Monday, September 03, 2007

The Gods of the Bible

Christianity has developed a very strongly monotheistic world view. God is immaterial spirit, omnipotent, all-knowing, the creator of everything else, and so on. We have all this baggage in mind whenever we read the word "God" or "Lord" in the Bible. Unfortunately this prevents us from seeing the God that is actually revealed in the Bible. I've been reading the book: "Is it God's Word" by Joseph Wheless, and he brings up a lot of things that are brushed under the carpet in regular Christianity. While he has a negative view of Christianity, nevertheless he makes many points that Christians should consider before concluding that they have the right view of the Bible and its revelation. In this post I will bring together and summarize some of his points about the God we find in the Bible. To see a much fuller analysis, read Joseph Wheless "Is It God's Word" (available from Amazon) pgs. 75-80, and 201-235.

The first thing that is often brushed asside is that the Hebrews recognized a pantheon of gods, similar to the Greek gods. Each tribe or people had its own god or gods. The Hebrews had their own god, Yahweh, who demanded that the Hebrews worship him alone and not any of the other gods. The terms El, Elohe, Elohim used to denote god or gods (with no special capitalization) are applied to Yahweh and to the other gods. Many, many times the Old Testament writers recognize these other gods. Here are just a few examples:

  • Genesis 31:30-34. Laban had caught up to Jacob and demanded of him: "But why did you steal my gods?" Jacob replied "But if you find anyone who has your gods, he shall not live" although he didn't know that Rachel had taken the gods. [Here we have Jacob recognizing Laban's gods]

  • Exodus 20:3 (The first commandment): You shall have no gods before me. [The gods of other nations are recognized, and the same in the next 2 quotes]

  • Exodus 31:14 Do not worship any other god, for the LORD (Yahweh), whose name is Jealous, is a jealous god.

  • Exodus 23:24-25 Do not bow down before their gods or worship them or follow their practices. You must demolish them and break their sacred stones to pieces. Worship the LORD (Yahweh) your god...

  • Deut. 10:17 For the LORD (Yahweh) your god is god of gods and lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, [Yahweh is the chief god, like Zeus]

  • 1 Sam 5:2-3 Then they carried the ark into Dagon's temple and set it beside Dagon. When the people of Ashdod rose early the next day, there was Dagon, fallen on his face on the ground before the ark of the LORD (Yahweh). [Here is one of a number of competitions between Yahweh and the other gods showing that Yahweh is greater, but in so doing recognizing the other gods.]

And there are a multitude of other passages similar to these where the Hebrew god, Yahweh, is one of the gods, albeit a possessive one that demands that the Hebrews do not worship any of the other gods.

Wheless points out that one of the reasons that God (god) being one of the gods is often missed by modern readers is an intentional mistranslation of the reference for the Hebrew god. This God/god has his own name just like the other gods (Chemos, Dagon etc.) have names. He reveals it to Moses in

  • Exodus 6:2-3: God (Elohim) also said to Moses, "I am Yahweh (the LORD). I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El-Shaddai (God Almighty), but by my name Yahweh (the LORD) I did not make myself known to them.

Thus God has a proper name, Yahweh, like your name or my name, that distinguishes him from the other gods. God is refered to as Yahweh some 6000 times in the Old Testament. But translators are uncomfortable with God having a name like the other tribal gods and so the translate it: "the Lord" or "the LORD". But this is wrong. The word "Adonai" means lord and is used to address Yahweh as well as human masters. So this mistranslation of the Hebrew god's name, Yahweh, into "the LORD" makes it easy for us to read all our baggage belonging to the concept of God into the Old Testament references of Yahweh. Reread the scripture quotes above and see how replacing "the LORD" for "Yahweh" changes the implication. We can see more clearly the polytheistic world view of the ancient Hebrews.

Now Yahweh is a god with very human qualities. He could be heard walking around in the garden (Gen 3:8). He sits on a throne, not just figuratively but literally as seen by various prophets. He has sons who take for themselves daughters of men and have children, (Gen 6:2). He comes down to earth in human form many times including to speak with Moses Exodus 33:11 Yahweh ("the LORD") would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks with his friend, and also to meet the other leaders of Israel: Exodus 24:9-11 Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of sapphire, clear as the sky itself. But God did not raise his hand against these leaders of the Israelites; they saw God, and they ate and drank. This is despite what John claims in John 1:18 No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side, has made him known. Clearly John is uncomfortable with the Hebrew concept of a god that can be seen. But nevertheless lots of prophets claim to have seen God including

  • Daniel 7:9 "...the Ancient of Days took his seat. His clothing was as white as snow; the hair of his head was white like wool...",

  • Isaiah 6:1 I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple,

  • Job 42:5 My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you

  • Amos 9:1 I saw the Lord standing by the altar...

And like the Greek gods, Yahweh dwells in particular locations; wherever the ark travels he travels. He is a god of war, as quoted by Joshua 10:11 As they fled before Israel ... Yahweh (the LORD) hurled large hailstones down on them from the sky. And when the Israelites were fleeing Pharoh's army Moses tells them: Exodus 14:14 Yahweh (the LORD) will fight for you. And indeed in v. 24 the LORD looked down from the pillar of fire and cloud at the Egyptian army and threw it into confusion.

Then there is the creation story in Genesis 1. Here it is not just Yahweh doing the creating, it is the assembly of gods creating the world. It starts

  • Gen 1:1 In the begining Elohim (the gods) created the heaven and the earth."

The plural, Elohim, is used. To see that this refers to an assembly of gods look at:

  • Gen 1:26 Then Elohim (gods) said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness...
  • Gen 3:22 And the LORD God (Yahweh-Elohim) said, "The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil.

So man has become like one of the gods, as pointed out by Yahweh to the assembly of other gods.

It is interesting how we smile when we think of the pantheon of Greek gods and their escapades with humans. We never think that the bible contains similar stories, and yet if we are willing to read what is written in it and don't force a harmonization with much later monotheistic dogma, then indeed we find many stories of gods and men. It is the forced harmonization with church dogmas and Greek philosophy that blinds us to the vivid polytheistic stories of the Hebrews.


  1. Daniel,

    The answer you'll get concerning the appearances of God is that these were all theophanies. The trouble is that such a position is impossible to falsify. No conceivable appearance would ever escape the theophany explanation.

    As for "Elohim" being multiple gods, I've always heard that ascribing plurality to an exhalted person is a literary device called the "plural of majesty."

    Any thoughts on this?

  2. Steve,

    I'm not sure what the difference is between Yawheh or another god appearing to someone "directly" versus a theopany. Presumeably they each would appear in some form or another visible to humans.

    If one reads the Old Testament with the prior assumption that it has to be a monotheistic book, then one will discount any references to gods. One will also be forced to interpret Elohim as a plural refering to one god. The more honest approach, however, is to start without that prior assumption and seeks to understand the books in their own context. Then I think it will be clear that they had a polytheistic mindset. Also evidence in the Genesis the passage, especially Gen 3:22, seems to indicate an assembly of gods.


  3. I don't understand this part:

    'The first thing that is often brushed aside is that the Hebrews recognized a pantheon of gods, similar to the Greek gods. Each tribe or people had its own god or gods. The Hebrews had their own god, Yahweh, who demanded that the Hebrews worship him alone and not any of the other gods.'

    Isn't that self contradictory? Either the Hebrews had several gods or they had one god who demanded he be the only one.

    I think it is very clear that the Hebrews flirted with the gods of the neighboring cultures and often worshipped them, but at the same time it is very clear that Yahweh would have none of that - 1st commandment.

    Also, I doubt that discounting literary devices aids understanding and dropping monotheistic assumptions only to replace them with polytheistic seems no better.

  4. Nigel,

    I'm not saying that the Hebrews worshiped a pantheon of Gods (although they definitely did worship plenty of them). What I meant was that they recogized the existence of the gods of the other nations. That is, the Old Testament many times itself recognizes the existence of these other Gods. Yahweh is placed on top as the particular god the Hebrews should worship and he is praised as being higher than the other gods. But that is a very different attitude of modern day Christianity which doesn't think any of the other gods actually exist.


  5. Excellent! Before I read your post I had already come to the conclusion that the Bible recognized other gods; the part that did it for me was Moses and Aaron's little magic show for Pharaoh in Exodus chapter 7. Aaron throws his staff on the ground and it becomes a snake, but then the Pharaoh's magicians do the same thing with their staffs. Even though the Hebrew snake winds up eating the Egyptian snakes, it'd be pretty damn hard for Horus to transform a wooden staff into a snake if he didn't exist.

    I think the Christian monotheistic dogma is part of a more general ignorance that conflates belief with worship and disbelief with hatred. You can't just refuse to worship those other gods; you have to deny their very existence. And conversely, an atheist doesn't just deny that God exists; he actually hates him. This is why many of the more ignorant Christians freely mix atheism and Satanism, even though belief in Satan would be just as ludicrous for an atheist as belief in God.

  6. A very fascinating post.

    I am in the process of working out a topic for my college thesis and have been looking at similar ideas. My most recent title idea being: The Polytheistic Worldview of the Ancient Israelites.
    It should make for an interesting paper.

  7. @Will: Atheists do NOT hate God or Gods. To an atheist, it/they do not exist and to hate something that does not exist is pointless.

  8. Wylf,

    To be fair, I don't believe Will R was trying to say Atheists hate the god concept, he was trying to point out that associating belief with worship and disbelief with hate are a common error.

    Your point is valid, however. Atheists simply deny the existence of any god. To hate something that does not exist would be foolish.

    But you can dislike an idea or even those who would promote it. And god believers and deniers alike are both expert in that regard.

  9. Any time you see God as Elohim, which "im" or "eem" is a plural ending in Hebrew, it does not refer to a multitude of gods, it is referring to the three persons of the one God. You may know this as the Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. As for the other gods that are mentioned of other nations this is referring mostly to engraved idols made out of wood or, metal, or some times even human kings. When you see the word "lord" it is never referring to deity. Lord just means some one how is in high authority. When Elohim is referred to as Lord with a capital "L" it is saying that He is a great ruler. How ever most Christians do not just sweep the mention of other gods under the rug... I, among most Christians, believe that these idols, or gods, did have some kind of force behind them. Perhaps they are fallen angels or demons, or possibly even good angels or some other kind of spirit working to point other nations toward Elohim. Many theologians debate this but the important thing to remember is God wants us to worship Him alone.
    As for your comment about Christians being ignorant, if your referring to the old white guys who think God is only there to help their favorite football team win than you are right, but true Christians are not that closed minded. I think People who only look at the surface of all religions, not believing any one of them, and make what they think are intelligent comments are ignorant.


  11. You guys Mormons? They have been teaching these things since the foundation of the church.

  12. @Anonymous

    You do realize that the idea of the trinity (as well as the existence of Christ, for that matter) happened long after the old testament was written and was formalized many years with its first use by Theophilus of Antioch in the late second century, right? Thus, by that factual information, we can then assume that the ancient Hebrews, not having the full components for a trinity at the time, may have seen the world as being created by a council of gods. However, if you are a firm believer and believe the Bible to be infallible, then you will probably believe that, regardless of any evidence, the scriptures were preplanned by God and thus they must obviously be referring to the trinity.

    Also, I would advise looking into the ancient god El and maybe giving some thought to the theory that Elohim, Yahweh, was really just a copy of El. It has always seemed strange to me that the Hebrews were unlike any other culture, in that they never borrowed or copied any other religious aspects from the civilizations conquering them or located near them. Oh, wait. They did.