“For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who is not partial and takes no bribe.”[Deuteronomy 10:17]
Pick up a Bible. Turn to the first sentence of the first chapter of the first book, and you will be introduced to the Author and Creator of the universe. The very first character we meet in God’s story is most fittingly God Himself.
In the beginning God …
Or as rendered in the Hebrew — ראשית ברא אלהים את השמים ואת הארץ׃
The Hebrew word first used to describe God is — Elohim — which is the second most common name used in the Old Testament for God behind Yahweh (LORD), which is the proper name of the God of Israel.
Interestingly, however, the name Elohim is not used exclusively for the LORD God of Israel — meaning that the Bible refers to other, lesser spiritual beings with the same Hebrew terminology. For example, in 1 Kings 11:33, the Hebrew author in naming other pagan gods uses the very same word — Elohim — to describe them.
“Because they have forsaken me and worshiped Ashtoreth the goddess [elohim]of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god [elohim] of Moab, and Milcom the god [elohim] of the Ammonites, and they have not walked in my ways, doing what is right in my sight and keeping my statutes and my rules, as David his father did.”[1 Kings 11:33]
Another example is Psalm 8:5, where David describes how the LORD created man “a little lower than the angels,” but again the Hebrew word used in this passage is elohim. There is an entirely different Hebrew word, malak, most often translated as angel, or messenger. The ESV provides a more accurate rendering for Psalm 8:5.
“Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings [elohim] and crowned him with glory and honor.”
Finally, we find passages like Psalm 82 and 89 that describe the heavenly assembly of holy ones who are participating with God in the divine council. In context these aren’t evil heathen gods, nor are they merely angels, but rather the Psalmist is conveying a picture of this divine council of lesser “gods” who surround the throne of the LORD God and participate with Him in governance.
“God [Elohim] has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods [elohim] he holds judgment.”[Psalm 82:1]
So by studying the original language of the Old Testament, we can learn that the Hebrew word Elohim can be used for a variety of spiritual beings, including heathen gods, angelic messengers, heavenly beings, sons of God, and of course God Himself.
Now, I know what you may be thinking. This is beginning to sound a lot like pagan polytheism. Some of you may be thinking that to acknowledge other “gods” in the Bible is a direct threat to the traditional, Biblical understanding of monotheism, which would be the most serious heresy.
And that’s because from a western, modern, English speaking context, we automatically apply a specific set of divine attributes to the word “G-O-D,” that only the One True God can possess. We rightly affirm that God is the uncaused first cause and creator, eternal, self-sufficient, supreme, preeminent, superlative, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and immutable. These attributes only apply to the God of the Bible.
There is only One Uncreated Creator and Lord of the universe from whom, by whom and for whom everything else exists. In that strict sense, there is only One True God – Yahweh – the God of Israel. As the revelation of God progressed into the New Testament, we discovered that this One Supreme God exists in three distinct Persons of the Godhead — Father, Son and Spirit. And for the record, I fully affirm monotheism in this sense.
No ancient Israelite or 1st Century Jew would ever propose that pagan gods or angelic messengers are equal to the God of Israel. Far from it! Just because the word Elohim is used to describe a variety of spiritual beings — including the One True Creator God — does not mean the Old Testament audience believed in some form of polytheism.
In no way does the Biblical understanding of Elohim reduce the God of the Bible to being just one god among many equals. Quite the contrary. The Biblical authors go out of their way to ensure Yahweh is Holy, set apart, and fully distinct from all other created beings.
This is why we find verses like the one above that describes the LORD as the “God of gods and Lord of lords, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God.” [Deuteronomy 10:17] Moses is intentionally distinguishing the LORD God of Israel as the Elohim of elohim. He is supremely unique.
But at the same time, the ancient Israelites had a much more robust understanding of the spiritual realm than do most modern believers. Most church traditions — if they broach the subject at all — basically limit the spirit realm to God and the devil, while maybe sprinkling in a few angels and demons here or there.
A cursory reading of the Bible reveals how the Jews viewed Yahweh in comparison to all other spiritual beings, and honestly, without a better understanding of the reality and hierarchy of other, lesser divine beings in the spiritual realm, our Bibles just don’t make total sense.
For example, after crossing the Red Sea, Moses leads the children of Israel in a victory song where he says …
“Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods [elohim]? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?”[Exodus 15:11]
The Biblical authors distinguish Yahweh from lesser gods by using comparative language like what we find in Isaiah 37, where the prophet acknowledges the LORD God [Elohim] as the Creator of all.
“O LORD of hosts, God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God [Elohim], you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth.[Isaiah 37:16]
We read passages like Exodus 20:2-3, where the LORD prescribes His very first commandment to the people of Israel. He says …
“I am the LORD your God [Elohim], who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods [elohim] before me.”
Why would the LORD command His people to worship Him exclusively and forsake the other “gods” of the nations if these gods didn’t exist? Why would the ancient Israelites need to be reminded that Yahweh was superior to wooden idols and figments of the human imagination?
Unfortunately, because of a rigid and misinformed view of Biblical monotheism, that is precisely how many Christians perceive these other “gods.” They either limit them to graven images or disregard them altogether as imaginary beings — all because they are afraid that by acknowledging other, lesser gods exist somehow they would be violating the essential Biblical doctrine of monotheism.
Understanding the nature of the Elohim
One of the most helpful teachings on this topic comes from Dr. Michael Heiser — the resident Hebrew scholar for Logos Bible software. You can discover more about Dr. Heiser here on his website.
Heiser says that instead of automatically attributing a particular set of attributes to the Hebrew word, Elohim, we must understand the term to represent a category of beings that live in the unseen realm. In other words, to the ancient Israelite Elohim denoted any disembodied, divine being that lived in the spirit realm. Mankind lives on earth in a visible, physical world, while all Elohim, whether good or bad, live in the heavens, or the spirit world.
“Yahweh is inherently distinct and superior to all other gods. Yahweh is an elohim (a god), but no other elohim (gods) are Yahweh… Since God is a spirit, and in fact the supreme Spirit, and he is “father of all spirits” (Heb. 12:9), then the realm of the spirits is ‘where God lives.’ The beings who belong to the spirit realm are therefore ‘divine.’ The best word to capture that conception is elohim. An elohim is a divine being, in that an elohim is an inhabitant of the spiritual plane of reality.”[Dr. Michael Heiser — http://www.thedivinecouncil.com/What%20is%20an%20Elohim.pdf]
So just to recap. I have established that the Bible describes many different supernatural beings with a variety of attributes that reside in the spirit realm — all of which can be identified as Elohim in the Old Testament. Of these divine beings, only Yahweh – the God of Israel – is the One True God. He is unique and supreme to all other spiritual beings, or gods, as He alone is the Creator and Lord of all.
Yahweh is the God of gods and Lord of both heaven and earth. Furthermore, Jesus Christ is the Creator of all things both visible and invisible (John 1:1-4, Colossians 1:15-17, Hebrews 1:1-3.) All other Elohim are created beings and therefore inferior to the LORD.
Now that we can understand the spiritual realm within a proper Biblical context, we can begin to discover just who these other divine beings are and what is their role in God’s epic story of redemption.