How should we make sense of the polytheistic/monolatric parts of the Bible?

Certain parts of the Bible, such as Psalm 82, Deut 32 and perhaps most interestingly 2 Kings 3:27 seem to either state or heavily imply that other gods exist. Yet other passages seem to disagree:

For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the LORD made the heavens.

How should we make sense of this? Obviously both views can’t both be correct. Does this mean that the Bible is corrupted, or was God willing to accomodate to the views of the Ancients, provided only he was worshipped maybe it didn’t matter what they believed in?

The Israelites definitely seemed to believe that there were multiple gods. Sometimes God even went head-to-head with them, as in the case of the Egyptian magicians who seemed to possess at least some degree of power over natural events (it’s just that God had more). Contrast that with Elijah’s fire, where he flat-out mocked the pagan god who was not able to light his altar – that seemed to point more toward their god simply being an idol.

I wouldn’t be surprised if God simply spoke to the Israelites in the terminology and culture that they could understand. But since I do believe in a demonic realm, it could very well be that the “gods” other nations followed were real in the sense of having some power, while being some type of fallen angel rather than actual “gods.”

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Isn’t Psalm 82 the reason Heiser wrote The Unseen Realm? I don’t have the book with me.

Pete Enns has a podcast about this: Monolatry: The Israelites Believed in Many Gods | B4NP Podcast



Excellent question for a thread! I have used such ideas as “literary seams” to guide the researcher into identifying metaphysical positions with either specific time frames… and/or with specific factions!

For example, we know from the use of seals, that the more recent kings of Judah (because it doesn’t seem like there were very ancient kings of Judah) were interested in the Egyptian symbolism of resurrection (sun with wings, beetles with wings, etc.), and yet we also know from an inventory of the Old Testament that there is only the barest whiff of any interest or acknowledgement of an after-death resurrection of either body or spirit.

Enoch and Elijah disappear bodily. Maybe even Moses.

The term “Standing” can be an oblique reference to an afterlife in the presence of Yahweh… but this is most noticeable in the New Testament literature.

Samuel being brought forth back into the Mortal Realm suggests that this is something that could happen to anyone, assuming you have a cooperative wizard with the right skills.

But I digress! The above is just an example of the kind of detective work I’m interested in!

We have Ezekiel who describes God intentionally misleading his clumbsy followers.
We have Moses describing other Gods in the 10 commandments.

We have Psalms (or is it Proverbs) that seem to have the most explicit references to a council of Gods.

Then … is it Isaiah that says not only are the idols for other gods dead and dumb… but there are no other gods!

All of these things should be dropped down into a timeline that recognizes the following environments:

  1. Judah legends prior to the arrival of the Israelite refugees (due to Assyrian attacks).

  2. Judah legends AFTER the arrival of the refugees.

  3. Judah legends after the Babylonian exile.

  4. Judah legends after the Persian hegemony (Persian religious sensibilities dramatically change after 400 BCE!).

  5. The Jeremiad community appears to have left Egypt after Persian eliminated the international border between Persia and Egypt. Persia ruled Egypt more or less for at least a century before Alexander defeated all the native armies Persia could throw at him. The returning Jeremiad Community would have had considerable contact with huge priestly organizations… and their records and histories. Egyptian proverbs could be learned and then re-written to suit Jewish tastes … etc. etc.

  6. Post 400 BCE Persian hegemonmy - - in 400 BCE, we read that the Persian throne becomes willing to violate an old Persian taboo: no statues of the Great God !!! It is possible to imagine the returning Jews accepting and embracing the original taboo… and then reacting strongly against any imperial changes that
    relaxed that taboo.

It is also easy to imagine that a Jewish scribal faction may have accepted the change, and opposed the
other scribal factions that were unwilling to make the change.

  1. Once Alexander had defeated the Persian “machine”, the Magi (who had established support from the government all along - - barring a few hiccups here and there) would have suddenly found themselves floundering on their own. Greek administrations may have offered some supports to the highest levels (as is normal to any occupying administration) - - but not with the comprehensive aspect as in the days of old.

This is when Zoroastrian ideas and principles (sometimes monotheistic, sometimes not) might have found a new kind of dissemination - - not with compulsory delivery, but with missionary zeal that comes along with wandering priests, looking for pockets of support and enthusiasm!

I suggest part of the confusion comes from mingling definitions or senses of just what it is that a ‘god’ should be. Pete gives good insight into “monolatry” in the podcast @Peter_Wolfe linked above (thanks, Peter!), and that sense of other divine beings running around in a heavenly council – or maybe even as other mischievous demiurges running around at large, like Zeus and Co. – that is all still there as residue even in the modern cultural conscience. So when we speak of gods not existing, we’re probably denying that specific form (unlike our old testament forebears --as Dr. Enns convincingly explains). But (and Enns didn’t go here --unless it was after the portion of the podcast I finished) there is another sense that we can mean in referring to gods – Jesus and Paul totally go here. And that is something that functions as a god to us (like mammon … or ‘the belly’). So now we aren’t speaking of some personified demiurge, but of a real thing that drives or enslaves us. And of course those things exist and are legion. So in this newer sense, gods exist in both senses: literally (my stomach is right here – I can point to it), and as a god (if I become enslaved to it).

I think Heiser ignores Psalm 96:5 when he claims that the Bible is completely non-contradictory regarding the existence of other gods.

Non-contradictory in what way? Need a little context here. Psalm 96:5 certainly supports the existence of other gods.

What? It says other gods are idols?

My bad. I didn’t know your point and just took a glance at the verse.

Verse 4 could be taken to be talking about other gods or just about the idols created by people. Verse 5 could then be taken to mean that any “gods” created by other people are just idols. My $0.02 worth.

For great is the LORD and greatly to be praised;
He is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
But the LORD made the heavens.

Isaiah 45:7 implies that all evil is under the control of God. This is why two millennia of Jews have rejected the existence of other spiritual entities hostile to YHWH. I’ll admit there is a contradiction here, but I tend to oppose this view, since I know, from stories my relatives have told me, that there are indeed malicious entities out there.

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