What Shall We Do?
One of the more bizarre but well known stories in the Torah is that of Migdal Bavel (The Tower of Babel). Along with the general strangeness of the story itself, there is some weird descriptions of God's actions which are almost entirely confined to this one brief narrative. Specifically, God appears to talk to other being to discuss the actions. Specifically Gen 11:7 says:
Come, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.'This language is obviously meant to mimic the speech of the people previously (Gen 11:3-4):
3 And they said one to another: 'Come, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly.' And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. 4 And they said: 'Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.'But still one wonders who exactly is God talking to? Tradition offers several answers, which are actually plausible in my view because of the strangeness of this particular story. Nevertheless, one can maintain the possibility that God is speaking to other divine beings who may or may not have agreed with this course of action.
Edit: zdub rightly points out in the comment that there is another salient example of the plural "we" which appears near the creation of man. Gen 1:26 reads:
And God said: 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.'
The Divine Council
One of the traditional options for "who is God talking to" in the Migdal Bavel story is that he's talking to a "divine council." In traditional Judaism, this council is made up of entirely subservient beings, angels and the like. The actions of the council are merely a formality. However, perhaps at a point in time this type of council meant something different, with God acting more or less as one of the group of equals. We previously saw one instance that hinted at this type of arrangement, but there might even be a better example. We turn to Psalm 82. Verses 1 and 6 are specifically salient. Here is verse 1 in Hebrew:
אֱלֹהִים, נִצָּב בַּעֲדַת-אֵל; בְּקֶרֶב אֱלֹהִים יִשְׁפֹּט.And my translation:
Elohim stands in the council of El, in the midst of the gods he delivers a judgment.The translation is complicated because of the two different uses of the word Elohim, the first instance is coupled with a singular noun, so it's clearly meant to mean God. The second use doesn't make much sense to translate it the same way, so I use it to refer to other gods. Traditional Judaism would translate this as "angels" or something similar. The next four verses describe the various things that God is judging, specifically for this psalm, God appears to be angry at the other gods for allowing various social ills. Then we get to verse 6-7, where God appears to call out the other members of the divine council. Again here they are in Hebrew first:
ו אֲנִי-אָמַרְתִּי, אֱלֹהִים אַתֶּם; וּבְנֵי עֶלְיוֹן כֻּלְּכֶם.ז אָכֵן, כְּאָדָם תְּמוּתוּן; וּכְאַחַד הַשָּׂרִים תִּפֹּלוּ.and here is my translation:
I (God) said you are gods, all of you are the sons of Elyon. But you will die like a man, like one of the (mortal) rulers, you will fall.After accusing the rest of the Gods for not behaving properly towards the oppressed, he specifically calls out the other gods, and mentions that they are also children of Elyon. And then he pronounces his judgment on them, that those gods will all die and lose their spheres of command. The verse ends with the psalm author encourage Elohim (God) to arise and make his judgment.
Before we go on, we'll note that this Psalm uses the uncommon form of God's name, Elyon. This name of God always seems to pop up in places where it seems to imply some deity other than the God of the Hebrews, someone higher up, older, possibly even aloof. We've seen two other instances of this in the blog of this, which I'll link here and here.
One of the common themes of academic study versus religious study is that academic study puts a lot more emphasis on the writing of the Nevi'im (prophets) than traditional Judaism. And for this third example, we'll look at the relatively obscure prophet Habakuk. This prophet is pretty much at the bottom of the pile of obscure biblical prophets. He doesn't describe anything about who he is, where he's from, when he's writing etc. The name could just as well be a pseudonym; it doesn't appear to have any clear meaning, and isn't a well known name in any prior period.
We can put together some information about Habakuk. He writes about the Chaldeans, so that implies that he's writing in the late 9th century or later, which is the earliest that anyone would be referencing them. Another piece of information is that the chapters do seem structured so that it appears to be the work of a single individual. The book isn't very long (only three chapters) so this isn't surprising, but some short books even have multiple author hypotheses. These don't tell us very much, but it's at least something.
Anyway, let's get to the verse in question. It appears in the third chapter. First we look at Hab 3:3
God cometh from Teman, and the Holy One from mount Paran. Selah His glory covereth the heavens, and the earth is full of His praise.If you read the previous post, this kind of idea should look familiar to you. God is arriving from locations in the south. God is here referred to by the Hebrew Eloha, a somewhat rare form, although in the previous verse, you have the more common tetragrammaton. Verse 5 though is the interesting one. Here it is in Hebrew:
לְפָנָיו, יֵלֶךְ דָּבֶר; וְיֵצֵא רֶשֶׁף, לְרַגְלָיוIf you look at traditional translations for this verse, you'll get something like the JPS translation:
Before him goeth the pestilence (dever), and fiery bolts (reshef) go forth at His feet.The word dever translated as pestilence is not obscure, it is the same verse used for the cattle plague in Egypt. Reshef is considerably more obscure. It is often translated as some kind of fever, although here it is translated as "fiery bolts." However, the insight here is that both dever and reshef are actually the names of other deities. Dever is a bit obscure, but Reshef is not. From tablets of Ebla, we learn about various deities, this includes Dever but more specifically we learn that Reshef was the patron saint of Shechem an important city of the northern kingdom of Israel.
So we have something very similar to the verse in Deuteronomy from last week, although this time instead of God having along with him his consort Asherah, possibly included by her devotees, here God has in tow the patron deity of the northern city in a clearly subservient role.
Reinforcing the Polytheistic Roots
This post is just one in many ideas that support the hypothesis that Judaism started out as polytheistic and then gradually moved to a religion where their God was the chief god and the only one worth worshipping, until finally ending up in the theological ideas we know today where God is the only god, period. In this last stage those roles previously filled by other gods were now filled by subservient angels and messengers, as well as natural processes without their own agency.