There are some things that are just not up for debate when it comes to deciding what to believe as Christians. One of those things is that there is only one God.There are not household gods, city gods, and gods for different parts of nature and culture. There is only one God (Deut 6:4). There are many things we can disagree on and have different opinions about. But as Christians this is something we must all agree on. The moment you say there are multiple “gods” running around and Jehovah God is just one amongst many you lose the very essence of Christianity because you put God in competition for authority with others and scripture makes it clear that is not the case.
You probably learned in school about ancient mythology and the gods of the Greeks. There were different gods with different areas of responsibility. You have the god of war and the goddess of wisdom. The same was true of other ancient cultures including many cultures that surrounded and were concomitant with the ancient Hebrews. The Egyptians, Canaanites, Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Persians, and many others celebrated and worshiped multiple gods. For instance, you remember when Cyrus became king of Persia and he sent the Jews back to Israel and reversed their exile/captivity. He wasn’t just being a nice guy. His belief was that if he could let all these nations the now conquered Babylonians had dispersed all over the place go back home and worship their gods on their own soil that his kingdom would prosper and that the gods would show him favor.
The importance of studying contemporary culture:
We see this reflected in scripture in many places. In fact, having a cursory understanding of how the surrounding cultures viewed their “gods” can have a dramatic impact on how we read and understand scripture. Like any document we study, it is important to try to understand their culture so that we can try to hear things like they heard them. When we do that, many texts we have read many times will sound different to us and meanings we never noticed before will jump out at us because we are hearing the text with an understanding of their own background.
How did cultures develop the idea of multiple gods?
It all comes down to power/control and survival. Strip away all your ideas of science and scripture and stand in a time 6000 years ago where man is doing what man has always tried to do – understand and make sense of the world around him. The number one concern is survival. The number one means of survival is food. The factors that make having food abundant include factors out of our control (sun, rain, etc). Logically, if man is dependent on food for survival and the food/crops are dependent on sun and rain for survival then wouldn’t it make sense that the rain and sun might also depend on something greater than themselves?
The ancients believed that if you could name a power you might find a way to control or manipulate that power for your own good. This is what idolatry comes down to. We often think people made idols because they wanted something to worship. But it is more than that. They make idols are representations of beings they believe live above and apart from us in an effort to give that god glory and praise in hopes that the god might show them favor. So idol worship is a selfish act of manipulation and control rather than worshiping something out of love, respect, and adoration. There is no commitment when it comes to worshiping and idol. If it doesn’t answer, find yourself another god who might and make an idol of him to try to manipulate and control. We see hints of that in Mark 9:38 where the disciples complain that they found a man casting out demons in Jesus name and they wanted to stop him. There is an example of this in Acts 19 with the sons of Sceva where the attempt fails. Ancient culture believed there was power and authority in a name.
So what did they do? They named gods for the areas they believed could be manipulated for their own good (sun, rain, sea, fertility, etc). We read about some of these in the Old Testament. Baal was the god of the storm/rain/lightning and fertility. Asherah was goddess of the sea. We find examples of how they used the gods to explain the cycles of nature. The Canaanites explained the seasons by saying that Baal (god of fertility and the storm) would get together with Anat (goddess of war) and they would make sweet lovin which would result in springtime. A short while later Mot, god of death, would come and slay Baal in a great cosmic battle. With the ceasing of rains and fertility came winter time. Anat was none to please so she came and retrieved Baal’s body, putting him back together. Then they could make love again and bring on the spring time the following year.
gods like us:
What is interesting in this example is you notice when man makes up gods they sound a lot like man. They are killing each other having incestuous relationships and on and on the list could go of evil cruelties they doled out against each other in an effort to gain dominance and superiority. These are gods made in the image of mankind.
It is quite unlike what we find in scripture. In scripture, the one true God is holy and other than us. He does not vie for power. He does not have competition for authority. We are made in his image and not the other way around. In fact, the creation story is a direct attack on the gods of the land and a competing narrative for how this world began that shows Jehovah God being greater than the powers of the universe. For instance, the Canaanites believed in Yam, the god of the sea (which is also the Hebrew word for sea). They believed he was a god of chaos, just as the sea is an unpredictable place. When you read in Genesis 1 that God created the heavens and the earth and that by just his words alone his brought control over the seas and put them in their place. This is a direct attack against pagan idolatry and polytheism. God is in charge of the heavens, not El and not Baal. God has power over the sea not Yam or Asherah.
Not only that but Jehovah God is interested in us. He is not distant and unconcerned or uncommitted. He has exerted himself into our situation in order to bring salvation and reconciliation to his creation. He is not self-absorbed or self-interested. He cares for us! That is quite unlike the “gods” of the world.
Reading the Bible with this in mind:
Creation – There are several places in scripture where this impacts our reading. The creation account was already mentioned.
Exodus – A second place we see this is in the Exodus. There is a little verse tucked into Exodus 12:12 where we learn that the plagues of Egypt were done in judgment of the Egyptian gods. It is an easy verse to pass right over but it sheds light on what was happening with the plagues in Exodus 7. God was putting the “gods” of Egypt in their place. Think about it for a moment. What Egyptian gods can you name? Probably Re, god of the sun. How do the plagues address him? The plague of darkness is a slap in his face and shows his authority and power to be zero. The Egyptians had a god for the Nile, a god for the frogs and even Pharaoh himself was believed to be a god. God put them all in their place and showed his own control over them. Nahum Sarna even points out that Heqt, the frog god, also had connections with fertility/childbirth. So it could be a double slap in the face for killing the Hebrew baby boys (Exploring Exodus, 79).
It would then make sense that when God gives them the 10 commandments in Exodus 20 that he would start with establishing himself as supreme.
“And God spoke all these words:
“I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God…”
God is showing himself to have supreme authority even over the “gods” they saw the Egyptians worship for the last 400 years. And remember, the Egyptians were successful people. They would appear to be blessed by the gods with all they were able to accomplish. Yet, God establishes himself among his people as superior and of greater authority than anything they saw in Egypt.
Conquest – A third place we see this influence is in the conquest of the Promised Land. We often have trouble with the book of Joshua because of the killing of innocent women and children. It is a difficult thing to explain away. Deuteronomy does give us some insight as does this discussion on foreign gods and the mindset that comes along with them. God didn’t want his people to fall into idolatry and the mindset that they could manipulate and control the forces of the universe to get what they want. Deuteronomy 12 gives us some insight. God tells them to destroy all their places of worship to false gods when they get in the land. God goes on to forbid them from worshipping him in the same ways as the pagans worshiped their gods (Deut 12:29-31):
“The LORD your God will cut off before you the nations you are about to invade and dispossess. But when you have driven them out and settled in their land, 30 and after they have been destroyed before you, be careful not to be ensnared by inquiring about their gods, saying, “How do these nations serve their gods? We will do the same.” 31 You must not worship the LORD your God in their way, because in worshiping their gods, they do all kinds of detestable things the LORD hates. They even burn their sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to their gods.”
Why would this be tempting? Some have postulated it was because of their leap from shepherding to farming. If you remember when the spies came back they told of the great bounty of the land. A shepherd might have a tough time tending grapes! So what do you do? Ask the locals how they did it. What do they tell you? Do this and that and make sure to worship Baal to get his blessing on your field. Just that easily the people fall into worshiping false gods.
Psalms – We see direct attacks on Canaanite gods in the psalms. In some cases we see God given the titles that the Canaanites had given to Baal like “rider on the clouds” (Psalm 104). See Craigie, Ugarit and the Old Testament, 77)
Isaiah – There was a comment on the blog over a year ago where someone said the NIV was from the anti-Christ because it called Jesus and the devil the same thing – “morning star.” This was in reference to Isa 14:12 where the Latin Vulgate translated the word Helel as “Lucifer.” We think Satan when we hear that term but literally it just means “light bearer.” The KJV translated it “Lucifer” and the NIV “morning star.” This commenter pointed out that in Rev 22:16 Jesus is called the morning star and so they believed the NIV put Jesus on level with the devil when that is not what is happening at all. Instead, Isaiah is calling out the King of Babylon for comparing himself to God (Isa 14:14).
Here is where Greek mythology helps us understand what Isaiah was getting at – “The Hebrew word helel means “shining one”; this and other features of the poetry led a number of scholars to suggest that the mythological background of the petry was to be found in the Greek myth of Phaethon. Phaethon, in the Greek story, was the “shining” son of Helios, who attempted to drive his father’s golden chariot but was unable to control the massive power of its horses. The parallel is contructive, for like Phaethon, the Babylonian king attempted to assert powers that were too great for him; his inadequacy would result in his doom,” (Craigie, 86).
The result, like Phaethon, would be a fall from great heights (Isa 14:12-17),
“How you have fallen from heaven,
O morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
you who once laid low the nations!
13 You said in your heart,
“I will ascend to heaven;
I will raise my throne
above the stars of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,
on the utmost heights of the sacred mountain. [c]
14 I will ascend above the tops of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.”
15 But you are brought down to the grave,
to the depths of the pit.
16 Those who see you stare at you,
they ponder your fate:
“Is this the man who shook the earth
and made kingdoms tremble,
17 the man who made the world a desert,
who overthrew its cities
and would not let his captives go home?”
When you read it in context, this is obviously talking about the king of Babylon and not any ploy on the part of the NIV translators to parallel Jesus with the devil! The parallels are clear with ancient mythology and that allows us to make the same connections Isaiah was making when he wrote this. Here and in many other examples we could cite, we see just how important it is to know the stories they knew in order to make the same comparisons they were making and not make false conclusions about scripture and even Bible translations. It is important that we are informed about these things.
When we look at the “gods” of the surrounding cultures and see how they compared the one, true God to His “competetors” you can’t help but see that there was no comparison. It helps us see just how dissimilar the real God is from anything made up by mankind. That builds my faith and helps me appreciate how just and involved God is in the affairs of the world he created. It gives me a renewed appreciation for God’s interest in His creation and his active role in bringing redemption and reconciliation to a broken and hurting world.