Note for Readers:
In this article, I use YHWH to signify the divine name of God. Following the ancient Jewish custom, I choose not to signify the complete name. Also, the terms “Hebrew Bible” and “Old Testament” are used to signify the same corpus of religious scripture.
It is sometimes forgotten that the theology of modern Christianity has developed much since the time of the Old Testament. One of the principal examples of the progression of religious thought is how faith communities understand the divine realm. In our Christian faith communities, we take for granted the idea that there is one God and any other is illusory and nonexistent. But the ancient Israelites do not seem to have thought this way. In the Hebrew Bible, other gods are repeatedly named and are even attributed power. The perceived difference between modern and ancient theologies causes a friction that deserves reflection and attempted reconciliation. In this article, I will analyze (1) how the ancient conception of gods as cultural identifiers and (2) the Jewish vision of divine competition both shed light on this perceived difference of theology. This will necessitate a constructive reconsideration of the term “monotheism.” Lastly, I will give two suggestions of how the insights of this reflection may apply to contemporary Christian practice. So, how do we understand that ancient Israelites believed in some “existence” of other gods and attributed power to them?
Gods as Cultural Identity
One possible way to understand the attribution of other gods’ power is by seeing gods as a sign of a cultural identity. In the modern era, it is uncommon for us to associate a direct relationship between a religion and one specific nation. This, however, was quite different in the era of the Old Testament.
Before technologies of information such as prompt communication or robust libraries, religions often centered around smaller geographic and social areas. Especially before the cycles of vast empires, “religions” were often small cultic groups that also shared some ethnic or state identity. It is telling that in some ways religious practices and identity were inseparable during this time. Who one worshipped was a direct indication of who one was. We know this from many ancient sources as well as the Hebrew Bible: Israelites are those who (1) are descended from Jacob and (2) worship YHWH. To try and split these two begins to create a fissure that would be completely unnatural to the authors of the Old Testament. Likewise, other nations around Israel had their own cultic gods with whom they identified.
So, as Israelites were navigating the ancient world, it became natural to associate nations with their gods. The biblical authors routinely make the direct connections between gods and their people (a great example is 1 Kgs 11:33). In this way, the victories of nations were attributed to the power of their gods. We see this theme in the Hebrew self-understanding as well. When the Israelites obey YHWH, he blesses them with victories (Judges, Joshua, etc.). The power of other gods, then, is found in the success of Israel’s competitors. This is key to understanding how and why the Hebrew Bible depicts other nations and their gods as antagonistic to YHWH.
Gods as Adversaries
When God gives Moses the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20, the first (and presumably primary) commandment is “you shall have no other gods besides me.” This prohibition is often overlooked due to its simplicity. The commandment, in its straightforward requirement, implies that there are other gods. This starts to make sense when we connect it to the ancient coupling of identity and religion.
The familiar Exodus story continues by extolling the Israelites to enter Canaan and stay faithful to their God. A repeated theme begins to develop: the Israelites are called to completely destroy their enemies (and therefore their gods) and remain loyal to YHWH alone. Any degree of deviation from God’s plan leaves Israel open to becoming worshipers of other gods. This would conflict with the very identity of Israel as being the nation that worships YHWH. To worship foreign gods is to cease to be Israel. This vision of the danger of other gods is often overlooked by modern eyes. It is a conception that the other nations’ gods are competing for the hearts of Israel.
The imagery of gods competing for the love of people is highlighted in the pinnacle of the Law. Deuteronomy 6:4-5 says, “The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” This passage clearly shows the ancient conception of competition in the divine realm. The gods of other nations are competing for the love and worship of Israel. These gods, then, must be resisted and denied by the people of YHWH. We see this play out in the rest of Israel’s story as they seek to fulfill this commandment.
When Israel conflicted with surrounding nations, their gods served as a direct example of what they are resisting. Chemosh, Milkom, Asherah, and Baal are all directly named as the divine competitors whose aim is to disorient, tarnish, and eventually destroy the Israelite nation. Again, because the worship of YHWH was so central to Jewish identity, this perception makes much sense. If these gods stole Israel from the worship of YHWH, they would cease to be Israel. But do these gods have any power of themselves?
In the Old Testament, the worship of other gods is consistently treated with disdain. However, there is a sense that these gods do in fact have some degree of power. One example is the magicians of Pharaoh. Although Moses was achieving miracles by the power of YHWH, the magicians were able to replicate his miracles with their “secret arts.” Another account of the perceived power of other gods is through the unsanctioned mystical practices of other religious groups. For example, Balaam the non-Israelite prophet has no direct connection to YHWH but is still seen as a powerful mystic. 2 Kings 3 offers a striking story of the Moabites, the worshippers of Chemosh, offering a child sacrifice and a “great wrath” suddenly coming upon the Israelites. Even the prohibitions of divination and sorcery like other nations imply that these practices do hold spiritual power. There was a conception in ancient Israel that these gods did have some power. However, this power paled in comparison to their Lord, YHWH.
Elijah’s taunting and triumph over the priests of Baal offers a clear example of the Jewish understanding of YHWH’s power. Baal fails to hear the erratic and loud prayers of his people while the God of Israel demonstrates his superiority and primacy. “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?” asks Exodus 15:11. YHWH is “God of gods and Lord of lords” (Deut 10:17). These passages both acknowledge the presence of other gods and maintain that YHWH, the same God we serve now, is the One True God.
What about Monotheism?
The conception of other “gods” seems to undermine the singularity, uniqueness, and power of our God. But this perception is due to a failed relationship between modern and ancient theology. We must attempt to see the Scriptures in the cultural context in which they were written to make sense of our own theology. To read backward with our modern theology can cause conflict where none is necessary.
Monotheism is often understood to be the belief that there is only one God. This concept, however, is very new. The ancient imagination was populated with the gods of all the other nations. These gods could not simply be written off to not exist. So how did the ancient Israelites come to serve only One True God?
Instead of believing there are no other Gods, a statement of quantity, the ancient Israelites affirmed that YHWH was the One Supreme God above all other gods, a statement of quality. Thus, we must adjust our understanding of monotheism in ancient Israel. They clearly recognized other gods, but only YHWH was the True God. This was the monotheism of ancient Israel.
What does all of this mean to our modern practice of faith? Firstly, this demonstrates the importance of reading the Hebrew Bible in a receptive posture. Often in Christian circles, the Hebrew Bible is read as a document that holds all our own preconceptions and theologies. This discussion shows that, when we read the Old Testament in this way, we are likely to either miss crucial ideas or suffer from unnecessary conflict between our theology and that of the Biblical authors. A receptive posture entails being willing to encounter ideas that may seem foreign in today’s theological landscape. Although we read their Hebrew Bible, we are in many ways theologically distant from the ancient Israelites and must be keen to listen.
Second, we ought to remember the central point of God’s instruction about other gods. They aim to steal our love, which should be directed toward God, and redirect it elsewhere. In this way we can see that, although we do not always think of the divine realm overflowing with gods, there is still a spiritual reality that we ought to love and serve God alone. In this way we see that the motif of foreign gods may still apply to our more modern idols: money, power, status, and any other “god” that demands our love and attention over God.
In summary, one can make sense of the Hebrew Bible’s recognition of other deities and still recognize their monotheistic faith. By tracing ancient equating of national identity with deity worship and the conception of divine competition for the loyalty of people, it becomes clear that YHWH was and is the One True God for Jews and later for Christians. This necessitates a receptive posture towards Scripture and the intellectual work of examining theological ideas such as monotheism. The result of this work allows for a fuller understanding of ancient Jewish practice, modern Christian practice, and a more robust idea of how the former may remind the latter to prioritize our loyalty to God.