Is Yahweh Species Unique? Heiser & Bokovoy Discuss

Michael Heiser, an Evangelical scholar of the ancient near east, has published a number of great papers on the subject the divine council in the Old Testament. His website can be found here:

Michael Heiser wrote an essay which was published in the FARMS Review of Books in which he critiqued Daniel Peterson’s and other LDS scholar’s analyses of Psalm 82, and divine council themes in general. The essay was followed by a response from LDS graduate student David Bokovoy, followed by a very short response by Heiser. The exchange made waves in the LDS academic community and has been a standard read on this topic ever since (I know many of you are fully aware of all of this history).

One of Heiser’s main points of contention is that while the Old Testament does indeed speak of a council of gods, Yahweh is “species-unique”, meaning he is not the same fundamental species as the other gods. Heiser recognizes that the “gods” of Psalm 82 and elsewhere are not mortal humans but are in fact divine beings, but he continues to insist that they are intrinsically inferior to Yahweh as a result of their not being of the same “species”.

Heiser bases this conclusion on the following themes which are quite uncontroversially found in the Old Testament:

(1) Yahweh is said to be the creator of all other members of the heavenly host.
(2) Yahweh was considered pre-existent to all gods.
(3) Yahweh has the power to strip the other elohim of their immortality.
(4) Yahweh alone is referred to in the Bible as ha-elohim.
(5) The other gods are commanded to worship Yahweh

In his response to Heiser, Bokovoy calls upon a number of ancient near eastern traditions that allegedly describe other gods in their respective councils in similar terms, but which do not suggest or imply that those gods are “species-unique”. Furthermore, from a modern perspective all of those five points made by Heiser are completely compatible with LDS thought. We find no reason to believe that Yahweh is “species-unique” because we interpret all of those five points as being the result of Yahweh’s greater power, holiness, and righteousness, not as a result of being “species-unique”. In other words, Yahweh is further along the spectrum of human/god existence, but is still on the same spectrum.

I think that Heiser pinpoints a crucial problem when he writes:

A true highlight of Bokovoy’s response (as found in the last paragraph of pages 284—85) clarifies that a fundamental difference between my understanding of Yahweh’s ontological uniqueness and the LDS position he articulates has to do with our difference of opinion on creation ex nihilo and a dualistic versus monistic view of creation. I hold to dualism with respect to the creation—a strict distinction between the Creator and everything else that is.
Because Heiser sees Yahweh as creating the other gods ex nihilo, Heiser necessarily views Yahweh as being on the Creator side of the Creator/Creature gap in Judaeo-Christian tradition. LDS reject that gap, and insist instead that the creation of the gods is accomplished by organizing pre-existent material. Under that assumption LDS are not required to envision Yahweh as “species-unique”.

In my view (which commands no authority whatsoever), Yahweh is depicted as superior than the other gods by virtue of his strength in battle. Yahweh is a warrior god, and he presides over the divine council as a king presides over his army. The Hebrew writers simply don’t seem interested in describing Yahweh as metaphysically or “species” unique. Instead, their attention seems to be focused on the fact that Yahweh is a stronger warrior, a mightier king, and a wiser and older god than the rest. They take for granted the fact that Yahweh and the other gods are all in the same class of being, or of the same “species”. It seems unlikely the Israelites had any interest in Hellenistic philosophical speculations such as the “species uniqeness” of Yahweh.

Heiser’s view of Yahweh as being “species unique” is a new perspective in divine council scholarship, and represents a minority view, one I suspect as being theology driven[1]. One semiticist describes:
“Yahweh belongs to this class of beings, but is distinguished from them by his kingship over the heavenly host. However, he is not different from them in kind.”- Peter Hayman, “Monotheism- A Misused Word in Jewish Studies?” Journal of Jewish Studies, Spring 1991, p. 5. [2]


1. Thanks to The Monk at MADB for this observation.

2. Thank to The Monk at MADB for reminding me of this quote.

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2 comments on “Is Yahweh Species Unique? Heiser & Bokovoy Discuss

  1. Wendell Welling says:

    Enjoyed reading the summary. Indeed, the concept of creation ex-nihilo crops up time and again as the real crux of the matter in dealing with interpretive differences between LDS and Evangelical Christians.

  2. [...] with FARMS/MI. The Review is currently unavailable while the MI makes technical changes, so go here for summary and links.  With the FSB, [...]

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