Andrew Sullivan asks, “Did the Bible’s editors conceal evidence of Israelite polytheism?” And the answer is, “Of course they did.” Nothing travels down the centuries without being re-interpreted to meet the needs of the day.
Tonight’s Biblical Conundrum points straight to a nice little article by Robert Wright about the occurrence of both El and Yhwh.
Here’s a passage from Deuteronomy 32:
When the Most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel.
For the Lord’s portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.
It’s likely that “Most High”—Elyon—refers to El, god of the Canaanites:
The two words appear together—El Elyon—more than two dozen times in the Bible.
So where did the confusing phrase “children of Israel” come from? It sounds as if God is taking a census.
The King James edition got this phrase from the “Masoretic Text,” a Hebrew edition of the Bible that took shape in the early Middle Ages, more than a millennium after Deuteronomy was written. Where the Masoretic Text—the earliest extant Hebrew Bible—got it is a mystery.
We now have two much older versions of Deuteronomy, and neither contains the phrase “Children of Israel.” Here’s the story:
Some scholars who have used the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint to reconstruct the authentic version of the verse say that “children of Israel” was stuck in as a replacement for “sons of El.” With that lost phrase restored, a verse that was cryptic suddenly makes sense: El—the most high god, Elyon—divided the world’s people into ethnic groups and gave one group to each of his sons. And Yahweh, one of those sons, was given the people of Jacob. Apparently at this point in Israelite history (and there’s no telling how long ago this story originated) Yahweh isn’t God, but just a god—and a son of God, one among many.