The classic text is, of course, the Shema —
(Deu 6:4 ESV) 4 “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.”
But, of course, the Shema declares that God is one, not the only one. This is about the essential unity of God, not whether there might be lesser “gods.”
Indeed, the repeated references to God as “God Most High” certainly seem to imply the presence of gods not most high!
Indeed, one passage appears to plainly state that God divided the nations among lesser “gods.”
(Deu 32:8 NET) When the Most High gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided up humankind, he set the boundaries of the peoples, according to the number of the heavenly assembly.
Most older translations say “according to the number of the sons of God” or even “sons of Israel,” but the NET translation says “heavenly assembly.” The translators explain —
“Sons of God” is undoubtedly the original reading; the MT [the Massoretic text] and LXX [Septuagint] have each interpreted it differently. MT assumes that the expression “sons of God” refers to Israel (cf. Hos 1:10), while LXX has assumed that the phrase refers to the angelic heavenly assembly (Psa 29:1; Psa 89:6; cf. as well Psa 82). The phrase is also attested in Ugaritic, where it refers to the high god El’s divine assembly. According to the latter view, which is reflected in the translation, the Lord delegated jurisdiction over the nations to his angelic host (cf. Dan 10:13-21), while reserving for himself Israel, over whom he rules directly. For a defense of the view taken here, see M. S. Heiser, “Deu 32:8 and the Sons of God,” BSac 158 (2001): 52-74.
And this translation is, of course, entirely consistent with Paul’s understanding of the powers.
But that being said, there remain the classic monotheistic texts that seem to go beyond declaring the unity and superiority of God to declare that there is only one god — God.
(Isa 45:5-6 NET) 5 I am the LORD, I have no peer, there is no God but me. I arm you for battle, even though you do not recognize me. 6 I do this so people will recognize from east to west that there is no God but me; I am the LORD, I have no peer.
(Deu 4:35 ESV) 35 To you it was shown, that you might know that the LORD is God; there is no other besides him.
(Deu 4:37-39 ESV) 37 And because he loved your fathers and chose their offspring after them and brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power, 38 driving out before you nations greater and mightier than you, to bring you in, to give you their land for an inheritance, as it is this day, 39 know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the LORD is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other.
(Isa 43:10 ESV) 10 “You are my witnesses,” declares the LORD, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me.”
(Jer 2:11 ESV) 11 Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for that which does not profit.
(Jer 16:20 ESV) 20 Can man make for himself gods? Such are not gods!”
(1Co 8:4-6 ESV) 4 Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” 5 For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth–as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”– 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.
There are at least three difficulties with such a reading of these passages —
* First, Satan and the demons may not be “gods” but they are certainly spiritual beings who contest God for supremacy.
(Mat 25:41 ESV) 41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
(Rev 12:7-9 ESV) 7 Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, 8 but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. 9 And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world–he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him.
* Second, there are all the other verses we’ve already covered.
* Third, some of the same authors speak of demons and other spiritual rivals to God. Indeed, Paul — in the same context — says,
(1Co 10:19-22 ESV) 19 What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. 22 Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he?
Paul denies that “an idol is anything” but then plainly declares that an offering to an idol is an offering to a demon — and a rival for our loyalty, such that offerings to demons provoke God to jealousy.
(Deu 32:21 ESV) 21 They have made me jealous with what is no god; they have provoked me to anger with their idols. So I will make them jealous with those who are no people; I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.
Paul follows Moses in declaring that the idols are “no god,” but he nonetheless finds a real, evil, spiritual presence in the form of demons. God is one, but he has weaker rivals called demons.
Just so, Isaiah predicts the fall of Satan —
(Isa 14:12-15 ESV) 12 “How you are fallen from heaven, O Day Star, son of Dawn! How you are cut down to the ground, you who laid the nations low! 13 You said in your heart, ‘I will ascend to heaven; above the stars of God I will set my throne on high; I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north; 14 I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’ 15 But you are brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit.
— clearly admitting the presence of a rival spiritual being, even if not a “god.”
Indeed, there is nothing more conventional to Christian thinking than that Satan and his angels/demons are real. Satan is out of fashion these days, I know, but the doctrine of monotheism co-existed with the doctrine of Satan and his minions for centuries.
Thus, I resolve the conundrum as Paul does —
(Gal 4:8 ESV) 8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.
The demons are real, but they are not “gods.” They don’t merit worship. They aren’t co-equal with YHWH. They aren’t creators. They are inferior beings destined for destruction — and capable of bringing great evil to the world. Indeed, humans may become enslaved to them.
Therefore, we see a definite trend in scripture to stop referring to these beings as “gods” and to prefer such terms as “ruler,” “prince,” “dominion,” and “authority.” They are not weak. They are not trivial. But God is stronger.
I think it works like this. At one time, the nations other than Israel had their own gods — Chemosh, Baal, etc. God was ultimately superior but not yet ready to extend his kingdom over these other nations. Therefore, the scriptures sometimes refer to these lesser spiritual beings as “gods,” as they had a degree of sovereignty over their own nations.
But in Christ, the Kingdom came and the nations were invited in to join Israel. At that moment, the “gods” were dethroned and became mere demons. God took away their domains.
(Act 14:16 ESV) 16 “In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways.”
(Act 17:29-31 ESV) 29 “Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. 30 The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, 31 because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”
God’s relationship with the nations changed in Jesus. It was once true that —
(Mic 4:5 ESV) 5 For all the peoples walk each in the name of its god, but we [Israel] will walk in the name of the LORD our God forever and ever.
— but in Jesus, that changed.
Mankind and demons
Now, to the Western mind, it just seems so tempting, even obvious, to treat these powers as non-existent and to treat the language as accommodationist — speaking in terms that the readers of the day could understand.
But think about it. Think about the world. Think about the earthly powers. Are the sins of, say, the Taliban purely cultural? Do they come entirely from human weakness? What about the Nazis? Pol Pot? The Cultural Revolution in China? Stalin’s starvation of millions?
I would not for a minute absolve these evil governments and rulers of responsibility because of the influence of dark spiritual powers, but isn’t it at least possible that there are demonic powers still at work today?
Oh, and one more thought: it’s also disturbing, I know, to speak of God as only becoming king of the nations through Jesus. After all, he is pictured in the Old Testament as the Creator and the Lords of Hosts and Most High God.
And yet no less an authority than N. T. Wright has recently published How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, arguing that a major theme of the four Gospels is not only the coming of the Kingdom but God becoming King of the nations. After all, a king requires a kingdom. Until the Kingdom came, God wasn’t king over the Kingdom.
God claimed to be king of Israel in Old Testament times —
(Isa 43:15 ESV) 15 “I am the LORD, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King.”
God has always been God, of course, but we’ll consider in a future post (Lord willing) how God become King by the resurrection.