Pages 2-4: summer 1991
YAHWEH, THE GOD OF GODS
Many Bible fundamentalists believe that while the nations around them
wallowed in the mire of polytheism the Hebrews practiced a strict monotheistic
religion. Their insight into the nature of the one true God Yahweh had
resulted, of course, from the personal relationships that Abraham and the
other Hebrew patriarchs had experienced with Yahweh, who had routinely re-
vealed himself to them in dreams, apparitions, and other manifestations. It
makes good sermon material, but there's just one thing wrong with it. It
The early Hebrews believed in polytheism as much as the nations around
them. They thought of Chemosh, Molech, Milcom, Baal, Dagon, and the other
pagan gods as deities who were just as real as their own god Yahweh. They
just thought that Yahweh was greater and mightier than the others, a sort of
supergod or, in other words, the God of gods (Josh. 22:22). Monotheism or
the belief that Yahweh was the only God was a late development in Jewish
The evidence for this is too clear to dispute. There is, first of all, the
peculiar fact that the Hebrews, when not referring to him by his personal
name Yahweh, generally used a plural word (elohim) to designate their god.
Literally, it meant gods rather than god. In the original Hebrew, therefore,
Genesis 1:1 is actually saying, "In the beginning gods created the heavens
and the earth." It seems strange that a people with a clear concept of
monotheism, as bibliolaters claim that the Hebrews had, would have used a
plural word in referring to the one and only true god. It would be somewhat
like an English writer using men to refer to a man.
Bible writers did in fact often use the singular word el (god) in obvious
reference to Yahweh. Genesis 21:23 states that "Abraham planted a tamarisk
tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of Yahweh, the Everlasting
El" (Bethel Translation). In Genesis 31:13, an "angel of God" (elohim) ap-
peared to Jacob in a dream and said, "I am the El of Bethel...." Other
instances when Yahweh Elohim was called El can be found in Genesis 35:1,3;
43:14; 46:3; 48:3; 49:25; Exodus 15:2; 20:5; 34:6 and numerous other places.
It happened enough to indicate that Bible writers had some difficulty deciding
whether to call their Yahweh elohim (gods) or el (god). To say the least,
this does not indicate a clear grasp of monotheistic concepts.
Bibliolaters will quickly protest that the Hebrews used the plural word
elohim when referring to their god Yahweh only to show awe and respect. It
was "the plural of dignity," they claim, a way of expressing the majesty and
greatness of God. Some even think they see an early recognition of the
triune godhead in the plural term elohim. In Genesis 1:26, Elohim said, "Let
us make man in our image, after our likeness," and after Adam and Eve had
sinned, Yahweh Elohim said, "Behold the man is become as one of us" (Gen.
3:22). What could these statements be, bibliolaters ask, except the three
persons in the one godhead talking?
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. One thing is sure: Old Testament writers often
seemed confused about whether they intended the word elohim to mean their
god Yahweh or gods in a definite plural sense. When Yahweh alone was
meant, they usually referred to him as Elohim without the article ha (the),
and if Elohim (Yahweh) was the subject of the sentence, a singular verb was
used even though elohim was a plural noun. The creative god of Genesis 1,
for example, is called Elohim, without the article ha (the), some thirty times.
In places like Exodus 12:12, however, where "the gods of Egypt" were
referred to, the same word elohim was used but with the article ha, ha-elohim
(the gods). In Genesis 35:7, English translations state that Jacob built an
altar at Bethel "because there God was revealed to him," but the Hebrew text
literally states that the gods (ha-elohim) were revealed (niglu). The addition
of the u sound to a Hebrew verb made it plural much in the same way that
the addition of an "s" to a verb in English makes it third-person singular, so
in this case, the Bible was really saying that the gods were revealed to
Jacob, not God was revealed to him. 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. Most English readers have
not researched the Bible enough to be aware that these things have been
done; hence, they naively believe that the Hebrews had a consistently mono-
theistic concept of God all through their history when in reality monotheism
was a late development in their theology.
There are many passages in the Old Testament that indicate belief that
the pagan deities were real gods. Jephthah said in his message to the king
of the Ammonites during a dispute over territory the Israelites had taken on
their way out of Egypt, "Will you not possess that which Chemosh your elohim
gives you to possess? So whomever Yahweh our Elohim has dispossessed from
before us, them will we possess" (Judges 11:24, BB). Since there were no
capital letters in Hebrew to show the distinction the translators arbitrarily
made in capitalizing elohim as it referred to Yahweh, it is obvious that Jepht-
hah considered Chemosh of the Ammonites to be elohim in the same sense that
Yahweh was the elohim of Israel. He was contending that Yahweh, his elo-
him, had given the Israelites certain territories just as Chemosh, the elohim
of the Ammonites, had given them certain lands and that the two nations
should therefore be content with the arrangements of their respective gods.
Furthermore, we have to wonder at this point if Jephthah intended elohim as
a "plural of dignity" when he applied it to the singular deity Chemosh. If
not, why not? If it expressed dignity and respect when applied to Yahweh,
then why would it not mean the same when applied to another deity? So if
there is any merit at all to the plural-of- dignity argument, we have in this
passage a clear indication that Chemosh was considered a real god who de-
That pagan gods should indeed be respected was often indicated in the
Old Testament. Exodus 22:28 says, "Thou shalt not revile the gods (ha-elo-
him), nor curse the ruler of thy people" (KJV). Despite the inclusion of the
article ha, as shown in the parentheses, most translations have tried to hide
the fact that gods in general were probably intended by rendering ha-elohim
God (singular) with a capital "G" and no article. Deliberate deceptions of
translation like this have kept English readers from seeing many things that
would be damaging to traditional Judeo-Christian doctrines, in this case an
apparent polytheistic concept in early Hebrew history.
Leviticus 24:10-23 tells the story of the son of an Israelite-Egyptian
marriage who had been heard blaspheming "the Name" during a fight. The
man was put in ward until what should be done to him "might be declared to
them at the mouth of Yahweh" (v:12). Upon inquiring, Moses was told by
Yahweh to have the congregation stone the man to death. "And you shall
speak to the children of Israel, saying," Yahweh declared, "Whoever curses
his Elohim shall bear his sin. And he that blasphemes the name of Yahweh,
he shall surely be put to death" (vv:15-16). The capitalization of elohim in
this passage was a purely arbitrary interpretation of the Bethel translators,
because there were no capital letters in Hebrew, so the word could just as
well have been translated gods: "Whoever curses
his gods shall bear his sin...."
Is there any reason to believe that the plural concept of gods was intend-
ed in the statement? There very definitely is. Two distinct offenses seem to
have been under consideration: (1) whoever curses his gods shall bear his
sin, but (2) he that blasphemes the name of Yahweh shall surely be put to
death. In other words, cursing one's gods was just considered a sinful
offense, but cursing the name of Yahweh was an offense punishable by death.
The text implies that the man who was charged in this case wasn't a Hebrew.
Although his mother was an "Israelitish woman," his father was Egyptian.
That he possibly believed in Egyptian gods was suggested in the last half of
verse 16 when Yahweh said that "as well the sojourner, as the home-
born,when he blasphemes the name of Yah-weh, (he) shall be put to death."
This man may have been a sojourner (foreigner), but notice was being served
by his execution that a more serious penalty would be extracted for blasphem-
ing Yahweh than for cursing other gods. So whatever dubious value this
fanciful little tale might have, it at least seems to be saying that the Hebrews
thought pagan gods were real. If not, why would they have considered it
sinful to curse gods that didn't even exist?
Passages in the Old Testament that show an early Hebrew belief in polythe-
ism are too numerous to examine in detail. I can cite only a few random
ones. After the Israelites had crossed the Red Sea, for example, they sang a
hymn of praise to Yahweh in which they said, "Who is like unto you, O
Yahweh, among the elohim (gods)?" (Ex. 15:11). So obviously was the word
elohim intended in this verse to convey the concept of gods in general that
even the biased Bethel translators have printed it with a lowercase "e," but
unless the Hebrews who sang these words believed that other gods existed, it
would have made no sense at all for them to ask who among the gods was like
unto their god Yahweh. In Psalm 95:3, it was declared that "Yahweh is a
great El (god) and a great King above all elohim (gods)." But how could
this psalmist have believed Yahweh was greater than other gods unless he
believed that other gods existed to compare Yahweh to? Psalm 86:8 de-
clared, "There is none like you among the elohim, O Yahweh." However, if
the psalmist thought that Yahweh was the only god, his words of praise were
completely meaningless. It would be as if someone said of the Eiffel Tower,
"There are no Eiffel Towers like unto the Eiffel Tower." To say, however,
that there are no towers like unto the Eiffel Tower grants clear recognition
that other towers exist, and so it was when the Hebrews said that there were
no gods like their god Yahweh. They were clearly indicating their belief that
other gods existed.
Even as late as Solomon, belief in the reality of pagan gods still persist-
ed. In declaring his plans to build a temple to Yahweh, Solomon said, "Great
is our God above all gods" (2 Chron. 2:5). How could he have thought his
god was greater than the other gods unless he believed other gods existed?
Since in this case Solomon himself eventually resorted to idolatry (1 Kings
11:4-8), he very obviously believed pagan gods were real. In this respect,
Solomon wasn't at all unusual. Throughout the Old Testament, Yahweh was
compared to other gods in ways that showed a belief in the realness of the
others. He was called "God of gods and Lord of Lords, a great God" (Deut.
10:17), but how could he have been God of gods unless other gods existed?
The same comparison was made in Joshua 22:22 and Psalm 136:2-3. To the
Hebrews, Yahweh was simply "God of gods," the greatest and mightiest of
many existing gods. To deny this is to make all the words of Yahwistic
praise like those just quoted completely meaningless.
Fundamentalists will of course point out that many Bible passages clearly
teach that Yahweh was the one and only God. At the dedication of the
temple, Solomon said to the people that "Yahweh is God, and there is none
else" (1 Kings 8:60). (This was the same Solomon who shortly afterwards
worshipped other gods, so we have to wonder just how strongly he believed
what he said.) Moses also said that "Yahweh is God; there is no other be-
side him" (Deut. 4:35). So no one will dispute that the Bible in many places
says that there is only one God, but trying to disprove that polytheism was
believed by some Bible characters and writers by just quoting passages that
clearly teach monotheism is to miss the point entirely. The contention of The
Skeptical Review is that, contrary to what fundamentalists preach from their
pulpits, the Bible is an inconsistent, contradictory book. The conflicting
polytheistic-monotheistic views of its writers is just one example of its incon-
sistency and contradiction, so bibliolaters can't satisfactorily explain the
problem by simply referring to the passages that appear to teach monotheism.
Pitting scripture against scripture in this way only confirms the premise on
which this publication was founded: there are obvious contradictions in the
Bible. To satisfactorily resolve this matter, they will have to show that the
passages I have presented and explicated in this article don't really teach
I don't think they can do that. In Exodus 12:12, Yahweh said that on
the night of the Passover he would execute judgment "against all the gods of
Egypt." But how can judgment be executed against something that doesn't
even exist? This is what bibliolaters must explain, because whoever wrote
Exodus 12:12 clearly believed that the gods of Egypt were real gods.
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