Mark Smith: Yahweh as El’s Son & Yahweh’s Ascendency

This is a commentary on Israel’s ancient theology by Mark Smith, in his book “Origins of Biblical Monotheism”. This was taken from Google Books, here. I take responsibility for any typos that might appear. Everything after this sentence are his words.


One biblical text that presents Yahweh in an explicit divine council scene does not cast him as its head (who is left decidedly mute or undescribed, probably the reason why it survived the later collapsing of the different tiers). This text is Psalm 82, which begins in verse 1:

God (elohim) stands in the divine assembly/assembly of El (adat el),

Among the divinities (elohim) He pronounces judgment.

Here the figure of God, understood as Yahweh, takes his stand in the assembly. The name El was understood in the tradition—and perhaps at the time of the text’s original composition as well—to be none other than Yahweh and not a separate god called El. In any case, the assembly consists of all the gods of the world, for all these other gods are condemned to death in verse 6:

I myself presumed that You are gods,

Sons of the Most High (Elyon),

Yet like humans you will die,

And fall like any prince.

A prophetic voice emerges in verse 8, calling for God (now called elohim) to assume the role of judge of all the earth:

Arise, O God, judge of the world;

For You inherit all the nations.

Here Yahweh in effect is asked to assume the job of all gods to rule their nations in addition to Israel. Verse 6 addresses the gods as “the sons of Elyon,” probably a title of El at an early point in biblical tradition (cf. El Elyon mentioned three times in Genesis 14:18-20). If this supposition is correct, Psalm 82 preserves a tradition that casts the god of Israel in the role not of the presiding god of the pantheon but as one of his sons. Each of these sons has a different nation as his ancient patrimony (or family inheritance) and therefore serves as its ruler. Yet verse 6 calls on Yahweh to arrogate to himself the traditional inheritance of all the other gods, thereby making Israel and all the world the inheritance of Israel’s God.

This family of the divine arrangement of the world appears also in the versions of Deuteronomy 32:8-9 preserved in Greek (Septuagint) and the Dead Sea Scrolls:

When the Most High (Elyon) allotted peoples for inheritance,

When He divided up humanity,

He fixed the boundaries for peoples,

According to the number of the divine sons:

For Yahweh’s portion is his people,

Jacob His own inheritance.

The traditional Hebrew text (Masoretic text, or MT) perhaps reflects a discomfort with this polytheistic theology of Israel, for it shows not “divine sons” (bene elohim), as in the Greek and the Dead Sea Scrolls, but “sons of Israel” (bene yisrael). E. Tov labels the MT text here an “anti-polytheistic alteration.” The texts of the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls shows Israelite polytheism which that focuses on the central importance of Yahweh for Israel within the larger scheme of the world; yet this larger scheme provides a place for other gods of the other nations of the world. Moreover, even if this text is mute about the god who presides over the divine assembly, it does maintain a place for such a god who is not Yahweh. Of course, later tradition could identify the figure of Elyon with Yahweh, just as many scholars have done. However, the title of Elyon (“Most High”) seems to denote the figure of El, presider par excellence not only at Ugarit but also in Psalm 82.

The author of Psalm 82 deposes the older theology, as Israel’s deity is called to assume a new role as judge of all the world. Yet at the same time, Psalm 82, like Deuteronomy 32:8-9, preserves the outlines of the older theology it is rejecting. From the perspective of this older theology, Yahweh did not belong to the top tier of the pantheon. Instead, in early Israel the god of Israel apparently belonged to the second tier of the pantheon; he was not the presider god, but one of his sons. Accordingly, what is at work is not a loss of the second tier of a pantheon headed by Yahweh. Instead, the collapse of the first and second tiers in the early Israelite pantheon likely was caused by an identification of El, the head of this pantheon, with Yahweh, a member of its second tier.

This development would have taken place by the eighth century, since Asherah, having been the consort of El, would have become Yahweh’s consort (mentioned before) only if those two gods were identified by this time. Indeed, it is evidence from the texts such as Isaiah’s vision of Yahweh surrounded by the Seraphim (Isaiah 6), and especially the prophetic vision of the divine council scene in 1 Kings 22:19 that Yahweh assumed the position of presider by this time. Indeed, prior to the eighth century such a “world theology” suited the historical circumstances in Israel very well. In the world order there were many nations, and each had its own patron god. This worldview was cast as the divine patrimonial household in Deuteronomy 32: each god held his own inheritance, and the whole was headed by the patriarchal god. Other gods in their nations represented no threat to Israel and its patron god as long as they were not imported into Israel. As long as other gods did not affect worship of Yahweh in Israel, they could be tolerated as the gods of other peoples and nations.

Smith, Mark S. The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. pg. 48-49

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8 comments on “Mark Smith: Yahweh as El’s Son & Yahweh’s Ascendency

  1. phillipwh says:

    I don’t think Mark suggested that Yahweh was the son of El
    I thought he made the point that the name of El changed to Yahweh in Ancient Israel.
    I am sure I am right in this and it is an important distinction

  2. Orme says:

    “If this supposition is correct, Psalm 82 preserves a tradition that casts the god of Israel in the role not of the presiding god of the pantheon but as one of his sons.”

    This clearly states the possible interpretation that YHWH is one of El’s sons and he was given Jacob as his inheritance.

    • phillipwh says:

      Orme, thanks for the comments. It is a pleasure to discuss extracts from Mark Smith’s book. I might say that your quote from Page 156 is proceeded by
      “Here Yahweh in effect assumes the task of all gods to rule their own nations. Verse 6 calls all the gods “sons of Elyon,” probably a title of El at an early point in biblical tradition (Genesis 14:18–20). If this supposition is correct,…”
      The section starts on Page 155 under the heading: “3. The Prior Context of Judean Discourse about Divinity”
      My interpretation is that Israel’s insight into Monotheism came while they were immersed in a sea of Polytheism and shades of that world view remain in OT Texts such as Psalm 82.
      I see Mark Smith’s work as incredibly helpful, delving into the Ugaritic sources,( were they from 6th C BC to 1200 BC) describing it as extra-biblical evidence shades of which filtered into Biblical Reference.
      At parts he refers to refracted reference to God’s Wife, ‘Queen of Heaven”, leeching into the OT without there being any purposes of suggesting God had a missus!
      The book is heavy reading, but well worth the effort – don’t you think?

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  4. Phillip says:

    I wait avidly for everything Mark Smith writes. Mark makes the point that the Babylonian Captivity occasioned serious redaction to OT writings. The Captivity was only 500 years before Jesus, a Reformation time span of time.
    We don’t doubt that the sons and daughters of Abraham were at heart monotheistic, and that their articulations were inevitably couched in a cosmology shared with other people, a cosmology that was refined for them by the brutal experience of history.
    I have found it interesting to pray with traditional aboriginal people in outback Australia. They are profoundly Christians while being embedded with their own creation stories and tradition.
    It is breathtaking to be experience the inter-threading of distinct cosmologies forced by the intrusion of a new world order.

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