The Old Testament’s Belief in Polytheism.


The following content comes from notes that I’ve made on Peter Enns book Inspiration & Incarnation (I shall provide a review soon). Enns is a well known Old Testament scholar & is a Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Hermeneutics. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading his book & my goal here is to give Enns’ views some exposure.

1. Viewing Israel through the surrounding Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) culture.

According to Enns a study of Israel’s history in Genesis shows us that they should be viewed through the lens of the ANE & its environment. Seeing it in this light will help us to understand the opening chapters of Genesis as well as some of the other writings in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament). One of the things common in the ANE is that there was belief in many gods. This is the religious world within which God called Israel to be his people. When God called Israel he began leading them into a full knowledge of who he is but he started where they were. This shouldn’t surprise us & it also shouldn’t surprise us that when we see the Old Testament describe God as greater than the gods of the surrounding nations. Let’s consider the psalms, for example:

“Among the gods there is none like you, Lord; no deeds can compare with yours.” (86:8)

“For the LORD is the great God, the great King above all gods.” (95:3)

“For great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods.” (96:4)

“For you, LORD, are the Most High over all the earth; you are exalted far above all gods.” (97:9)

“I know that the LORD is great, that our Lord is greater than all gods.” (135:5)

“Give thanks to the God of gods. His love endures forever.” (136:2)

We should also note that some other psalms do deny that other gods exists apart from the one true God (see. 4:2, 40:4, 106:28). However, this does not mean that we should dismiss these verses or view them of secondary importance. Instead, we must let all of scripture have its say and be willing to compose as diverse a portrait of God as the biblical data demand.

2. The Ten Commandments.

Of interest here is the Ten Commandments – they begin with a prologue: “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery” (Exod. 20:2). This prologue establishes the basis for the commandments, that is to say what God has already done for his people Israel. So, God’s delivering of the Israelites from Egypt gives God the right to command that they worship him in the way he is about to outline.

The first commandment reads: “You shall have no other gods before me” (20:3). Here Christians may be tempted to claim that they know that there are no other gods, but we only know this because of fuller revelation. In other words, Christians today have a far greater understanding & picture since we have the whole Bible in our possession. However, the ancient Israelites were not so fortunate. Yet, according to the 1st commandment the Israelites seemed to believe that many gods existed, for example, in the 1st commandment God doesn’t say that “There are no other gods” but rather that “You shall have no other gods.” So God basically says to Israelites that “You saw what I did in bringing you up from Egypt. Now, I am the one you are to worship, not the gods of Egypt you are leaving behind nor the gods of Canaan you are about to encounter.”

The point here is that if we wish to understand the ancient Israelites and the ancient literature they composed we must develop an understanding of the ancient world (the Ancient Near East) in which these texts were given. In this world the belief in many gods (polytheism) was commonplace. Let’s consider the 2nd commandment:

“You shall not make for yourself an image 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, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.” (Exodus. 20:4-6. Emphasis added)

What is of interest here is that the way this commandment is phrased it seems to imply that idols can be real rivals of Yahweh, the one true God. In fact, so much so that he would be jealous if Israel were to worship them. Again, remember that we posses the benefit of much subsequent revelation and reflection, in other words, we know that idols are not real. We also know that if we  devote our attention to other things (spouse, career, money, fame) instead of to God then they can become idols. But the Israelites of the exodus were living in the infancy of their national existence within a very polytheistic world. In other words, they were taking their first baby steps toward a knowledge of God that later generations came to understand and that we today take for granted.  However, at this point in the history the gods of the surrounding nations are treated as real. Yet God shows his absolute supremacy over them by declaring not that “they don’t exist” but that “they cannot stand up against me—look at what I did in Egypt. Did the gods of Egypt help you? No. I did it. And when you enter Canaan and you are met with a whole new list of gods, remember: I brought you out of Egypt. What I did to their gods I will do to any other gods who get between you and me. Do not worship them.”

We must remember that God speaks in ways that the people understand. He does not simply leave them at a point but intends to bring them along to deeper knowledge of himself. So, it should not surprise us that God meets ancient Israel where they were at – a culture & people embedded in a world where polytheism was widely believed.

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