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God and the Gods: Talking About Other Gods

December 3, 2012
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Generally speaking, we expect the stance that the Old Testament takes towards the gods of other religions to be simple denial. In fact, this isn’t always the case. Perhaps equally important and article-worthy is that quite a lot of people who point this out do so with great glee and confidence that it destroys some pillar of Christianity. Perhaps it does if one reads the Bible is a particular sort of way that I don’t care for but it certainly doesn’t need to destroy anything. However, before I begin to deal with what the Old Testament is doing when it isn’t doing what we expect with regard to pagan deities and how this should fit into our view of the Bible as a whole we need to cover some basic framework and wording issues.

Let’s start by outlining some of the approaches one can take towards other gods if one is basically hostile to the whole idea.

1) Henotheism. Henotheism is essentially theoretical polytheism welded onto practical monotheism. There are a number of gods recognized but one of them is the best god and the focus of worship. Realistically, henotheism exists on a continuum which on one end has monotheism with various quasi-divine attendants to the sole god and on the other has a king god who is marginally more powerful that his divine subjects, some of whom may even be in rebellion against him. Practical henotheism can also crop up when individuals come to believe that a particular deity is the only one for them regardless of the existence of others. The effect of henotheism is to suppress the outward practice of polytheism without challenging its intellectual basis.

2) Hostility. Simply put, one can pit one’s god against the false gods. This does not require one to deny that the other gods exist. Instead, it makes a basically henotheistic claim – only one god actually counts – but imagines that the other gods have not agreed to this and that there is war between the gods.

3) Takeover. This is somewhat related to hostility, but one way to get rid of the other gods is to put them out of business. Sometimes this involves direct confrontation but it often simply involves doing what the other gods do but better. In a hostile manner one’s monotheistic god could prevent a wine god from blessing the wine harvest. Why does the monotheistic god have power over grapes and wine, the purview of the wine god? Perhaps the wine god has become useless. In a less hostile manner the monotheistic god can bless the grape harvest and wine-making without any need to invoke the wine god. Again, the wine god becomes superfluous.

All three of these approaches appear in the Old Testament. But why? Why not simply deny the existence of other gods?

One reason (the one normally presented with the most gleeful shouting) is that the authors and principal subjects of the Old Testament may not have all been strict monotheists. Frankly, it’s not too hard to believe that some of the patriarchs were true henotheists or practical henotheists, believing that they were dealing with one god of many who happened to be a very trustworthy and powerful god. Some of the language in Genesis suggests that some people may have believed that Yahweh was their tribal god, a god for them but maybe not a god for everyone else or a god for the world.

Is this worrisome? No. People take a while to learn new ideas. Surely it is possible that God accepted the worship and service of people without being too concerned about whether they thought that there might be other useless gods. Over the long haul, strong henotheism becomes monotheism anyway – the do-nothing gods just wither on the vine. This brings us to our second point: the Old Testament may use the language of other gods to speak to people who aren’t sure about monotheism. Certain sections of the prophets transition pretty seamlessly from this sort of language where the idols of the nations are called on to give an account of themselves to a denunciation of the existence of a god behind the wood and metal of the idol. One begins with henotheism, hostility, or takeover and eventually says, “Look at the results. There must not have ever been another god here at all.”

Finally, the language of other gods may be used to speak of religions and systems. If you wish to attack the practices associated with Ba’al worship, it is simply easy to depict this in anti-Ba’al terms. It merely makes things confusing to say things like, “I do not believe in your god but I am against the thing that isn’t him, because he doesn’t exist, but which is your idea of him.” Instead, just set yourself against that other god. Later you can always claim (and this is often done) that the real issue was that the other god was no god at all.

In general, then, we can say that these other methods of handling the gods are all aimed at the same goal – the eventual extirpation of those gods. However, some methods of working towards this start more gently than flat denial.

In the coming articles I will examine actual instance of each of these methods of dealing with the other gods and discuss what these statements may be accomplishing.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 6, 2012 10:16 pm

    I have been interested in this topic for some time, but I haven’t yet done much study of it. One question – do you believe that there are passages of Scripture that state – or at least presuppose – that there are gods other than YHWH? Or do you merely believe that there are passages in Scripture that might seem to state or presuppose that there are other gods than YHWH, and that the original readers of those passages – if not also their authors – might have understood those passages to state or presuppose this, but that these passages don’t really state or presuppose this? In other words, if some passages of Scripture seem to say that there are gods other than YHWH, should we take at least some of those passages at face value and conclude that they really say that there are gods other than YHWH? Or should we say that no passage of Scripture really says this, and that all appearances to the contrary must be explained away? (It would be consistent with the latter answer to say that while the passages in question do not really say that there are gods other than YHWH, the original readers – and even perhaps the authors – of the passages in question may well have understood them differently.)

    One more question – if you think that some passages of Scripture really do say that there are gods other than YHWH, do you think that this refutes inerrantism, or do you think that accommodation (or other resources – such as rhetorical analyses) can be brought in here to save the truth of Scripture? I haven’t studied the relevant passages carefully, but I have read some scholarly discussions of them, and I was never convinced that the passages in question really do say that there are gods other than YHWH. For example, I thought that the apparent mention of other gods in some (though perhaps not all) of these passages was simply rhetorical.

    • Eric permalink
      December 6, 2012 10:28 pm

      That’s a huge question. Most of it is also the question this series is focused on and I’d rather not start on this complex and nuanced issue by attempting to condense it to a paragraph.

      However, as far as this all relates to innerrancy I don’t describe myself using that term which is both vague and unhelpful. In its most usual sense innerrancy is threatened by the way the Old Testament deals with other gods but innerrancy in that sense is also threatened by the fact that the Bible is not written like a textbook or user’s manual. I certainly don’t think the authority of the Bible is harmed.

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  1. God and the Gods: War Between the Gods « The Jawbone Of an Ass

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