Yes, Only One God
Dr. Victor Sasson
Elected Member of the Society
for Old Testament Study in Britain
As a specialist in Biblical Studies, I venture to intervene in what is basically a layman’s discussion (‘Only One God?’ – in The Scribe, no. 67). But before I proceed with a brief sketch on the topic, I would like to say that I find it incredible that this Babylonian Jewish journal should voice such sacrilege as plurality of gods. *
The word Elohim (a plural form of Eloah=a god) is sometimes used in its singular sense and sometimes in its plural sense. But it is quite clear that when Elohim is used of God the Creator or of the God of Israel (and here one must rely on context and syntax of the Hebrew text), it is used in its singular sense – that of one deity, one God.
El, Eloah, and Elohim are general, generic terms for a deity in the Hebrew Bible, and it is true that Elohim is also used in the sense of ‘gods’ and ‘angels’. El, in fact, was the name of the supreme, all-powerful deity in the Canaanite pantheon. We know this from Ugaritic texts, first discovered about seventy years ago. The term el can also signify ‘power, might’, as in the biblical Hebrew expression yesh la-el ya-di (=it is in my power).
One scholarly explanation that has been advanced as to why Elohim – a plural form – is used of God is this: in ancient Canaan a variety of gods with a variety of names were worshipped. The word Elohim possibly came to signify the totality of divine power and this was invested in the One, true God worshipped by the Israelites.
God in the Hebrew Bible is also called Shaddai, Almight. However, it must be remembered that the personal name of the God of the Israelites and of the Jews throughout the ages is YHWH – the Tetragrammaton. This is the God that we have been exhorted to worship. He is the El, Eloah, Elohim, and Shaddai – the Creator of the Universe. The vocalization of this name – as found in the Massoretic Hebrew Bible – is taken from the word Adonai(=’Lord’), but modern biblical scholarship recognises that this was not the original vocalization, which was lost. On the basis of some ancient, non-Jewish texts, some scholars think that we now have the original vocalization. While some scholars -- Jews and non-Jews – use this new vocalization, others do not use it. I myself do not vocalize the Name in my own published scholarly research. The Dead Sea Scrolls use the Tetragrammaton, YHWH, whenever Adonai is mentioned in a particular text. There the Name is written in ancient Hebrew script (not the so-called square script), and is left unvocalized. In the Hebrew Bible the word Elohim is sometimes combined with YHWH, and that gives us YHWH Elohim= Adonai God= The Lord God.
The idea of plurality of gods that was voiced in The Scribe smacks of pagan pantheons. Biblical scholars recognise that the Hebrews in ancient Israel borrowed some concepts and practices from their Canaanite neighbours. However, as the centuries passed on, and as our Hebrew prophets spoke – sometimes at the risk of their own lives – some fundamental changes took place. Our ancestors saw light shed on the true significance of their religious concepts and their ritual. But the struggle was long and the cost in lives and suffering was enormous. The contest between Elijah the Prophet and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (First Book of Kings, chapter 18) is well known. I suspect that had Naim Dangoor lived during the times of Elijah, he would have sided with the prophets of Baal (although I do not suppose he would have danced around to awaken the pagan god from his slumber). For, surely, he is not advocating a return to primitive religion, or to the Dark Ages? – Or, indeed, is he? Worse, he is giving fuel to Christians and their missionaries who are always trying to convert Jews, claiming that God is a three-person deity (the trinity). Do we need to add Jewish nonsense to this Christian nonsense? Don’t we have enough on our hands dealing with ‘Jews for Jesus’? The biblical reference mentioned by The Scribe (Genesis 3:22) is only one of the scriptural references used by the Christians in their efforts to obliterate our religion. In an earlier issue N.D. mentions some of those other references and makes the incredible statement that they were fulfilled in Christendom! Is this not an insult to our prophets and saints who gave their lives to perfect and preserve our religion?
As is well known, Muslims have completely renounced the idea of plurality of Gods. The Quran is quite emphatic about this fundamental point that God does not beget, nor is He begotten, clearly refuting Christian claims. Maimonides (Ibn Maimon) was very particular to emphasize this important tenet of our faith. The Scribe is doing disservice in that it can confuse or mislead the average Jewish Babylonian reader.
Finally, in this day and age of intensive and exciting research in the fields of Hebrew Bible and Semitic languages, the era of pseudo-Biblical scholarship and fanciful theological philosophizing is gone for ever. Few readers will write and criticise. Those that do not do so, will smile and shake their heads. Several oral responses that reached me from some quarters are highly critical.
To serve the multi-faceted congregations of Babylonian Jewry throughout the world, the Scribe would do well to devote its precious pages to cultural issues exclusively. It has done good work in that regard – and even there the democratic principle should never be lost sight of. But it should shun political and theological issues, for these have been treated either one-sidedly, superficially, misguidedly, or wrongly. Personal observations on politics and theology are best preserved in a book of memoirs or biography. The Scribe – although we appreciate is distributed free to individuals and communities far and wide – should not be exploited as a vehicle for all sorts of propaganda or personal aggrandizement. It should faithfully and honestly – and, of course, democratically – reflect our Jewish Babylonian heritage.
*This article was submitted to The Scribe and was published, in a deliberately mutilated form, by Naim Dangoor in no. 68 (1997), without consulting this author on any point raised in the article. A rebuttal to his lengthy and irrelevant response (published in that same issue) will soon follow.