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Now, to be clear, this question is not on whether YHWH is the only God that should be worshipped. That’s pretty simple. It is my belief that the Ancient Israelites were at least aware that they were commanded to pledge allegiance to one god and one god only.

I also understand that the topic of whether ancient Israel was strictly monotheistic is a topic that is highly contested in mainstream biblical scholarship and archaeology. That is perhaps a huge question for another time.

However, I will take a balanced view on this in order for this question to be asked properly - I think that the Ancient Israelites were monotheistic in the sense that YHWH alone is the greatest, but it seems evidentially clear that they at least believed other gods existed. Whether they were truly “gods” as we define it today is another question, but the evidence in the bible itself points to the Israelites believing that there were other gods (however false we may see them to be).

Consider the various references to other gods:

““You shall have no other gods before me.”‭‭Exodus‬ ‭20:3‬

“Who among the gods is like you, Lord? Who is like you—majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” ‭‭Exodus‬ ‭15:11‬ ‭

Yet in Isaiah we see the absolute denial that other gods (key point of lower case g) can exist:

“I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God. I will strengthen you, though you have not acknowledged me, so that from the rising of the sun to the place of its setting people may know there is none besides me. I am the Lord, and there is no other.” ‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭45:5-6‬ ‭

So my question is, does Isaiah 45 teach that no other gods physically exist?

Naturally, you may have to draw on your own opinion of biblical monotheism, but I hope I’m not opening a can of worms on this long-winded debate. Given that passages like Exodus 20 still suggest that other gods exist, why does Isaiah 45 suddenly counter this and say no other god can exist at all? This seems contrary to the ancient Israelite view presented in the Penteteuch.

To clarify again, arguing for the existence of other gods and whether the earliest biblical writers believed in them does not necessarily mean arguing for “polytheism” or even the idea that ANE gods were actually “gods”. Please don’t ascribe the 21st century implications of what other “gods” existing means into this question - I’m not suggesting polytheism at all or trying to be unorthodox. I’m looking at this from a strictly ANE perspective.

It seems that the early biblical writers, though monotheistic (if you allow me to use this term incredibly broadly), still believed that other gods existed (even if they viewed them to be ultimately false). So why the sudden change in Isaiah and complete denial of this?

Hermeneutically, does Isaiah speak of no other gods existing in the sense that Yahweh is the only true God? What is being said here in the text about other gods?

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    The Apostle Paul summed it up quite "elegantly" at 1 Corinthians 8:5-6. For even if there are SO-CALLED gods whether in heaven or on earth, as indeed there are many gods and many lords, vs6, yet for us there is but one God, the Father from whom are all things, and we exist for Him, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, by whom are all things, and we exist through Him." In summary, the fact remains that there is only one true God whether or not He is acknowledged in heathen societies. Christians contrast sharply with idolaters because our relationship is through the Lord Jesus Christ, period.
    – Mr. Bond
    Aug 31, 2022 at 20:49

5 Answers 5

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I want to focus a bit on the comparison to Exodus 20, because the other answers have not directly addressed that aspect yet, and the perceived conflict here between the two verses seems to be a major impetus for this question.

Given that passages like Exodus 20 still suggest that other gods exist, why does Isaiah 45 suddenly counter this and say no other god can exist at all

So let's take a look at Exodus 20:3, word by word. Note that the link I just shared is already an interlinear, but the English doesn't line up perfectly well with the actual Hebrew words there, so I'll do my best to provide a revised interlinear below, which I think will help elucidate the point.

לא - not יהיה - is there לך - to you אלהים - gods אחרים - other על פני - before me (literally, "upon/unto" "my face")

Now, a few relevant notes about how I've rendered this interlinear:

  • The word יהיה is a particular inflection of the common verb היה/"to be" (H1961). This is the word you see in common narrative-starting phrases like "it came to pass...", or "there was a...", or in places specifically denoting existence, such as "let there be light; and there was light" (Genesis 1:3), or even God's response of "I am what I am" when Moses asked for a name (Exodus 3:14). It basically denotes that the thing in question exists. That's why I am rendering these two words here as "there is, to you" rather than "you shall have". It's actually not even conjugated in the imperative form (though to be fair, none of the verbs in the so-called "Ten Commandments" actually are given in imperative form as you might expect them to be).

  • The word אלהים (H430) is used both as a kind of "title" for the singular God whose name is יהוה, but at other times the same 5 letters (or sometimes the first 4 letters, when in grammatical construct form) are used as a plural designation of other "gods". This is a point which confuses many, and it can sometimes potentially be ambiguous which is being denoted, but in this case we have the presence of the modifier אחרים/"other", which is also inflected in the plural, which is solid evidence for the latter use here. In other cases where it is clearly the former, singular use, we know that it is not plural because of the singular grammatical inflections used in the other words surrounding it.

  • I've chosen to lump the two words על פני together here, because although separately they denote something like "upon/unto" and "my face", together they are used as a common idiom denoting "before me", commonly used to connote something similar to "in my presence" or "in my sight". However, there's also something interesting about the word על/"upon/unto": it is the core root from which we get the word "עליון"/"highest/uppermost", which is commonly used as a moniker for God (e.g. אל עליון/"Most High God", as in Genesis 14:18, or simply עליון/"Most High" as in Deuteronomy 32:8). In a sense, the use of the moniker "עליון"/"highest" to refer to God could be seen as a reference to this commandment in Exodus 20:3 - it is an explicit devotional affirmation by the speaker that there are no other gods "upon" (על) God - i.e. God is the "Most High" (עליון).

So, given the rest of that context, if I could then try to paraphrase what's being said in this verse, it might be something like one of the following interpretations, or some mixture of them:

  • As far as you're concerned, no other gods exist above me. (i.e. something like henotheism, or monolatry)
  • Nothing else is a god to you, apart from me. (others may have other gods, but I am the god for you)
  • Nothing else should come first for you, before me (stressing the primacy of God above all other influences that may vie for attention in one's life).
  • No other gods existed prior to me (i.e. I am The Uncaused Cause, the Prime Mover)

I think it's ultimately a bit theologically ambiguous which of these interpretations (or which combination of them) to use, but I think the word לך/"to you" in the phrase in question should not be forgotten in our thinking. I think this points to the fact that "godhood" in a general reading of the original texts of the Hebrew Bible seems to be defined not by an absolute sense of divinity or power, but by a two-way relationship between the god and those who are devoted to the god.

Emphasizing this, in the prior verse (Exodus 20:2) we see the word אלהיך/"your God", which is the same word as אלהים/"God/gods" (H430) but with the ך suffix for "your" appended to it (which displaces the ם letter and takes its place) - the same ך suffix that forms the word לך/"to you" in the verse we are examining.

And taking a broader look at Exodus 20:2, we see the verse is in the familiar form of saying "I am your God, who brought you out of the land of מצרים" format, which we see repeated over and over again throughout the Bible, particularly when the Israelites are being chastised by God. Whenever God chastens Israel, God reminds them of the covenant they have (i.e. the relationship of God and people), and what God has done for them (e.g. brought them out of מצרים).


With all that context in mind, I would suggest that a god/gods אלהים (H430) ceases to be such when a people ceases to be in devotion to that god/gods, and that the word אלהים might then be understood to be denoting that the referent is an object of devotion of the people, rather than denoting a kind of divinity or power.

That is, יהוה is always יהוה, as this is the proper name of God. But the word אלהים is a title that signifies a relationship of devotion.

The absolute divinity/power/sovereignty (what we would think of as the "godhood" or "godship" of יהוה) is not dependent on this devotion - but יהוה will cease to be "our god" when we cease to be devoted as such.

Similarly, regardless of whether you interpret the אלהים אחרים/"other gods" of other nations to be independently divine entities or just hollow idols, they would cease to be "gods" אלהים (i.e. objects of devotion) when the people are not devoted to them. Though they would still retain their essential nature (independently divine entities or just hollow idols).

Or in other words, if you have no devotion to "other gods", then "to you, there are no other gods", which is the more exact phrasing we have determined for the "1st commandment". They cease to be gods to you at all.


Hence, other gods only exist as gods to you if you worship them as gods. If you don't worship an idol, then it's just a chunk of wood/stone/whatever. But if you worship it, it is "your god" - a denotation of its relationship to you.

And this is the sense in which I think we should interpret the text of Isaiah in the question (and all other texts where we see this term).

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The answer to this question about whether false gods even exist is subtle and partly supplied by Isa 44:6:

Thus says the LORD, the King and Redeemer of Israel, the LORD of Hosts: “I am the first and I am the last, and there is no God but Me.

Verse 7 then says why: only the LORD can tell the future. Then V8 reinforces the point:

Do not tremble or fear. Have I not told you and declared it long ago? You are My witnesses! Is there any God but Me? There is no other Rock; I know not one.”

Then in verse 9-20 Isaiah describes those who make false gods, idols to worship and says that these are "nothing".

This chapter of Isa 44 describes why these false gods are not gods at all:

  • no other god is like the LORD (v7, 8)
  • no other god can tell the future (v7)
  • wooden and metal images do not understand or comprehend (v9, 18)
  • false idol-gods cannot save anyone (v17)
  • idol-gods cannot see (v18)
  • idol-gods do not have a mind to understand (v18)

Thus, Isaiah's point is simple - people may want to make something into a god but there is only one true God and that is the LORD Jehovah, creator of heaven and earth. This is reinforced several times in other places such as:

  • 2 Kings 19:18 - Has a nation ever changed its gods, though they are no gods at all? Yet My people have exchanged their Glory for useless idols.
  • Isa 37:19 - They have cast their gods into the fire and destroyed them, for they were not gods, but only wood and stone—the work of human hands.
  • Jer 2:11 - Has a nation ever changed its gods, though they are no gods at all? Yet My people have exchanged their Glory for useless idols.
  • Jer 5:7 - “Why should I forgive you? Your children have forsaken Me and sworn by gods that are not gods. I satisfied their needs, yet they committed adultery and assembled at the houses of prostitutes.

The same point, in different words is made by the OP's text in Isa 45:5, 6 -

5 I am the LORD, and there is no other; there is no God but Me. I will equip you for battle, though you have not known Me, 6 so that all may know, from where the sun rises to where it sets, that there is none but Me; I am the LORD, and there is no other.

Indeed, Isaiah also lists the reason that false gods cannot be the LORD Jehovah:

  • the LORD is the creator (v7, 8, 12, 18)
  • the LORD can raise up great kings like Cyrus (13)
  • the LORD is the great Savior (v15, 22)

Again, Isaiah repeats himself in v14 by saying

... They will confess to you: ‘God is indeed with you, and there is no other; there is no other God.’ ”

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  • You’re making your point from translation and much is lost as a consequence. For example God speaking says this “For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night… and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord.” ‭‭Exo12:12‬ was God executing judgment of paper tigers? Of course not, and if God acknowledges their existence how you’re reading Isaiah should be put into question. To say I am the Lord there is none beside me, is to say I am unlike any other, it’s not to say none other exists. Isa47:10 was Babylon the only city? Of course not but it was incomparable Sep 1, 2022 at 12:15
  • @NihilSineDeo - quite the contrary - the plagues of Egypt were all directed against Egyptian "gods", especially the final plague that shown that the pharaoh was no god at all - none could save the people from the LORD.
    – Dottard
    Sep 1, 2022 at 21:17
  • @NihilSineDeo - correct - showing that they were not gods at all. They could not save, they could not speak, they could not see, etc, (see Isa 44) and so were not gods at all.
    – Dottard
    Sep 1, 2022 at 21:37
  • The magicians via the aid of their dark arts of the gods replicated the first three plagues and also turned their staffs into snakes. But you’re saying that Egypt’s gods were merely paper tigers. I submit to you that you must discount the Scriptures in favor of your theological and not Scriptural position. ““Who is like you, O Lord, among the paper tigers? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” ‭‭Exodus‬ ‭15:11‬ ‭that’s an insult to God. Sep 1, 2022 at 21:41
  • @NihilSineDeo - I am not sure what point you are trying to make except a pedantic one. It is true that the Hebrew "elohim" is used of people (judges etc) but none of them had what we now describe as divine attributes. I will stick with Isaiah - "there is no God but me".
    – Dottard
    Sep 1, 2022 at 21:56
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The answer is yes. For Isaiah no other gods exist. Technically, earlier Israelite religion was henotheistic but not strictly monotheistic. In other words, earlier biblical writers presented YHWH as the greatest god, the only god which the Israelites could worship, but not the only god in existence.

We get a sense of the earlier attitude in Deuteronomy 32

Remember the days of old,
    consider the years of many generations;
ask your father, and he will show you;
    your elders, and they will tell you.
When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance,
    when he separated the sons of men,
he fixed the bounds of the peoples
    according to the number of the sons of God.
For the Lord’s portion is his people,
    Jacob his allotted heritage.

In this passage YHWH's "portion" is the people of Jacob/Israel's lineage, but by implication other people belong to other deities. It may even be argued that the Most High (ʿelyôn) here is the Supreme deity while YHWH is one of the ben-elohim - the "sons of [the]God/s" who each received a portion of the human population.

Beyond the references mentioned in the OP we also have verses in the Psalms that seem to harken back to a time when the God of Israel was one among many gods, rather than the only God.

God has taken his place in the divine council;
    in the midst of the gods he holds judgment... 
I say, “You are gods,
    sons of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like men,
    and fall like any prince.”  (Ps. 82)

If we correlate this with the above quote from Deuteronomy we may even conclude that the Most High was once thought of as as the father of the other gods, while Yahweh was one of his sons. This psalm seems to indicate a transitional moment in which Yahweh begins to assert his supremacy and the lesser gods are dying out, so to speak. This scenario fits with both Canaanite and Babylonian mythology, in which younger deities such as Baal and Marduk, respectively, eventually become Supreme. In the Canaanite version, it is El who was the father of the gods, and Baal was once his son. Baal's ascendency, however, is celebrated overtly in the Canaanite myth, while in the Bible we get only hints of the henotheistic past evolving into the monotheistic present. But to make the parallel clear: Elyon in Ps. 82 would theoretically be in the position of El, while Yahweh would be in the position of Baal. (This may appear blasphemous on the surface, but I am not arguing that this actually happened, only that there is a parallel between the evolution of monotheism in Israel and the ascendancy of younger deities in other traditions.)

In conclusion the OP is correct when it says 'Ancient Israelites where monotheistic in the sense that YHWH alone is the greatest, but it seems evidentially clear that they at least believed other gods existed.' However the term henotheism is better than monotheism.


Note: there is a translation issue for Deut. 32:8. The Masoretic text says "sons of Israel" be the DSS have "sons of elohim". The latter makes more sense in context. See ‘Sons of Israel’ or ‘Sons of God’ in Deuteronomy 32:8?

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Yes, Isaiah claims that there is only one God truly deserving this name, that is to say, who deserves to be worshiped and who created the heaven and the earth, as Psalm 95:5 says "all gods of pagans are devils, while God created heavens".

This does not mean that Isaiah differs from the Exodus. It is as if one calls "footballer" only a pro-football player, and if he is invited by his amateur friends to play football with them; one can say either: "among them there is only one footballer, the rest are not", or "among those footballers only one is the true footballer" and those two sentences will convey the same meaning exactly.

But this to-be-worshiped true God in Isaiah is not in one person, for the prophet prophesizes about the incarnation of God in Isaiah 7:14 and in 9:6, where this other divine Person who is to be born as a child is called by Isaiah "the mighty God".

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Notice the phrasing

“I am the Lord, and there is no other, besides me there is no God; I equip you, though you do not know me,” ‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭45:5‬ ‭

Now the same is used of Babylon two chapters later

“You felt secure in your wickedness; you said, “No one sees me”; your wisdom and your knowledge led you astray, and you said in your heart, “I am, and there is no one besides me.”” ‭‭Isaiah‬ ‭47:10‬ ‭

Was Babylon the only city? Were there no other cities? Of course there were. But this is saying something different, it is saying that there is no other city that compares to Babylon, none can come close, stand beside, none beside it (in comparison)

God acknowledges the existence of other gods, He just doesn’t acknowledge that they come close to Him in comparison

“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 judgments: I am the Lord.” ‭‭Exodus‬ ‭12:12‬ ‭

Was God executing judgment on paper tigers? Or on actual gods who gave the magicians of Pharaoh powers to change their rods into snakes and repeat the first three plagues using the dark arts of the gods?

“God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah” ‭‭Psalm‬ ‭82:1-2‬ ‭

Who is He standing in the midsts of and who is He talking to if they don’t exist?

Of course they exist, Paul says we wrestle against them and their subordinates Ephesians 6:12

Also the Hebrews were not monotheistic read Genesis 1, Elohim created the earth, let US make man in OUR image, God is echad, United like Adam and Eve became echad (one/united) flesh. God was never a single person in the Bible. Yes the Bible refers to just of of the persons but not to the denial of the others in the ‘godhead’

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  • Echad is not plural. Its meaning does not change even if it modifies a compound noun. It is equivalent to the number 1 we use in counting. What bible lexicon shows echad to mean 2. G1:26 does not say God is plural. Sep 1, 2022 at 16:47
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    Your last paragraph does need some sources or a brief explanation. "Functional monotheism" seems to be your argument, which goes up through Isaiah. Just a little explanation, instead of asserting "the Hebrews were not monotheistic read Genesis 1. Show how you get there please.
    – Jesse
    Sep 2, 2022 at 2:44
  • @Jesseיִשַׁי it’s tricky because on the one hand they were monotheists in the sense that they worshipped Elohim, but since Elohim is three persons, were they monotheists technically? No they weren’t. So yes functional monotheists not monotheists, and not tri-theists. Certainly they weren’t henotheists as henotheism would be attributed to other cultures but they did acknowledge the existence of other gods. The OT repeatedly shows that God is not one single person, subtly on different levels starting from Genesis 1:1 which is more technical and used by John, to the more obvious Genesis 1:26. Sep 2, 2022 at 3:18
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    @NihilSineDeo By injecting "trinity" discussion into a question of whether Canaanite gods were considered real by pre-Isaiah OT writers, you are shifting the discussion back and forth. Tri-theology, trinity, and modal all accepted, besides that did Israel believe other gods exist. That's the question. The last paragraph isn't bad, it just needs a little explanation on the how.
    – Jesse
    Sep 2, 2022 at 14:42

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