Many people think that the authors of the Hebrew Bible believed in a single deity. However, certain passages seem to describe the presence of other divine beings working alongside the main deity, which leads to an apparent paradox: Did the ancient Israelites believe in a council of gods?
What is a Divine Council?
At its most simplistic, a divine council is a gathering of gods. It is a governing body that is convened to make decisions or act in specific circumstances. It has been notoriously difficult to provide a more precise definition because the phrase divine council does not occur in all texts depicting an assembly of gods. Accordingly, one must first examine texts that explicitly narrate a divine council. One can then compile common features of those texts. These features can be used to evaluate other texts that implicitly involve a divine council. Naturally, there is a difference of opinion as to which features are definitive and which texts qualify as divine council texts. Nevertheless, there is a core set of ancient Near Eastern texts that are practically undisputed.
Divine council scenes always contain more than one deity, a formal setting, a judgment, and legal language. A conversation between two or more gods does not suffice, since a divine council must have a clearly established hierarchy. The council is not a democracy. Instead, it is under the direction of the most powerful god in attendance. A good example comes from a collection of texts excavated in Ugarit (Ras Shamra, modern day Syria). These texts detail an Ugaritic pantheon with four clear tiers. On the top tier are the parent gods, El and Asherah. Below them are those gods known as the great gods, including Baal, Anat, and Mot. The remaining gods fit into two lower tiers: gods who specialize in a certain trade or craft and messengers. Since the ancient Israelites were undoubtedly influenced by the Canaanites, these texts from Ugarit provide a significant point of comparison to the biblical text. Similar divine councils can be found in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Canaan, Phoenicia, and Greece.
Did Yahweh have a divine council?
Divine councils also appear in the Hebrew Bible. For example, God, the Most High (literally El Elyon), is said to have a divine council in Deut 32:8 (see also Ps 82:1). There are also six passages in the Old Testament that present the workings of Yahweh’s Council (1Kgs 22:19–23; Job 1:6–12; 2:1–7; Isa 6; Zech 3; Dan 7). The four-tier structure found in other ancient Near Eastern texts is absent from the Hebrew Bible. Some scholars maintain that an elaborate divine hierarchy was erased during Israel’s transition to monotheism; the idea is that the ancient Israelites initially had many gods (polytheism), then worshiped Yahweh exclusively (monolatry), and finally believed in Yahweh as the only true God (monotheism). Such an evolutionary process is difficult to maintain, since these texts explicitly reference deities other than Yahweh. The texts also come from different dates, and some of the later texts detail a heavily populated heaven. The authors of the Hebrew Bible are known to have adapted historical legends so that these traditions better fit their theology. The Bible depicts Yahweh as a relational being, demonstrated by both God’s desire to be in covenant with Israel and in discussing cosmic affairs with other divine beings. At the same time, the Hebrew Bible also presents Yahweh as an all-powerful king (e.g., Isa 44:6; Ps 99), and so the gods in Yahweh’s council must be presented as demonstrably weaker. Additionally, the divine council, despite its grandiosity, often mirrors the human, royal court familiar to the biblical authors. This means that the biblical authors combined their theological reflections with their personal experience of royalty to develop the depictions of the divine council in the Bible.
Image Credit: Figurine of the Canaanite deity El. Late Bronze II (1400-1200 BCE). Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.