Many Bible-believers, both Jewish and Christian, believe that there is only one God. This belief, called monotheism, is often seen as a defining feature of the Abrahamic faiths, setting them apart from the polytheistic religions which teach that multiple gods exist.
Jews and Christians frequently assert that monotheism is the view taught by the Bible, and point to passages like Deuteronomy 6:4 as evidence (i.e., ‘Yahweh our God is one’). However, it turns out there are many passages in the Bible that indicate that the biblical authors believed in the existence of multiple deities. I have listed 5 such passages, although there are many others.
1. Judges 11:24
The Ammonites came to make war with the Israelites during the reign of Jephthah, the judge/military leader of Israel, because the Ammonites believed that the Israelites had taken land which should have belonged to the Ammonites (Judges 11:13). In an attempt to persuade the Ammonites not to attack, Jephthah sent messengers to the king of Ammon to argue that the land is rightfully Israel’s because they conquered the land after being attacked, and the land was therefore given to the Israelites by Yahweh their god (Judges 11:19-23). Jephthah’s messengers then say the following:
“Will you not possess what Chemosh your god gives you to possess? And all that Yahweh our God has dispossessed before us, we will possess?” (Judges 11:24)
From this sentence, it appears that Jephthah is granting that the Ammonite god Chemosh exists and provides land for the Ammonite people in the same way that the Israelite god Yahweh provides for his people. One could try to argue that Jephthah is only granting the existence of Chemosh for the sake of argument, without actually believing that Chemosh really exists, but in light of the next 4 verses that I will discuss below I think it’s best to take Jephthah’s statement at face value and accept that he understood Chemosh to be a real divine being.
2. Exodus 12:12
In the famous Exodus narrative, God tells Moses of his plan to kill all of the Egyptian firstborn (Exodus 11:4-6). But God commands the Israelites to put the blood of a lamb upon their doorposts so that when God sees the blood he will not kill any Israelites who are inside. After thoroughly explaining the procedure that the Israelites are to follow, God says:
“For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgements; I am Yahweh.” (Exodus 12:12)
In this verse God states that by killing off the firstborn of the Egyptians, he is casting judgement upon all of Egypt’s gods. It would be a silly thing for God to claim to judge beings that don’t exist. God’s statement presupposes the belief that Egypt’s gods are really divine beings who exist. Unlike the passage in Judges 11, there seems to be no way to avoid the conclusion that the biblical authors believed in the existence of many gods, and even portrayed their God as acknowledging the existence of other gods.
3. Exodus 15:11
Once the Israelites escape from the Egyptian authority in the culmination of the Exodus narrative, Moses composes a song which scholars today refer to as the Song of the Sea. Linguistic analysis of the Hebrew text of this poem indicates that it is significantly older than the surrounding Exodus narrative (there are several such instances of archaic Hebrew poetry preserved in the Hebrew Bible, including the Blessing of Jacob [Genesis 49], the Oracles of Balaam [Numbers 23-24], the Blessing of Moses [Deuteronomy 33], and the Song of Deborah [Judges 5]). Within this poem we find the following declaration of God’s greatness:
“Who is like you, O Yahweh, among the gods?
Who is like you, majestic in holiness,
awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” (Exodus 15:11)
In the first line, God is compared to the other gods who are implied to be lesser than the Israelite god Yahweh. We find statements like this repeated throughout the Psalms (see Psalm 86:8; 95:3; 96:4, etc.). It would be strange for an Israelite to compare God to imaginary beings. The idea seems to be that other gods existed, but they were understood to be less powerful than the God of Israel.
4. Deuteronomy 32:8-9
In Deuteronomy 32, we read a song which purports to have been recited by Moses to the Israelites. Like Exodus 15, Deuteronomy 32 also contains linguistic features which suggest an archaic origin. Near the beginning of the poem, we read the following:
“When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But Yahweh’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.” (Deuteronomy 32:8-9)
Scholars have suggested that this poetic unit reflects a time when the gods El and Yahweh were understood to be separate deities. In verse 8, we have a god referred to as ‘the Most High’ giving the nations as an inheritance to his sons. This god may have been the Canaanite god El, a suggestion which finds support in the fact that the phrase ‘sons of God’ can be reconstructed as ‘sons of El’ based on the Greek Septuagint and Qumran fragment (see the text-critical note in BHS). Thus, when we are told in verse 9 that Yahweh received the people of Jacob as “his allotted inheritance,” we can infer that Yahweh was originally seen as one of El’s inheriting sons. In the words of Mark Smith, an expert in ancient Hebrew and Canaanite literature:
“Deuteronomy 32:8-9 casts Yahweh in the role of one of the sons of El… This passage presents an order in which each deity received its own nation. Israel was the nation that Yahweh received.” (Smith, 8)
It is safe to assume that the author(s) of Deuteronomy probably did not see ‘the Most High’ as a distinct deity from Yahweh (see Heiser, 2006: 5-8), regardless of the original intent of the author of this archaic poetic unit. However, the fact remains that regardless of whether El is the Most High, allotting the nations to his divine sons (with Yahweh among them)—or whether Yahweh is the Most High, allotting the nations to his divine sons, we have a clear description of a pantheon of gods, each of whom is assigned a specific nation over which to rule. This theme is revisited in Psalm 82.
5. Psalm 82
The opening words of Psalm 82 are as follows:
“God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment.” (Psalm 82:1)
This passage is so clear in describing God as presiding over a council of deities, that further commentary is hardly needed. I will just mention that there is a common objection which asserts that the Hebrew word for ‘gods’ (אלהים) can sometimes refer to human judges rather than literal divine beings. The evidence garnered to bolster this interpretation is very weak and has been thoroughly refuted (see, for example, Heiser, 2010). But whereas Deuteronomy 32 has the nations being given to the divine council, Psalm 82 has the divine council being condemned and re-inherited by God:
“I said, ‘You are gods,
sons of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, like men you shall die,
and fall like any prince.’
Arise, O God, judge the earth;
for you shall inherit all the nations!” (Psalm 82:6-8)
It is clear from these texts that Yahweh was considered to be one of many gods in the literature of the ancient Israelites. Yahweh was certainly seen as the most powerful god from early on in Israel’s history, but he was by no means alone in the cosmos. True monotheism is not reflected in many passages of the Bible, which should make Jewish and Christian theists reconsider their theological presuppositions. As with God’s omniscience (see here), God’s alleged monotheistic nature is in contradiction with many early biblical texts—and so before Judeo-Christian thinkers attempt to make philosophical arguments for the existence of a monotheistic God, perhaps they should consider whether a biblical argument is possible.
[All Bible verses are taken from the ESV, but with ‘the LORD’ substituted for the divine name ‘Yahweh’ to better reflect the original Hebrew]
Photo credit: FreeImages.com/Seepsteen
Heiser, Michael S. “Are Yahweh and El Distinct Deities in Deut. 32:8-9 and Psalm 82?” LTBS Faculty Publications and Presentations, (2006).
Heiser, Michael S. “Should the Plural אלהים of Psalm 82 Be Understood as Men or Divine Beings?” Evangelical Theological Society Annual Meeting, (2010).
Mullen, E. T. Jr., The Assembly of the Gods – The Divine Council in Canaanite and Early Hebrew Literature (Brill Academic, 1980).
Smith, Mark S. The Early History of God – Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel (Eerdmans, 1990/2002).