Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.” (Isaiah 44:6; ESV)
This past week, someone brought to my attention a new teaching that appears to be growing in popularity. It claims to be a form of biblical monotheism, but in my opinion is unbiblical polytheism. Monotheism believes in one god, while polytheism believes in many gods, often as a hierarchy, where some are more powerful than others.
This new teaching claims that traditional Judeo-Christian monotheism doesn’t accurately reflect a biblical worldview. Contrary to common Jewish and Christian teaching that the God of Israel is the only God, this new polytheism asserts that the references to “other gods” in the Bible is an affirmation of their existence as actual gods. For example, the reason give as to why God gave the commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me” (Shemot / Exodus 20:3), was because the God of Israel was one of many. Why would the commandment refer to “other gods” if they didn’t exist?
There is much that can be said in response, but due to space and time, I want to focus on one fundamental misunderstanding that appears to be undergirding this way of thinking. In an attempt to discover an authentic biblical worldview, we need to discern the difference between how people in Bible times thought from the truth as God reveals it.
Understanding how people in the Bible thought is most helpful in understanding the Bible. But just because something was believed or said doesn’t automatically make it true. This gets a little more complicated when God himself is addressing an issue within the context of the people’s understanding of something. Take the commandment quoted above, for example. The people at that time believed in the existence of many gods. This is evident from the worship of the calf idols at Mt. Sinai. The people told Aaron, Moses’ brother, “Make us gods who shall go before us” (Shemot / Exodus 32:1; ESV)). But directing the people to have no other gods besides the true God does not necessarily imply the legitimacy of false gods. It is just as likely to mean that the people were not to relate to other entities, real or false, as gods. That this was God’s intent is clear as we read the whole of Scripture.
Even from the people’s perspective, it didn’t take much to convince them that there was really only one true God. Look at the incident of the prophet Elijah’s challenging the priests of the false “god” Baal (see 1 Melachim / 1 Kings 18:17-40). Not only did Baal do nothing at all, but when the God of Israel sent fire from heaven the people responded with, “The LORD is God”, not that he was simply the greatest among many.
By the time we get to the writings of another prophet, Isaiah, we encounter explicit statements regarding the nature of false gods. According to Isaiah, they are nothing. As I quoted at the start from this week’s Haftarah, besides the God of Israel, “there is no god.”
This is not to say that besides the only true God there does not exist other powerful spiritual entities in the universe. The Bible contains many references to such beings, both good and bad. But are they really gods? Some of them would like you to think so.