Dr Dan McClellan is an Old Testament TikTok star! We’re going to take a deep dive into the Bible, and find out what some scholars believe about the Bible that are different than you probably heard at Church. You won’t want to miss this conversation. Check it out!

Meet Dan McClellan

Dan  00:59  I’m Dr. Dan McClellan. I am a public scholar of the Bible and religion and on social media, I go by @Makelan spelled M-A-K-L-E-L-A-N. That’s the phonetic spelling of my last name I used when I was in Uruguay.

GT  01:12  Okay.

Dan  01:13  They don’t like last names that begin with four consonants in a row down there. So, I received my Ph.D. in theology and religion from the University of Exeter, where I wrote my doctoral dissertation on a conceptualization of deity in the Hebrew Bible through the methodological lenses of cognitive linguistics and the cognitive science of religion.

GT  01:33  Wow.

Dan  01:34 I was basically trying to understand, back then, when they thought about deity, when they talked about deity, when they engaged deity, what was going on in their heads? And how is that reflected in the material remains, whether artifacts, ritual artifacts, or texts from the ancient world, including the Bible?

How Ancients Thought of Divine

Dan  11:04  One parallel that I use to help people try to understand what people were going through when they interacted with divine images is I talk about headstones in a cemetery. If you’ve ever seen on TV or in a movie, or even yourself, maybe ever spoken with a headstone, as if you’re speaking to the person who is indexed, or who is represented by the headstone. That’s kind of the same intuitive logic that governs how people engaged with divine images. Because a deceased person is, in our intuitive conceptualization, is an agent we can’t see, out there somewhere, but we usually need some kind of material media to focus our attention, to allow us to think of the agent as present. And so, a headstone is one example of that. And divine images are exploiting the exact same intuitive cognition. And so, I’m using that theoretical framework. I, then, go into the Hebrew Bible and say, how are they talking about the God of Israel? How are they engaging with the God of Israel? And I identify a handful of things that seem to use the same logic of divine images. The Ark of the Covenant is frequently spoken of as if it is the deities themselves. When it moves, the deity moves. When the deity moves, it moves.

Dan  12:34  We have the Ark narrative where the Philistines see the Ark of the Covenant being brought onto the battlefield. And they say, “God has come into their camp,” and they get scared, but they end up winning the battle and capturing the Ark of the Covenant. And then you have the famous story of the–I forget who’s whose wife it is, precisely, but one of the wives gives birth to the son that she names Ichabod, which means “where is the glory,” or “there is no glory,” because the glory of the God of Israel has been captured. And then they put the Ark of the Covenant in the Philistine temple, alongside their divine image of Dagon. And then the next day, they come into the temple and Dagon is on the floor. And then the day after that, they come into the temple and Dagon is on the floor, and hands and head have been cut off. So, it’s a battle of divine images. And the God of Israel wins. And so, the Philistines have to send the Ark back. They put it on a cart drawn by some cows, and the cows take off and march all the way to Beit Shemesh and then stop there. And the story continues. But basically, the Ark of the Covenant is a representation of the Divine Presence.

Abraham Not a Monotheist?

GT: But at the beginning of this, when we started talking, you said Abraham was not a monotheist. Tell us. Walk us through that.

Dan  27:22  So these traditions are coming from well, after the time of any historical Abraham.  These are people who have certain ideologies about their own identity as worshipers of God and are looking back on their own past and negotiating with that past. In a lot of scholarship, and particularly scholarship focused on what they call social memory, we talk about how we are engaging with our past to help understand our identity today, to help make sense of the experiences that we’re having, help make that identification useful and meaningful to us. And so, when we look back on things that have happened in the past, they are more useful and more meaningful, if they resonate with us, if they make sense to us.

GT  28:11  George Washington chopping down the cherry tree.

Dan  28:13  Yeah, well, and there are a lot of ways that people will look at the American Revolution, and will filter it through either right wing or maybe left wing lenses, and say, “Oh, George Washington was a libertarian.” “Oh, George Washington would have been Democrat.”  “Oh, George Washington would have been a Republican. He would have voted for Trump.”

Dan  28:32  There are a lot of different ways that people want that history to make their experiences today more meaningful. And the same thing happens with the Bible. And the same thing happened for the authors of the Bible. Because everybody writing in the Bible has inherited a past and is including that in what they’re writing. And so, they’re negotiating with that past, themselves. And so that’s why, when talking about the stories where the angel also identifies as God, you’ve got later generations scratching their head going, “How are we going to make sense of this? How does this fit what we think today? Oh, well, let’s have this angel be the authorized bearer of the Divine Name, and that will make sense of everything.” And so, they’re constantly renegotiating their past. Monotheism is a thing that doesn’t really develop.  The concept, as we know it today, was developed during the Enlightenment in the 17th century.  That’s when the word monotheism was coined. And that’s when it was kind of elaborated on and described the way that we understand it today. But we like to retroject it back into the Bible.

Dan  28:34  And you’ve had scholars who say [that] Abraham was the father of monotheism.  And then in the mid-20th century, scholars saying that no, it wasn’t until Moses. Moses was the father of monotheism. And then scholars at the end of the 20th century said, you don’t get monotheism until Deutero-Isaiah. Second Isaiah writing in the exile, that’s when you get monotheism. And the threshold keeps moving back and back as scholars have to grapple with the data that indicates there wasn’t really a denial of the existence of other gods. There was a denial of the power and the significance of other gods, because we were promoting the importance of our own god, and so had to denigrate all the other gods. But at no point do they assert this philosophical understanding of the universe as inhabited by one single, sole deity. And, the Hebrew Bible, even the New Testament, we have references to other gods. Paul, in First Corinthians, talks about the so-called Gods and lords, “For there are many gods and lords,” he says. “But for us, there was one God the Father.” And that can be interpreted to mean, as far as we’re concerned, only one God exists. Or it could just mean, as far as we’re concerned, we only care about one God. So, just like me going to high school in Boulder, Colorado, in 1997-1998…

GT  31:16  Well, that’s why you’re so liberal.

Dan  31:18  (Chuckling) I would have very easily and naturally said, “The Broncos are the only real football team.”

GT  31:26  I’m sorry to hear that. I’m a Raiders fan.

Dan  31:27  Excuse me? [indignantly]

Dan: I could have said, “The Raiders aren’t a real football team, the Broncos are.”

GT  32:05  They haven’t been for the last little while.

Dan  32:06  And the Broncos haven’t really been either. But that’s neither here nor there. But the point is, that’s just rhetoric. That’s just me saying pfffft. They don’t matter. I don’t even care about them. There’s only one that matters to me. And this is what we find in the Bible. They’re not saying [that] we have this developed philosophical framework where we understand only one divine being to exist. They’re saying, “Oh, the gods of the nations? Nah, they’re nothing. They don’t matter.” And you see that in in Deutero-Isaiah. You see it in the New Testament, where they’re denigrating them by dismissing their significance or their utility or their importance or their power. And so in 2nd Isaiah, a lot of people will point to that, and say, “That’s where they’re saying, ‘I am God, and there is no other.'” But the same author also represents Babylon and Moab and other cities, personifies them, and has them saying, “I am and there is no other.” And so they’re rhetorically having these personified cities, use the same rhetoric that the God of Israel is using.

Dan  33:13  And it’s not to say, “Oh, Babylon is the only city that exists. No other cities exist. It’s to say, “Babylon is the only city that matters. All the other cities are comparatively nothing and less than nothing.” And so we have that kind of rhetoric in the Bible that is aimed at denigrating the gods of the nations and holding up the God of Israel as the only real important deity. And  Abraham is–you’ve got a part in Genesis and I forget the exact chapter and verse.  But in the King James Version, it says, “God caused me to wander.” But if you look in the Hebrew, it says, “Elohim,” but the verb is in the plural. “The gods caused me to wander.” And you have references to, later on when Jacob has absconded with his wives and they’ve taken their father’s deities.

Gods of Israel/Canaan

GT  06:55  Because this is what I want to get into. It seems like there were a lot of Canaanite deities. Right? You had El. You had Yahweh. You had Moloch. You had Ba’al. You had Asherah. That’s five. That’s pretty good. How many more were there?

Dan  07:11  Oh, well, you can look in the Ugaritic literature, and you can find dozens and dozens of divine names. So, El, Ba’al is another good one, Asherah.  You have Mot who is the god of death. You had Yam who’s the God of the river, or the sea, all kinds of different deities.  And some of these are national deities for other nations. And some of them were just a part of the mythology or the Pantheon in Ugarit. Adonai is not known in any Pantheon outside of Israel.

Dan  11:14  So, Israel definitely developed out of Canaanite nations, which is why El was likely the main deity of the patriarchs. And then you have this other deity, Adonai, who comes in and seems to adopt a storm deity profile. And this is why there was so much friction between Adonai and Ba’al, because Ba’al is the storm deity in Canaan. And then you have this other deity who comes in who does the same stuff. And so, they’re both trying to fill the same role in the same space. And so, they’re going to come into conflict with each other. And this is reflected in the contest between Elijah and the priests of Ba’al, where they’re trying to see who is Elohim? Who is the deity? And their contest is who can send down fire from heaven and light the sacrificial altars, which is, basically, who’s in charge of lightning? Who can send down a lightning bolt to set all this stuff on fire?

GT  12:15  That makes a lot more sense.

Dan  12:16  And so that’s what the storm deity is supposed to be able to do. And Ba’al is unable to do it. But Adonai is successful. And so the people cry out, “Adonai, Hu Ha Elohim, Hu Ha Elohim.” So, Adonia, he’s the God. He’s the God. But you have some other places, particularly in the Psalms, where they’re praising Adonai, but in terms that sounds suspiciously like Ba’al. So, Psalm 29, you have the seven fold repetition of praise of the voice of Adonai. The imagery is has to do with thunder and lightning, and powerful rains and things like that. But it mentioned some place names, and all the place names are Lebanon, Phoenicia, up north, which is not Israel’s territory, but was Ba’al’s territory. And so, a lot of scholars would argue that this was originally a hymn to Ba’al that was just appropriated by Adonai. And maybe, we don’t have an original copy. So, we don’t know. But it could have been as simple as just replacing the name. In fact, we do have another indication that that happened. Isaiah 27:1, there’s this statement that Adonai will defeat the twisting serpent, the wriggling serpent, the dragon that is in the sea, I think is how it ends in Isaiah 27:1. But this is about Leviathan. But if you go 500-600 years before Isaiah, the Ugaritic literature, there’s a part of one text that praises Ba’al as the one who defeated Leviathan, the wriggling serpent, the twisting serpent, the dragon with seven heads.  And so, it’s word for word, using the exact same imagery and the same praise that is attributed to Ba’al in the Ugaritic literature from 1300-1200. And it’s attributed to Adonai 500-600 years later, in Isaiah 27:1. So, there are definitely examples of praise for Ba’al that was appropriated by people who wanted to Praise Adonai as the storm deity. But there’s no place where El is a problem, where Adonai is in conflict with EL because that identity has just been fully appropriated.

GT  14:32  So, let me make sure I understand it. Adonai is another name for Yahweh?

Dan  14:36  Yes. So that’s the substitution that I use in place of pronouncing the name, just because. That’s the standard academic pronunciation (the one that you use,) but on my channel, I’ve had a number of folks who follow my channel who are Jewish, who said…

GT  14:55  They, would prefer you not to say that.

Dan  14:57  They would prefer I not say that. So, I’ve committed to not using that pronunciation when I’m producing content for general consumption. But when I’m in academic contexts, I will use the other. I know that’s a little confusing for people. So, one of my pinned videos on my Tik Tok account is, “This is why I say this.”

From Many to One God

Dan: Sennacherib destroys all the land, except for Jerusalem. All the temples, all the cult sites are gone. And now everybody has to go to Jerusalem, if they want to worship Adonai in a temple, which is what I call de facto cult centralization. So now because you don’t have any other temples, you’re forced to go to Jerusalem. And this temple that I mentioned earlier, and Arad, that we uncovered in the 1960s, the dating of its destruction or its end seems to coincide with Sennacherib’s invasion. And so some people looked at this and said, “Oh, this was Hezekiah shutting everything down as part of Hezekiah forms, getting rid of all the high places and all that stuff. But archaeologists noted nothing’s really destroyed. The temple seems to have been quietly decommissioned and just buried under six feet of earth. And so other scholars now argue that it sounds like Hezekiah was trying to hide it. He was just saying, “Shut everything down. We’re going to cover it up. We’re going to hide it, so it doesn’t get destroyed by the Assyrians.” [The Assyrians] do their scorched earth thing wherever they go.

GT  20:30  Kind of like when Brigham Young covered up the Salt Lake Temple foundation.

Dan  20:33  Exactly, and the hope would be that they go restore the temple later on, but they never did, which is why we find all this stuff that’s still in perfect condition. So, the standing stone, the incense altars, normally you would break that into pieces, but it was just laid on its side. And so, it seems like worship was going on all over the place. Sennacherib comes through creates this de facto cult centralization. And then you’ve got some other kings who are probably trying to restore the way things were before, until we get to Josiah, who seems to decide, “You know what? I like the way this is with everybody having to come to Jerusalem, with my temple getting all of the money and all the resources and having all the power, with my priesthood having all the control.”

Dan  21:20  And so what a coincidence that he finds the Book of the Law that says everybody has to come to Jerusalem. You can’t go anywhere else. Everybody has to use the Levitical priesthood. You can’t use any other priesthood. everybody has to come here. And so I would argue that this was Josiah saying, “You know what? We’re not going to go back to the way we did things before. We’re going to do this new thing, where it’s just Jerusalem.

GT  21:46  So, Josiah was just taking all of Hezekiah’s reforms, or no?

Dan  21:52  Well, the reforms are the later authors looking back and saying, “This is what happened.”

GT  21:58  This is what Hezekiah was really doing.

Dan  22:00  Yeah, yeah. Hezekiah was shutting everything down, because he was righteous, except he didn’t take care of everything. But then Josiah was the most righteous and Josiah took care of everything. And so, most of the histories that we have in the Bible, in Kings and Samuel, those are written hundreds of years later, but they’re looking back, and they’re writing that history in a way that serves the interests of [the king.] Josiah says, “Oh, we found the earlier law.”

Dan  22:26  So now when we’re looking back on the way they did things earlier, which was not following this law that they suddenly discovered, they have to go, “Oh, they were breaking the law. And so now they’re all apostates. The people who did it earlier were all apostates. And now we’ve restored the way it was always supposed to be.” When, in reality, Josiah was probably just trying to keep things the way they were when he was in power. And so that’s what I argue is responsible for the vilification, the demonization of Asherah for all of the stuff that followed after, that demonized using divine images and things like that, using other temples and things like that.

GT  23:11  Could we say that Josiah is the author of monotheism?

Dan  23:17  There have been people who’ve made that argument. I would say, probably not the author of monotheism, but probably the person who started the ball rolling, that ultimately snowballed into what, many centuries later, would become monotheism. Because creating that cult centralization and some people call it mono-YAHWEH-ism. There’s just one place where Adonai can be worshipped. And there’s only one deity that you’re supposed to worship. So that probably starts the ball rolling on the negotiations that would later end up with this philosophical notion of only one God existing, and all other beings being subordinate to, being derived from the only true deity. But yeah, I think that that doesn’t take place until well after the Bible’s done.

Are you surprised to hear that Abraham, and many of the Jews prior to Lehi, were not monotheists? What do you make of this information? Does it make the idol worship of the Bible make more sense?