‘Gods Your Ancestors Have Not Known’ in Deuteronomy: The Devil You Don’t Know?

In Deuteronomy’s passages describing the worship of other deities besides YHWH, several passages add an additional qualification: “gods which you/your ancestors have not known.” Sometimes this is connected to warnings against serving other gods (e.g., Deut 13); in other places, serving “previously unknown gods” is part of the punishment of exile (e.g., Deut 11:28). This specification is puzzling in its implication, and in its eventual fulfillment.

1) The “serving other gods” punishment is sometimes paired with language that apparently presumes that “gods of wood and stone” are unresponsive idols without correspondence to any spiritual reality. Worshipping such idols (eventually in Mesopotamia, in exile) is therefore fruitless and degrading for Israel (and the nations), but serving Mesopotamian idols would not necessarily be any more harmful than others.
2) Another possibility is that the nations (and Israel, voluntarily or in captivity) who reverence those images in fact serve rebellious elohim, former members of YHWH’s Divine Council. Not all “other gods” are identical; the pantheons of Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Canaan are described in the Hebrew Bible as possessing distinct characteristics and pathologies. Abraham, Terah and Nahor worshipped Mesopotamian deities in the lands of Ur and Harran. If spiritual realties stand behind the idols of the nations, then one might assume that worship of all “other gods” would be equally offensive to YHWH (Deut 5:7) and destructive/degrading for Israel. Would serving gods that did have some similarity to the gods served by Israel’s Mesopotamian ancestors have been any less bad for Israel than serving random gods—or the gods of Egypt or Canaan, for that matter? If not, then the “gods your ancestors have not known” threat seems pointless.
3) Finally, in the eventual fulfilment of Deuteronomy’s warnings, the people of Israel and Judah did in fact return to Assyria and Babylon as captives and were forced to serve Mesopotamian gods. How then are these “gods which you/your ancestors have not known”?
This paper argues that the Babylonian exile is presented in Deuteronomy, and also in passages such as Isaiah 40–55, in one sense as degenerating “back to Square One”: Abraham’s descendants are now right back in Mesopotamia where they began, captive to Babylonian gods. They are blind, deaf, and hard-hearted as the idols they worship (Isa 42–44). Yet this is worse than their original state, because Israel has no longer been apportioned to the Mesopotamian gods (Deut 32:8–9); Israel has been identified with YHWH through the covenants with Abraham and Moses. Israel serving and being identified with “gods their ancestors had known” would further degrade YHWH’s people and bring more shame upon YHWH. In Isaiah 40–55, it is now even more urgent that YHWH sanctify his people and call his people out of Babylon than it was in Genesis 12: For the sake of YHWH’s name.
This theological reading of Deuteronomy and Prophetic texts has implications for interpretation of several NT passages relating to demonic possession, apostasy, and the honor/shame dynamic of soteriology.

5 thoughts on “‘Gods Your Ancestors Have Not Known’ in Deuteronomy: The Devil You Don’t Know?”

  1. Potentially interesting paper
    Potentially interesting paper which offers a theological reading of Deuteronomy which seems to be sensitive to wider issues of OT Theology.

  2. Law, Prophets and other gods
    The proposal for this papers could be more focused, which concerns me that it may not be as disciplined in its argumentation. But Ben usually does good work and this may be helpful paper which begins in the Torah and help us in our focus on Law.


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