“Who makes a person dumb or deaf, gives sight or makes blind? Is it not I, Yahweh!”
Exodus 4:11, like other Old Testament passages, expresses a theological tenet shared by many of the authors of the Hebrew Bible—namely that Yahweh is sovereign. Other examples of this theological perspective can be found elsewhere. Here are just a couple examples:
“Should evil befall a city and Yahweh has not done it?” (Amos 3:6)
“I am Yahweh and there is none other; I fashion light and create darkness; I make peace and create evil. I am Yahweh who does all these things!” (Isaiah 45:6-7)
What these proclamations express is that Yahweh is sovereign over all things, personal and national. This entails that Yahweh is in control of everything: life, death, fertility, from making a person blind or ill, to destroying whole peoples and their lands, to being the god of both creation and destruction. This is what is meant by the theological tenet, viewed as a theological “given” by the biblical scribes, Yahweh is sovereign. Period. There is no other agency in the world!
Although many modern folk, mainly Christians, tout such slogans as “God is sovereign,” they utterly miss the mark and certainly are a far cry from what the biblical writers meant by this expression. Most people would be reluctant to view god Yahweh as bestowing blindness, fatal illnesses, national famines, abortions (to hit on a touchy topic), and the utter destruction of peoples and nations. But this is exactly the theological tenet through which the biblical writers saw their world. In fact, this was a theological interpretive framework shared by all ancient Near Eastern cultures. In Babylonia, Marduk was hailed as sovereign. It was he who controlled the events of history, the destruction of peoples, etc. For the Moabites, it was Chemosh. And for the Israelites it was Yahweh, etc. This is what was meant by assigning sovereignty to one’s national god.
It was the duality of Persian religion that brought ideas of a separate “evil” agent into Judaism in the latter centuries of the pre-Christian era. I have already written about this in contradiction #6 and #90. But basically with this new religious idea came new and different ways to express “evil” agency. In the Old Testament, Yahweh is seen as the agent behind malicious acts, plagues, national disasters, and other evils. Again, this is what was meant by Yahweh is sovereign. Period. No exceptions. With the emergence of Persian duality, however, the satan figure who previously was an agent in Yahweh’s angelic court only antagonistic toward men, differentiated itself and became a separate entity that was used to explain evil agency apart from the godhead and now antagonistic toward it and men.
By the Persian period, Judaism started to postulate a Satan figure who would eventually come to oppose Yahweh. In the book of Job, a late work, satan is figured as Job’s adversary but not Yahweh’s. The text still exemplifies the theological view of much of the Hebrew Bible: Yahweh is completely sovereign; he controls all events. “His satan” is merely a pawn in this theological doctrine of divine sovereignty. This all changes however when we approach the Judaism prior to the Christian era, and certainly Christianity itself. Now evil events, including physical impurities or sins such as deafness, blindness, etc., are seen to be the result of demonic forces that battle the divine. This is a completely new religious idea and utterly negates the theology of Yahweh depicted by the Israelite scribes.
I reproduce William Propp’s words again, from #90.
In most of the Hebrew Bible, God plays the role later Judaism reserves for Satan. Ha satan ‘the Adversary’ first appears in early postexilic writings as an officer in Yahweh’s angelic court entrusted with presenting human behavior in the worst light (Zech 3:1-2; Job 1-2). But when Judaism encountered Zoroastrianism, Persian dualism evidently attracted thinkers troubled by Yahweh’s role in creating evil and misfortune. Beginning in the Persian period, various spirits—Belial, Mastemah, Asmodai, Sammael, the Evil Impulse, Satan—assumed the task of seducing humanity toward evil and launching attacks against individuals. For example, although it is Yahweh who tempts David into sinfully ordering a census (2 Sam 24:1), a later retelling (1 Chr 21:1) makes the instigator Satan. Similarly, while it is Yahweh who attacks Moses in Ex 4:24, in Jubilees 40:2, the adversary is Mastemah. Even the command that Abraham sacrifice his son (Gen 22:2) is, according to Jubilees 17:15-16, Mastemah’s doing (Exodus 1-18, 354).
Thus it should hardly come as a surprise that the theological tenets, beliefs, and worldview represented in the Old Testament are radically different from and contradictory to the theological tenets, belief systems, and worldview found in the texts of later Judaism and early Christianity. It is the Bible itself—that is, this collection of 70+ diverse and competing texts written over a 1,000 year period under diverse religious and political convictions—that bears witness to these radical differences.
The literature of the New Testament is just some of the textual data that not only affirms this fact, but is the basis for it. By the time these texts are written, evil, illnesses, and bad things were already assigned to a separate agent, variously presented as Satan, Beelzebub, etc. In many of the Gospel healing stories, it is Beelzebub that is seen as the agent who either possesses the individual or causes an individual’s illness, blindness, or dumbness. Jesus is cast as the agent who dispels these now demonic forces. But no such thing existed in the mind and worldview of the Old Testament authors.
Perhaps the closest parallel is the worldview that stems from the Priestly literature. Illness, sins, and disease are Yahweh’s foes as it were. But they are never depicted as separate demonic forces. Sin, disease, individual illnesses and blindness are viewed as the result of either coming into contact with an impurity or procuring a sin through familial inheritance or unintentionally doing that which was prohibited. In fact, the religion of the New Testament challenges and even disapproves of this more archaic religious conception. Likewise, with new religious ideas and beliefs come new and different concepts of God. I would extend this claim even to today. Our concept of God is vastly different than Yahweh, and vastly different than the god of the New Testament as well.
On another note, not only does the biblical literature bear witness to the ever-changing, ever-evolving image of God, but also to the very creation and fabrication of other religious ideas, such as the devil, Satan, or demonic forces. Prior to coming into contact with Persian duality, such ideas did not exist in the minds and worldviews of our biblical authors. Even if my reader doesn’t belief in such phantoms, we can nonetheless appreciate how and why such religious ideas and entities get created in the first place. It is not difficult to imagine the problem behind the theological “given” that God is sovereign—again from the perspective of our biblical writers. A modern Christian may tout this axiom, but he/she has completely no idea what it really means and entails. For they cannot. They live in a theological construct and worldview that assigns certain events, unfavorable and “evil” things, to an agency other than God or Yahweh, or Christ. But the Bible itself shows us that this very belief in demons and Satan was a later construct and creation. And it solved a specific theological problem of that historical era. When we get to the book of Daniel, we will have occasion to look more closely at the underlying historical circumstances that prompted such a belief to materialize. This phenomenon is also of interest to me—namely how fictions get created, and conversely inform our realities and indeed become those very realities.