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Who is Like Unto Thee Among the Gods


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Popular wisdom has it that when gods (elohim or elim) appear in the Bible, and does not refer to God, that it was a term designating judges or magistrates.

I have several other blog posts showing why this was not so, but one can never have enough primary sources. Here is another, rather an important one, which explains what the word gods could mean in early Judaism.

The Mekhilta de-Rabbi Ishmael is a midrashic collection of treatises and homilies grouped around the book of Exodus. The traditions in it are mainly Tannaitic, that is, dating from before the early 3rd century AD.

A sizeable treatise inside the Mekhilta is the Shirta, which expounds the Song at the Sea (Exodus 15). The topic of course is celebrating God's might and his deliverance of Israel from Pharaoh's army. When the midrash reaches Exodus 15:11, it naturally discusses what the word elim meant.

The translation is Judah Goldin's.

Another interpretation of WHO IS LIKE UNTO THEE, O LORD, AMONG THE ELYM: Who is like unto Thee among those who minister before Thee on high, as it is said, "For who in the skies can be compared... A God dreaded in the great council of the holy ones... O Lord God of hosts, who is a mighty one, like unto Thee, O Lord" (Ps. 89:7-9).

This reference to the celestial retinue and the courts on high are a clear indication that elim did refer to divine beings, though usually understood as angels. This is borne out by Hebrews 2:5-9 where the Hebrew elohim is rendered as angels.

Shirta contains four other explicit interpretations of the word elim. Out of these, two are word plays (mighty men and mutes, respectively) and are irrelevant to this discussion. The other two read "Who is like unto Thee among those who call themselves divine?" and "Who is like unto Thee among those whom others call divine and there is absolutely nothing to them?"

The first is a polemic against the cult of emperor worship so prevalent in late antiquity. The additional proof texts list Pharaoh, Sennacherib, Nebuchadnezzar, and the Prince of Tyre.

Those whom others called divine yet are worthless are idols. People see them as something divine when they really are not.

All three of these interpretations sees elim as divine beings, whether they truly are divine such as angels, or rulers who call themselves divine, or idols which men call divine.

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