, the highest tier is different from the Canaanites’ conception. Instead of El and Baal, his vice-regent, Yahweh occupied both slots in a sort of binitarian godhead (Heiser, “Divine Council”). Yahweh is described in the Hebrew Bible by means of titles and abilities that both El and Baal have in Canaanite literature—these two were conceptually fused in Yahweh. This literary and theological device shows Yahweh superior to the two main divine authority figures in wider Canaanite religion.
The way Yahweh filled the positions both of supreme ruler and vice-regent is also shown by His occasional visible appearances (Hamori “When”; Hamori, “Embodiment”; Sommer, The Bodies of God). For example, the Angel of Yahweh is sometimes indistinguishable from Yahweh (e.g., Exod 3:1–14). The Angel is said to have Yahweh’s “Name” in him (Exod 23:20–23). Scholars have long noted the presence of a “name theology” in the Hebrew Bible (Mettinger “Dethronement”; Huffmon, “Name”) where the name is another way of referring to Yahweh Himself. Thus, Yahweh was in the Angel, and yet Yahweh and the Angel could be simultaneously present (Judg 6). Both the God of Israel and the Angel are said to have brought Israel out of Egypt (Judg 2:1–3; 1 Sam 8:8; Micah 6:4)—an observation that makes Deut 4:37 an important consideration for binitarianism, since that verse tells us the “Presence” of Yahweh was responsible for the deliverance from Egypt. The divine presence must be understood as Yahweh Himself, His “essence” as it were. The angel—as co-regent—fills Baal’s role as El’s warrior. It is the angel who led Israel to the promised land as the captain of the Lord’s host, “sword drawn in his hand” (חַרְבּוֹ שְׁלוּפָה בְּיָדוֹ, charbo sheluphah beyado)—a precise description found in only two other places in the Hebrew Bible, both of which describe the angel of Yahweh (Num 22:23; 1 Chr 21:16). The result is that—while orthodox Yahwism could not accommodate cosmic rule being shared by two separate and distinct deities (El and Baal)—it could tolerate Yahweh in two personages. That the angel had the presence/name/essence of Yahweh in him, but was a distinct personage, meant he “was but wasn’t” Yahweh.
The Israelite binitarian godhead is also indicated by the “rider on the clouds” motif in the Hebrew Bible. This epithet was a well-known title for Baal (Herrmann, “Rider upon the Clouds”). For orthodox Yahwists, Baal’s attributes were taken over by Yahweh, their rightful bearer. The Hebrew Bible consistently refers to Yahweh as the one who rides the clouds (Psa 68:4, Psa 68:5 in Hebrew; 68:33, Psa 68:34 in Hebrew; 104:3; Deut 33:26; Isa 19:1) with one exception: the “son of man” in Dan 7:13. This character in Dan 7 is distinct from the enthroned deity, the ancient of days, who was expected to bear this Yahweh-title of the Hebrew Bible. This passage, along with the “man of war” (the angel) formed the basis for Judaism’s doctrine of two powers in heaven, a point of orthodoxy until the second century ad (Segal, Two Powers in Heaven).
The Hebrew Bible also informs us that at least some Israelites considered Yahweh to have had a divine wife, Asherah (2 Kgs 21:1–7; 2 Chr 15:16). The archaeological picture echoes this belief, most notably in the finds at Kuntillet ʿAjrud and Khirbet el-Qom, where inscriptions include prayers to Yahweh and “his Asherah” (Dever). It should be noted, though, that “his Asherah” may refer to a shrine and not the goddess (Hess, “Yahweh and his Asherah?”). It cannot be demonstrated that the theology of the prophets and biblical writers contained this idea, or that it was permissible. Other figures and motifs include “wisdom and the word” (Ringgren, Word and Wisdom).

Decision Making in the Divine Council
In the Ugaritic council, members would sometimes challenge each other during their deliberations (Handy, “Authorization”). However, there are also passages in the Ugaritic material that nearly equate El with the entire council (see Mullen)—the decrees of the council are the decrees of El. The Israelite conception of the divine council also included deliberation and opposition, yet the will of God was ultimately done.

Council Member Participation. First Kings 22:19–23 is an important text regarding the participation of council members:
“And Micah said, ‘Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; and the Lord said, “Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?” And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, “I will entice him.” And the Lord said to him, “By what means?” And he said, “I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.” And he said, “You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.” Now therefore behold, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these, your prophets; the Lord has declared disaster for you.’ “
Yahweh decided that Ahab should die, but allows discussion about how he should die. After some discussion, one spirit steps forward with a proposal. Yahweh accepts it and says that it will succeed. Nothing in the passage suggests that Yahweh learns anything here, or that He didn’t know what the suggestion would be. Nor does it support the idea that Yahweh predestinated the suggestion. The narrative only demonstrates that Yahweh allowed council members to choose how to carry out the decree.
The aftermath of the Babel incident shows that Yahweh expected that council beings use their own free decision making capacity. In Deuteronomy 4:19–20 and 32:8–9, Yahweh divided and assigned the nations to lesser gods (Heiser, “Sons of God”). Yahweh delegated authority—He rejected the nations as His own people and took Israel as His portion. While Yahweh is ultimately sovereign, He does not unilaterally govern the other nations. He leaves that to subordinates, who should rule according to His will. When they don’t, they are judged. This is precisely the point of Psa 82, where Yahweh judges the gods of his council who are responsible for corrupt rule over the nations of the earth.

Yahweh’s Will and Council Activity. Two examples of council deliberation in the book of Daniel make the council almost a part of Yahweh.
Daniel 4 contains Nebuchadnezzar’s second dream. The announcement of Nebuchadnezzar’s punishment is described in Dan 4:17: “The sentence is by the decree of the Watchers, the decision by the word of the holy ones, to the end that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men.” Seven verses later (Dan 4:24) the sentence is described thus: “This is the interpretation, O king: It is a decree of the Most High, which has come upon my lord the king.” This line is followed by the ambiguous plural of 4:26: שַׁלִּטִ֖ן שְׁמַָיּֽא (shallitin shemay'). This Aramaic phrase can be translated either “heaven rules” (corporate personification), or “the heavenly ones rule” (council authority). The second seems likely—the decree is from the Watchers—but it is the (singular) Most High who rules.
Daniel 7 opens with the vision of the four beasts, symbols which parallel the four kingdoms in Dan 2. Daniel 7:9–12 describes a divine council meeting. “Thrones” (plural) are set up. The Ancient of Days is seated—the Son of Man does not sit. In Daniel 7:10 the “court” or council is then seated. The books of judgment are opened, and the fourth beast is killed. The jointly ruling Ancient of Days and the Council (and the Son of Man by implication) are identified with one another:
1. The judgment occurs after the council was in session. “The court shall sit in judgment and his dominion shall be taken away” (Dan 7:26).
2. In Daniel 2 the fourth kingdom is destroyed by the kingdom of God.
3. The kingdom of God in Daniel 7 is given by God to the Son of Man, who shares it with the “holy ones” of the Most High (Dan 7:25). These are probably not humans—humans are brought into joint kingship later: it “shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High” (Dan 7:27). “Heavenly ones” is a term that refers to the divine council elsewhere (e.g., Psa 89:5–6; Job 15:15).

The Saṭan. The saṭan (הַשָּׂטָן, hassatan) in Job 1–2 is not a proper name—it lacks the Hebrew definite article prefixed to the noun (Peggy Day, An Adversary in Heaven). This “Adversary” (the meaning of the Hebrew term) is therefore not the Devil, as known in the New Testament. Lowell Handy points out that the Adversary’s behavior in Job 1–2 is consistent with that of various deities in council scenes in Ugaritic material, where a lesser deity reports to a higher deity (Handy, “Authorization”). The Adversary is the deity responsible for checking on the misbehavior of humans. He is actually not talking back to God, but pointing out that humans behave well if they are not under duress. Yahweh decides to test the Adversary’s estimation, knowing full well that Job will endure.

Monotheism in the Hebrew Bible and the Divine Council
Biblical Polytheism?
The presence of a divine council in the Hebrew Bible does not means that Israel’s religion was at one time polytheistic (there are many gods) or henotheistic (there are many gods, but one is preferred) and later evolved to monotheism. Both views presume that the gods were equal. Archaeological remains and passages in the Hebrew Bible show polytheism in Israel, but this was not orthodox Israelite belief. The biblical writers refer to Yahweh as “the God” (הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim; 1 Kings 18:39)—He could not be compared with any others. While Yahweh was an אֱלֹהִים (elohim), He was unique among the אֱלֹהִים (elohim). The orthodox Israelite knew that only one deity was the pre-existent Creator of all things (Isa 45:18). His status as Creator prevented other אֱלֹהִים (elohim) from being equal. Yahweh was viewed as the Creator of the “host of heaven,” the other divine beings (Pss 33:6; 148:1–5; compare Neh 9:6; Job 38:7–8; 1 Kgs 22; Isa 14:13; Deut 4:19–20; 32:8–9, 43; with Deut 17:3; 29:25; 32:17).

Understanding the Term אֱלֹהִים (elohim)
The Confusion of English Translations. Modern English translations often obscure the Hebrew text’s plural אֱלֹהִים (elohim), probably from a fear that it would undermine a belief in monotheism. For example, the NASB renders the second אֱלֹהִים (elohim) in Psa 82:1 as “rulers.” Other translations are more faithful, opting for “gods” or “divine beings,” but study Bibles usually note alternative readings like “rulers” or “judges.” While rendering the second אֱלֹהִים (elohim) “gods” in Psa 82:1, the NIV nevertheless in Psa 29:1 has “mighty ones” for bĕnê ʾēlı̂m (literally “sons of the gods”). NASB (“sons of the mighty”) and NKJV (“mighty ones”) follow suit. The translations for Deut 32:17 are also obscure. There are two issues: whether to render אֱלֹ֔הַ (eloah) as singular or plural and how to translate the verbless clause in which it appears לֹ֣א אֱלֹ֔הַ (lo' eloah). For example:
ESV—“They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known …”
RSV—“They sacrificed to demons which were no gods, to gods they had never known …”
CEV—“You offered sacrifices to demons, those useless gods that never helped you, new gods that your ancestors never worshiped.”
Translations which translate אֱלֹ֔הַ (eloah) as plural produce a reading that denies that שֵׁדִים (shedim, “demons”) are gods. Such translations, however, are forced to juxtapose this denial with the next clause, אֱלֹהִ֖ים לֹ֣א יְדָע֑וּם (elohim lo' yeda'um, “gods which they did not know”) which appears to clearly contradict that denial. How can the demons be gods and not gods in the same verse? Translations which take אֱלֹ֔הַ (eloah) as singular do not suffer this tension. There are in fact no occasions in the Hebrew Bible where אֱלוֹהַּ (eloha) is contextually plural or is used as a collective noun (Heiser, “Deuteronomy 32:17”). Denying the existence of gods in Deut 32:17 means denying the existence of these demonic entities.

The Variety of אֱלֹהִים (elohim). There are a number of entities referred to as אֱלֹהִים (elohim) in the Hebrew Bible. This variety gives a clue as to how the term should be understood. It can be used to mean:
Yahweh, the God of Israel (over 2000 times)
The אֱלֹהִים (elohim) of Yahweh’s heavenly council (Psa 82)
The gods of foreign nations (e.g., 1 Kgs 11:33)
Demons (Deut 32:17)
Spirits of the human dead (1 Sam 28:13)
Angels (possible due to Gen 35:7, depending on the context of the plural predicator with אֱלֹהִים, elohim; subject)
The אֱלֹהִים (elohim) of Yahweh’s council in Psa 82 are divine beings, not human rulers. This is obvious from the parallel passage in Psa 89:5–8. In Psalm 82:6, the plural אֱלֹהִים (elohim) are called “sons of the Most High.” These אֱלֹהִים (elohim) are not human since Psa 89:6 (Psa 89:7 in Hebrew) locates their assembly or council in the clouds or heavens (בַשַּׁחַק, vashshachaq) not on earth.
With respect to 1 Samuel 28:13 (part of the “medium of Endor” narrative), the text tells us that, after being solicited by Saul to conjure the dead prophet Samuel, the medium exclaims, אֱלֹהִים רָאִיתִי עֹלִים מִן־הָאָרֶץ (elohim ra'ithiy olim min-ha'arets). The text could be translated two ways: “I saw gods coming up from the earth” or, “I saw a god coming up from the earth.” Both are possible since the plural participle form could reflect the plural morphology of אֱלֹהִים (elohim). Saul’s subsequent question helps us decide with a singular reading since he asks the medium in 28:14, “What is his (third masculine singular suffix) appearance?” The deceased Samuel who appears to Saul is an אֱלֹהִים (elohim). While this might seem strange to us, the notion that the departed dead were “gods” (אֱלֹהִים, elohim) is similar to ancient Canaanite thinking.
In Genesis 35:7, אֱלֹהִים (elohim) is the subject of a plural verb; and angels (מַלְאָכִים, mal'akhim) may be part of the context. Genesis 35:1–7 reads in part:
“God said to Jacob, ‘Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God (לָאֵל, la'el) who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.’ So Jacob said to his household … ‘let us arise and go up to Bethel, so that I may make there an altar to the God (לָאֵל, la'el) who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.’ And Jacob came to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him, and there he built an altar and called the place El-bethel, because there God had revealed himself to him (or, “the gods revealed themselves to him”; נִגְלוּ אֵלָיו הָאֱלֹהִים, niglu elaiw ha'elohim) when he fled from his brother.”
This passage is not referring to Gen 28—that was not the episode in which Jacob was explicitly described as fleeing from his brother. It seems to refer to Gen 32, in which Jacob has two encounters with the divine while fleeing from Esau. The lesser known of these two encounters occurs in Gen 32:1, where we read, “Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God (מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים, mal'akhey elohim) met him” (ESV). Upon seeing these beings, Jacob’s response was the exclamation, “This is the camp of elohim” (Gen 32:1). In Genesis 32:22–32, Jacob wrestles with “a man” (Gen 32:24) whom Jacob refers to as elohim (32:32). The divine nature of the man is reiterated in Hos 12:3–4 (12:4–5 in Hebrew). This angel is also apparently deified in Gen 48:15–16 (ESV):
“And he blessed Joseph, and said, ‘God (הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim), before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God (הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim) who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day, The angel (הַמַּלְאָךְ, hammal'akh) who has redeemed me from all evil, bless (יְבָרֵךְ, yevarekh; note the singular verb) the boys; and in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.’ “
The plural verb form of Gen 35:7 may be due to the fact that both Yahweh and the Angel who is the visible Yahweh appeared to Jacob as he fled. However, the other angels of God may also be included in the plural verb form. Angels as אֱלֹהִים (elohim) would agree with Canaanite culture and religion, and makes good sense in light of what the term אֱלֹהִים (elohim) really means.

Defining the Term אֱלֹהִים (elohim). The fact that five different entities are called אֱלֹהִים (elohim) shows that the word does not refer to only one set of attributes. This is the mistake of modern interpreters and translators, who are accustomed to using the term “god” only when referencing the God of Israel and His attributes. The biblical writers would not equate Yahweh in a qualitative sense with demons, angels, the human disembodied dead, the gods of the nations, or the gods of Yahweh’s own council.
All the things called אֱלֹהִים (elohim) in the Hebrew Bible have one thing in common: they all inhabit the non-human realm. That is, they are by nature not part of the world of humankind, a world of ordinary embodiment. אֱלֹהִים (elohim) as a term describes residence—it identifies the proper domain of the entity described by it. Yahweh, the lesser gods, angels, demons, and the disembodied dead are all rightful inhabitants of the spiritual world. They may cross over to the human world, as Scripture informs us, and certain humans may be transported to their realm (e.g., prophets; Enoch), but their proper domain and humanity’s proper domain are two separate places. Within the spiritual world—as in the human world—there are differences of rank and power. Yahweh is an אֱלֹהִים (elohim), but no other אֱלֹהִים (elohim) is Yahweh. This was what an orthodox Israelite believed. Yahweh was not one among equals; He was unique. The modern term “monotheism,” coined in the 17th century (MacDonald, “Deuteronomy and the Meaning of Monotheism,” 1–21), only uses the term god to describe a being with attributes like Yahweh’s. This does not reflect the Hebrew Bible’s use of אֱלֹהִים (elohim). However, the thought behind the term—that Yahweh is utterly and eternally unique—is consistent with the sense of the modern word “monotheism.”

“No Other Gods beside Me”?
Common phrases in the Hebrew Bible which seem to deny the existence of other gods (e.g., Deut 4:35, 39; 32:12, 39) actually appear in passages that affirm the existence of other gods (Deut 4:19–20; 32:8–9, 17). These phrases show that Yahweh is incomparable among the other אֱלֹהִים (elohim), not that the biblical writers contradict each other or that they are in the process of discovering monotheism.
Isaiah’s “denial statements” express incomparability, not non-existence of other gods (Isa 43:10–12). Similar language is used in Isa 47:8, 10. Babylon claims, “I am, and there is none else beside me.” The claim is not that Babylon is the only city in the world, but that it has no rival.
A close reading of Deuteronomy and Isaiah shows the denial language’s context (Heiser, “Monotheism”). The denials are not based on any claim that other אֱלֹהִים (elohim) do not exist, but on Yahweh’s unique qualities. In Isaiah 43:10–12, the reference points are Yahweh’s pre-existence, ability to save, and national deliverance. In Isaiah 45, the focus is on Yahweh’s justice, salvation, the deliverance of His children, and the impotence of the other gods. Yahweh is being compared to lesser gods—it would be empty praise to compare Him to beings that did not exist.

Human Beings as אֱלֹהִים (elohim)?
The structure and terminology of Psa 82 shows that the psalm describes a council of divine beings (Mullen, Divine Council; Prinsloo, “Psalm 82”; Tsevat, “God and the Gods”; Kee, “The Heavenly Council”). The plural אֱלֹהִים (elohim) of Psa 82:1 are called “sons of the Most High” in 82:6. The orthodox Israelite knew that the Most High is Yahweh (Psa 83:18). The plural אֱלֹהִים (elohim) of the council are therefore “sons” of the God of Israel. Elsewhere the “sons of God” are obviously divine beings (e.g., Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7–8). However, there is one passage, Hos 1:10, that uses a similar phrase of humans (“sons of the living God”), and Israelites on occasion were referred to as Yahweh’s “sons” (Exod 4:22–23).

Psalm 82 and Psalm 89 in Tandem. Psalm 82’s council of plural אֱלֹהִים (elohim) would be ambiguous if it were the only example. Without context, it might seem to describe Yahweh presiding over a council or group of human judges. However, there is another passage that both uses the same language of divine plurality in a council and rules out that language with human beings.
Psalm 89:5–7 places Yahweh’s council of אֱלֹהִים (elohim) “in the clouds.” This shows that these “sons of God” are not humans—no text in the entirety of the Hebrew Bible suggests that there are a group of human judges in the heavens ruling with Yahweh over the nations.

Deuteronomy 32 as the Backdrop to Psalm 82. Psalm 82 judges the council אֱלֹהִים (elohim) for their corrupt administration—this also shows that they are not human. The last verse of the psalm shows what the council אֱלֹהִים (elohim) were supposed to be administrating. The psalmist implores the God of Israel to rise up and “inherit” all the nations. The lemma behind “inherit” (נחל, nchl) is precisely the same lemma used to describe Yahweh’s punitive judgment of the nations at the tower of Babel. He allotted the nations to the sons of God, and allotted those same divine beings to the nations that he was disinheriting. The key passages are Deut 32:8–9 and its parallel, Deut 4:19–20:
Deuteronomy 32:8: “When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance (נחל, nchl), when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God (בני האלהים, bny h'lhym) But the Lord’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage (נַחֲלָתוֹ, nachalatho).”
Deuteronomy 4:19: “Lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, whom the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven. But the Lord has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own inheritance (נַחֲלָה, nachalah), as you are this day.”
Both of these passages assume the reality of other אֱלֹהִים (elohim). Passages in Deut 4:19–20 through 32:8–9 identify the “host of heaven” as “other gods” (אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים, elohim acherim) worshiped by Israelites in defiance of Deut 4:19–20. For example, Deut 29:23–25 (Deut 29:24–26 in English) contains phrases found in Deut 32:8–9, where the nations were allotted by Yahweh to the sons of God:
“All the nations will say, ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land? What caused the heat of this great anger?’ Then people will say, ‘It is because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt, and went and served other gods (אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים, elohim acherim) and worshiped them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them.’ “
Deuteronomy 32:17 identifies these אֱלֹהִ֣ים (elohim) (the hosts of heaven and sons of God) as demons—real beings (Heiser, “Deuteronomy 32:17”). These אֱלֹהִ֣ים (elohim) are not simply idols, pieces of wood and stone.
Ancient Near Eastern idolaters knew that idols were not the actual deities they represent. While both the entity and the cult object might be called אֱלֹהִ֣ים (elohim), this does not mean that ancient people considered a human-made statue to be identical to the god it looked like. As Robins, a scholar of ancient cult objects notes: “When a non-physical being manifested in a statue, this anchored the being in a controlled location where living human beings could interact with it through ritual performance … In order for human beings to interact with deities and to persuade them to create, renew, and maintain the universe, these beings had to be brought down to earth.… This interaction had to be strictly controlled in order to avoid both the potential dangers of unrestricted divine power and the pollution of the divine man realm was brought about through their manifestation in a physical body, manifestation in one body did not in any sense restrict a deity, for the non-corporeal essence of a by the impurity of the human world. While the ability of deities to act in the visible, human realm was brought about through their manifestation in a physical body, manifestation in one body did not in any sense restrict a deity, for the non-corporeal essence of a deity was unlimited by time and space, and could manifest in all its ‘bodies,’ in all locations, all at one time” (Robins, “Cult Statues in Ancient Egypt,” 1–2).

Human Elder-Judges of Israel and Plural אֱלֹהִ֣ים (elohim). There are passages that seem to use אֱלֹהִ֣ים (elohim) to mean the human elders of Israel acting as judges, but this is not the correct reading.
Exodus 22:6–8 (translation from the JPS Tanakh):
“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; if the thief is not caught, the owner of the house shall come near to God (הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim) that he has not laid hands on the other’s property. 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 (הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim): he whom God (אֱלֹהִים, elohim) declares guilty (יַרְשִׁיעֻן, yarshi'un) shall pay double to the other.”
If the אֱלֹהִים (elohim) and הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) in Exod 22:6–8 were human beings (the elder-judges of Israel), Psa 82 may be describing Israelite judges. The plural predicate in Exod 22:8 (יַרְשִׁיעֻן, yarshi'un) would seem to support this—if the passage speaks of Israel’s judges rendering decisions for the people. However, there are several problems with this use of the passage.
First, these judges (if הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim; and אֱלֹהִים, elohim; are plural and referring to people) give decisions for the nation of Israel—not the nations of the world as is the case in Psa 82 and Deut 32. Also, אֱלֹהִים (elohim) and הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) in Exod 22:8 might be singular, and might not refer to human beings.
Exodus 18:13–24—where Moses appoints judges—might suggest that אֱלֹהִים (elohim) and הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) in Exod 22:8 are humans. However, the story of the judges uses אֱלֹהִים (elohim) and הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) to refer to God:
“The next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening. 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? Moses replied to his father-in-law, ‘It is because the people come to me to inquire of God (אֱלֹהִים, elohim). 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.’ But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, ‘The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God (אֱלֹהִים, elohim) be with you! You represent the people before God (הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim): you bring the disputes before God (הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim) 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. 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 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. 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.’ Moses heeded his father-in-law and did just as he had said.”
There is nothing in Exodus 18 to suggest that אֱלֹהִים (elohim) or הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) are plural—these refer to the singular God of Israel. The same is true of Exodus 22. A singular translation referring to God Himself is the correct reading. Without evidence for a plural translation, the אֱלֹהִים (elohim) cannot be assumed to be the elders of Israel. Also, the men appointed by Moses in Exod 18 are never actually called אֱלֹהִים (elohim) or הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) in the text. This account of the appointment of judges, then, does not support the אֱלֹהִים (elohim) in Psa 82 being humans.
There is one other passage that speaks of אֱלֹהִים (elohim) in a context similar to that of Exod 22:8. Exodus 21:2–6 reads:
“When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. 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. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God (הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim), 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.”
It is possible that the master is commanded to bring the slave before the elder-judges of Israel (הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim) before pierce his ear. However, this unlikely.
First, הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) can be singular, referring to the God of Israel—as in Exod 18 and Exod 22. The promise about the status of the slave is being made in truth before God. However, there is evidence that the redactor-scribes responsible for the final form of the text did not interpret הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) as singular—and also did not interpret a plurality as referring to human beings. The parallel passage in Deut 15 shows that redactors saw הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) as semantically plural: the parallel in Deut 15:17 removes the word הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) from the instruction. If this were thought to mean the God of Israel, the redactors would not have removed it from the text. Again, if הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) had been understood as plural humans, Israel’s judges, they would not have removed it. If הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) were intended as a semantically plural word that referred to gods, then the reason for deleting was theological (Gordon, “אלהים, 'lhym; in Its Reputed Meaning of Rulers”). Gordon argued that הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) 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, אֱלֹהִים (elohim)—as in 1 Sam 28:13. This phrase was later removed after Israel’s struggle with idolatry. Only a plural referring to multiple divine beings can coherently explain the deletion. As a result, this passage also does not support the plural human אֱלֹהִים (elohim) view.

Prophets and the Divine Council
Prophetic Commissioning: The Classical Prophets
There is also a connection between the divine council and the office of prophet (1 Kings 22).
A prophet or prophetess was a spokesperson for Yahweh. They were commissioned in an encounter with the divine: the prophet appeared in the divine throne room, where the council met and decrees were issued (Kingsbury, “Prophets and the Council of Yahweh”; Nissinen, “Prophets and the Divine Council”). Isaiah was taken to the throne-room of Yahweh (Isa 6:1–8), and the throne of the Lord came to Ezekiel (Ezek 1:1–14, 26–28). Jeremiah was called by the word of the Lord (Jer 1:4). This word was Yahweh (Jer 1:6–7), but was embodied in human form (Jer 1:9). Yahweh refers to this call when He said of the false prophets, “If they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their deeds” (Jer 23:16, 22).
Prophetic Commissioning: The Broader Context
Someone who serves as the righteous spokesperson for God is also a prophet. God often meets with humans for spiritual business in the Bible:
God walked with Adam in the garden, the divine abode. He was God’s first human representative. Job 15:7–8 apparently alludes to this scene, as Eliphaz, one of Job’s friends, asks Job, “Are you the first man who was born? Or were you brought forth before the hills? Have you listened in the council (הַבְסוֹד, havsod) of God? Have you restricted wisdom to yourself?”
Enoch “prophesied” (Jude 14; 15) and “walked with God” (Gen 5:24).
Noah also “walked with God” (Gen 6:9). He was a “herald of righteousness” (2 Pet 2:5), and warned his fellow men of the coming judgment of the flood (1 Pet. 3:20).
The glory of Lord “appeared” to Abraham before he journeyed to Haran (Acts 7:2–4; Gen 15:1).
Yahweh appeared to Isaac (Gen 26:1–5) and Jacob (Gen 28:10–22; 31:11–13; 32:22–32; see Hos 12:3–4). The patriarchs were Yahweh’s spokesmen, through whom the world would be blessed (Gen 12:1–3).
He commissioned Moses at the burning bush (Exod 3:1–15) and many subsequent occasions (e.g., 19:16–20:21; 24:9–18; 33:7–11).
Yahweh also directly commissioned the elders of Israel under Moses (Num 11:24–25).
He also commissioned Joshua (Deut 31:14–23; Josh 5:13–15).
Gideon met both Yahweh and the angel who was Yahweh—simultaneously (Judges 6).
Deborah received messages from Yahweh under “the Palm of Deborah” (Judg 4:4–5).
The word of the Lord “appeared” to Samuel to inform him of Eli’s fate (1 Sam 3:20–21).
The Divine Council as Prophetic Warriors and Witnesses
The prophets sometimes refer to the divine council when they declare eschatological holy war (Miller, “Call to War”). The divine council (along with human warriors) forms a cosmic army on the day of the Lord (Isa 13:1–8; Joel 3:11–12; Zech 14:1–5). This language draws upon other material in the Hebrew Bible that describes the divine council as an army (Deut 33:1–5; Psa 68:16–17; 2 Kgs 6:15–17). This is also the context for the common title for Israel’s God, “Lord of hosts”—“host” is a word used frequently in the Hebrew Bible for a military force (e.g., 2 Sam 3:23; Psa 108:12).
The divine council is the army of God, but also witnesses God’s decrees and acts. This idea is common outside the Hebrew Bible in other descriptions of divine councils (Bokovy, “Invoking the Council as Witnesses”). God often commands an unidentified group in a context that rules out a human audience (Cross, “The Council of Yahweh”). “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” (Isa 40:1–2). The two imperatives “comfort” are grammatically plural in Hebrew, as are the ensuing commands “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her” (Isa 40:3). These commands are not directed at Jerusalem or Israel, for they are the objects of the commands—they may be directed at the divine council (Cross, “The Council of Yahweh”). Amos 3 describes the Lord’s intention to punish Israel. In Amos 3:7, we read that “the Lord God does nothing without revealing his council (סוֹד, sod) to the prophets.” Plural imperatives follow: “Proclaim to the strongholds … and say” and “Hear and testify against the house of Jacob, declares the Lord God, the God of hosts” (Amos 3:10; 3:13). Again, Israel and Judah are not the recipient of the commands—the divine council may be called upon to witness the judgment of the Lord (Bokovy, “Invoking the Council as Witnesses”).

The Divine Council and New Testament Views of Christ
The binitarian structure of the Israelite divine council has implications for the high view of Christ in the New Testament (Segal, “Trinitarian”; Stuckenbruck, “Angel”; Boyarin, “Memra”)
The Second Power in Heaven/Second Yahweh
A number of Jewish writers ca. 516 bc—ad 70 offered opinions as to the identity of the “second Yahweh,” the second power in heaven (Mach, “Concepts of Jewish Monotheism”; Hurtado, “How on Earth”; McGrath, The Only True God; Fossum, “Name”). These Jewish writers suggested significant men from the Old Testament—such as Adam, Enoch, Abraham, and Moses—and specific angels—Gabriel, Michael, and the “Prince of the Host” from Daniel 10. Some did not attempt to further identify the angel of Yahweh (Gieschen, Angelomorphic Christology; Hannah, Michael and Christ; Stuckenbruck, “Angel”).
For Christians, the second Yahweh was Jesus. It is for this reason that the New Testament describes Jesus with all the descriptions of Yahweh’s co-regent: the name (which Jesus manifests by his presence: John 17:6, 11–12, 26), the word (John 1:1), the cloud-rider (Matt 26:64), wisdom (1 Cor 1:24), and the angel of Yahweh (Jude 5; Num 14:29; Fossum, “Name”; Fossum, “Image”; Segal, “Two Powers”; Boyarin, “Memra”).
Jesus as the Unique Son of God (μονογενής, monogenēs)
Jesus is the “only begotten” Son of God—but “only begotten” is a confusing translation. The Greek word is μονογενής (monogenēs). Not only does the translation “only begotten” seem to contradict the obvious statements in the Old Testament about other sons of God, it sounds as though there was a time when the Son did not exist—that He had a beginning. The Council of Nicaea in 425 taught that the Son had always existed, but the idea of the uncreated, eternal Son had been understood since the beginning of the Church—it was believed to be the teaching of the New Testament.
The Greek word μονογενής (monogenēs) doesn’t actually mean “only begotten.” It presents a problem neither with respect to Jesus having a beginning, nor with respect to divine “sons of God” who are called gods (אֱלֹהִים, elohim) in the Old Testament. The confusion extends from a misunderstanding of the root of the Greek word. For many years, μονογενής (monogenēs) was thought to have derived from two Greek terms, μόνος (monos, “only”) and γεννάω (gennaō, “to beget, bear”). Scholars of Greek eventually discovered, though, that the second part of the word μονογενής (monogenēs) does not come from the Greek verb γεννάω (gennaō), but rather the noun γένος (genos, “class, kind”). The term literally means “one of a kind” or “unique” with no connotation to time, origin or solitary existence. The validity of this understanding is shown by the New Testament itself. In Hebrews 11:17, Isaac is called Abraham’s μονογενής (monogenēs)—but Isaac was not the only son Abraham fathered, since he fathered Ishmael prior to Isaac. The term must mean that Isaac was Abraham’s unique son—the son of the covenant promises and the line through which the messiah would come. Just as Yahweh is an אֱלֹהִים (elohim), and no other אֱלֹהִים (elohim) are Yahweh, so Jesus is the unique son, and no other sons of God are like Him.
Jesus’ Quotation of Psalm 82 in John 10
John 10:34 may seem to imply that the אֱלֹהִים (elohim) in Psa 82:6 are human beings. However, this interpretation nullifies any sense that Jesus’ argument in John 10 is a defense of His own deity. In John 10:30, Jesus tells his audience that He and the Father were one. The Jews were deeply offended by this comment, as indicated by their response in 10:31–33. They picked up stones to kill Him, for they thought He was making Himself equal with God. Jesus’ response is usually interpreted as a concession. That is, He was only saying of Himself what the Jews could say of themselves, and used Psa 82:6 to show that humans can be called אֱלֹהִים (elohim). This view both ignores the Old Testament context of the divine council and undermines John’s presentation of the deity of Jesus in his gospel:
Jesus’ asserted that He and the Father were one (Jn 10:30).
The Jews thought this was blasphemy—Jesus was claiming to be God (Jn 10:33).
In defense of His claim that He was one with God, Jesus quoted Psa 82:6.
Following the quotation, He states that the Father is in Him, and He was in the Father.
The usual interpretation of this passage—that the אֱלֹהִים (elohim) were human—is based on two assumptions:
1. Judaeo-Christian monotheism could not have other אֱלֹהִים (elohim).
2. “To whom the word of God came” refers to the Jews who received the law at Sinai (i.e. the Pharisees’ forefathers).
However, both of these assumptions are wrong. It is already clear that there were other uses of אֱלֹהִים (elohim). Also, “the word of God” was not the Law, and those who received it were not human. Psalm 82:6–7 says, “I said, ‘You are gods (אֱלֹהִים, elohim), even sons of the Most High (בְּנֵי עֶלְיוֹן, beney elyon), 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 lesser אֱלֹהִים (elohim). God announces that the אֱלֹהִים (elohim) of the council are His sons, but because of their corruption (Psa 82:2–5), they will lose their immortality. The “word of God” in the original context is the specific utterance of Yahweh to His council members. They, in turn, are the recipients of that word (utterance). The recipients are not the Israelites at Sinai or any other group of Jews.
Jesus refers to the original utterance spoken by God when He quoted the psalm, not the Jewish nation receiving revelation, at Sinai or at any other time. Jesus is defending his statement to be one with the Father by reminding his hearers that their Old Testament teaches that there were divine sons of God who were אֱלֹהִים (elohim).

Differences in the views
Common Interpretation

This Proposal

Jesus’ strategy assumes אֱלֹהִים (elohim) are human

Jesus’ strategy assumes אֱלֹהִים (elohim) are divine

The “word of God that came” = revelation from God at Sinai, or some other event

The “word of God that came” = the utterance itself in Psa 82:6—the pronouncement from God

“to whom the word of God came” = the Israelites at Sinai, or the Jews generally

“to whom the word of God came” = the אֱלֹהִים (elohim) of the divine council in 82:1

The Jews are the “sons of the Most High” and אֱלֹהִים (elohim)—so Jesus can call himself an אֱלֹהִים (elohim) as well, since he is a Jew. (This view emphasizes Jesus’ mortality)

The Jews are not אֱלֹהִים (elohim), and Jesus reminds them that their Scriptures say there are other אֱלֹהִים (elohim) who are divine sons.

In John 10:36–38, Jesus asserts that his high status as the Son is based on Him doing the works of His Father: the Father is “in him.” This phrase parallels Exod 23:20–21, where the Name—Yahweh’s Presence—was in the angel of Yahweh. In John 10:36–38, Jesus claims that the Presence is in Him. He is claiming to be the second power, or second Yahweh, which would in turn mean He was Lord of the divine council with the invisible Yahweh (the Father). Thus, Jesus’ claim of oneness with the Father is developed by the quotation and by what follows. The result is a powerful claim to deity, consistent with the rest of the gospel of John.

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Hamori, Esther J. “Divine Embodiment in the Hebrew Bible and Some Implications for Jewish and Christian Incarnational Theologies,” Pages 161–183 in Bodies, Embodiment, and Theology of the Hebrew Bible, ed. S. Tamar Kamionkowski and Wonil Kim. Library of the Hebrew Bible Old Testament Series 465. Continuum/T&T Clark, 2010.
Hannah, Darrell D. Michael and Christ: Michael Traditions and Angel Christology in Early Christianity. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 109. Tubingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1999.
Handy, Lowell K. “The Authorization of Divine Power and the Guilt of God in the Book of Job: Useful Ugaritic Parallels,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 60 (1993): 107–118
Handy, Lowell K. Among the Host of Heaven: The Syro-Palestinian Pantheon as Bureaucracy. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1994.
Hartley, John E. The Book of Job. New International Critical Commentary of the Old Testament; Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1988.
Heiser, Michael S. “Deuteronomy 32:8 and the Sons of God,” Bibliotheca Sacra 158 (2001): 52–74.
Heiser, Michael S. “The Divine Council in Second Temple Literature,” Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2004.
Heiser, Michael S. “Divine Council,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry, and Writings. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2008: 112–116.
Heiser, Michael S. “Divine Council,” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2011, forthcoming.
Heiser, Michael S. “Monotheism, Polytheism, Monolatry, or Henotheism? Toward an Assessment of Divine Plurality in the Hebrew Bible” Bulletin for Biblical Research 18:1 (2008): 1–30.
Heiser, Michael S. “Does Deuteronomy 32:17 Assume or Deny the Reality of Other Gods?” Bible Translator 59:3 (July 2008): 137–145.
Herrmann, W. “Rider Upon the Clouds,” Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999: 703–704.
Hess, Richard S. “Yahweh and his Asherah? Epigraphic Evidence for Religious Pluralism in Old Testament Times,” in One God, One Lord in a World of Religious Pluralism, ed. A.D. Clarke and B.W. Winter. Cambridge: Tyndale House, 1991) 5–33.
Huffmon, H. B. “Name.” Pages 610–611 in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999.
Hurtado, Larry W. One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism. Continuum/T&T Clark, 1988.
Hurtado, Larry W. One God, One Lord: Early Christian Devotion and Ancient Jewish Monotheism. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988.
Hurtado, Larry W. “The Binitarian Shape of Early Christian Worship,” Pages 187–213 in The Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism, Papers from the St. Andrews Conference on the Historical Origins of the Worship of Jesus, ed. Carey C. Newman, James R. Davila and Gladys S. Lewis. SupJSJ 63; Leiden: Brill, 1999.
Hurtado, Larry W. Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.
Hurtado, Larry W. How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Historical Questions about Earliest Jesus Devotion. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005.
Kee, Min Suc “The Heavenly Council and Its Type Scene,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 31:3 (2007): 259–273
Kingsbury, Edwin C. “The Prophets and the Council of Yahweh,” Journal of Biblical Literature 83:3 (1964): 279–286
Korpel, Marjo C. A. A Rift in the Clouds: Ugaritic and Hebrew Descriptions of the Divine. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1990.
MacDonald, Nathan. “Deuteronomy and the Meaning of Monotheism“. Future American Theologians 2. Reihe 1: Mohr-Siebeck, 2003.
Mach, Michael “Concepts of Jewish Monotheism during the Hellenistic Period,” Pages 21–42 in The Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism, Papers from the St. Andrews Conference on the Historical Origins of the Worship of Jesus. Edited by Carey C. Newman, James R. Davila and Gladys S. Lewis. SupJSJ 63; Leiden: Brill, 1999.
McGrath, James F. The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context. University of Illinois Press, 2009.
Mettinger, Tryggve N. D. “The Dethronement of Sabaoth: Studies in the Shem and Kabod Theologies“. Coniectanea Biblia Old Testament Series 18. CWK Leerup, 1982.
Miller, Patrick D. “The Divine Council and the Prophetic Call to War,” Vetus Testamentum 18 (1968): 100–107.
Miller, Patrick D. “Cosmology and World Order in the Old Testament and the Divine Council as Cosmic-Political Symbol,” Pages 422–445 in Israelite Religion and Biblical Theology: Collected Essays. Continuum. Sheffield Academic Press, 2000.
Mullen, E. Theodore Jr. The Divine Council in Canaanite and Early Hebrew Literature. Harvard Semitic Monographs 24; Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1980.
Nissinen, Martii “Prophets and the Divine Council,” in Kein Land für sich allein: Studien zum Kulturkontakt in Kanaan, Israel/Palästina und Ebirnari für Manfred Weippert zum 65. Geburstag, edited by U. Hübner und E. A. Knauf. OBO 186; Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Rupprecht, 2002), 4–19.
Parker, Simon B. “Sons of (the) God(s),” Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999): 794–798.
Prinsloo, W. S. “Psalm 82: Once Again, Gods or Men?” Bibliotheca Sacra 76:2 (1995): 219–228.
Ringgren, Helmer. Word and Wisdom. Studies in the Hypostatization of Divine Qualities and Functions in the Ancient Near East. Lund 1947.
Robins, Gay “Cult Statues in Ancient Egypt,” in Cult Image and Divine Representation in the Ancient Near East. American Schools of Oriental Research Book Series 10; ed. Neal H. Walls; Boston: American Schools of Oriental Research, 2005.
Segal, Alan F. Two Powers in Heaven: Early Rabbinic Reports about Christianity and Gnosticism. Leiden: Brill, 1977.
Segal, Alan F. “ ‘Two Powers in Heaven’ and Early Christian Trinitarian Thinking,” Pages 73–98 in The Trinity. Edited by Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall, Gerald O’Collins. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Smith, Mark S. The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Smith, Mark S. The Early History of God: Yahweh and Other Deities in Ancient Israel. 2nd ed.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.
Smith, Mark S. God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010.
Sommer, Benjamin D. The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel. Cambridge, 2009.
Stuckenbruck, Loren T. Angel Veneration and Christology: A Study in Early Judaism and in the Christology of the Apocalypse of John. WUNT 70, 2 Reihe; Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1995.
Stuckenbruck, Loren T. and North, Wendy E. S. (eds). Early Jewish and Christian Monotheism. Continuum/T&T Clark, 2004.
Tsevat, Matitiahu. “God and the Gods in Assembly,” Hebrew Union College Annual 40–41 (1969–1970): 123–137 Series 495; Continuum/T&T Clark, 2008.
Wyatt, Nicholas. “The Titles of the Ugaritic Storm God,” Ugarit Forschungen 24 (1992): 403–424.
Michael S. Heiser1

1.  OBO Orbis biblicus et orientalis
WUNT Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testamen
Heiser, M. S. (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015). Divine Council. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.

The Divine Council in Psalm 82

Commenting on Psalm 82, verses one, six, and seven, Allen P. Ross1 writes:

God stands up in the divine counsel; in the midst of the gods he judges.
I said, "You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you. Yet you shall die like a man, and fall like one of the princes."

    A third view accounts for the term "gods" and the reference to morality by including the spirit world in judgment. Accordingly, the human judges, who cannot be excluded from the interpretation of the psalm, are agents of supernatural beings who were assigned to different regions to ensure that justice would prevail (1 Kings 22:19-22; Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6; Dan 7:9-1-, 10:13, 20-21). The psalm may be set against the background of the religions of the ancient world, divine assemblies of lower gods who met to determine the course of worldly events. The psalmist would not have accepted the idea that they were viable gods, but rather that they were supernatural beings, or angels, who formed a heavenly court (meaning an assembly of supernatural beings appearing before God to receive their orders; see Job 1 and 2, in which assembly even Satan was present). These angelic beings were given the responsibility of overseeing the proper functioning of human society (see Deut. 32:8-9).2 However, many of them failed to comply with the divine commission and became the forces of evil of these nations represented by their gods (e.g. Ezek. 28:11-19; and Daniel 10). Their will was administered by human agents; they were responsible for the people they put in place and used. Because their failure to administer justice, they would receive an ungodlike punishment--death. 
    This explanation would account for the idea of a divine council mentioned in the psalm, as well as the judgment that these "gods" would die like humans. The psalm would then form a strong polemic against the pagan world in which the spirits that controlled countries were considered to be divine, and their agents, here human judges, considered to have divine authority.3

1.  For the credentials of Allen Ross and his bio, see
2.  Not only do these verses (Deut. 32:8-9) in the Dead See Scrolls agree with the reading, "sons of God", but in the Greek version they agree as well: "When the Most High divided the nations, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the nations according to the number of the angels of God; and his people Jacob became the portion of the Lord, Israel was the line of his inheritance."
3.  Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on The Psalms, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2013) pp. 715-6, 718-9.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Players in an Emotivist Drama

The following excerpt is taken from Telford Work's Ain't Too Proud to Beg: Living through the Lord's Prayer1:

    In After Virtue Alasdair MacIntyre describes three indispensable characters of modern society: the aesthete, the manager, and the therapist.2 We all know them well (especially those of us who have or are leaders in the American Church): lampooned in the black humor of The Simpsons, South Park, and Dilbert, these types are ubiquitous and socially indispensable. As characters, they fuse a psychological profile and a social role into one powerful unity that embodies their culture. McIntyre locates these three modern characters within an underlying philosophical culture of emotivism, which reduces moral judgments to the expressions of personal preferences.3 (In the words of Mormon philosopher Napoleon Dynamite, "Just follow your heart. That's what I do.") Emotivism flourishes among the social classes, institutions, and professions whose purposes it serves most naturally and organically.4 These groups benefit from emotivists reduction of ethics to self-expression. Emotivism is a twentieth-century British invention,5 and MacIntyre's characters are also of course the principal authorities in Dalrymple's6 world. They spread its moral ideology among all who entrust themselves to them, catechizing both their cultures' natives and its new arrivals in the dogma that moral truth boils down to authentic self-expression.
    Emotivism is immensely advantageous for powerful classes, institutions, and professions. It goes beyond even the divine right of kings in absolutizing their authority. Cultivated taste, proven effectiveness, and earned credentials are their own justification. However, emotivism pressures the powerless into the role of a very different character: the victim. The moral choices of a victim are radically constrained by the choices of the powerful. It is tempting to consider the victim a fourth character in emotivist culture. After all, what would aesthetes be without vulgar masses, managers without worker-drones, and therapists without patients?
    The greatest comfort to emotivism's elites, the absolute sovereignty of the emotivist self, is the sorest spot for emotivism's victims. You see, if victims are moral agents too, then at least some of their failures should reflect the choices they have made. This is the condition Dalrymple's patients and inmates cannot bring themselves to face. They plead with Dalrymple that they fail because they are too easily led, or feel in with the wrong crowd, or took drugs because they were widely available. They refuse to take the blame for their mistakes. 
They go to some length to provide an answer other than that they like it and found pleasure in doing what they knew they ought not to do. "My grandfather died," or "My girlfriend left me," or "I was in prison": never do they avow a choice or a conscious decision. And yet they know that what they are saying is untrue: for they grasp the point immediately wen I tell them that my grandfather, too, died, yet I do not take heroin, as indeed the great majority of people whose grandfathers have died do not.7

    They grasp Dalrymple's point because they too are players in an emotivist drama. 
    Like yin and yang, a common moral axiom creates emotivism's winners and losers in one stroke and pits them against each other. Each group's existence drives the other to hypocrisy. Elites must pay lip services to the determinism that comforts victims, but they dare not direct it at themselves. Victims can acknowledge the moral agency they share with their successful neighbors and superiors, but they prefer to shift blame to structures both personal and impersonal. 
This is the lie that is at the heart of our society, the lie that encourages every form of destructive self-indulgence to flourish: for while we ascribe our conduct to pressures from without, we obey the whims that well up from within, thereby awarding ourselves carte blanche to behave as we choose. Thus we feel good about behaving badly.8

    Put simply, both sides live a lie.

1. Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007, pp. 175-7
2. 2d ed., Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1984, p. 30
3. Ibid. pp. 11-12
4. Ibid. p. 29
5. Ibid. p. 14
6. Theodore Dalrymple (the pen name of Anthony Daniels) is a prison doctor in the U.K. and an essayist for the conservative quarterly City Journal
7. Dalrymple, Theodore. Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 2001, p. 121
8. Ibid. p. 122

Saturday, December 12, 2015

From Many Exhortations to Joy (A Homily for Gaudete Sunday)


Zephaniah 3:14-20

Philippians 4:4-7

Luke 3:7-18

The Prophecy of Zephaniah begins with a message of horrific judgment upon the surrounding nations of God’s people. In Zephaniah chapter one, the Lord declares:
I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth,”I will sweep away both man and beast;I will sweep away the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, and the idols that cause the wicked to stumble.
The great day of the Lord is near—near and coming quickly.
That day will be a day of wrath—a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness—a day of trumpet and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the corner towers. I will bring such distress on all people that they will grope about like those who are blind, because they have sinned against the Lord.
Their blood will be poured out like dust and their entrails like dung.
Neither their silver nor their gold will be able to save them on the day of the Lord’s wrath.

In the following chapter, chapter two, Zephaniah then tells the people of God to watch and listen carefully to these judgments of God pronounced upon the surrounding nations. He tells the people of God to be humble and to keep seeking the Lord, searching out those things which He has commanded them to do. Zephaniah warns them to seek justice with humility in order to receive shelter on the day when the Lord comes to judge the nations (2:3).

After these instructions to Israel, Zephaniah's message becomes more specific about every thingmore specific  about which nations would receive the Lord's judgment and why they would be judged. We see that God's holy fury is against the wicked nations surrounding His people.

Our attention is first directed to the land of the Philistines with a description of God coming to visit them in his wrath, laying waste to their major cities with their temples and all their false gods (2:4-5):
Gaza will be abandoned and Ashkelon left in ruins. At midday Ashdod will be emptied and Ekron uprooted! Woe to you who live by the sea, you Kerethite people!The word of the Lord is against you, Canaan, land of the Philistines!
I will destroy you, and none will be left.

Next, the Lord moves on to other surrounding nations of Israel, to the Moabites and Ammonites, who insult God and His people, boast in the power of their own idols, and threaten to conquer Israel's God, bringing them all under their rule (2:8-11). To that the Lord responds, saying:
I have heard the insults of Moab and the taunts of the Ammonites, who insulted my people and made threats against their land.Therefore, as surely as I live, surely Moab will become like Sodom, the Ammonites like Gomorrah—a place of weeds and salt pits, a wasteland forever.

The idea, again, is to emphasize their complete destruction as a powerful civilization and nation that had become morally bankrupt.

After this the Lord moves on to the people of Cush and their soon-coming destruction as a nation. Then He moves on to the Assyrian empire, because they were a people who reveled in their safety, making claims about their uniqueness and greatness as an empire. Assyria says to herself, “I am the One! And there is no one besides me!” (2:15) Does that sound like any nation you know of?

This is interesting, and dare I say, damning, because the Lord is truly the one Sovereign and only One. There truly is no Sovereign one beside Him who can compete with Him or defeat Him. Nevertheless, Assyria had grown in its imperial might, wealth, and prestige to the point of thinking so highly of itself, that they considered themselves uniquely mighty. They alone, supposedly, were great. So the Lord declares to them:
I will stretch out My hand against the north and destroy Assyria, leaving Nineveh utterly desolate and dry as the desert.
Flocks and herds will lie down there, creatures of every kind.
The desert owl and the screech owl will roost on her columns.
Their hooting will echo through the windows, rubble will fill the doorways, the beams of cedar will be exposed.
This is the city of revelry that lived in safety.
…What a ruin she has become, a lair for wild beasts!

The feeling that God’s people are supposed to have regarding all of these judgments is fear and awe. Alongside this there is supposed to be a sense of respect for what God promised to do to those wicked nations. From this it's clear that God has never been ignorant or indifferent about evil in the world. God sees how nations and people treat each other. God knows their entertainments, their idols, their indifference to His truth, their boasting against Him, and their persecution of His people. The Lord knew that the Assyrians, the Moabites, and Philistines were a people who would not humble themselves before Him and obey His commands, worshiping Him alone in His holy temple. They would not seek God on a path of humility with the meek and lowly. They were proud of being high and mighty. They would not seek God on a path of justice with the poor and outcasts of society. Instead they paved their own way to success by plundering their neighbors. That is why, on that “Day of the Lord” spoken in the first chapter of Zephaniah, the Lord promised to come and visit those nations and clear a path of holiness for Himself to walk on. If the nations would remain stubborn and rebellious, set on paving their own ways of evil and destruction, the Lord would come and bring destruction upon their cities and all of their evil ways. And it would be terrifying. When we look back at the history of these ancient nations, after the time of Zephaniah, we can see their complete and utter destruction as spoken through the Prophets, and it's not a pretty picture. The Lord most certainly did bring their evil and destructive ways to ruin.

So far, the word of the Lord through Zephaniah is powerful and dreadful. It's a message which, if we were the people to whom the Lord spoke these words, we too ought to be fearful. This is important to keep in mind because it is in light of this dreadful message that we find our lectionary reading for today (3:14-20). Intriguingly, that reading is not about dreadful judgment, but rather, is about rejoicing. However, before we get to the part about rejoicing, we need to remember carefully what the Lord had said to His own people back in chapter two. Recall that brief warning I cited earlier in passing (2:3). Speaking to the people of Jerusalem, Zephaniah said: 
Seek the Lord, all you humble of the land, you who do what he commands.Seek justice. Seek humility.
Then you will be sheltered on the day of the Lord’s anger.

The reason why I'm stressing that particular warning to God's people is because of what comes next in Zephaniah's prophecy. In order to appreciate the message of great joy pronounced to God’s people, we need to empathize with those people who were willing to seek God with humility.

After denouncing Philistia, Moab, Ammon, Cush, and Assyria, and just before God's people hear the great news of salvation and rejoicing, Zephaniah cries out one more time this way:
Woe to the city of oppressors! The rebellious and defiled! She obeys no one! She accepts no correction!She does not trust the Lord!She does not draw near to her God! Her officials within her are roaring lions!Her rulers are evening wolves who leave nothing for the morning!Her prophets are unprincipled! They are treacherous people!Her priests profane the sanctuary and do violence to the Law! The Lord within her is just.He does no wrong.Morning by morning He dispenses His justice.Every new day he does not fail, yet the unjust know no shame.

For those who are new to the book of Zephaniah and his message, you might be thinking that this message is not surprising at all. It sounds like the same message of justice and judgment, re-hashing the same old news to the surrounding nations. But it's not.

When we look closely at this message, this is the climax of Zephaniah's entire message, and it's not at all directed at the surrounding nations of Israel. It is a message directed at Israel. It's about the people of Jerusalem. When the prophet cries out, "Woe to the city of oppressors! The rebellious and defiled!", that is a woe to the people of God's land. When the Lord describes them as accepting no correction, of having civil rulers who strip their people of sustenance, leaving them in poverty, that's a description of civil rulers in Israel. And when God condemns the people who lie and deceive and use perverse speech to promote greater injustice, God is condemning people who carry His name among them

This is not a light matter. The people of God were addressed at the climax of Zephaniah’s message because they were the most peculiar people in the world at that time. They were a peculiar people chosen out of all nations by God, and set apart to be like God—to be Godly. But here, at the climax of Zephaniah’s message, we see that they have become just as ungodly as their surrounding nations.

The Lord continues speaking through Zephaniah, saying:
Of Jerusalem I thought, ‘Surely you will fear me and accept My correction!’ Then her place of refuge would not be destroyed, nor all my punishments come upon her.
But they were still eager to act corruptly in all they did.
Therefore wait for me, for the day I will stand up to testify.
I have decided to assemble the nations, to gather the kingdoms
and to pour out my wrath on them—all my fierce anger.
The whole land will be consumed by the fire of my jealous anger.
On that day you, Jerusalem, will not be put to shame for all the wrongs you have done to me, because I will remove from you your arrogant boasters.
Never again will you be haughty on my holy hill. But I will leave within you the meek and humble.
The remnant of Israel will trust in the name of the Lord.
They will do no wrong; they will tell no lies.
A deceitful tongue will not be found in their mouths.

The Lord is coming, Zephaniah says. He is coming to visit the nations surrounding Israel, but He is also coming to visit the city where His name dwells, the city of Jerusalem where both His people and his own house reside. And when he comes, Zephaniah says, the fire of His jealous anger comes with him, consuming “the whole land” because the whole land of Israel had become accustomed to their own defilements, approving of their own evil desires, just like their surrounding nations. A terribly jealous fire comes with the Lord's visitation, but here at the end of Zephaniah’s message we learn that His visitation of fire does much more than destroy cities and their buildings. Above all the things which the fire of God brings, most importantly it brings purification.

When the Lord comes to visit His people, the lips of His people are cleansed so that they can call upon Him with thankfulness, serving Him without defiled offerings of speech (3:9-11). The Lord says to them, You will not be put to shame (v. 11). I will leave within you the meek and humble (v. 12). They will do no wrong. They will tell no lies. A deceitful tongue will not be found in their mouths (v. 13).

Notice carefully that when the Lord gathers the nations together for judgment, He has no intention of destroying His own people in their midst. His judgment included the land of Israel and the people of Israel, but the remnant of His people were purified by His visitation. So in that “Day of the Lord” which Zephaniah spoke about (that day when the people of Jerusalem saw their own city and temple brought to ruin by the Babylonian armies, and the subsequent deportation into Babylonian captivity), that was not the destruction of God's people. That was the destruction of all their idols and entertainments, basically the entire world as they knew it, but it wasn't the destruction of God's people. God was destroying all the vain confidence they had in themselves, and their arrogant boasting like the nations around them. God was destroying their love for lies, and their deceitful tongues, promoting gross injustices and treachery toward their neighbor.

It is in that context in mind that we finally reach our reading for today. It is in the context of God visiting His people to change the way we live our lives—to think and live Godly again—that Zephaniah proclaimed God's good news:
Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O Israel!Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem!The Lord has taken away the judgments against you!He has cleared away your enemies!The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst!You shall never again fear evil! On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:“Fear not, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak. The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness; He will direct you by his love; He will exult over you with loud singing. I will gather those of you who mourn for the appointed time, so that you will no longer suffer reproach.Behold, at that time I will deal with all your oppressors.And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.At that time I will bring you in, at the time when I gather you together; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes”

When God comes, He comes to clean His house, but the purpose of cleaning house is because He wants to live there. And if His people are going to dwell in his house, they need to be holy and pure even as He is holy and pure. 

Notice carefully that this message is virtually the same as what we find in our gospel and epistle readings for today. In our gospel reading, John the Baptist is approached by the rulers of Israel in his day. And he message is very much like Zephaniah’s. He scolds them for their corruption and vain confidence. You vipers!, he says. Who warned you to flee from God's wrath that's about to fall upon this generation? The axe is already laid to the root of the tree, and every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. Don't say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father,' so God won't come and cut us down like he does with the surrounding nations.

That was the message of John the Baptist. It was a message of God coming to judge Israel as an idolatrous nation that boasted like all the other surrounding idolatrous nations.  
The crowds then asked John the Baptist, “What then shall we do?”He answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.”Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.”Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

John's message was about God coming to purify a remnant of people for Himself, and a bunch of people understood that. Notice carefully that when some of the people asked John what to do, he told them what to do. John didn’t say ‘There’s nothing you can do! Just sit back, do nothing, and let God do His thing.” Not only does John not say that, but he says the very opposite of that. It is precisely because God was coming to visit His people that he told them to prepare to meet Him. In preparation for that meeting, he tells them to purify the way they've been speaking, and thinking, and behaving with their neighbors, in their homes, and in their workplace. To the one he says, in essence, help others in need with the abundance of good things that God gives you. If you have two tunics in your closet or enough food for a buffet at dinnertime, don't covet what you have. If one of your neighbors is in need of a tunic (and there definitely is at least one), give one of your tunics to him, and invite his family over for dinner too. 

To you, the tax collector, John says not to collect more in taxes just because you have the power to do so. Don't ever capitalize by an injustice to your neighbor. Even if it’s legal. Even if it’s “safe.” Even if you could move up the corporate ladder by just taking a tiny advantage of your neighbor, don’t do it. Resist that temptation. Don't encourage or advance business policies which exploit the poor and needy.

Even soldiers—military and police men of the region—came to John asking what to do, and notice carefully again that John didn't tell them to stop protecting the peace of the city. He doesn't advocate that they quit their jobs or throw away their weapons. Instead, he tells them to stop their abuse, and the cover-up of their scandalous abuses. He tells them to stop their threats and false accusations, their extortions and discontent. He tells them a message which many people in our American police force need to hear. 

John is directing the people, telling them to turn to God and His ways for purification. He's telling them to seek God's ways of humility and justice, because God was coming to pay a visit. One mightier than him was coming, the strap of whose sandals he was not worthy to untie; and that One comes with a winnowing fork in his hand, to clear the threshing floor of Israel, and to gather the wheat into his barn, leaving the chaff for burning.

Does that sound like good news to you? Do these messages of God, through John or Zephaniah, sound like the gospel of our Lord? Does all of this talk about justice and purification sound like a gospel which helps our hearts rejoice? Our answer might be 'No', but it should be 'Yes'! At least that's what Luke tells us. Luke tells us that this message of purification was essential to the gospel. In verse eighteen of our gospel reading today, Luke says this:

So with many other exhortations John preached the gospel to the people.

God's gospel is, first and foremost, a dreadful message of purification. When we hear about God coming in these terrifying ways, we cringe, as we should. God's good news is that He cares so much about this world we live in, and the sins we persist in, that He doesn't leave us alone in our sin. He comes to change us. He comes to purify nations and cities, villages and towns, neighborhoods and homes, parents and children. He comes to lay an axe to the root of our pride and arrogance. He comes with a winnowing fork in his hand to gather up our heaps of lies, threats, and false accusations, to destroy them. He comes to purify our abusive speech, evil schemes, and unholy discontent. He comes to clean house so that he can dwell with us, in our midst again.

Take a few moments to reflect upon this idea of God dwelling with us. Ask yourselves: When I look around at my surrounding neighborhood and city, does it look like a city filled with people who God wants to dwell with?

Look at the police force in this city, or the military personnel stationed around our state, and ask yourself, Are these people who God wants to dwell with?

Look at the politicians of your city and ask, Are they people who God wants to dwell with?

Last, but not least of importance, look at the people you work with, or those who are just friendly acquaintances here around you in this city. Take a good look at the way they speak, and how they discuss the treatment of others. What are their views about people of color? What do they say about refugees? Is their speech unjust or arrogant? Is their view of our nation like that of Israel or Assyria, that "we" are special descendants of Providence, that “we” are "the one" and there is no other like us? That “we” must not tolerate "them" or that they must become one of us?

Does God want to dwell with people like that? 

Again, our instinctive answer might be 'No', but that kind of answer tells us more about how much purification we need as His people. Our answer should be an emphatic 'Yes' because our God comes into the midst of this messed up world as the One and only, the Almighty One who can save us from the mess we create. Like we saw earlier in Zephaniah, God has no interest in destroying us. Instead he wants to clean up this messed up world. That's why he came in Zephaniah's day, that's why He came in John's day, and that's why the Lord continues visiting His Church throughout all nations today.

When we consider how messy this world is, and how our own lives contribute to that mess, don’t let that become an opportunity of despair for you. Rather, let your conviction of that truth become an occasion to rejoice in the glorious gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is an occasion to rejoice because it means that God is coming to dwell among you and in you. Even for those of us who are like the soldiers and tax collectors in John's day, earnestly questioning what it is that we must do to prepare for God to enter our homes and our lives, this is still good news because in our readings for today we are told what to do. We are not left wandering around in despair. We ought to seek the Lord and His ways with humility. We ought to put away the foolish and wicked ways of the world, and instead put on Christ. We know that when God comes into our homes, and into our lives, He comes to clean us up. He cleans us up, not so he can kick us out and boast in his might, but so he can rejoice over us with gladness, direct us by his love, and change our shame into praise (Zeph 3:14-20). 

When you look at the messiness of life, do not despair. 
Turn to God and rejoice in Him always. 
The Lord is very near. So Again I say, rejoice! 
In baptism, our shame has been washed away. 
When we confess our sins together, we are welcome to draw near to Him at His Table, to eat a meal with that One who alone is mighty to save the world
Let that joy be known to everyone. 
With great thanksgiving, direct your prayers to God. 
And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

* * * * * * *
Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us, and because we are sorely hindered by our sins, let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.