Let the Reader Understand: Richard Hess and Deut 32

In my review of Paul Copan’s book, I critiqued Richard Hess for offering a tendentious presentation of the textual data on Deut 32:8-9. He responded saying that I misrepresented him from his book Israelite Religions when I failed to mention that he agrees with Mark S. Smith on the interpretation of the text. I responded saying that I’m not at all sure that I did misrepresent him, since he disagrees with Mark S. Smith on the interpretation of the text. Then I responded again further explaining why I think Hess’s presentation was tendentious.

Meanwhile, Hodge and I were having a great discussion in the comment thread here, and Hodge suggested a way in which Hess’s statement that he agreed with Smith’s interpretation might be true:

I, of course, cannot speak for Hess; but . . . when I say “prehistory” [of the text], I am referring to all of the history of the song [of Moses]–from the origins of certain components in the Ugaritic material through the pre-uses in Israelite culture on up to its placement into the text of Deuteronomy. My use of the phrase “current context” is meant to refer to its interpretation within the context of the Book of Deuteronomy and within the DH as a whole. As such, it would be odd to argue, in my opinion, that Deuteronomy is teaching the idea that the tradition once taught [Yahweh as a second-tier deity], especially since one can argue that the DH was polemical against that tradition [polytheism]. The issue is one of employing a diachronic method versus a synchronic one. I think your statement that “the most plausible reading is informed by what precedes the text, and not by the ideas that are evident in later periods” evidences a commitment to the diachronic above the synchronic (something that many scholars need to work through as well). The synchronic is superior for understanding the text as it functions in the Book of Deuteronomy and even within the larger DH. The diachronic is a matter of understanding a text’s history, but has little, if any, use in understanding the present context. I know you know this already, but knowing and applying are two different things; and although most scholars know this, they are awful at applying it (or at least stating their purposes in reconstructing the history). So I do think that Hess is likely agreeing with Smith in terms of Smith’s data. I don’t think he agrees that the diachronic interpretation and the synchronic interpretation is the same one. Hence, the confusion. This is only my guess.

In the end, you may be right and Hess should have been more clear if this is the case. I don’t fault you for asking him to clarify, as by not clarifying, it is confusing (I would argue more so to the scholar than to the novice, since scholars have a hard time making this distinction themselves). Hence, does the song assume the existence of other deities [rather, the sonship of Yahweh to Elyon]? Sure. But, again, does Deuteronomy that now employs the song for its purposes assume the same? That is a matter of interpretation that will largely depend upon one’s presupps about the text (i.e., whether it teaches there are other gods or uses this understanding of the world as language to communicate something else that would be more consistent with the larger work–e.g., Hess’s understanding that it is monotheistic).

This is a very useful analysis of the situation, and speaks to a likelihood that I articulated in my last post on this subject. Hess may agree with Smith that the original composition of the Song of Moses reflected a tradition in which Yahweh was a son of Elyon (the diachronic reading); whereas, Hess wishes to privilege the understanding of the Song of Moses as it would have been understood either (a) within the composition of Deuteronomy as a whole or (b) within the final canon. Clearly by the time the canon came to a rough formation (it’s anachronistic to speak this way, but it’ll do), Israel was monotheistic.

Smith and Rollston and others argue that Israel became properly monotheistic at about the time of the Babylonian exile in the sixth century. I argued this as well in Human Faces. Daniel McClellan (as well as an increasing number of scholars) on the other hand argues that Israel only became properly monotheistic (i.e., denying the existence of other gods) at about the time of the translation of the LXX. On this reading, the statements in Jeremiah 10 and Second Isaiah that appear to have a monotheistic tenor are not in fact. Rather, they present a polemical and intentionally caricatured view of other national deities, but they would not in fact reflect the rejection of the existence of such deities. While Jeremiah 10 is harder to dispense with, since it speaks of the deities as merely fashioned by human hands, other statements such as that “there is no other God besides me” aren’t evidence of monotheism, since the same sort of statement is made in the Song of Moses! But as Michael Heiser has rightly argued, this was merely idiomatic for superiority. In Isa 47:8, for instance, Babylon says of itself, “I am, and there is no one else besides me.” In Zeph 2:15, Ninevah says the same thing of itself. This doesn’t mean that Babylon and Ninevah are claiming to be the only cities in existence; it’s idiomatic for superiority over all others of their kind. I am leaning toward McClellan’s position on the timeline of the emergence of monotheism proper, though I think that, clearly, we can’t mark a clean break from polytheism (not to be confused with polyatry) to monotheism, and no doubt the shift was represented in certain groups before others.

Anyway, that is to say that I don’t think we could identify Deuteronomy as “monotheistic” until some significant time after its completion; its meaning would have changed with those who read it. But we can state that by the time of the general formation of a basic “canon” of Hebrew scriptures, certainly the Song of Moses would have been read within a canonical framework of monotheism.

This is obviously what Smith argues (the LXX translated beney ha elohim as angeloi theou), and perhaps this is the picture with which Hess agrees.

I think we’ve all acknowledged both the diachronic and synchronic realities here. That’s the point Smith and Rollston and Day and others are making when they argue that the earlier theology came to be conformed to monotheism in the translation of the LXX.

What I still find obfuscating, however, is Hess’s presentation in his article on Craig’s website. If Hess is aware of this (as he clearly is), then his failure to fully explicate this is inexplicable, as is his choice to privilege the later, monotheistic MT reading (“sons of Israel”) over that of the DSS, which is clearly the vorlage to the LXX (especially if, as Hodge has it, we can go ahead and read the 4QDeut reading as monotheistic anyway since it’s set within the context of a monotheistic canon that is presupposed to be inerrant/inspired). And that Hess’s discussion made no mention of the disparity between the two traditions, and in fact had the sense that the LXX reading should be discounted, seems further to be problematic in light of the fact that the question posed to Hess, by a non-specialist, was asking specifically about the reading found in the DSS. The questioner did not know the reading came from the DSS, and Hess didn’t see fit to point that out, but only remarked that that reading is “not in the Hebrew.” Hess responded to me that earlier he said, “the Hebrew as we have it,” but this seems disingenuous or at the least careless: (1) even if the specialist knew what Hess meant by “as we have it,” the non-specialist questioner almost certainly didn’t; (2) the NRSV and other major translations seem fairly clearly to think that the reading in 4QDeut certainly qualifies as “the Hebrew as we have it,” since they used the earlier tradition in the body of their translation. I think Hess’s presentation muddles things up, and has the effect of causing the questioner to believe that there’s no good basis for the “sons of the gods” reading. Further, as noted in a previous post, the fact that Hess in this article dispenses with the distinction between Elyon and Yahweh by reference to the MT reading is quite problematic.

If Hess does have in mind a distinction between the diachronic and synchronic meanings, there are some questions: Why must the synchronic be privileged? Critical scholars recognize these distinctions but not many feel the need to privilege one over the other. The decision to do that is motivated solely by a faith commitment. For critical scholars, both are equally valuable, because they both give us bread crumbs along the trail of Israel’s theological development, from a very early period, to a very late one. Moreover, even if Hess wishes to privilege a monotheistic reading, why choose the MT over the obviously earlier one? We don’t know the exact provenance of the MT reading, but it’s very probably later even than the LXX translation. I fail to understand why the ordinary principles of textual criticism don’t apply to Hess’s online article.

As for Hodge’s mention of presuppositions, this is very relevant. Hodge rightly makes it clear that the monotheistic tradition is privileged by those who hold a presupposition of biblical inspiration. My guiding presupposition, on the other hand, is simply that the text may potentially be understood by use of a certain set of historical and philological tools. I lack a presupposition about the inerrancy or inspiration of the text. Any given text may be true or false, or some shade in between. It may be divinely inspired, or it may not be, but I don’t think anyone thinks that last question is something that can be determined by historical methodologies. Because I lack a presupposition about the inerrancy of the text, I do not require it to mean one thing rather than another in order to comport with my beliefs. A text may or may not be polytheistic or monotheistic; one has to let the evidence be finally determinative.

Finally, my presupposition does not require me to privilege the synchronic reading over the diachronic (or vice versa). I want to understand both, and let both stand. I think that it is wrong, even for one who believes in inspiration, to privilege the synchronic over the diachronic, as I’ve articulated (using less technical language) in the ninth and tenth chapters of Human Faces. As one who is open to hearing scripture as a conduit for the voice of God, I do not presuppose that God’s voice will only manifest in one (later) stratum, rather than another (earlier) stratum. I do not presuppose that the final redactors were necessarily more inspired (on any particular point or on all points) than the composers of their source material. And I see no compelling reason why I should privilege the voice of the final redactor over any number of voices prior. Let God speak where God will, and as and through whom God chooses, be it Qohelet or Balaam’s ass or whomever. The struggle to figure out which voice is God’s is what makes us the kind of listeners potentially capable of truly hearing God, and if we must arbitrarily impose a certain point in time during the long history of the Bible’s composition at which point it finally became inspired, and in doing so effectively silence dissenting voices in scripture by conforming them to the redactors’ and/or canonizers’ particular perspectives, then we’ve failed to see the true nature and value of our scriptures: they are an argument that models for us what it means to wrestle with God, and thus what it truly means to be Israel.

So let the texts that agree agree, and let the texts that disagree disagree, and let the reader understand.

4 thoughts on “Let the Reader Understand: Richard Hess and Deut 32

  1. Paige,

    Thanks very much for linking to this. I am not aware of a direct response to Heiser’s online article, but I will write one. I’ve read it, as well as Bauckham’s comments on the text. Bauckham displays a good deal of misunderstanding, and Heiser’s article is riddled with errors, and misrepresentation of the scholarship he is critiquing. I’ll try to have something written up soon, to show why Heiser’s argument only seems strong if one isn’t already familiar with the literature he’s engaging.

    Thanks again.

  2. Thanks Thom. When you get something written, I’d like to read it. I see that Heiser’s paper quotes Mark Smith, who was one of the presenters at a recent SBL International Session on Monotheism.

    I’d really like to understand it all; and when I read Heiser’s comment that charges those who take a position opposite his as distorting the evidence, I wonder just who is guilty of distortion.

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