Michael Heiser: A Unique Species?

A commenter on Michael Heiser’s blog asked him what he thought of my critique of his essay on Psalm 82 and Deuteronomy 32. Here is Heiser’s response, from last night:

What do I think? Honestly, not much. Yahwism operated on a continuum. Stark and others must presume that this continuum didn’t include anything that would approximate a species-unique view of Yahweh. Good luck – maybe time travel would help. So, since we have evidence that some people *didn’t* view Yahweh as species unique that means no one did? How the heck would we know. This is just fundamentalism (no gray areas). I’m arguing that there were all sorts of positions, and that one of those is reflected by biblical writers. And that they could and did presume Yahweh was unique. What’s the big deal (I suspect I know, but I’ll leave that to readers).

This response is, to be charitable, hilarious. (This presumes Heiser was trying to be funny.) Let’s break it down.

“Yahwism operated on a continuum.” Agreed.

“Stark and others must presume that this continuum didn’t include anything that would approximate a species-unique view of Yahweh.” This is incorrect. Stark and others make no such presumption. In fact, despite the strangeness of referring to the Judeo-Christian god as a “species,” Stark and others do in fact believe that some Yahwists believed that Yahweh was a kind all to his own. It’s just that we see no evidence that such a view is reflected in the Bible until at earliest the seventh century, and at latest the third century BCE. (I lean toward the seventh or sixth.) If there were evidence for “species uniqueness” in earlier texts, then Stark (at least) would love to see it. I’ll discuss this more below.

“So, since we have evidence that some people *didn’t* view Yahweh as species unique that means no one did? How the heck would we know.”

Precisely. We can only state what the texts tell us. So why does Heiser try to state more than the texts tell us? Why does he attribute a “species unique” view of Yahweh to texts in which that idea is not at all apparent?

“This is just fundamentalism (no gray areas).” This is just plain old fashioned posturing. Stark and others would not claim that nobody in earlier periods might have believed Yahweh was a unique class of divinity all to himself. Stark and others just see no evidence to substantiate this claim. Thus, we follow the evidence until new evidence presents itself. But Heiser isn’t making a positive case from silence when he argues that early texts saw Yahweh as species unique. He’s just distorting the evidence that does exist to fit his own view. What is his view? (Next sentence.)

“I’m arguing that there were all sorts of positions, and that one of those is reflected by biblical writers.” Now it’s clear the presuppositions that are guiding Heiser’s interpretation of the texts. We all agree that there were “all sorts of positions.” For Heiser to claim that he thinks this while Stark and others do not is just pure sophistry. But the real revelation here is the second half of Heiser’s sentence. He argues that there were many positions, “and that one of those is reflected by biblical writers.” Are you following? Heiser’s position is that biblical writers have “one” position on Yahweh’s nature. See, this is a presupposition that critical scholars do not hold, and it is one that critical scholars do not hold precisely because such a presupposition is disconfirmed by the variety of views of Yahweh reflected by the various biblical writers. At most, Stark and others presuppose that not every biblical writer must have the same view of Yahweh. Some might, but others might not. We have to allow the data to inform us on this. But Heiser’s position is (as expected from someone from his background, and that is not an insult, just a sociological fact) that while there may have been significant divergences in Israel’s theology, there are no significant divergences in biblical theology, at least on the issue of Yahweh’s nature. So while Heiser is accusing Stark and others of fundamentalism for allowing each biblical writer to speak for himself, Heiser takes the position that “biblical writers” have “one” position.

“And that they could and did presume Yahweh was unique.” Stark and others agree with Heiser that they could presume Yahweh was unique. Stark and others agree with Heiser that some biblical writers did presume Yahweh was unique. But we do not presume that biblical writers had one position on this matter, and we find that the data indicate that among biblical writers, there was variation on this question. Stark and others suspect (given the evidence and the trajectory within the biblical corpus) that the idea of “species uniqueness” (which is itself etic not emic language) would have been less conceivable to earlier Israelites than it was to later Israelites and Judeans. But were new evidence to emerge showing that the idea of “species uniqueness” is clearly articulated in an Israelite inscription dating to, say, the tenth century, then no doubt the consensus would need to be revised. Absent this evidence, the consensus will stand despite Heiser’s attempts to paint Stark and others as fundamentalists.

“What’s the big deal (I suspect I know, but I’ll leave that to readers). [sic]” In other words, Heiser wants to imply that Stark and others can’t abide the idea of the biblical writers having a consistent picture of Yahweh as a species unique to himself because, well, because we’re liberals or something and that would threaten our happy, liberal existence, or something. He may be wise not to make clear what he “suspects he knows” about Stark and others that would explain why Stark and others can’t admit something for which there is no evidence, but sometimes there is a fine line between wisdom and cowardice.

Where is the evidence in texts predating the seventh century BCE that biblical writers viewed Yahweh as a species unique? Heiser wants to point us to incomparability language. But all such language is applied to numerous gods throughout the ancient Near East, and in no case does it amount to anything like a claim for “species uniqueness.” The incomparability language is applied to gods who are clearly still subordinate to other deities, higher gods, or their progenitors.

For instance, I mentioned that Shamash, while said to be without rival among the gods, is clearly subordinate to Sin, not to mention his mother Nannar. The same is true of Nanshe. Here is the text I cited in broader context:

My lady, your divine powers are mighty powers, surpassing all other divine powers; Nanshe, there are no divine powers matching your powers. An, the king, looks joyfully at you, as you sit with Enlil on the throne-dais where the fates are to be determined. Father Enki determined a fate for you. Nanshe, child born in Eridug, sweet is your praise.

Clearly Nanshe is not superior to Enlil, the king. Neither is she superior to Enki, her father, who “determined a fate” for Nanshe. In other words, Enki is the one who exalted her. She, along with Enlil, determines the fate of humankind, but her own fate is determined by a higher god, her father Enki. She reigns at the top of the second tier, but the higher gods remain in position above her.

Another example is Ishtar. The same hyperbolic language is used for her, but she is clearly subordinate to gods higher than she. Note:

I pray to thee, O Lady of ladies, goddess of goddesses.
O Ishtar, queen of all peoples, who guides mankind aright,
O Irnini ever exalted, greatest of the Igigi,
O most mighty of princesses, exalted is thy name.
Thou art indeed the light of heaven and earth,
O valiant daughter of Sin.
O supporter of arms, who determines battles,
O possessor of all divine power, who wears the crown of dominion,
O Lady, glorious is thy greatness; over all the gods it is exalted.
Anu, Enlil and Ea have made thee high; among the gods they have caused thy dominion to be great.
They have made thee high among all the Igigi; they have made thy position pre-eminent.

Once again, Ishtar is described as the greatest of all the gods, but this clearly does not include the higher gods Anu, Enlil, and Ea, who are the ones responsible for her exaltation. They established her preeminence. Clearly that her greatness is exalted “over all the gods” does not and cannot mean that it is exalted over the higher tier of deities, which would include also her father Sin.

As I stated in my original post, the language of incomparability applies to gods within one’s own tier, not to the higher gods. Thus, if Deut 32:8-9 does speak of Yahweh receiving his position from his father Elyon, then clearly 32:39 and other such statements would not be in conflict with Yahweh’s status as a subordinate to Elyon. Thus, the appeal to the incomparability language as an argument against the distinction between Yahweh and Elyon does not work.

But what is very obvious is that in nowise does any of this language constitute anything remotely like “species uniqueness.” Nowhere does the incomparability language imply that Ishtar, Nanshe, Shamash, etc., are somehow deities of a different kind altogether from the other gods. Each of these is in fact the direct progeny of higher gods. To posit “species uniqueness” here would be absurd, and this is the same language used of Yahweh, thus it is fallacious to attribute “species uniqueness” to him based on the same language.

That is why scholars like Stark and others (I say this in humor; really we should be citing Cross, Smith, Rollston, etc.) argue that there is no clear evidence for anything like “species uniqueness” until Jeremiah 10 and Isaiah 44 (seventh and sixth centuries respectively). In these texts, other national deities are ridiculed as being merely the products of human woodworkers, and not real deities at all. This may or may not be an intentionally hyperbolic polemic, but regardless, not until these texts do we get any indication that Yahweh is in a category all to himself. This kind of language does not appear in any of the earlier texts. Pointing to the standard ancient Near Eastern “incomparability” rhetoric as evidence for early species uniqueness in Israel is nothing more than special pleading. But this is exactly the kind of special pleading Heiser warns against in “Heiser’s Laws for Bible Study” (linked above). And I quote:

The Bible must be interpreted in context, and that context isn’t your own or that of your theological tradition; it is the context that produced it (ancient Near East / Mediterranean). Put another way, if you’re letting your theological tradition filter the Bible to you, you aren’t doing Bible study or exegesis.




11 thoughts on “Michael Heiser: A Unique Species?

  1. By the way, the picture from the inscription above is from Kuntillet`Ajrud, and dates to around the first half of 8th century BCE.

    The man in the foreground with the penis may be Yahweh. The woman with the breasts in the background, seated and playing a harp, may be Yahweh’s wife Asherah. The figure in the middle with both a penis and breasts is more difficult to identify. Scholars speculate it is either Baal or El, or some other deity.

    The inscription reads, “Thus says… Say to Yehalle[lel], Yo`asa and… I bless you (herewith- or: have blessed you) to/before Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah.”

  2. Thanks Thom for once again popularizing some of this biblical scholarship that I for one wouldn’t know how to delve through on my own without some guidance. The picture in the post is fascinating; is there a place online where I could view more early pictorial representations of Yahweh?

  3. “The Bible must be interpreted in context, and that context isn’t your own or that of your theological tradition; it is the context that produced it (ancient Near East / Mediterranean). Put another way, if you’re letting your theological tradition filter the Bible to you, you aren’t doing Bible study or exegesis”…What a joke! This is true if you are studing the bible to discover what people thought 2000 years ago. If you are using it to discover your own theology and place in the universe, you have to use your own tradition, or the tradition you generated with your own mind to place yourself in the universe. So if Heiser is studing the bible with a purely academic, historical perspective, to evaluate the people’s thoughts 2000 years ago, fine. But he uses it to evaluate religion in our present day (reflected in the fact that he teaches his same BS in his church), as part of religious theology. Therefore, he is a total egotist, with maniac delusions of what religion is. How’s that for political correctness?

  4. So what Heiser is arguing is that while lots of people who worshipped Yahweh saw him as part of the “god party” the Scripture writers themselves saw Yahweh as “special”. Am I getting this right?

    I’m so far away from academia I can’t even begin to understand his point. It seems like a plain reading of the english text by a non-scholar like me (and perhaps that is the point) seems to clearly show the story of a nation that worshipped Yahweh as one among many but their collective wills wavered on just how “special” he really was. The writers themselves, by times, clearly seem to be certain there are many gods of which Yahweh is one and generally their favourite but still in conflict with powers that, if not equal to his own, certainly capable of giving him a run for his money (or worshippers as the case may be).

    Once we’ve agreed the writers were polytheistic – not just in reference to their cultural but by actual practice and belief, can we possibly think we can still find support for inerrancy by demonstrating the text writers themselves saw Yahweh as unique? This just baffles me and if you can help me understand what this line of reasoning hopes to make clear(er) it would be welcome.

    It would seem that the only course would be to encourage the Church to come back to belief in many gods (current theology about the devil may be part of this rationale) so our ‘truth’ comes back into line with the truth of the OT writers.

    How am I not getting this?

  5. Of course defaulting to Dr. Blomberg’s definition of inerrancy makes that whole need to justify the OT writers moot. A definition that I’ve adopted, by the way, which makes interacting with colleagues and ministries 100% easier!

  6. @Enenennx – Most scholars today identify the two standing figures on the Kuntillet Ajrud pithos as representations of the Egyptian deity Bes. I tend to agree, although I recognize there is still debate over their identification. Garth Gilmour recently published an article in the PEJ postulating that a pictorial inscription discovered in the 1920s may be a representation of Yahweh and Asherah. You can find the article here:


    Probably the most famous depiction of Yahweh and Asherah comes from the Taanach cult stand:


    It has four registers. The bottom one represents Asherah as a woman standing between two lion-like creatures. The next register up represents Yahweh with an empty window between cherubim (he’s the one who dwells between the cherubim). The third register again shows Asherah, but this time as a stylized tree (probably date palm) between the same lion-like creatures. The top register shows Yahweh as an equid below a sun disc. This top register raises the most questions, but I think 2 Kgs 23:11 offers some answers.

    There are a number of other discoveries that have been identified with Yahweh and Asherah. Keel and Uehlinger’s book on ancient Near Eastern divine imagery would be the best place to look:


  7. Brian, I’m not certain that a commitment to inerrancy is motivating Heiser’s interpretation, although his interpretation does happen to be consistent with inerrancy. Heiser argues that the other “gods” were (are?) real, but that they are not Gods like God is God. He maintains that Yahweh was “species unique” from the earliest biblical texts to the latest. He has trouble dealing with the fact that the gods were demoted in the LXX and DSS (although that wouldn’t infringe upon inerrancy, so I’m not sure why he wishes to deny this). But the point is, if the biblical texts always and only describe Yahweh as a God far superior to the other powers and in a unique class all to his own, then the biblical texts are consistent and the only divergences from this view are found outside the biblical corpus, which doesn’t infringe upon inerrancy either.

  8. Hmmm. Thanks Thom. Wouldn’t it be odd for the biblical text, written by people living in a time where everyone saw Yahweh in competition with other gods to not reflect the theology of their day? If their cosmology of a flat earth makes it into the text to slowly develop over time why wouldn’t their views of Yahweh among the gods be expected to do the same? Just trying to sort this out. As you know, my education presented the OT to me as a very uniform, very cohesive narrative that took me over a decade to get over.

  9. Indeed. Well, his attempt to argue that Yahweh is “species unique” in the early texts is demonstrably a failure. I’m not sure what he would do with 2 Kings 3:27, either, but he’d have to do something with it.

  10. Thanks Dan, I’m eager to check out those links.

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