Polytheistic Narrators and Divine Sovereignty

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Jerome Walsh's commentary on I Kings is probably the best thing out there on narrative issues in I Kings. I've heard good reports on it from several commentary reviews, and two people who have used it in their sermon preparation for our current sermon series in Kings have found it very helpful. It's fairly rare that he says anything that evangelicals would find problematic with regard to the nature of scripture, but I did identify one thing when reading his commentary on I Kings 11, and I don't think he can consistently maintain it given other things he says.

When discussing Solomon's failures as a king, Walsh says the following about the narrator's perspective underlying the critical account (from p.136):

Yahweh is described as "the God of Israel" to contrast with the other national deities named in verses 5 and 7. The concept here is very different from our own. The narrator presumes a polytheistic worldview: other gods besides Yahweh existed, and each deity had its own national sphere. The text does not understand Solomon's apostasy as turning away from the only true God to worship false gods. Solomon's evil is that he supported in Israel, Yahweh's own nation, the worship of Yahweh's rivals.

First of all, Walsh uses the wrong term. The view that there are other gods that you shouldn't worship and only one you should worship is not polytheism, which is the worship of many gods. It's called henotheism. There's evidence within the Bible itself that some people in ancient Israel were henotheists. There's actually more evidence that many were polytheists, including Solomon himself according to this passage. But the consistent message of the biblical narrators and prophets is not of henotheism but monotheism. The book of Kings is actually a pretty clear case of this. Solomon's speeches and prayers at the temple dedication are pretty clear that there is just one God who is sovereign over all the earth.

In fact, even four pages later Walsh seems to recognize this. In his discussion of the rebellions Solomon faced from two subjugated peoples (Edom and Aram) and one internal rebellion (Jeroboam), he emphasizes the narrator's theological perspective of Yahweh's sovereignty over the doings of those in other nations (p.140):

The effect of this heaping up of parallels is to recall that both Moses' and David's careers were divinely directed, and thereby to intensify considerably the impact of the claim that "God raised up" Hadad and Rezon. The same Yahweh who raised up Moses as Israel's savior, the same God who raised up David to be Israel's ideal king, now raises up adversaries to oppose Solomon. The punishment of Solomon and the impending disintegration of his empire become part of the sacred history of Yahweh's dealings with Israel, on part in importance with the Exodus and the covenant with David.

Such a view of Yahweh's role with respect to other nations doesn't necessarily require thinking the other gods don't exist. They might just be fairly impotent beings in comparison with Yahweh's sovereign might. But it's hard to see it as consistent with the view that the only reason to worship Yahweh is because he's the god who happens to be Israel's god, whereas other nations have real gods who happen to be their gods. It's very hard to put Walsh's own view of the narrative position of Kings together with his statement that Solomon's sin is disloyalty to the god who happens to be Israel's god. The text itself commands the view that Yahweh is sovereign over other nations in a way that there's no reason to consider worshiping them even if they do exist. In fact, any acknowledgement of their existence is consistent with thinking of them as something like demonic beings whose existence and actions are all subject to divine sovereignty in the same way the human figures in these accounts are.

Now I'm well aware of the view in scholarship that takes some of these accounts to have been written from different theological perspectives. The idea is that earlier materials assume many gods, and later authors added stuff that assumes one sovereign God. Walsh indicates agreement with this elsewhere (e.g. in note 9 on p.112). But Walsh is a narrative commentator, committing to dealing with the final form of the text. Surely if the final compilers agreed with the orthodox view that there is just one sovereign God, they would not have meant the discussion of Solomon's sin to reflect henotheistic concerns but monotheistic concerns. Anyone who could endorse the understanding of Yahweh's sovereignty over foreign kings could not think of those kings as properly worshiping their own gods over Yahweh, since Yahweh is the supreme God. Such a compiler/narrator would therefore not accept the view Walsh attributes to the narrator, and this is true even if many in Israel did hold such a henotheistic view at the time these events are describing. (Since many actually held full-out polytheism, which is what the text is criticizing, it's not a major concession to think many were henotheists as well.)

So I think Walsh's contention is extremely hard to reconcile with what he himself recognizes about the narrator's theology, and that's even conceding for the sake of argument that the original narrator of some passages was a henotheist (which I don't think is true to begin with).


i think your point about the fairly incongruent idea of the redactor not having corrected henotheistic view-point of the original narrator is a great point. the henotheistic thing has bothered me a lot over the last months. i have also been asking myself whether there also isn't a broader theological question of whether it is at all possible for yahweh to reveal himself henotheistically, or, if the narration is 'theological reflection' whether it would be possible for the spirit of yahweh to preside over the canonization of such a reflection.

i've been thinking about whether it would be good to invest in walsh's commentary, but i thought i'd wait until hess finishes his NICOT entry and see how that one compares - any ideas when it will be finished?

I think the Hess one is going to be a while. He's only had the contract for a couple years, I believe, and this sort of effort usually takes a lot longer than that on something this size. It also depends on whether they release I Kings first while he works on II Kings (as with Tsumura on Samuel) or whether they want to release them closer to each other (as with Waltke on Proverbs).

sure - john woodhouse told me today that he is drafted to do 1 & 2 Kings (as well as 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Chronicles)for the 'Preaching the Word' Series. i imagine that most of these will come out in his retirement!

what do you think about the possibility of God revealing himself henotheistically?

another thought - are you familiar with norbert lohfink's theory on inerrancy? the basic gist is that the canon is only inerrant as the sum of its parts. each book does not inerrant. it is interesting when it comes to reconciling supposedly henotheistic portrayals of yhwh.


Lohfink's view sounds nonsensical to me. If there are errors in the parts, then there are errors in the parts that constitute the whole. An error in I Kings 11 would be an error in the whole. I can't make any sense of the notion that there are errors in the parts without being errors in the whole unless he means something that inerrantists have always held e.g. that you have falsehoods in the Bible such as the lie told by Saul's armor-bearer or the falsehoods told by Job's friends, but what the text says is true, i.e. that it reports those characters' views or statements. I suspect he means much more than that, though, if he thinks entire books can be false but somehow the whole canon never false.

My view on henotheism assumed by a writer would be the following: I could certainly see how a text written by some court scribe who happened to be a henotheist could be taken by the inspired compiler and placed into a book that is inerrant, but it would have to be because any henotheism assumed by the original scribe would not be assumed by the text itself.

well said

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