Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 6 (2006-2007) - Review

David Penchansky, Twilight of the Gods: Polytheism in the Hebrew Bible (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005). Pp. xii + 108. Paper, US$19.95. ISBN 0-664-22885-2.

This is an ambitious book, in that the author ventures to introduce the complex and arcane subject of divine plurality in Israelite religion to the lay reader. Any time a scholar endeavors to present the knotty details of his or her discipline to the uninitiated, the outcome will understandably suffer the pitfalls of generalization and simplification. This is certainly the case here, but there are greater concerns.

Positively, the strength of the book is its coverage. In scarcely 100 pages, Penchansky covers Israel's divine council, conceptions of divine action and oversight, aniconism, and the Israelite goddess question (Wisdom, Asherah, Zion). In the course of this survey, students are introduced to most of the relevant passages that contribute to these subjects. The reader is therefore forced to look more closely at content far too easily glossed over without guidance from someone skilled in biblical Hebrew. Penchansky's prose is appropriate for the audience, so that the book provides a readable introduction to the fact that the writers of the Hebrew Bible assumed the existence of other gods, and so the subject of Israelite monotheism must be reassessed.

As noted above, I feel no need to quibble about the book's lack of detail (as compared to a more academic introduction, e.g., M. S. Smith, An Early History of God, second ed.). However, in my opinion, virtually every chapter of Penchansky's book is marred by arguments uncritically constructed via unproven assumptions, mischaracterization of textual content, and glaring transcription errors. A number of examples could be cited for each criticism, but what follows are the more bothersome.

First, throughout the book it is assumed that Yahweh and El (Elyon) were separate deities. Many scholars would agree, but the basis for this, if one looks to the final form of the canonical text and not hypothetically reconstructed tradition strands, is suspect. Penchansky derives his position from Deut 32:8-9, which many scholars take as a statement that Elyon (=El) distributed the nations among his sons, one of whom was Yahweh, who wound up with Israel as his inheritance.

This position is common, but there are notable problems with it, none of which are mentioned by Penchansky. For example, the immediately preceding verses (Deut. 32:6-7) contain no less than five philological clues (epithets, vocabulary shared with Ugaritic descriptions of El) left by the redactor that identify Yahweh with El. It is widely accepted in the field of Israelite religion that Asherah, the consort of El at Ugarit, became the consort of Yahweh by the 8th century B.C.E. If this be the case, then Yahweh had to have been identified with El by that time, more than a century before the accepted composition of Deuteronomy. The identification of Yahweh and El in Deut. 32:6-7 makes complete sense in this light. But why would the redactor then revert to dissociating Yahweh and El in the next two verses? Lastly, in Deut. 4:19-20, in a passage considered by all scholars of this subject matter to parallel explicitly Deut. 32:8-9, we read that it was Yahweh who allotted the nations and who took Israel as his own—precisely the opposite description put forth for Deut. 32:8-9 by Penchansky and others who want to see Yahweh and El as separate deities in that passage.

Second, the separation of Yahweh and El is crucial to the author's interpretation of divine plurality in Israelite religion. Penchansky readily uses terms like “polytheism” to categorize an Israelite religion that believed in a council of ‚ēlōhîm under Yahweh in Psalm 82. It is difficult to avoid using such terms since they are entrenched on our vocabulary, but in doing so, we impose 17th century vocabulary onto an ancient Semitic belief system (see N. McDonald, Deuteronomy and the Meaning of Monotheism [Mohr-Siebeck, 2003], 5-59). Many scholars have forsaken the term “polytheism” for more accurate nomenclature, such as “henotheism” and “monolatry,” recognizing that “polytheism” fails to do justice to the uniqueness and incomparability of Yahweh to the Israelites who edited the canonical text (and it is the canonical text upon which Penchansky focuses). But even these terms, though better, do not say enough. References to Yahweh strewn throughout the Hebrew Bible as hā‚êlōhîm or hā‚ēl (“the” God) and the claim that Yahweh (sans consort) was the lone, pre-existent creator of the other members of the heavenly host suggest that those who fashioned the canonical text considered Yahweh “species unique” and incomparable. Such an outlook means terms like “henotheism” and “monolatry” are imprecise, for neither henotheism nor monolatry suppose an ontologically incomparable or unique deity. What Israel believed about Yahweh is best described, not defined with inadequate modern terms. “Polytheism” fails to nuance the discussion in important ways.

Perhaps a more fruitful trajectory toward seeing Yahweh more “normal” in the canonical text is the account in 2 Kings 3 (esp. vv. 21-27). Penchansky takes the view that Yahweh here loses a battle to Chemosh when the king of Moab sacrifices his own son to move Chemosh to action. Many scholars object to this characterization of the text on the grounds that Amos 2:1 prompts the understanding that the king offered the Edomite co-regent, not his own son, thereby inciting Edomite rage against the Israelite army that allowed the tragedy to happen (see A. Rainey's discussion in A. Rainey and R. S. Notley, The Sacred Bridge: Carta's Atlas of the Biblical World [Jerusalem: Carta, 2006] 205). Amos 2:1 is never mentioned by Penchansky, who adds a good deal of melodramatic “reconstruction” that cannot be found in the narrative to make his interpretation come to life. The passage (v. 27) can be read as though Israel retreated under counter-attack after the sacrifice, but the text does not actually say this. In a like manner, we cannot know if Amos is specifically referring to the event in 2 Kings 3, but it is possible. The passage is ambiguous and therefore, the kind of weight the author assigns to it in support of his overall perspective of how divine plurality in the Hebrew Bible should be understood results in overstatement of the evidence.

Lastly, the book is riddled with Hebrew transcription errors. Examples include: ‚êlōhîm instead of the correct ‚ēlîm in Exod 15:11 (p. ix); bĕnê ‚elōhîm instead of bĕnê ha‚ĕlōhîm (eight times) in Gen 6:1, 4 (p. 25); and bĕnê ‚elōhîm instead of bĕnê ‚ēlîm in Ps 89:7 (v. 6 Engl.). There are also typographical errors for Deut 32:8 (“…the number of the gods [bĕnê Yiśrā‚ēl]…; p. ix.) and the spelling of haśśāṭān as hašaṭan (twice, p. 26). The editor and publisher may be culpable in these instances, but the frequency of such occurrences gives the impression of carelessness on the part of the author.

Despite my sympathy for the difficulty of such an undertaking and the obvious need for such a work, I sadly cannot recommend this book for either the classroom or the general reader. While the author succeeds in drawing attention to important texts and issues, the flaws in the presentation would result in more misunderstanding than clarity for lay readers.

Michael S. Heiser, Bellingham WA