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Response to Jim Tweed Review

My thanks to Jim Tweed for writing this good critical review of my book. It’s really a breath of fresh air to me, because the vast majority of critical reviews have so distorted my arguments that it’s nice to see a reviewer who, while disagreeing with my conclusions, still takes care to describe them accurately. Tweed’s summary of my overall argument is pretty good.

I also thank Tweed for taking the time in his review to point out the parts of my argument he thought were successful, specifically, he thinks my arguments against CSBI inerrancy and their hermeneutic of convenience were successful.

Of course, Tweed goes on to state that he was not convinced by most of my arguments, but he only engages one of them in his review, namely, my argument in the fourth chapter on polytheism in the Hebrew Bible. He believes that by exposing the serious problems with my argument here, he will have shown that the remainder of my arguments cannot be taken as seriously.

Unfortunately, Thom’s affable style is perhaps too breezy, particularly in the first few chapters of the book (and also in the meatier middle chapters) he regularly develops his own arguments just enough so as to complete them by citing the relevant critical consensus, and since he seldom (if ever) critically engages that consensus one slowly gets the sense that Thom is uncritically employing that consensus in his arguments.

Either that, or in these particular cases I am in agreement with the consensus.

This isn’t helpful because those who will be most challenged by this book will rightly suspect that Thom is replacing one kind of authority with another when it comes to interpreting their scriptures (i.e. that of the critical consensus).

This strikes me as ludicrous. The only hermeneutical authority I recognize is reason.

It also isn’t helpful for those of us who want to evaluate the success of Thom’s arguments as he does not interact much with those scholars whose analysis is significantly different from his own (the notable exception of Wright in Ch. 8 notwithstanding); rather, the only opposing arguments that he does regularly engage with are the soft balls pitched by inerrantists.

Well, first of all, my book is an argument against inerrancy; hence all the engagement with inerrantists. Second, in many cases, virtually the only people disagreeing with the position I’m arguing are the inerrantists (e.g., the David and Goliath legend). Third, it is simply not the case that my engagement with Wright is “the notable exception.” I engage extensively with several scholars in my chapter on the Canaanite genocides, for instance.

Also Thom’s prescription for reading the more problematic parts of scripture as “condemned texts” must also be judged as inadequate for the reason that it misses the point of why many protestant Christians hold to the CSBI doctrine of inerrancy in the first place. The reason being that such a doctrine serves as a kind of epistemological foundation for the purposes of deriving Christian doctrine from Christian scripture.

I missed no such point; I explicitly addressed this point in my final chapter, at some length. It’s precisely the assumption of the need to make such an epistemological foundation out of scripture that came under my fire in the concluding chapter.

to wit, if our texts are a reasonable approximation of what inerrantists claim to be inerrant texts then it follows that the task of deriving Christian doctrine from these texts can for the most part be reduced to that of interpreting the texts we do have, which is a difficult enough task in its own right. If Thom wants inerrantists to adopt a lower view of their scriptures then he needs to show how they can do so while still recovering those doctrines that are most essential to the faith.

I’m not sure why I need to do this, other than that Tweed has asserted this is what I need to do.

On the other hand, if Thom feels that the whole task of deriving Christian doctrine from Christian scripture is misguided in the first place then he needs to explain why that is so as well.

I think this is imbalanced. At any rate, my job wasn’t to provide a sure way to find “right” Christian doctrine in scripture. That’s not my approach, as Tweed should know since he’s read my book.

The remainder of Tweed’s review engages on section of my fourth chapter—the section on the Song of Moses, specifically the interpretation of Deut 32:8-9.

Thom interprets vv. 8-9 as an etiological narrative that describes the head god of the divine council, Elyon, giving his sons responsibility for governing the different nations as tutelary deities and that Yahweh (the God of Israel) is depicted as being but one of Elyon’s sons who receives governance of Israel from Elyon so that not only is Yahweh not unique as one of the sons of Elyon but that he is not even the head god of the divine council.

A basically accurate summary. Except that I would clarify that my argument is not that Yahweh is not “unique,” per se. Rather, simply that Yahweh is not species unique here.

Needless to say, this interpretation couldn’t be more inconsistent with Christians who confess that Yahweh is the only such god of his kind and that there is no other god greater than him.

I suppose not, at least, if one is an inerrantist. If one is not an inerrantist, then the consensus reading of this text doesn’t stand in the way at all of the Christian confession of Yahweh as the only true God who is species unique.

Thom arrives at this conclusion by saying that Elyon must be considered separate from Yahweh in vv. 8-9 for the following two reasons (see pg. 73n6):

(1) It is said that Yahweh is given an inheritance. A father does not give an inheritance to himself, but to his child.

(2) The text says that Elyon divided up mankind according to number of his children, not according to the number of his children plus himself. Thus, Yahweh is portrayed here as the son of Elyon.

It needs to be pointed out that the one argument Tweed chose to engage in his review is an argument I made in a footnote. The purpose here was not to make an extensive argument, but to summarize the consensus reading, with which I am in agreement. As it happens, I have defended this reading at considerable length here on humanfacesofgod.com.

Let’s assess Thom’s arguments. The problem with his first argument is that nowhere in the text is Yahweh said to be given an inheritance, it is only said that “Yahweh’s portion is his people” and that “Jacob [is] his measured possession,” neither of which mean that Yahweh was given “his people” or “Jacob.”

Tweed’s contention here is absolutely incorrect. The text reads, “Jacob is his allotted inheritance.” The word used for “inheritance” here is nachalah. It is the same root used in v. 8 when the text says that Elyon “gave the nations their inheritance” (the verb is nachal). Nachalah, the noun form of the verb (“to inherit”) is used over two hundred times in the Hebrew Bible, and in all but a small few of those instances, its meaning is unequivocally “inheritance” or (in a few cases) “gift.” While it can at times be translated possession, what Tweed fails to mention/realize is that a nachalah is a possession that is given by means of inheritance. Here are some examples where its meaning is unequivocally “inheritance”: Gen 31:14; 48:6; Num 16:14; 18:20-21; 18:23-24; 18:26; 26:53-54; 26:56; 26:62; 27:7-11; 32:18-19; 32:32; 33:54; 34:2; 34:14-15; 35:2; 35:8; 36:2-4; 36:7-9; 36:12; Deut 3:28; 4:21; 4:38; 10:9; 12:9; 12:12; 14:27; 14:29; 15:4; 18:1-2; 19:14; 20:16; 29:8; over forty times throughout Joshua; Judg 2:6; 2:9; 18:1; 21:23-24; Ruth 4:5-6; 4:10; 2 Sam 20:1; 1 Kgs 8:36; 12:16; 21:3-4; 1 Chron 16:18; 2 Chron 6:27; 10:16; Neh 11:20; Job 20:29; 27:13; 42:15; Ps 2:8; 16:6; 47:4; 78:55; 105:11; 135:12; 136:21-22; Prov 17:2; 19:14; 20:21; Eccl 7:11; Isa 49:8; 54:17; 58:14; Jer 3:19; 17:4; Lam 5:2; Ezek 44:28; Ezek 45:1; 46:16-18; 47:14; 47:22-23; 48:29; Mal 1:3.

Moreover, in the Ugaritic texts (texts Tweed will himself mention later), the sons of God (i.e., junior deities of the pantheon) are also said to have been given “peoples” as their inheritance (nachalah; same word).

So much for Tweed’s objection to my first argument. Now his objection to my second argument:

The problem with his second argument is that it implicitly assumes that the reference to “the nations” and/or “the peoples” following the separation of the sons of Adam in v. 8 must also include the nation Israel. In fact, the writer/redactor of Deuteronomy was quite capable of referring to all the nations and/or all the peoples with the nation of Israel implicitly understood as not being counted among them (Deut 26:19; 28:1, 10, 64; 29:24).

This objection misses the mark. The author/redactor of Deuteronomy was not the author of this Song. This Song is one of the earliest compositions in the Hebrew Bible, predating the composition of the book of Deuteronomy by about three or four centuries. So what the author/redactor of Deuteronomy says about the nations is moot. This is a mistake Tweed will make time and again in his critique.

Tweed writes:

So much for Thom’s arguments, but are there good reasons for identifying Elyon with Yahweh in vv. 8-9? Yes there are! Consider the following:

We will consider the following, and show why each of Tweed’s arguments is based on poor assumptions about the composition of this text:

(1) At the very least the writer/redactor of Deuteronomy that put the work in its final form believed that Yahweh was for all intents and purposes the most high god in Deut 10:17 (“Yahweh your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God”). Therefore, it seems unlikely that we would find any tradition in Deuteronomy that represents Yahweh as something other than the most high god.

Of course the author/redactor of Deuteronomy believes that Yahweh was the Most High. Tweed ought to have noted that this fact is part and parcel of my argument in chapter four. By the time Deuteronomy was composed, Yahweh was already considered to be the Most High God. Tweed’s objection that “it seems unlikely” that the author would include a heterodox tradition in his composition misunderstands the distinction scholars make between a diachronic and a synchronic reading of a text. The diachronic reading of a text seeks to understand what the different compositions in a given text would have meant as they were originally composed. The synchronic reading of a text seeks to understand how those parts are woven together to form a coherent new composition, giving each part often a new meaning. The reading of Deuteronomy 32 I offered in my book was obviously the diachronic reading, not the synchronic. The synchronic reading is obvious. Nevertheless, the fact that the Masoretes (or some earlier scribes whose recension was preserved by the Masoretes) felt the need to change v.8 from “sons of El” to “sons of Israel” probably indicates that the original language was still considered problematic in a stanchly monotheistic context. At the time Deuteronomy was put together, however, monotheism as we know it now was not yet full grown in Israel’s theology.

(2) Yahweh is said to be the one who “created”, “made” and “established” Israel in v. 6, which is hardly consistent with a reading of vv. 8-9 that understands Yahweh to be one of Elyon’s sons who merely receives Israel from his father Elyon.

This is false. All tribal deities were thought to be the “creators” of their peoples. The word “create” just means “fashion,” “shape,” i.e., out of raw materials. For instance, in Numbers 21:29, the Moabites are said to be the sons and daughters of their deity Chemosh. The idea is that all such deities guided and protected their peoples from infancy to full-blown nationhood. The Code of Hammurabi, again, identifies several junior deities who are said to have “laid the foundations” of their respective nations. This is the same sense in which it is said that Yahweh “created,” “made,” and “established” Israel.

(3) It cannot be the case that Israel is one of the nations in v. 8 because its “boundaries” cannot be “established” as being “separate” from the nations whose lands Israel dispossessed (cf. Deut 4:38; 9:1). In other words, since the task of establishing separate boundaries for Israel and the other nations that Israel displaced is not possible it follows that Israel cannot be one of the nations in v. 8. But since Israel belongs to Yahweh that means Yahweh cannot be one of the sons of Elyon to whom the nation of Israel is not given, which means that Yahweh must be Elyon by process of elimination.

This is a pedantic objection that presses this non-historical, etiological myth for chronological consistency. At the time this was written, Israel was already long established in their territory. New nations were regularly coming up and other nations were disappearing. There is no specific set number of nations here in this text. Moreover, as Paul Sanders shows, it is the peoples, not the land, that are given as an inheritance to the gods. The setting of the myth is, as all scholars recognize, at the dawn of history, before any of these nations had yet come into existence. As such, pointing out that Israel came to its land late means nothing, since at the time the myth is set, no nation yet occupied their land. We’ll talk more about this when Tweed brings up the Table of Nations in Genesis 10.

(4) Yahweh is frequently and explicitly identified with Elyon in the Hebrew Bible (Gen 14:22; Ps 7:17; 9:1-2; 18:13; 21:7; 46:1-7; 47:2; 50:14; 73:11; 77:10-11; 78:17; 83:18; 87:5-6; 91:9; 92:1; 97:9; 107:11) and is also distinguished from the sons of God in Job 1:6. If at least one of these traditions are in continuity with vv. 8-9 then it follows that Yahweh must be identified with Elyon here as well.

This argument completely ignores the point made by the consensus that Deuteronomy 32 is a very early text, predating all of the texts Tweed cites by centuries. By the time those texts were written, yes, Yahweh was identified as El Elyon. But Tweed here ignores that that’s part and parcel of my argument, and of the consensus position. Israel’s theology evolved, so that by the time these texts were written, Yahweh was seen as head of the pantheon. In short, this argument does not at all address my own, and my position is perfectly consistent with all these data.

(5) In the Ugaritic tradition that is paralleled by vv. 8-9 El is the father of 70 sons. Furthermore, the only other reference to the separation (parad) of the nations is in Gen 10, which lists the sons of Adam as separating into 70 different nations after the flood following their dispersal by Yahweh at the tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9), suggesting that the number of Elyon’s sons in v. 8 is 70.

This suggests no such thing. The Table of 70 Nations in Genesis 10 is dated by scholars to about the seventh century BCE. There are nations listed there that weren’t yet even in existence at the time of the composition of Deuteronomy 32. There is no reference to the 70 nations in Deuteronomy 32. If the Ugaritic tradition is in the background, we have no reason whatsoever to think that Israel is not considered to be one of them at this early period. Tweed is doing the very non-historical-grammatical hermeneutics that he says I successfully exposed in the work of the Chicago inerrantists.

He continues:

Moreover, the later MT reading of v. 8 also identifies the sons of Elyon as being 70 in number by playing off a tradition that understood 70 people from the house of Israel as entering Egypt before the Exodus. Therefore, it is almost certainly case that Elyon has 70 sons in v. 8 who are each given a nation, hence 70 nations. Now, the only part of the Hebrew Bible that lists these nations is in Gen 10, which doesn’t list the nation of Israel, suggesting that the nation of Israel was not counted among the nations in v. 8 (cf. Num 23:9). In sum, Israel cannot be one of the nations in v. 8 as the separation of the nations that is recounted in v. 8 took place during a time before which Israel even began to exist as a nation according to the biblical tradition in Gen 10. However, if Israel is not one of the nations in v. 8 then Yahweh cannot be one of the sons of Elyon by the same argument used in (3).

As Tweed well knows, the MT reading is not the original, and we know this by comparing the DSS recension to the LXX reading. Moreover, not even the MT (as Tweed claims) identifies the number 70. It reads, “according to the number of the sons of Israel.” This could refer to 70, or to 12, or may not be specific at all, but at any rate it is moot, because we know that this was a change made by the Masoretes. The original text reads, “according to the number of the sons of El,” which is a reference to the junior members of the divine pantheon. Genesis 10 does not shed light on Deut 32:8-9 because it was composed several centuries later, and several of the seventy nations identified in Genesis 10 did not yet exist at the time the verses in question were composed.

To sum up, Jim Tweed has chosen one of my arguments (one which I made briefly in a footnote) to use as an example to his readers that my arguments in general are not persuasive. Unfortunately, all of Tweed’s objections and criticisms are either factually incorrect or ignore the actual argument I’m making. Much of the data he cites against my position, I myself cite, and they do not in fact challenge my position. Tweed simply doesn’t seem to understand the way that scholars address these texts in terms of provenance, composition, and the like.

At any rate, my thanks to Jim Tweed for his courteous engagement.