The Origin & Evolution of the Biblical God


Nicholas F. Gier, Professor Emeritus, University of Idaho (ngier@uidaho.edu)

For the most update resources on this question, see Mark Smith’s The Early History of God (Harper & Row, 1990) and The Triumph of Elohim, ed. Diana V. Edelman (Eerdmans, 1995). Even more recent is David Penchansky’s Twilight of the Gods: Polytheism in the Hebrew Bible (Westminster John Knox, 2005).

God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.

– Ps. 82:1

It seems clear enough…that Moses was not a monotheist. Yet, to call him a polytheist seems inaccurate too. We can conclude that Moses stood somewhere between totemism and monotheism. A term to describe this position is henotheism. – H. Keith Beebe1

The Israelite tribes were heirs to a religious tradition which can only have been polytheistic.

– Yehezkel Kaufmann2

The Principle of Theistic Evolution is derived from the fact that some of the world’s religions have developed through stages from polytheism to a monotheism. We can see this most clearly in the Vedic tradition were the many gods of the Vedas eventually reduce to the triune deity of Brahman, Vishnu, and Shiva with sectarian trinities found in the worship of Krishna, Shiva, and the Hindu Goddess. (Click here for more.) It is clear, however, that our principle is not a law, for scholars have now noted a theistic devolution in the return to polytheism in the originally monotheistic Zoroastrianism. One of the transitional stages from polytheism to monotheism has been called “henotheism, a situation in which there are many gods but one God prevails as the king of gods or the God of gods. The Vedas contain a form in henotheism with Varuna standing out as the ultimate ruler and judge – the one who infuses grace, forgives and punishes sin.

As a descriptive study in the history of religion, this article makes no judgment about whether monotheism is better than polytheism. Observers of the practice of Hindu polytheism could say that the recognition of many gods leads to greater religious tolerance. Monotheistic gods also tend to be more remote and less accessible to the life of faith. One might also argue that the exclusive worship of one God leads to intolerance of other religions. Just as biological evolution has not necessarily led to the best species, theistic evolution has not necessarily led to the best theology.

The final editors of the Hebrew canon were fervent monotheists, but a remnant of the polytheistic basis of the pre-Mosaic religion can still be detected. Albrecht Alt has shown that divine titles such as ‘El Bet’ el (Gen. 31:13; 35:7); ‘El ‘Olam (Gen. 21:33); and ‘El Ro’i (Gen. 16:13); ‘El ‘Elyon (Gen. 14:18); and ‘El Saddai (Gen. 17:1); all later taken to be one God (Yahweh) after Moses, were all originally separate gods worshipped by the early Hebrews.3 The Catholic scholar Bruce Vawter concurs with Alt. According to Vawter, none of the available English translations does justice to the original Hebrew of Genesis 31:13, which quite simply reads “I am the god Bethel” (‘El Bet’el), who was a member of the Canaanite pantheon along with the rest of the above.4 The original meaning is therefore quite different from the traditional understanding: this god at Bethel is not the universal Lord who appeared at Bethel but just one god among many – a local deity of a specific place.

In the mutual swearing of Jacob and Laban (Gen. 31:51f) it is clear that two distinct gods are referred to.5 The work of later editors is clearly evident in this passage. As Alt states: “Was it not plain paganism for the ancestor of Israel and one of his relations to swear by two different gods? This dangerous sentence had to be rendered harmless by an addition or alternation.”6 In Judges 11:24 Jepthah recognizes the authority of the god Chemosh, at least for the Ammonites in their own land.

The popular notion that Moses was the original monotheist is a thesis that has very little support. As we shall soon see, Moses probably was not even a monotheist, but even if he was, there was monotheism in Egypt a generation before Moses, most likely under the heretic king Akhenaten of the 14th century B.C.E. In his insistence on the worship of Yahweh alone, Moses was a henotheist, i.e., he believed that Yahweh was the greatest among the gods, the king of gods.

The traditional belief that Yahweh revealed himself solely to Moses, and that no people except the Hebrews worshipped Yahweh, is also becoming more tenuous. Several scholars have pointed out evidence of Yahweh worship among several pre-Mosaic eastern cultures.7 For example, the controversial tablets at Ebla, dating back into the 3rd millennium B.C.E., speak of a god by the name of “Ya,” who is linked to the Yahweh of Moses by some Ebla scholars.8

Contrary to popular understanding, the First Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” does not deny the existence of other deities. In his commentary on Deuteronomy Anthony Phillips maintains that “there is here no thought of monotheism. The commandment does not seek to repudiate the existence of other gods, but to prevent Israel from having anything to do with them.”9 The ontological status of other gods besides Yahweh can be explicitly seen in Deut. 32:8, where we find Yahweh setting the boundaries of nations according to the “number of the sons of God.” The RSV follows the Septuagint text, which has been reinforced by the copy of Deuteronomy found among the Dead Sea Scrolls in Cave 4 at Qumran.

The ninth century Masoretic text replaces “sons of God” with “sons of Israel,” which some modern English versions follow. It does look like the Masoretes changed the text so as to avoid dangerous polytheistic implications. Furthermore, “Son of Israel” makes absolutely no sense in Deut. 32:8. The people of Israel were Yahweh’s “portion” while the sons of God “were divine beings or angels to whom God had delegated authority over the nations. Their existence is not denied but rather accommodated to the overall authority of Yahweh to whom they are subservient.”10 As Anthony Phillips states: “The poet, drawing on Canaanite mythology, identifies Yahweh with the pre-Davidic god ‘Elyon.”11 As Deut. 32:8 has been taken by some to be a very old passage, Gerald Cooke and others speculate that in the earliest times Yahweh was not the head of the gods, but simply one of the “sons of God” in the sense of b‘n‘ ‘Elyon. In Deut. 32:8 Yahweh appears to be different from ‘Elyon, because of the definite third person reference, which “easily gives the impression that Yahweh like the sons of God received his portion, allotment from ‘Elyon.”12

Theodore C. Vriezen explains the advantage of henotheism: “This idea of beings surrounding God by no means detracts from the uniqueness of God; on the contrary, these divine beings rather emphasize his uniqueness; he is the God of gods, their God, too; and they praise his holiness. Far from clashing with monotheism, this conception lays the greatest stress on the majesty of Yahweh. Yahweh is a unique God, but he is not alone.”13 Complementing Vriezen’s point is the fact that the other deities are never named, except for perhaps the case of Satan in Job.

A divine pluralism can also be seen in the Hebrew word for deity, ‘elohîm, which is a plural form of ‘Eloah, which is a form of ‘El, the general word for God in the Semitic world. There are some scholars who argue that ‘elohîm in reference to Yahweh must be a grammatical plurality only. For them ‘elohîm is an abstract plural with a singular meaning. Such a grammatical form would emphasize the majesty of the Almighty. In his study of the “Great Isaiah Scroll” at Qumran, William Brownlee of Claremont has shown the radical extent of the use of this “plural of majesty”: even Yahweh’s quiver (Is. 49:2) and a single hand are in the plural.14

There is, however, a significant exception, noted long ago by the Hebrew grammarian Gensenius. When ‘elohim is referred to pronominally, as in “let us make man in our image” (Gen. 1:26), then the majestic plural is not applicable.15 Furthermore, the priestly writers use singular verbs for the deity in adjacent passages; hence the use of the plural at 1:26 must be for good reason.16 Canaanite parallels show that the head god uses the first person plural in addressing his divine assembly. It is obvious that this passage reveals a henotheistic situation in which Yahweh is consulting with lesser deities around him.

The use of ‘elohîm as divine beings definitely separate from Yahweh (e.g., Gen. 6, Ps. 82) proves conclusively that this divine pluralism is not just a grammatical one. Henotheism is seen in the fact that Yahweh is referred to as ‘El ‘elim (God of gods, Dan. 11:36) or in the use of the definite article ha ‘elohîm (the God) for Yahweh, or b‘n‘ ‘elohîm (the sons of God) for the other gods (Gen. 6:2; Job 1:6, 2:1, 38:7).With regard to these divine “sons,” Cooke states: “These are not ‘sons’ of Yahweh in a filial sense…the ‘sons of (the) God(s)’ are those who are of the realm of the gods, who partake of divinity.”17 Gensenius agrees that b‘n‘ ‘elohîm “properly means not sons of god(s), but beings of the class of ‘elohîm of ‘elim….”18

Some Christian commentators have taken the ontological pluralism of ‘elohîm as definite proof of the Trinity. Genesis 18, where three mysterious visitors come to Abraham, has been used to support this view.19 But rather than imposing a Christian view developed two millennia later on the Hebrews, the proper hermeneutic strategy would be to place it in the context of the religions of the ancient Near East.

Theodore Gaster has done just this and discovered that the story has basic similarities with the polytheistic folklore motif of “hospitality rewarded.” Gaster explains: “The classic parallel is the tale, told by Ovid and Hyginus of how Jupiter, Neptune, and Mercury (i.e., three visitors, as in the biblical narrative), while traveling through Boeotia, came in disguise to Hyrieus, a childless peasant of Tanagra, and in return for his hospitality, granted him the boon of a son.20 This story goes back at least as far as Pindar (518-438 B.C.E.)

Max Weber also contends that the theological basis for Gen. 18 is probably polytheistic: “The grammatical forms in Abraham’s address to the divine epiphany of the three men would seem to make it probable that the singular of the address did not preclude the possibility of polytheistic conceptions.”21 The trinitarian hypothesis is vitiated by at least four considerations: (1) the triunity of Yahweh is definitely weakened when two of the divine beings depart for Sodom (18:22), and Yahweh and Abraham are left behind negotiating the fate of the Sodomites; (2) it is clear that the divine plurality is more than three, if the other ‘elohîm are the deities of the other nations; (3) even if there were only three gods, this is clearly tritheism and not one divine being with three persons; and (4) the persons of the Trinity are definitely not conceived as a divine council with God the Father as the supreme executive.

The ‘Elohîm as Angels

The fact that the two divine beings that go to Sodom are called “angels” have led traditional commentators to mitigate the implied polytheism by the qualification that these beings were not true gods, but created angels. This interpretation is discounted by Albright, Weber, Gaster, Speiser, and others.22 The Bible makes a clear distinction between an angel (Heb. malakh; Gk., aggelos) and a god or God (‘elohîm; theos). Revelation 19:10 and 22:8,9 are explicit in their injunction that angels are “fellow servants” and not gods that are to be worshipped. The ‘elohîm are not created beings because they are with Yahweh from the beginning and are involved in creation itself (Gen. 1:26; Job 38:7). In a letter to me, Brownlee concedes that there is no mention of the creation of angels, but does point out that yahweh saba’ot does mean “Creator of [heavenly] armies.” But it is clear, especially in Job, that the Lord’s host (=army) is made up of astral deities not angels.23 But the word “creator” here does imply that the beings are created, eliminating an essential divine attribute (at least for philosophical theology). In Vedic hedonism the lesser gods are also many times referred to as created beings. In Job, Satan is one of the subordinate gods, a son of God, and is referred to elsewhere (Is. 14:12) as the “Day Star” (helal) and “son of Dawn” (shahar), both members of the Canaanite pantheon. Scholar Marvin H. Pope states that “these are lesser members of the ancient pagan pantheon who are retained in later monotheistic theology as angels.”24

The interchange of God and angels in the Hebrew Scriptures reflect an early conception of the nature of angels before the influx of Persian angelology during and after the Babylonian captivity. For the early Hebrews, an angelic figure was a temporary disguise for Yahweh. “Angels” functioned as mediators across the great difference between Yahweh and mortals.25 Therefore, the “angel” that appears to Hagar (Gen. 16:7); the “angels” at the Oaks of Mamre and Sodom; the “angel” that wrestled with Jacob; and the “angel” that was “commander of the army of the Lord” (Jos. 5:14) are all divine manifestations of either Yahweh or one of the subordinate deities.

This theory of early Hebrew angelology would also preclude a claim that these “men” that appear as Yahweh foreshadow in any way the Incarnation. Outside of Is. 9:6, which has been taken by many as “divinity in might” only, there is no explicit concept of a man-God or a sustained doctrine of the Incarnation in the Hebrew Scriptures. The idea of the man-God most likely inspired by the Greco-Roman state cults and the Hellenistic mystery religions. The idea is not only alien but blasphemous to the Hebrew mind.

The remnants of the original polytheistic base of ancient Judaism are found more often in the nonprophetic works like the Pentateuch, the Psalms, and Job. Psalm 82 is an important text as evidence for Hebraic henotheism. (The following is the RSV translation with Julian Morgenstern’s alternative reading for vv. 6-7):

1. (a) God (‘elohîm has taken his place in the divine council (‘adat’el). (b) In the midst of the gods (‘elohîm) he holds judgment:

2. “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked?

3. Give justice to the weak and fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.

4. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”

5. They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk about in darkness;

6. I say, “You are gods (‘elohîm), sons of the Most High (b‘n‘ ‘Elyon), all of you;

7. Nevertheless, you shall die like men, and fall like any prince.”

8. “I thought you were gods, Sons of Elyon, all of you;

9. You shall become mortal (temutun) like men, And as one of the sarim shall you fall.]

10. Arise, O God (‘elohîm), judge the earth; for to thee belong all the nations!

Traditional interpretations of this psalm have insisted that the ‘elohîm are really judges and not divine beings. But if the ‘adat’el is an assembly of rulers, then ‘elohîm in 1(b) would have no meaning. The great Ugaritic scholar Mitchell Dahood has shown that the phrase ‘adat’el undoubtedly comes from the Ugaritic ‘dt il, which is the “council of El” of Canaanite mythology.26 Ziony Zevit maintains that Ps. 82 is yet another Canaanite hymn that has been Yahwinized and because of that the text, as other Psalms borrowed from Ugarit, manifests corruption and confusion (26a).

Setting the stage in 1939 for the most careful scholarship on this psalm, Julian Morgenstern states that it cannot Abe denied that the fundamental meaning of ‘elohîm is “gods,” and that only by a long stretch of the imagination and rather devious and uncertain hermeneutics can the meaning “rulers,” “kings,” or “judges” be ascribed to it”.27 The major problem with these latter meanings is that ‘elohîm is never used in this way in any other passage. In 1 Sam. 28:13 the “spirit” of the deceased Samuel is called an ‘elohîm, but as commentators comment: “The word god here means a being from another [spiritual] world.”28 Some take the ‘elohîm of Ex. 21:6 and 22:8 as “judges,” but reputable Catholic scholars maintain that these messages too reveal an ancient polytheistic residue.29

The most troublesome aspect of Ps. 82 is Yahweh’s judgment on the other gods. Following the implications of Deut. 32:8, these ‘elohîm must be seen as the gods of the other nations, which obviously in the eyes of Yahweh have not been ruling very well. The Hebrews knew Yahweh as occasionally temperamental, suspicious, and erratic. As Dahood says in regard to Job 4:18, 15:15, “Even his holy ones he distrusts, the heavens are not pure in his sight.”30 Yahweh’s judgment for the other gods’ misadministration is a harsh one: they must die like men. The traditionalists have taken this verse as proof that the ‘elohîm cannot possibly be gods. But Morgenstern has shown that the Hebrew verb temutun compares favorably with other passages (e.g., Gen. 2:17; 3:3,4; 2 Sam. 14:14) where the meaning is most clearly “to become mortal.” Cooke concurs: “The statement that those who are gods shall nevertheless die like men appears to us to be an undeniable indication of the divine status of those who are so addressed; their (former) immortality is clearly presupposed.”31

Other psalms refer to Yahweh’s divine council and provide further support for our thesis. The “sons of god” (b‘n‘ ‘elim) of Ps. 29:1 are again taken by conservatives as referring to judges or rulers. But Cooke counters that “the reference to divine beings here would seem to be beyond question” and that “it seems highly probable that we are dealing in Ps. 29 with an Israelite adaptation of a Canaanite hymn which has its setting in a polytheistic conception of a divine pantheon.”32 Lesser divine beings who are praising the king of gods, are also found in Pss. 68 and 89: “O Kings of the earth, sing, O gods, sing praises to the Lord” (32); and “for who in the skies can be compared to the Lord? Whom among the heavenly beings (b‘n‘ ‘elim) is like the Lord, a God feared in the council of the holy ones, great and terrible above all that are round about him?” Cooke cites an Ugaritic inscription which has the linguistic prototype of b‘n‘ ‘elim as comprising the “assembly of the sons of El.”33

On our theory, pure monotheism did not come to the Hebrew scriptures until the writings of Deutero-Isaiah, i.e., during and after the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century B.C.E. Indications of monotheism before Deutero-Isaiah must then be the work of later monotheistic editors. We have seen how later scribes did not hesitate to change passages (Deut. 32:8; Gen. 31:53) which had explicit polytheistic implications. It is significant to note that the monotheistic passages in Isaiah (like 45:21, 22; 46:90) come after Cyrus the Great has been named the Lord’s Messiah, “anointed one,” in 45:1. Cyrus was a Zoroastrian, one who worshipped the single, supreme God Ahura Mazda. Many scholars believe that Zoroastrianism was the world’s first truly monotheistic religion and that Hebrew religion was influenced profoundly by the fact that the new state of Israel was a small province in a great Persian empire.

Let us conclude this chapter on Hebrew henotheism with a quotation from Oesterly: “The final compilation of the Psalter undoubtedly comes from an age when the religion of Israel was fundamentally, and even aggressively, monotheistic. But there survive phrases which imply a polytheistic outlook. While Yahweh is the supreme God, and the only God to receive the highest honors, others are admitted as valid deities, though of lower rank and inferior quality. The position recalls the kathenotheism which appears in many of the hymns of the Rig-Veda.”34


1. Beebe, The Old Testament, p. 160.

2. The Religion of Israel, p. 7.

3. Albrecht Alt, Essays on Old Testament History and Religion, trans. R. A. Wilson (New York: Doubleday, 1967), pp. 10-11. The god Yahweh simply does not appear in the oldest parts of the Old Testament except in the dialogues of Job. Yahweh does appear once here but other Mss. have ‘eloah instead. See the Anchor Job, p. xxxix.

4. Bruce Vawter, On Genesis: A New Reading (New York: Doubleday, 1977), pp. 313-4.

5. See Otto van Rad, Genesis: A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961), p. 308. Von Rad believes that two gods are clearly distinguished and that this represents two “over-lapping cultic circles.”

6. Alt, op. cit., p. 22. He continues: “The easiest solution appears in the Greek translation which changes the predicate into the singular: `The God of Abraham and the God of Nahor shall be a judge between us,’ so that the reader would naturally conclude that the two subjects were identical. The Hebrew Masoretic tradition went about it differently, not daring to alter the original plural of the predicate, but attempting to put a singular sense on the two subjects by the apposition ‘God of their fathers’; the weakness is simply that the addition fits clumsily into the sentence, does not agree with the plural predicate, and above all does not fit the idea in the speech of judging ‘between.'” Alt is again supported by Vawter, On Genesis, p. 343. E. A. Speiser also agrees that the phrase “God of their fathers” is “an obvious marginal gloss.” Significantly, it does not appear in the Septuagint. See Speiser’s Genesis: The Anchor Bible (New York: Doubleday, 1964), p. 243.

7. See F. M. Cross’ article in Harvard Theologcal Review 55 (1962), pp. 255-59. Cyrus Gordon observes that “Yahweh” occurs in Amorite names of Mesopotamia; that “yw” may stand for the same divine name in Ugarit; and that Yahweh was known in Syria (The Ancient Near East [New York: Norton, 34d ed. revised, 1965], p. 38f). See also M. J. Field, Angels and Ministers of Grace (New York: Wang & Hill, 1971), p. 29.

8. Giovanni Pettinato, the original epigrapher of the Ebla mission (now deposed), argues that “Ya” or “Yaw” does not appear as a divine name in the Ebla tablets. Pettinato has found the word “Ya-ra-mu” (“Ya is exalted”) in the tablets, thereby disproving the claim of Alphonso Archi, the current epigrapher for Ebla, that “ya” appears only as a diminutive ending. Pettinato also notes significant name changes in the very latest period of the Ebla civiliation, e.g., from Mika-il to Mika-ya. This is very similar to later Hebrew practices, and also appears to reveal the rise of Ya worship at Ebla. For a summary of this very exciting debate, see Biblical Archaeology Review 6:6 (1980), pp. 38-43.

9. Anthony Phillips, Deuteronomy: The Cambridge Bible Commentary (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973), p. 219.

10. The Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1952), Vol. 2, p. 529.

11. Phillips, op. cit., p. 216.

12. Gerald Cooke, “The Sons of (the) God(s),” Zeitschrift für Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft (1964), p. 33. D. N. Freedman says that “Deut. 32:8-9 is very archaic, perhaps one of the most archaic pieces of theology in the post-Patriarchal period” (letter to R. C. Boling, author of Judges: The Anchor Bible [New York: Doubleday, 1975], p. 27f.). Freedman, F. M. Cross, and Otto Eissfeldt all agree that the original meaning was that Yahweh was one of the subordinate deities with `Elyon as the king of gods. See Cross, op. cit. Another interesting Canaanite parallel is the fact that the sons of ‘El numbered seventy and that is about the number mentioned in the table of nations in Gen. 10.

13. Theodore C. Vriezen, An Outline of Old Testament Theology (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1962), p. 180.

14. William H. Brownlee, The Meaning of the Qumram Scrolls for the Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 1964), pp. 170-172.

15. Gensenius’ Hebrew Grammar, ed. E. Kautzsch (Oxford, 1909), p. 399. See also Cooke, p. 23.

16. See B. W. Anderson, “God, names of,” Interpreters Dictionary of the Bible.

17. Cooke, op. cit., p. 24.

18. Gensenius, op. cit., p. 418.

19. T. H. Gaster, Myth, Legend, and Custom in the Old Testament (New York: Harper & Row, 1969), Vol. I, p. 156.

20. Max Weber, Ancient Judaism (Glencove: Free Press, 1952), p. 152.

21. Albright, From the Stone Age..., p. 298; Weber, p. 153; Gaster, Vol. II, p. 785.

22. See Marvin Pope’s The Anchor Bible: Job (New York: Doubleday, 34d ed., 1973), pp. 116, 181. It is clear that astral deities are fighting on Yahweh’s side during the invasion of Canaan (Jdgs. 5:20). Angels are not mentioned as created beings until late apocalyptic works like II Esdras (6:3), but even then stars are equated with the “fallen” gods of Heaven in I Enoch 86:1-6 and 3 Maccabbees 2:4. See E. Theodore Mullen, Jr., The Divine Council in Canaanite and Early Hebrew Literature (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1980), p. 243.

23. Pope, op. cit., p. 9.

24. See Speiser, op. cit., p. 118.

25. As Mitchell Dahood states: “In biblical literature…no claims are made for the king’s [Messiah’s] divinity” (The Anchor Bible: Psalms [New York: Doubleday, 1966], Vol. 1, p. 12).

26. Ibid., Vol. II, p. 269.

26a. Ziony Zevit, Israelite Religions: A Parallatic Synthesis (New York: Continuum, 2001), Conclusion.

27. Julian Morgenstern, “The Mythological Background of Ps. 82,” Hebrew Union College Annual 14 (1939), p. 38. The conservative approach to Ps. 82 based on the alleged authorship of Asaph is quite tenuous. First, most scholars, even some conservatives like the editors of A Commentary on the Old and New Testament, eds. Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976) reject this attribution (p. 256). Asaph is supposed to be the author of Pss. 74, 79, and 83, but these have been judged to be some of the latest additions to the Psalter. Just as there were biblical writers and editors who took the name “Isaiah” or “John,” so was there probably a guild of singers and hymn writers who took the name Asaph. William Oesterly speculates that the Asaph collection was not completed until about 150 B.C.E. See his The Psalms (New York: Macmillan, 1939), Vol. I, pp. 4, 72.

28. Oxford Annotated Bible, ed. May and Metzger (New York: Oxford University Press, 1962), p. 833.

29. Jerome Biblical Commentary, eds. Brown, Fitzmeyer, and Murphy (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice-Hall, 1968), p. 60.

30. Dahood, Vol. II, p. 313.

31. Cooke, op. cit., p. 31.

32. Ibid., p. 25.

This essay can be found at http://www.webpages.uidaho.edu/ngier/henotheism.htm

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