From *The Skeptical Review*, 1991 / July-September:
by Farrell Till
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 revealed himself to them in dreams, apparitions, and other manifestations. It makes good sermon material, but there's just one thing wrong with it. It isn't true.
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 theology.
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) appeared 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 haelohim 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 monotheistic 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 Jephthah 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 elohim, 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 deserved respect.
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-elohim), 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 intended 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 homeborn,when he blasphemes the name of Yahweh, (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 blaspheming 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 polytheism 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 declared, "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 persisted. 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 worshiped 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 beside 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 inconsistency 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 polytheistic concepts.
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.