“You shall have no other gods before me.”Exodus 20:3
I studied the Bible intently for many years, completed a seminary degree, sat under excellent teaching, planted a church, and preached hundreds of sermons before I ever learned the true identity of the “gods” of the Old Testament. Looking back, especially knowing now what I didn’t know then, it baffles me that the church overwhelmingly has misinterpreted and ignored one of the most significant themes in all of Scripture.
Yahweh vs. the “gods” of the nations
Like me, the majority of Christians reading through the Old Testament almost certainly have never been taught how to interpret the real nature of the “gods” through Biblical lenses. Unfortunately, whenever the term “gods” — Hebrew elohim — is mentioned in Scripture, our minds have been preconditioned to automatically categorize them one of two ways.
- The false gods of the nations aren’t real, spiritual beings, but rather figments of the human imagination.
- The gods of the Old Testament are just man-made idols of wood, stone, or metal, and therefore no real threat to God and His people.
If this is what you have always believed about these “gods,” then I only ask you to keep an open mind and consider what the Bible really says on this critical topic.
The LORD is One
“Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”Deuteronomy 6:4
Monotheism — or the worship of One God — is foundational to the Judeo-Christian worldview. Belief in the One True God is essential to our faith and is one of the core doctrines that must never be compromised.
The unique nature of Yahweh — the LORD GOD — becomes even more clearly expressed when compared and contrasted against the backdrop of pagan idolatry and historical polytheism — or the belief and worship of many gods. Whereas the pagan nations traditionally have worshiped a pantheon of other gods, the God of the Bible has distinguished Himself as both Creator and Lord over all in heaven and earth. As the One True God, Yahweh expects total allegiance and exclusive worship.
How should we understand monotheism in light of this reality, however?
When we affirm that there is only One God and Creator of the universe, does that mean that we must automatically eliminate the possibility of the existence of other “gods,” or can we interpret monotheism in a different way? In other words, is the existence of Yahweh — the Most High God – mutually exclusive with other gods?
“To you it was shown, that you might know that the LORD is God; there is no other besides him … know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other.”Deuteronomy 4:35, 39
For example, when the Bible speaks of Yahweh in terms of being the “only” God, or that there is “no other” god besides Him, are we supposed to interpret such terms in a strict sense, meaning that Yahweh is all by Himself in the heavens? Or should we understand such phrases through the lenses of comparative language?
Strict monotheism doesn’t allow for the existence of other gods because doing so might in some way degrade or trivialize the unique and exclusive nature of the God of the Bible. What I have discovered, however, is that Biblical monotheism is not strict in that sense. Not only does the Bible allow for the existence of other “gods,” but also the Biblical narrative becomes incoherent unless the gods of the nations are indeed real, spiritual entities.
You Shall Have No Other gods
When it comes to Scripture, it doesn’t get more basic than the 10 Commandments. Interestingly enough, the LORD’s very first commandment to His people was the strict prohibition against serving and worshiping other “gods,” or elohim. By placing this commandment at the top of the list, the God of Israel clearly established precedent and priority in regard to His relationship with His people. He expected believing loyalty and total fidelity from the children of Israel. Nothing less.
Now notice a few critical components about this commandment. First, the LORD refers to “gods,” not idols. Granted, there is a Biblical connection between graven images and the gods of the Old Testament [i.e. the 2nd Commandment], and I will spend considerable time on the relationship between the two later, but for now, I believe it is imperative that we take the commandments one at a time.
Again, the Hebrew word used here is elohim, which is significant because elohim always refers to real, spiritual beings. Even Yahweh Himself is called God — Elohim — well over 2,000 times in the Old Testament. Yahweh is a spirit, an Elohim, and there are many other elohim in the spirit realm. However, no other elohim is Yahweh. He is unique.
Consider the following Scriptures that contrast Yahweh with lesser gods.
“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
“For You, O LORD, are Most High over all the earth; You are exalted far above all gods.”Psalm 97:9
Now I would like to ask a critical question at this time.
If the First Commandment is to be taken seriously, why would the LORD GOD of Israel strictly forbid the worship of other gods if they didn’t exist? Why would other gods even be considered a legitimate alternative to Yahweh if they were merely figments of the imagination? Why would the LORD place such high priority on warning Israel about turning to other gods if they weren’t real?
I think we know the answer. It is absurd to think that the LORD would place so much emphasis on beings that don’t exist!
The truth is that these other “gods” indeed are real and pose a legitimate threat both to the purposes and people of God. These gods are responsible for leading the nations into generational idolatry and spiritual depravity of the worst kind and continue to manipulate millions to this day. This is why the cosmic mission of Jesus is so inextricably bound to His earthy mission. Christ came to redeem for Himself a people for His own possession from every “nation,” which means saving them from grasp of the gods!
As we will see next time, the Biblical story of redemption cannot be told without an accurate view of this epic battle between Yahweh and the gods of the nations, and the deeper we dig into the Scriptures, the more we will discover about the true identity of these hostile gods who continue to wage war against the Most High.