Becoming Like God: A History

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by Neil Godfrey

The title is “a” history because it is an interpretation built on detailed argument that is presented for consideration by Seth Sanders in From Adapa to Enoch, a book sent to me for blog discussion by the publisher Mohr Siebeck.

I’m drawing to a close my reading this book and now come to chapter 6 with “Who is Like Me Among the Angels?” as the first part of its heading. A primary concern of the chapter is that we set aside Western ideas of dualism and explore a quite different thought-world behind ancient texts, including those we know “too well” in both the Old and New Testaments.

The chapter title is taken from the Self-Glorification Hymn from Qumran and later in the post I will outline the arguments for interpreting that hymn as intended for recitation by mere mortals like us, though ones instructed thoroughly in divine wisdom.


But first, the history. We begin with the Ugaritic (Canaanite) myth of Baal dating centuries before Judean times. An opportune moment came for would-be usurpers when Baal left his throne to journey to the underworld. The first contender failed because he was too weak: he could not run as fast as Baal or wield Baal’s lance. The second contender did not “measure up” to Baal, literally: sitting on Baal’s throne his feet did not reach the footstool and his head did not reach the top of the throne. (Measurement was an important signifier: note the details of measurements set out in Ezekiel, Enoch, Revelation.) This is a myth narrated in the third person: Baal did this, Athtar did that, etc.

Thereupon Athtar the Terrible
ascends the heights of Zaphon,
sits on Mighty Baal’s seat.
(But) his feet do not reach the footstool,
his head does not reach the top (of the seat).
(To this) Athtar the Terrible responds:
“I will not reign on the heights of Zaphon!”
Athtar the Terrible descends,
he descends from the seat of Mighty Baal,
and reigns over the earth, god of it all.

(Adapted from Sanders, p. 215)

The Light-Bringer (Isaiah)

Next, compare Isaiah’s myth of Lucifer, a myth generally thought to have derived from the sort of myth we read of in the Baal epics.

How you have fallen from heaven,
morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
you who once laid low the nations!
ou said in your heart,

I will ascend to the heavens;
I will raise my throne
above the stars of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,
on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon
will ascend above the tops of the clouds;

I will make myself like the Most High.”

(Isaiah 14:12-14)

The idea of becoming like the supreme god means ascending to the throne of god but results in being brought down to earth. (Here we have a myth narrated in the second person, addressing “you”.) In Isaiah the myth appears to express a wish for God to punish the arrogance of the power (presumably Babylon, some would argue Assyria) that would exalt itself in such a way.

The Light-Bringer (Ezekiel – a myth of wisdom)

Ezekiel sees an interesting development of this myth:

“‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says:

“‘Because you think you are wise, as wise as a god,
I am going to bring foreigners against you, the most ruthless of nations;
they will draw their swords against your beauty and wisdom
and pierce your shining splendor.
They will bring you down to the pit,
and you will die a violent death in the heart of the seas.
Will you then say, “I am a god,” in the presence of those who kill you?
You will be but a mortal, not a god, in the hands of those who slay you.

(Ezekiel 28:6-9)

Here again the “light-bringer”, Lucifer, exalts himself to the status of God and is once again mercilessly punished for his arrogance. But the significant development here is that it is not size or power that the light-bringer boasts is what makes him as god, but his wisdom, his learning.


Let’s backtrack now to Moses who in the story in Exodus did indeed become “like God” after time spent in the presence of God:

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant (qaran) because he had spoken with the Lord.

(Exodus 34:29)

The word for radiant can also be understood as “horns” so it is interesting to note a Babylonian astronomy text with the same ambiguity:

If the sun’s hom (si) fades and the moon is dark, there will be deaths, (explanation:) in the evening watch, the moon is having an eclipse (and in this context,) si means “hom,” si means “shine.”

As was discussed in the earliest posts of this series such a shining or glory is something that can be added to, placed upon, taken or stolen from, a person like a garment, clothing, a crown, a sword. It was bestowed upon a Mesopotamian king when he ascended the throne.

* The Akkadian word is qarnu, cognate with the Hebrew qrn root we read in Exodus 34.

It explains that what he sees is an eclipse and that when he reads the Sumerian word si in the base text, “si means ‘horn,’* and si also means ‘shining.’” After reading the commentary, the person who sees the thin shining rim of the sun should interpret both visual and written signs as simultaneously horn and light. A second commentary adds that the lemma means “‘to daze,’ si means ‘to mask,’ si means ‘shining,’ si means ‘radiance,’ si means Tight.’”

And Mummu, the counsellor, was breathless with agitation.
He split (Apsû’s) sinews, ripped off his crown,
Carried away his aura and put it on himself.From Enuma Elish I:66-68

Here the range of associations with “horn” is extended to the affective – the word translated “be dazed” can also mean “be numb with terror” – and the physical: light can mask, cover over, and block things like a fog. The phenomenon unifies astronomy, myth, and politics. This spectrum of associations is embodied in the Mesopotamian mythological object called the melammu, a blinding mask of light. The melammu is the property of gods, monsters, and the sun, and one is conferred by the gods on the king at his coronation. This mask of light is thus cosmic, physical, and political at once, a somatic mark of divine rulership, and it is external to the body, even alienable, as the theft of Mummu’s melammu in Enūma Elish (I 68) shows. A melammu can be stolen, but it can also be newly conferred on someone.

This mythic pattern provides the most straightforward model for understanding what happened to Moses’ face: it is not the face itself but its surface, the skin, that radiated. Moses’ physical proximity to the source of revelation added a new layer to his appearance, a physical mark of inhumanity. The Israelites feared contact with him because of his divine persona.

(Sanders, 209-210)

Moses was deemed unique for acquiring some of the glory, the radiance, of God as a consequence of being in his presence for a prolonged period.

  • “You have made my face to shine” (1 QHa 11:4).
  • “You have made my face to shine by Your covenant” (1QHa 12:6).
  • “by me You have illumined the face of the Many ( רבים ) and have strengthened them uncountable times, for You have given me understanding of the mysteries” (1QHa 12:28).
  • “You have exalted my horn ( קרני ) on high. I shine forth in sevenfold light ( אור ), in l[ight which] You have [established for Your glory ( בבודכה ).” (1QHa 15 26-27)
  • “by your glory ( כבוז־כה ), my light (אורי) shone forth.” (1QHa 17:26)

But the concept was established. We find a strong interest in the light-transformation of those learned in God’s wisdom in the Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls) literature. Could not others come to reflect the light that had shone from Moses? Certainly, Moses’ light was pale compared to God’s, and the scribe’s light would be less still, presumably, but still possible.

In Mesopotamian versions of this mythic pattern, the divinized being is not unique; he is merely the incumbent of a role.

Qumran liturgy manifests a fascination with adopting this illuminated role. Here sectarians who recited the standard set of Hodayot [Thanksgiving] prayers meditated regularly on the possibility of acquiring a shining face, and even of God raising the hom/radiance of the speaker. . . . .

If the language allows the speaker to invoke the transformed state of Moses, it also evokes more broadly a state of enlightenment characteristic of the ideal sage.

(Sanders, 210)

Daniel Transforms Isaiah’s Servant into a Role for All Enlightened Ones

11:33 “Those who are wise will instruct many, though for a time they will fall by the sword or be burned or captured or plundered. 34 When they fall, they will receive a little help, and many who are not sincere will join them. 35 Some of the wise will stumble, so that they may be refined, purified and made spotless until the time of the end, for it will still come at the appointed time. . . . .

12:3 Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever. . . .

12:10 Many will be purified, made spotless and refined, but the wicked will continue to be wicked. None of the wicked will understand, but those who are wise will understand.

(Daniel 11:33-35; 12:3, 10)

The author of Daniel has reworked what he read in Isaiah of the wise servant who suffers yet brings many to righteousness and himself is exalted to divine glory.

52:13 See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. . . .

53:11-12 After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.

(Isaiah 52:13; 53:11-12)

The wise, the “maskilim“, the enlightened or enlightener in Isaiah becomes a role for others to act out, a role with which they can identify.

Who Is Like . . .  God/Moses/. . . Me ?

Before we come to the Dead Sea Scrolls we need to backtrack once more to the origin of a “who is like me” hymn. In Exodus 15 we read a hymn that has been incorporated into the Exodus story. Just after the drowning of the Egyptians sing a hymn (the Song of the Sea) that contains the following:

Who among the gods
    is like you, Lord?
Who is like you—
    majestic in holiness,
awesome in glory,
    working wonders?

(Exodus 15:11)

Jewish authors behind the Qumran literature saw those lines as most significant and connected them with what we have been discussing so far:

Cursed be the man who does not stand by, keep and prac[tise] all the comman[dments of the L]ord (issued) by the mouth of Moses. . . And He spoke to the people of Israel face to face as a man speaks to his friend . . . He stood on the mountain to make it known that there is no god beside Him . . . And Moses the man of God (was) with God in the cloud and the cloud covered him. For … when he was hallowed and out of His mouth he spoke like an angel. For who is a messenger like him?(4Q377 fr 2 ii)

And in fact, ancient Jewish interpreters repeatedly connected the rhetorical question of resemblance to God, מי כ מכה “who is like you?” with the Lucifer myth. That the issue of resembling God that the Song of the Sea raises was more than an empty rhetorical question is clear from the way the phrase reappears: in 4Q377 2 ii 11 after Moses is said to be “like an angel” ( כמלאב ) it is asked, of Moses, “who is a messenger like him” ( מי מב שר כמ והו )? The line seems to touch a nerve in early Jewish exegesis. The earliest extended rabbinic discussion of the Song of the Sea, tractate Shirta of the early midrashic compilation Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael, is a virtual catalogue of heavenly ascents, uniting Exod 15:11 with precisely the texts we have just examined, Isa 14 and Ezek 28. This fact is significant because it demonstrates that exegetes from Qumran to early Rabbinic Midrash already connected the rhetorical question of resemblance to God, “who is like you?” with the myth of ascent which calls that question, and God’s uniqueness, to account.What happens when ritual rhetoric about divine uniqueness is brought together with its opposite number, a myth that dares to really ask if someone who is not God might become like God?

(Sanders, 218)

Who is the speaker in this hymn?

Michael Wise has offered the suggestion that the Hymn was sung by the whole community led by the Maskil . . . and that every member of the liturgical community was meant to identify with the first person speaker. This proposal would explain not only the . . . similarities between the speaker and the righteous, but also the apparent sudden switch from plural to singular grammatical forms in Recension A (1QHa 25:31), which “requires the conjoining of an initial speaker, the Maskil, with others who presumably began by listening.” The identity of the speaker in the Self-Glorification Hymn appears to be inseparable from the liturgical community which he summons to worship. 

(Angel, 145)

Judean scribes took the next step and carried the thoughts of ascending heavenly thrones and becoming like God to the worshiper, the one who knew the things of God:

He established his truth of old, and the secrets of his devising in al[l… hea]ven and the counsel of the humble as an eternal council […] forever a mighty throne in the divine council. none of the Kedemite kings shall sit in it, nor shall their nobles […] shall not resemble my glory, and none shall be exalted save me, nor approach me, for I have taken my seat in [the council] of heaven and none […] I shall be reckoned with angels, and my station in the council of the Holy ones. I do not desire like mortals; everything precious to me is in the glory […] in the holy dw[elling. Wh]o has been denigrated on my account, yet who can resemble my glory? Who [… ] who bear[s all sufferings like me and who [end]ures evil – did it resemble mine? I have been taught, and there is no teaching that is like [my teaching]. Who can stop me when I op[en my mouth,] and the flow of my speech – who can measure it? Who can arraign me or compare to my justice? [… Fo]r I am rec[koned] with angels, [and my g]lory with the sons of the King, not [with] gold or precious gold of Ophir.

(4Q491 11 i 10-18: Sanders’ adaptation of Esther Eshel’s edition; my highlighting)

The speaker, the “I”, is the reader.

In the Songs of the Sabbath Sacrifice the speaker asks how he shall compare with the angels but as he does so he progressively names the many things that the angels know, “proceeding to describe deeper and deeper layers of heaven”. The irony is that such asking and exploring the gap between the mortal and the divine beings the speaker demonstrates that he knows everything that the angels themselves know.

The . . . speakers’ intimate realtime knowledge of heavenly action . . . entails a claim that they are indeed comparable to the angels in a key way, since they know everything they do. The validity of this proof is based on the way that the criteria for success are defined within the text itself, as it models and then achieves the thing that makes humans like angels: divine praise. The songs create and fulfill their own terms of success through performance as an act of divine resemblance.

(Sanders, 222)

What Sort of Dualism?

The speaker does not suggest that there is any transformation from a physical to a spiritual being. The sort of dualism underlying everything addressed here is found within the material world. Recall from earlier posts that there is no conceptual divide between the “natural” and the “supernatural”. God’s speech, his word, is a literal force or power of “nature”. Light and darkness, the physical body, evil powers, rituals and real-world powers of speech were all part of the one cosmos. Recall the corporeality of a divine “aura” above. Compare, even, how such “duality” underlies texts relating to the shape of one’s body and its health:

The dualism is extended to the body itselfin physiognomic and medical texts. 4Q186, an astrological physiognomy, explains the physical qualities of persons bom under particular zodiac signs in terms of cosmic light and darkness. Like the Qumran calendrical texts, it presents a systematic form of exact knowledge of the physical world. Based on the features of their bodies, every individual’s spiritual features may be ranked on a nine-point scale, divided between portions in the house of light and the pit of darkness. This ratio decides their place in the community hierarchy, according to the Damascus Document . . . Qumran medical beliefs and practices likewise operate on the principle of the physical presence of evil in the body and the world. Qumran versions of the Damascus Document connect the corporeality of spirits (4Q266 6 i) with the notion of sickness as a punishment for sin (as lepers are categorized as transgressors in 4Q270 2 ii 12). Jubilees . . . provides a similar demonic etiology of disease: people who sin are vulnerable to bodily attack by the descendants of fallen angels (10:1-8), but a book of heavenly antidotes was transmitted to Noarh’s line at the hands of angels (10:13). The Qumran healing practices attested in texts such as the Songs of the Maskil (4Q510-11) exorcise demons by means of songs of divine praise. If these were used by sectarians who read Jubilees closely, they would be difficult to separate from Jubilees’ account of heavenly antitodes given by Noah to Shem. Privileged secret texts serving an analogous function to these heavenly antidotes were thought to be materially present in the Qumran library and liturgical traditions.

(Sanders, 224)

With this background we gain a new level of understanding of the transfiguration scene in the gospels. Even more than that, we see Paul’s teaching in a new context:

7 Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, transitory though it was,  . . . 13 We are not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face to prevent the Israelites from seeing the end of what was passing away. 14 But their minds were made dull, for to this day the same veil remains when the old covenant is read. It has not been removed, because only in Christ is it taken away. . . 18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

(2 Corinthians 3:7, 13-14, 18)

The theme of From Adapa to Enoch is the evolution of the role of Near Eastern scribes. I’ll attempt to write a concluding post next time.

Angel, Joseph L. 2010. Otherworldly and Eschatological Priesthood in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Leiden ; Boston: Brill.

Sanders, Seth L. 2017. From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck.

Vermes, Geza, trans. 2004. The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. Revised edition. London: Penguin Classics.


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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Becoming Like God: A History”

  1. “‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says:
    ”Because you think you are wise, as wise as a god,
    I am going to bring foreigners against you, the most ruthless of nations;
    they will draw their swords against your beauty and wisdom
    and pierce your shining splendor.
    They will bring you down to the pit,
    and you will die a violent death in the heart of the seas.
    Will you then say, ‘I am a god,’ in the presence of those who kill you?
    You will be but a mortal, not a god, in the hands of those who slay you.”
    (Ezekiel 28:6-9)

    …Interesting to compare this with the Christ-myth theory as expressed by the Vision of Isaiah in the Ascension of Isaiah. It nearly entirely explains how ‘belief’ in a fleshy incarnation came about–as something occurring after descent into Sheol then rising to “dwell among men on earth” before ascending near-immediately (?) into the heavens.
    The connection between the GJohn Jesus (“I am the Light of the world”) and the Lucifer legend needs examination.

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