The Bible clearly teaches that there is only one God. Open and shut case. Black and white. Right?
Not so fast…
In the primitive cultures of the ancient world — the setting in which most of the Bible was written — religion (oftentimes with little to no differentiation from superstition) was paramount. The religious orthodoxy at the time included a pantheon of gods who controlled everything. Human civilization at the time was tribal, and these gods belonged to, or ruled over, individual tribes. Each group had their own god, and it was their responsibility to ensure they worshiped him correctly and stayed on his good side.
Enter the Israelites, who believed the same things in their early days. For instance, a passage in Deuteronomy describes this primitive belief system to a T:
“When Elyon [God] divided the nations, when he separated the sons of Adam, he established the borders of the nations according to the numbers of the sons of the gods. Yahweh’s portion was his people, Israel was his allotted inheritance.” (Deut 32:8-9)
There is an incredible amount of theology packed into those two sentences, so let’s unpack it carefully. First, we see the existence of two gods: Elyon and Yahweh. (These names are translated as “God” and “LORD” in English.) We explain that today by saying Elyon and Yahweh are actually the same God, or they are two persons of the Trinity. But let’s look at this from the perspective of the ancient people who wrote this: there was clearly a supreme deity named Elyon and another deity under him named Yahweh.
In fact, there are more gods than just those two, evidently, because we see Elyon here parceling out the entire world and giving deities certain tribes to rule over. This is not only compatible with ancient pagan beliefs, it is the exact same. If you look at ancient Canaanite writings, for example, you’ll find they believed in the same pantheon of gods with one supreme god ruling over them all. The name that the Canaanites ascribed to this supreme god? Elyon – just like the Israelites.
And so here we see, in early Hebrew thought, echoes of the same beliefs as the cultures around them. Now, even though these cultures believed there were many gods, it wouldn’t be fair to label them as polytheists. In polytheism, there is a pantheon of gods, each of whom are to be worshiped by everyone – and each of whom is over a particular area of life (sun gods, water gods, war gods, harvest gods, etc). That stands in contrast to the ancient cultures we are talking about here. They didn’t worship all the gods they believed existed; rather, they worshiped only their specific tribal god to the exclusion of all others.
This belief system is more accurately called henotheism. In henotheism there are many gods, but you are to be concerned with, and worship, only one of them. There is one god per tribe who controls everything in life. In the case of our Israelites, the supreme God Elyon saw fit to assign Yahweh as their god, and so they would worship Yahweh.
This henotheism is reflected in the earliest laws the Israelites followed. For instance, the first of the ten commandments has Yahweh telling Israel, “You shall have no other gods before me.” Notice what Yahweh did not say: not, “There are no other gods,” but, “You shall have no other gods…” Yahweh himself seems to implicitly acknowledge the existence of this pantheon when setting out the basic rules of relationship with his people.
There are more explicit references to multiple gods throughout Scripture, of course, if we don’t gloss over them or ignore them. Psalm 82 has a supreme God standing “in the assembly of the gods,” and goes on to say “In the midst of the gods he renders judgment.” Exodus 15 has Moses and Miriam leading the people in a song, one of the verses of which goes like this: “Who among the gods is like you, Yahweh? Majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” Again, notice they are not declaring Yahweh the only god, they are declaring he is better than all the other gods! Psalm 89 echoes that idea with this line: “Who in the skies can compare to Yahweh? Who is like Yahweh among the sons of gods, a god who is honored in the assembly, who is more awesome than all who surround him?”
In Psalm 135, they sing this: “I know Yahweh is great; he is above the other gods.” In Psalm 95 they sing, “Yahweh is the great god, the great king above all gods.” And in Psalm 97, they even sing about the other gods worshiping Yahweh.
Henotheism at its finest.
There can be little to no doubt that the early Israelites believed, just as their neighbors did, in multiple gods. But eventually, Judaism (and Christianity) became a highly monotheistic faith system. When and how did the shift occur?
The shift from henotheism to monotheism took place during and after the Babylonian exile in the sixth and fifth centuries BC. At that point in time, Jewish writings became highly monotheistic in nature, including these passages from the second half of Isaiah:
“Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me.” (Isaiah 43:10)
“This is what Yahweh says — Israel’s king and redeemer, Yahweh almighty: ‘I am the first and the last, apart from me there is no god.'” (Isaiah 44:6)
“Is there any god besides me [Yahweh]? …No, I know not one.” (Isaiah 44:8)
“I am Yahweh, and there is no other. Apart from me, there is no god.” (Isaiah 45:5)
How are we to explain this abrupt transition? Suddenly, a culture who had believed in many gods now only believed in one and declared all the other ones to be fakes, even mocking the idea anyone could have ever believed they existed (see the remainder of Isaiah 44). So what changed?
The best theory is two things changed: one gradual, and one shockingly abrupt. First, what gradually changed was that culture was growing up. Humankind began learning things and understanding things and acquainting themselves with knowledge their ancestors didn’t have. And as knowledge increased, there became less and less of a need for superstition and ancient forms of religion. Many cultures were outgrowing henotheism, and the Israelites were one of them. (There’s a reason, for instance, that there are only a handful of henotheists remaining today, including the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Most other cultures have moved on from that ancient way of understanding the world.)
The more abrupt thing that happened was the Israelites were defeated by the Babylonians and taken into slavery by a major world empire for the second time in their history. To say this was a big deal would be an understatement of epic proportions. From a henotheistic perspective, being conquered and oppressed by the Babylonians meant one thing: the Babylonian tribal god was more powerful than the Israelite tribal god. And that fact made for some uncomfortable philosophy: Maybe Yahweh wasn’t the greatest god after all. Maybe all the other gods in Elyon’s assembly didn’t worship Yahweh. Maybe Yahweh wasn’t more awesome than all the other gods that surrounded him. Maybe when Elyon was doling out the deities to the various tribes around the world, the Israelites got the shaft.
Earlier in Israel’s history, this was exactly how they understood military defeat. Check out 2 Kings 3, for instance, where Yahweh supposedly told the Israelites to go to battle with the Moabites, and that he would deliver the army of the Moabites into their hands. At first, the battle is going great — in fact, Israel is about to win, but then the king of Moab throws a hail Mary and sacrifices his own son to the Moabite tribal god Chemosh. After that sacrifice, Scripture records there was such a divine anger burning against Israel (implied: Chemosh got some extra fuel and motivation from the child sacrifice) that the Israelites lost the battle and went home defeated. Oops. Did Yahweh lie? Or was he just outpowered by a rival deity in the pantheon? The Israelites needed to make sense out of a shocking military defeat in a battle they should have won, and so they went with the latter. This was a henotheistic way of viewing the world.
In the context of an utter and all-out embarrassment like the Babylonian exile, however, you can see how henotheism quickly falls out of favor. Being conquered by Babylon was likely the final death knell for henotheism and the catalyst for ushering in monotheism. Nobody wants to believe they were assigned a deity who couldn’t protect them, so one of the best alternatives is to say there’s actually only one God and he allowed you to be conquered to teach you a lesson. It wasn’t that Babylon’s god was more powerful, it was that Babylon didn’t have a God at all and Yahweh willed this whole thing to happen for his divine purposes.
And once you believe that, then you start looking for those lessons you were supposed to learn. Enter Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, Zechariah, and the rise of the Pharisees — prophets and events which close out the Old Testament and usher in the New.
So does the Bible teach there is only one God? Is our faith heritage one of monotheism? Eventually. But that wasn’t always the case. For thousands of years, our faith heritage was built on the back of henotheism and a belief in the existence of many gods. That could either be earth shattering and foundation-shaking to you, or you could be saying, “So what?” at this point. Either way, to me this seems vitally important to understand on a couple levels. First, it puts us into closer contact with the identities of those who came before us in this journey… of those who paved the way for us today. We’ve got to understand who they were and what their trajectory of belief was in order to better understand ourselves. And secondly, it’s important because it necessarily colors the way we approach, read, and understand Scripture. It helps us answer the important question, “What is the Bible?” in a better way that will perhaps not leave us with as many disappointments. But we’ll get into that in another post later this week.