As mentioned in the last post, the scriptural notion of “powers” and “authorities” is routinely ignored in our Bible studies. And yet the Christus Victor theory of atonement is based on God’s victory over the powers in Jesus by means of the resurrection.
(Col 2:15 ESV) 15 He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
Triumphing over Rome and the Jewish rulers? Yes, indeed. But is that all?
(Eph 6:12 ESV) 12 For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
Evidently, some of the time, Paul uses “rulers,” “authorities,” and “powers” to refer to spiritual forces of evil. Interesting …
The following outline is based largely the book God’s Rivals: Why Has God Allowed Different Religions? Insights from the Bible and the Early Church, by Gerald R. McDermott. McDermott argues that the Bible speaks of spiritual beings other than the Holy Trinity and the angels. He first refers us to —
(1Ki 22:19-23 ESV) 19 And Micaiah said, “Therefore hear the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; 20 and the LORD said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. 21 Then a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ 22 And the LORD said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’ 23 Now therefore behold, the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the LORD has declared disaster for you.”
Who is this “host of heaven”? “Host” translates tsaba’, meaning most literally “army.” God is surrounded by an army of spirits, who speak of their own accord and may even disagree with God!
Well, this is just a parable, right?
We next consider Daniel, who after a time of fasting saw this vision —
(Dan 10:1 ESV) 10 And behold, a hand touched me and set me trembling on my hands and knees. 11 And he said to me, “O Daniel, man greatly loved, understand the words that I speak to you, and stand upright, for now I have been sent to you.” And when he had spoken this word to me, I stood up trembling. 12 Then he said to me, “Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words. 13 The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia, 14 and came to make you understand what is to happen to your people in the latter days. For the vision is for days yet to come.” 15 When he had spoken to me according to these words, I turned my face toward the ground and was mute.
The angel that came to speak to Daniel says he was delayed for 21 days due to a confrontation with the “prince of the kingdom of Persia,” whom he finally overcame with the help of the angel Michael.
The vision continues —
(Dan 10:20-21 ESV) 20 Then he said, “Do you know why I have come to you? But now I will return to fight against the prince of Persia; and when I go out, behold, the prince of Greece will come. 21 But I will tell you what is inscribed in the book of truth: there is none who contends by my side against these except Michael, your prince.
Daniel speaks of Michael as the prince of the Jews, whereas there are evidently rival princes of the Greeks and Persians.
Of course, Daniel is filled with highly symbolic, apocalyptic imagery. Perhaps we aren’t to take these visions too literally?
But consider such passages as —
(Exo 12:12 ESV) 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.
(Num 33:4 ESV) while the Egyptians were burying all their firstborn, whom the LORD had struck down among them. On their gods also the LORD executed judgments.
(Deu 29:25-26 ESV) 25 Then people will say, ‘It is because they abandoned the covenant of the LORD, the God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt, 26 and went and served other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them.
Deu 29:26 is particularly surprising. The complaint about the other gods is not that they don’t exist but that God had not “allotted” the Jews to them.
And there’s —
(Jdg 11:21-24 ESV) 21 And the LORD, the God of Israel, gave Sihon and all his people into the hand of Israel, and they defeated them. So Israel took possession of all the land of the Amorites, who inhabited that country. 22 And they took possession of all the territory of the Amorites from the Arnon to the Jabbok and from the wilderness to the Jordan. 23 So then the LORD, the God of Israel, dispossessed the Amorites from before his people Israel; and are you to take possession of them? 24Will you not possess what Chemosh your god gives you to possess? And all that the LORD our God has dispossessed before us, we will possess.
This is extracted from a message to a pagan king, and perhaps is written in accommodationist language, that is, in the recipient’s terms rather than the sender’s.
One of the most disturbing stories is found in 2 Kings 3:
(2Ki 3:26-27 ESV) 26 When the king of Moab saw that the battle was going against him, he took with him 700 swordsmen to break through, opposite the king of Edom, but they could not. 27 Then he took his oldest son who was to reign in his place and offered him for a burnt offering on the wall. And there came great wrath against Israel. And they withdrew from him and returned to their own land.
The king of Moab appears to have defeated the forces of Israel by offering his oldest son to the god of Moab!
Keil and Delitzsch interpret the passage to mean that God was so upset with Israel for triggering this sacrifice by the king of Moab that he gave Moab the victory. Does that makes sense?
We next turn to the Psalms —
(Psa 58:1-6 ESV) Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods? Do you judge the children of man uprightly? 2 No, in your hearts you devise wrongs; your hands deal out violence on earth. 3 The wicked are estranged from the womb; they go astray from birth, speaking lies. 4 They have venom like the venom of a serpent, like the deaf adder that stops its ear, 5 so that it does not hear the voice of charmers or of the cunning enchanter. 6 O God, break the teeth in their mouths; tear out the fangs of the young lions, O LORD!
(Psa 82:1-8 ESV) God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: 2 “How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah 3 Give justice to the weak and the fatherless; maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute. 4 Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.” 5 They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken. 6 I said, “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; 7 nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.” 8 Arise, O God, judge the earth; for you shall inherit all the nations!
(Psa 97:7 ESV) 7 All worshipers of images are put to shame, who make their boast in worthless idols; worship him, all you gods!
(Psa 138:1 ESV) I give you thanks, O LORD, with my whole heart; before the gods I sing your praise;
Now, the Scriptures uniformly declare that God is God of gods, Lord of lords. He is ultimately in charge. Only he is the Creator. He is not merely the God of the Jews; He is God of the entire earth.
But there certainly is language throughout the scriptures that suggests the reality of other, lesser, subordinate gods — gods who are not holy and good, not remotely like the angels — who are rivals of the One True God.
Indeed, we see in Psalm 82 a rebuke of the lesser gods by God, criticizing their wickedness and predicting their deaths. This is not paganism, in which there are many gods of near-equal power, fighting for supremacy, often at the cost of human life. The One True God, the God of the Jews, is plainly in control, and will put down all rebellion.
But neither is it “pure” monotheism. God is the Supreme God —
(Exo 15:11-12 ESV) 11 “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders? 12 You stretched out your right hand; the earth swallowed them.
(Deu 6:14-15 ESV) 4 You shall not go after other gods, the gods of the peoples who are around you– 15 for the LORD your God in your midst is a jealous God–lest the anger of the LORD your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth.
(Psa 136:2-3 ESV) 2 Give thanks to the God of gods, for his steadfast love endures forever. 3 Give thanks to the Lord of lords, for his steadfast love endures forever;
— but there are lesser gods.
On the other hand, it’s entirely fair to suppose that these and similar passages might be accommodationist language, written to speak to a primitive people in terms they could understand and appreciate — just as Joshua spoke of the sun standing still.
Or perhaps we see here an example of progressive revelation, in which true monotheism isn’t fully revealed until later — and there are indeed many monotheistic passages in the Old Testament.
What does the New Testament say?