Pages 5-7, 12: summer 1991
JEHOVAH, THE ONE AND ONLY GOD
In Farrell Till's article. "Yahweh, the God of Gods," he took the position
that "(m)onotheism or the belief that Yahweh was the only God was a late
development in Jewish theology." Mr. Till affirms that the early Hebrews
believed in polytheism.
Let it first be said that Abram was the first person referred to as a
Hebrew. In fact, he is "the Hebrew" (Gen. 14:13). From the time that
Jehovah called Abram out of Ur of the Chaldees to the time of his death,
there is no evidence of his adopting a polytheistic stance. He was one who
trusted the pronouncements of Jehovah, and he was characterized by unwav-
ering obedience (cf. Gen. 15:6; 22:9-19; Rom. 4:16-25). He recognized
Jehovah as the Judge of all the earth (Gen. 18:25).
That some of Abram's descendants came to be influenced by pagan views,
this writer would not begin to deny. At times many Israelites adopted views
of their neighbors. But to suggest that monotheism was a late development in
Jewish theology is wrong.
Even Jehovah would speak of "gods." But such did not mean that He was
affirming their actual or ontological existence. He forbade Israel's having
"gods" of silver or gold (Ex. 20:23), reference being made not to metaphysi-
cal existents but to idols. He would tolerate no graven images (Ex. 20:4-5).
When Israel attempted to identify Jehovah with idols or when she adopted
pagan views regarding the actual existence of some other god or gods other
than Jehovah, she sinned (Ex. 20:3,23; 32:4ff; Num. 25:1-5).
Mr. Till thinks that the use of Elohiym in Genesis 1 indicates that the
Bible writer was polytheistic in thinking. But this is a mistake. Though Mr.
Till discounts it, it is still true that reference is being made to the Godhead
(cf. Col. 2:9; Acts 17:29). Verses 26-27 indicate plural personality sharing
divine essence or nature. Clearly, the words "Let us make man in our image"
would be confusing if plural personality were not intended. Elohiym when
referring to Jehovah refers to that plural personality aspect of the One ulti-
mate divine essence. The word has both singular and plural uses. That is,
this plural form word can be used with reference to several gods (Ex.
18:11), or it can refer to only one (1 Sam. 17:26).
Mr. Till suggests that "Bible writers did in fact often use the singular
word el (god) in obvious reference to Yahweh." But Bible writers also used
the same singular form word to refer to a false god (Is. 43:10) that had no
To suggest that Bible writers didn't have a clear concept of the one God
because they would use El and then Elohiym is an inaccurate assessment.
The basic idea conveyed by El seems to be that of power. But Elohiym when
referring to Jehovah would capture the idea of plural personality. God is the
sum of His parts. There are three parts which equal one God.
Mr. Till said, "In this article, I won't get involved in discussing the
absurdities of the trinity doctrine except to say that the Hebrew usage of
elohim to designate their tribal god could very well have been a vestigial
expression from their distinctly polytheistic days." But the "could have"
support for his view is no proof.
The fact that a Bible writer will use El and then Elohiym in the same
context in reference to the same Being shows that the procedure is (1) delib-
erate, (2) significant, and (3) consistent.
Consider Genesis 35:1-2:
And God (Elohiym, MD) said unto Jacob, Arise, go up to
Bethel, and dwell there: and make there an altar unto God (El,
MD) that appeared unto thee when thou fledest from the face of
Esau thy brother. Then Jacob said unto his household, and to
all that were with him, Put away the strange gods (elohiym) that
are among you....
Surely, no one wants to contend that the God who talked to Jacob and
instructed him to build an altar was authorizing Jacob to build it to an entire-
ly different God. And yet, without hesitancy, both El and Elohiym are em-
ployed. And then in verse 2, foreign or strange gods are referred to by
elohiym as well. Thus, Elohiym can be utilized in reference to plural false
gods or to plural personalities composing the one true God.
When Mr. Till says, "If space permitted, I could cite many examples like
this where English translations have deceptively rendered ha-elohim as God
and its plural verbs as singulars," he wrongly makes accusation. Consider
that in Genesis 35:1 it is said that God El appeared to Jacob when he fled
from Esau. In verse 7 it is said that God (Elohiym) appeared to him when he
fled from Esau. So, both a singular form word and a plural form word are
used to refer to the same divine Being. Since this God claims to be One in
actual divine nature (Dt. 6:4), there would be no point to represent Him in
language that would suggest a polytheism. And the writer of the first five
books of the Bible, when referring to God and to gods, must be understood
in the light of his own view that there were actually existing no gods at all.
Jehovah does exist (Dt. 4:35).
Mr. Till suggests that in Exodus 22:28 "the gods" is probably intended to
be "gods in general." I would suggest that it would be more in keeping with
other pronouncements of Jehovah as well as with the remainder of the verse
to suggest that "the gods" in this passage refer to human leaders (cf. Ex.
21:6; Ps. 82:6; Jn. 10:34).
The position is taken by Mr. Till that in Leviticus 24:15 "God" (Elohiym,
MD) should be translated "gods." This writer concurs with the translation
"God" as referring to the Lord (cf. v. 16). If "gods" were the correct
translation, it would be a reference to human leaders, not to false foreign
Mr. Till cites several passages that, according to him, prove an early
Hebrew belief in polytheism. He referred to Exodus 15:11, Psalm 95:3, Psalm
86:8, II Chronicles 2:5, I Kings 11:4-8, Deuteronomy 10:17, Joshua 22:22,
and Psalm 136:2-3. And he then pointed out that certain passages like I
Kings 8:60 and Deuteronomy 4:35 affirm the existence of only one God. So
Mr. Till concludes that the Bible contradicts itself. He concluded his article
by saying that "whoever wrote Exodus 12:12 clearly believed that the gods of
Egypt were real gods."
Without going into a detailed response to each passage, I desire here to
merely make several observations that must be kept in mind when dealing with
ONE: It is a fact that the Old Testament teaches the actual existence of
only one God (Dt. 4:35,39; 6:4; 32:39). Any interpretation of any passage
that puts Bible writers in contradiction with themselves in this basic affirma-
tion is forced, unnecessary, and unwarranted.
TWO: The one true God is composed of three personalities, the sum of
whose parts constitutes God (Gen. 1:26-27; Col. 2:9; Acts 17:29; Matt.
THREE: The Bible provides accounts of action that involve men (at times
even Israelites) who are worshippers of a false god or gods (Num. 25:1-5;
Acts 14:8-18; 17:16-34).
FOUR: When a Bible writer records the failure of Israelites to faithfully
adhere to the worship of the one true God, such records do not show that
the writer himself is involved in such failure (Jer. 9:14; 17:1-2).
FIVE: Bible writers at times compare God with gods, but such a compari-
son in language does not commit the writer to affirming the actual existence
of any god. Such a comparison is made because the "gods" are thought to
exist by some, and the comparison made indicates the powerfulness of God,
and the powerlessness of the gods. A Bible writer can do what Elijah did (I
Kings 18). Elijah said to the prophets of Baal, "And call ye on the name of
your god, and I will call on the name of Jehovah: and the God that answereth
by fire, let him be God..." (v. 24). Such terminology does not prove that
Elijah actually thought that Baal had real ontological existence at all, but that
a comparison between Baal and Jehovah was intended at the contest on Mt.
Carmel is clear. Some thought Baal was real, and so Elijah's comments indicat-
ed that, but he never affirmed the existence of such (cf. v. 21).
SIX: The failure of pagans (or Israelites even) to realize that Jehovah
was the only God and not merely a superior god in no way implicates Bible
writers as participants in the failure. At times, pagans thought of Israel's
God as simply one among many (I Kings 20:23; Num. 14:15-16; II Chron.
32:9-14). Some non-Jews came to realize that Jehovah was the only God (cf.
Josh. 2:11; II Kings 5:17-19).
SEVEN: If Jehovah could speak of "gods" and not affirm their actual
existence, the Bible writers could do the same. Israel was to have no other
gods (Ex. 20:3). This was a prohibition against all false gods (gods--sup-
posed deities who are not real). There are, according to Paul, "gods many,
and lords many" as far as human thinking goes, and yet there really is one
God, the Father, and one Lord, Jesus Christ (I Cor. 8:5-6). But one can
talk of "gods" as concepts in the minds of men without affirming their actual
The real issue between Mr. Till and me on this topic is not whether at
some point non-Jews and Jews themselves were polytheists but whether when
a Bible writer speaks of "gods" he has automatically committed himself to the
affirmation of their actual existence as ontological beings. If Jehovah can
claim to be the only God and yet speak of "gods" (thus not affirming their
existence), then no one can prove that a Bible writer when speaking of
"gods" must mean that they really do exist as actual beings.
(Mac Deaver's address is 1200 Bowie, Wellington, TX 79095.)
EDITOR'S NOTE: In reference to my suggestion that the Hebrew usage of the
plural elohim could have been "a vestigial expression from their distinctly
polytheistic days," Mr. Deaver said that "'could have' support for his (Till's)
view is no proof" and then proceeded to give us could-have, would-be, and
seems-to-be "explanations" of why apparent polytheistic applications of elohim
didn't necessarily mean that the writers believed in the real existence of
gods. He theorized, for example, that Bible writers in using both el and
elohim to refer to Yahweh seemed to be making a distinction between his
power and his plural personality. By his own rule of hermeneutics, however,
he can't resort to this explanation as a way out of the problem, because
"seems-to-be support" for his view is no proof.
Hebrew scholars do think that the word el was derived from a root that
meant "strength or power," but elohim is a plural derivative of the same root.
A plural of anything is always more or greater than a singular, so why would
the Hebrew writers have resorted to the singular el to convey an idea of
power when the plural could have conveyed it even better? In this seems-to-
be solution, Mr. Deaver actually has no solution at all. We still must wonder
why Bible writers seemed confused about whether to call Yahweh elohim or
Mr. Deaver asserts that the usage of el and elohim "in the same context
in reference to the same Being shows that the procedure is... deliberate."
In this, he shows a profound misunderstanding of the mechanics of writing.
In twenty-six years of teaching college writing, I have learned that writers
unconsciously make all sorts of mistakes in the struggle to transfer ideas from
the mind to the writing surface. In the same context, they will use both
singular and plural pronouns to refer to the same antecedent. This process is
not deliberate; it is an act of carelessness done while the writer is striving to
shape his thoughts into comprehensible language.
How then can we know that the use of both el and elohim in the same
context to refer to the same entity was the result of deliberation rather than
the confusion of writers who lacked clear concepts of monotheism? Mr.
Deaver quoted Genesis 35:1-2 as an example of where Yahweh was called
elohim in one sentence and then el in the next. In the same context, elohim
was used in reference to the "strange gods" in the land Jacob was then living
in. Mr. Deaver doesn't see anything confusing about this?
In this passage, Yahweh was speaking (allegedly) and referred to himself
as both elohim and el. "Surely," Deaver said, "no one wants to contend that
the God who talked to Jacob and instructed him to build an altar was author-
izing Jacob to build it to an entirely different God." Deaver then cited other
passages where Yahweh (allegedly) referred to pagan gods as elohim. "If
Jehovah could speak of 'gods' and not affirm their actual existence," Deaver
concluded, "the Bible writers could do the same." However, I must call Mr.
Deaver's attention to the word I have twice used parenthetically in this
paragraph. Yahweh allegedly referred to himself as both el and elohim, and
Yahweh allegedly used elohim in reference to pagan gods. Just because a
Bible writer said that Yahweh said thus-and-so doesn't automatically make it
true. It just could be that the ones who wrote these passages only thought
that Yahweh had appeared to so-and-so and said this- or-that. Mr. Deaver
wants us to give him the concession all fundamentalists insist upon. He
wants us to assume that everything the Bible says, no matter what it may be,
is absolute truth. But we won't concede him that advantage. He cannot
prove Bible inerrancy by simply assuming Bible inerrancy.
He said "(i)t is a fact (NOTE, p. 12) that the old Testament teaches
the actual existence of only one God" and then concluded from this that
"(a)ny interpretation of any passage that puts Bible writers in contradiction
with themselves in this basic affirmation is forced, unnecessary, and unwar-
ranted," but to take such a position is a resort to the logical fallacy I just
noted: trying to prove Bible inerrancy by simply assuming Bible inerrancy.
I have admitted (p. 4) that many passages in the Bible clearly teach monothe-
ism. That does not mean, however, that other passages do not convey poly-
theistic concepts. To argue that no passage in the Bible could possibly be
teaching polytheistic concepts because some passages undeniably teach mono-
theism is to assume that the Bible does not contradict itself. This is un-
sound, illogical reasoning. The meaning of an idea must be determined within
the context of what that writer said and not by comparison to what another
writer said somewhere else. On the matter now in dispute, it would be
possible that one writer was polytheistic whereas the other was monotheistic.
Of all the shortcomings of Deaver's rebuttal, however, the most damaging
was his failure to explain away statements made by Bible characters and
writers that showed an obvious belief in the reality of pagan gods. To
express the majesty and greatness of Yahweh, Bible writers called him "the
God of gods," but if there were no other gods, the comparison is totally
meaningless. Although he sacrificed his own daughter as a burnt-offering,
Jephthah was nevertheless listed as a great hero of faith in Hebrews 11:32.
He considered Chemosh to be elohim to the Amorites as much as Yahweh was
elohim to the Israelites. He thought that Chemosh had given the Amorites
certain territory to possess in the same way that Yahweh had given the Is-
raelites a territory to possess (Judges 11:24). Passages like this pose a
serious problem for Mr. Deaver that he did not and cannot explain away.
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