מי־כמוכה באלים יהוה
The question comes from an issue raised regarding whether the enthronement of Enoch in the Similitudes of Enoch and Moses in Ezekiel's "Exagoge" actually "threaten" monotheism. I have been discussing it with Ken Schenck, professor of religion and philosophy at Indiana Wesleyan University and the blogger of Quadrilateral Thoughts. They have been side comments on a broader discussion, and so I thought I would make them the forefront of the discussion here. He also has a nice discussion of the spectrum of scholarly positions...so I would recommend reading that for helpful background. But, now, I would like everyone else to weigh in.
Traditionally, scholars and people in general have assumed that ancient Judaism was monotheistic. Second Isaiah clearly thinks so--so we have one ancient Jew (or Judahite) who was monotheistic (with perhaps a school). And in a particular interpretation of the Sh'ma, one seems to be saying there is one god. Many scholars recently have been challenging this belief. It is not just that there were many "Judaisms" in antiquity--there were, in fact, a bewildering variety of positions on many subjects, and these disagreements focused on three core elements: the temple, the Torah, and God, emphasizing these elements' importance by disagreeing about them. But it is a matter of translation and interpretation of specific texts as well. Now, many scholars are challenging the idea that ancient Judaism was monotheistic (or always so). One can see this, for example, in Paula Frederiksen's essay, "Mandatory Retirement: Ideas in the study of Christian origins whose time has come to go" (Studies in Religion / Sciences Religieuse 35/2 (2006): 231-46). In response, Richard Bauckam and Larry Hurtado have defended ancient Jewish monotheism. So, there is a good debate being waged by very good scholars on all sides (and some more extreme positions on both sides).
I tend to think things are very messy, indeed, and one cannot really make blanket statements of what all Jews believed or did in antiquity. There was a time when I used to think that post-exile all Jews were monotheistic, but the more I read the primary texts, the less I have come to believe the secondary ones.
Firstly, "belief" is too tricky. There is no way to know whether the majority of Jews believed in only one God or even worshiped only one God, because religion in antiquity was a public thing. As long as one publicly only worshiped YHWH, that was all that really mattered (for the most part).
Nonetheless, some Jews have left records. As noted above, some Jews were clearly purely monotheistic (as in 2nd Isaiah and possibly the Sh'ma), but the evidence is rarely so clear as in these cases and surprisingly slim. Most Second Temple documents appear to land somewhere between monotheism and polytheism, saying there was one powerful God on top (their God) and lots of lesser gods (which, today, we call angels, but were often called "gods" (elim) in antiquity). Everyone recognizes this middle space, and the arguments depend upon how one interprets this middle space. In that sense, the difference between someone like Bauckham and Frederiksen, say, is often just a matter of emphasis (which shows I think the difference between monotheism and polytheism is not a very bit step), but sometimes a matter of translation.
For example, I often work with an ancient Jewish text found at Qumran named, "the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice." They consist of thirteen songs sung on successive Sabbaths that exhort the beings of the heavenly realm to praise the "God of gods" while evoking the imagery of the heavenly realm at the same time.
These Songs, interestingly enough, appear to assume a plurality of divine beings in heaven, using the generic word “god/s” for not only the high god, but all other subordinate divine beings. In fact, the word for “angel” (מלאך) is so rare in comparison to the other words for god (אלוהים, אל), gods (אלים), and even divinity or “godhood” (אלוהות), that I am reluctant to refer to these as the angelic liturgies or to discussion the angelic priesthood (for angel, see 4Q405 17:4, 5). There are many orders of divine beings with special names in the Songs. The text often speaks of “spirits” (רוחים or רוחות) and, especially, “spirits of fire” (רוחי אש֝). One also finds “princes” (נשיאים) and even “secondary princes” (4Q400 3ii:2). In addition, they are called "holy ones" and "glorified ones" (4Q400 3ii:9). In the end, the text just does not speak of “God,” but, emphasizing the exaltation of the high God, the text often speaks of “the God of Gods.” Given the language of the text, the emphasis on “angel” actually obscures the fluidity of the concept of divine beings in the text; thus, I think a more accurate terminology refers to the “divine priesthood.” Therefore, when the word מלאך does appear, one should translate according to function as “messenger” rather than “angel,” since, given the plethora of divine beings, these appear to be "messenger gods" or "divine messengers" rather than a general term that encompasses the orders of divine beings under the God of Gods in this text.
The discussion of the hierarchy of divine beings, in fact, is not far off in language or structure from other ancient conceptions of the divine world that we label “polytheist” even while we label this “monotheist.” Clearly there was greater fluidity at this time and the modern conception of monotheism just does not mesh with these particular ancient Jewish texts. This pluralistic conception of god/s in ancient Hebrew and Jewish texts, though, originates in some of the earliest layers of the Pentateuch. For example, in the Song of the Sea in Exod. , an extremely early piece of Hebrew poetry, the question is asked, “Who is like you among the gods, O LORD?” (מי־כמוכה באלים יהוה). These texts do not deny the existence of other beings, called gods, whether belonging to other cultures or among Yahweh’s entourage. At the same time, as in Exodus, there is no doubt which god is in charge in the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice: the god whom all the other gods must exalt and praise at each step of the divine liturgies and who sits on the chariot-throne in Song 12. I would argue, therefore, that using the terminology of a plurality of gods actually heightens or more highly exalts the highest God in the text--the God of Gods is not merely more exalted than "angels," but even more exalted than all other "gods," who, in turn, must pay obeisance to him.
In fact, Song 7 primarily consists of the call to worship of divine beings. Or, more precisely, the Song is a list of the human priesthood exhorting various classes of divine beings to praise the ultimate divine being, here called various “the God of exaltations,: “the King of glory,” “the God of effulgent praises,” “God of gods to all the chiefs of exaltations and King of kings to all eternal councils,” and so forth. Moreover, beginning in Song 9 and culminating in the vision of the throne-chariot in Song 12, not only does the text exhort various classes of divine beings, called “gods,” to praise God, but also aspects of the celestial architecture, particularly the furnishings of the inner chamber of the heavenly sanctuary. In fact, the difference between divine beings and the heavenly sanctuary’s architecture begins to blur as the architectural elements come alive to praise God on his throne. And so, the next section turns to some of the language surrounding the heavenly sanctuary, its architecture, and its “structure.”So, is this really monotheism? Not in any modern sense of the term, at the very least. But, on the other hand, Larry Hurtado seems to be right on target--only one being is offered worship (and it is quite an innovation when it is offered to Jesus). And there is clear resistance of this system to mesh with other theological conceptions in antiquity--other groups easily correlated figures of their pantheon with other culture's pantheons--equating Greek, Roman, Egyptian (which was actually quite difficult), Canaanite, Babylonian. The Jewish system excluded this possibility--so it does not seem to be really polytheistic either.
So perhaps this is sort of an exclusivist polytheistic monolatry? Exclusivist because they don't meld with other systems, or think other people's gods are demons or perhaps some of these lesser divine beings that serve the high god (divine courtiers, in a way). Polytheistic because all these beings are clearly called gods in some way (the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice is a perfect example of this, but many of the Qumran finds fit into this). We often translate the word "god" as "angel," but this seems to me to be an anachronistic, more modern, predilection. If the ancient Jews were comfortable calling these beings "gods," then I think we should as well in our historical discussions of at least the texts that do. Monolatry because only one of them, the highest one, is worshiped, and even worshiped by the "gods." In a sense, being the "God of gods." So, Hurtado's basic thesis on worship stands, but things are a bit messier--the evidence for monotheism is not nearly as widespread or as clear as figures like Bauckham make it (I know Bauckham places a lot of weight on things being "creatures" but this seems to read the texts through the Arian crisis). Really, outside of one passage in Isaiah and a particular interpretation of the Sh'ma, there isn't much.
Most texts, however, do not provide such extended reflection on these issues as Isaiah (on one end) and the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice (on the other end). So, for example, famously in the Life of Adam and Eve, Michael commands all the hosts of heaven to bow down to Adam in front of God. Is this divinization of Adam? Is this a threat to monotheism? Is this a threat to monolatry? Adam's divinization would depend upon the interpretation of Gen. 1, in which God made the human in his own image--thus he would be worshiped by the angels since he is the very image of God. The story is highly ironic, in my opinion, because in it Satan is the most stringent monotheist, the only one avoiding worship of an "idol" or image--nothing should be worshiped but God alone. Michael clearly commands Satan, "Worship the image of God" (14:2). It is almost as if monotheism and idolatry-avoidance is on the fallen side. I sometimes wonder if this text was almost meant to be comedic, at the very least it would be parody or even polemics--perhaps against the Priestly legislators who forbade images in worship? Against figures like Isaiah? Perhaps, in that sense, it does not threaten monotheism, but threatens the ordinances against idolatry (in the sense of using images in order to worship the one God).
Ezekiel's Exagoge is play that has a dream sequence in which Moses is enthroned and highly exalted on Mt. Sinai (much like the vision of God in Exod. 24). This text is tricky because it is a dream sequence, and any interpretation must take that into account. But, if this was actually staged, it would be quite an image to see Moses portrayed with divine (or at least divine-like) attributes on stage--it would be quite a statement. But one wonders if it is a theological statement, a political statement, or a cultural statement--sort of the whole culture wars going on in Alexandria about who originated high culture (with Jews saying they began civilization with Moses as superior to Egyptian claims, and against Greeks by saying Moses taught Orpheus, etc.)--or if it is all three in some way.
Overall, ancient Jewish texts appear to leave a lot more room for interpretation of the divine world than we used to think. Perhaps monotheism would have been an imposed norm, but there are always blurry points, fuzzy edges, and so on--and these texts may represent them.
Again, much of this seems to me to be merely a matter of emphasis, but translating elim as "angels" seems to be an act of subterfuge to me. When looking at texts like the Songs, there are clearly three classes of beings, with humans and the high God being two of them. The question is the lesser divine beings. Ancient texts call them gods, so I think we should honor that, even if that is not OUR theology today. That only one God was worshiped (the high one) is still extraordinarily important, however. But that is not evidence for monotheism. That is evidence for monolatry. Clear evidence for monotheism is there, but it is rarer than is commonly assumed.