One of the Psalms readings last week reminded me of a major issue in the study of the Hebrew Bible. That is, at what point did the Israelites become monotheistic? If they were monotheists from the beginning, how do you explain a text like Psalm 82 where God is presiding over a council of the gods? I’ll have more thoughts on this in the future. For now, what really drew my interest was the question, did the scribes who copied the Bible ever feel the need to change a text like Psalm 82 in order to make it less polytheistic? As it turns out, the answer is yes in at least two cases.
The first case involves the names of Saul’s son and grandson. In 2 Samuel 2, after the death of Saul, his son, Ish-bosheth, becomes king and fights against David for a short while before his eventual assassination. A few chapters later in 2 Samuel 9, David shows kindness to Jonathan’s son Mephi-bosheth. This is all pretty straightforward until you compare 2 Samuel with the genealogy of Saul’s family in 1 Chronicles 8. Instead of Ish-Bosheth and Mephi-bosheth, we find Esh-baal and Merib-baal. And now you can begin to see the problem. Esh-baal means “man of Baal,” and Merib-baal means “let Baal contend.”
Now the word baal in and of itself means “lord, owner, husband” and in the early kingdom could actually refer to Yahweh (similar to the word “lord” in English). However, the fact that baal also happened to be the name of a Canaanite deity apparently led someone to substitute the Hebrew word bosheth, “shame,” for baal, “the Lord,” in the names of Saul’s descendants in 2 Samuel. The Greek versions of 2 Samuel support this in the case of Ish-bosheth, as they refer to him as Eisbaal.
The Angels of God in Hebrews
The second case of scribal modification involves “the angels of God” in the New Testament book of Hebrews. At Heb. 1:6 the author quotes Deut. 32:43 to say that when God brings his son into the world, the angels should worship him. However, if you turn to Deut. 32:43 in your Bible, you won’t find any mention of angels. Maybe they wrote with invisible ink?
Most Bibles have a footnote for both verses that says to see the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint. The Septuagint (LXX) was the first Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible and began about two hundred years before Christ in Alexandria, Egypt. In order to see what happened, let’s look at the first line of Deut. 32:43 from the Hebrew Bible, Dead Sea Scrolls, and Septuagint.
HB: O nations, make his people rejoice.
DSS: O heavens, rejoice with him. Bow to him, all gods.
LXX: O heavens, rejoice with him. Bow to him, all sons of God. O nations, rejoice with his people. And let all the angels of God become strong in him.
Two things become apparent from these texts. First, the author of Hebrews was probably working with a Greek translation of Deuteronomy similar to the LXX. And second, the original first few lines of Deut. 32:43 likely resembled the Septuagint version. At some point, scribes copying the Hebrew text edited out the mention of other gods and anything else that might detract from a monotheistic point of view. The editing process did not affect the entire Bible, however, as numerous other passages occur which do mention other gods (e.g. Psalm 82 and Psalm 97).
None of these ideas are original with me. I just happened to find them while working on stuff for school. So to put this all in perspective, the next time someone you know is having a bad day, just walk up to them, give them a hug and say, “Ish-bosheth’s name was really Esh-baal, and the angels of God rejoiced!”