Wednesday, April 16, 2014

So, were the other gods real or not?

A couple verses from Psalms 96 and 97 I'd like to point out:

"For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise;
    he is to be feared above all gods.
For all the gods of the nations are idols,
    but the Lord made the heavens."
Psalm 96:4-5

"All who worship images are put to shame,
    those who boast in idols-
    worship him, all you gods!
For you, Lord, are the Most High over all the earth;
    you are exalted far above all gods."
Psalm 97:7,9

So, what did the psalmists think about these other "gods"? It seems to me that back then, people generally believed that a lot of gods existed, and you should worship the one who is most powerful or can help you the most. I see this idea in a couple places in the Old Testament:

Exodus 7:10-13
"So Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did just as the Lord commanded. Aaron threw his staff down in front of Pharaoh and his officials, and it became a snake. Pharaoh then summoned wise men and sorcerers, and the Egyptian magicians also did the same things by their secret arts: Each one threw down his staff and it became a snake. But Aaron’s staff swallowed up their staffs. Yet Pharaoh’s heart became hard and he would not listen to them, just as the Lord had said."

It seems that Pharoah isn't bothered by Moses' god doing miracles if Pharoah's god can also do them. And the writer of Exodus doesn't have a problem with it either- like yeah the Egyptian sorcerers turned sticks into snakes too, ho hum whatever.

1 Kings 20:23, 28
"Meanwhile, the officials of the king of Aram advised him, 'Their gods are gods of the hills. That is why they were too strong for us. But if we fight them on the plains, surely we will be stronger than they.'
The man of God came up and told the king of Israel, 'This is what the Lord says: "Because the Arameans think the Lord is a god of the hills and not a god of the valleys, I will deliver this vast army into your hands, and you will know that I am the Lord."'"

The leaders of the enemy army believed different gods had power in different places- hills, plains, etc.

Exodus 32:4-5
"[Aaron] took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, 'These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.' When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, 'Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.'"

So somehow they had this idea that worshiping the golden calf counted as worshiping the Lord. Maybe they thought every god would have an idol associated with it.

1 Samuel 5-6
The Philistines captured the ark of the covenant, but then weird things started happening, like their idol kept falling down every night, and people were getting sick and dying. So they had some of their religious leaders figure out what to do- send it back to Israel with some gold models of mice and tumors.

So they knew that Israel's god was powerful, but that fact didn't conflict at all with their own religion- they just saw it like Israel's god has power over this object, the ark of the covenant, so let's figure out what he wants and do it, and that's that. Then continue following their own god.

2 Kings 17:24-28, 33
"The king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Kuthah, Avva, Hamath and Sepharvaim and settled them in the towns of Samaria to replace the Israelites. They took over Samaria and lived in its towns. When they first lived there, they did not worship the Lord; so he sent lions among them and they killed some of the people. It was reported to the king of Assyria: 'The people you deported and resettled in the towns of Samaria do not know what the god of that country requires. He has sent lions among them, which are killing them off, because the people do not know what he requires.' Then the king of Assyria gave this order: 'Have one of the priests you took captive from Samaria go back to live there and teach the people what the god of the land requires.' So one of the priests who had been exiled from Samaria came to live in Bethel and taught them how to worship the Lord.
They worshiped the Lord, but they also served their own gods in accordance with the customs of the nations from which they had been brought."

They believed that area had a local god, so they tacked on some worship of him along with their own religions.

1 Samuel 28
King Saul goes to see a medium who can talk to the dead. He has her "bring up" Samuel... and it seems like it works. So was it real- there was a religion that had that power to talk to the dead?

Image source.

And all of this makes me wonder- as a Christian, how should I view supernatural claims outside of Christianity? For example, are the gods of other religions real? What about ghosts? And witchcraft?

There are 4 possibilities:
  1. The supernatural thing in question is fake.
  2. It's real, and it's bad and opposed to God- probably satan or demons.
  3. It's real and it's God. People find God in other religions, and that's good. It's the same God, but Christianity has the most accurate view of him.
  4. It's real- it's just a supernatural being who is way less powerful than God. Not necessarily a good or bad thing. (An angel?)
All right, now I want to hear your thoughts:
Anyone have insight into how ancient people viewed gods of other religions? I'd like to find out more about this idea of a "local god."
What do you think of supernatural claims outside of your religion? (And are there other possibilities besides the 4 I mentioned?)


This post is part of a link-up on the topic of Psalm 97. To read other people's posts, click here: A Holy Week Juxtaposition.


  1. Interesting. Today I actually went to a Hindu festival, and there I saw some inexplicable supernatural things--men and women carrying ceramic pots with flames leaping from them without getting burned, men skewered through their face without any blood whatsoever (which in theory is medically impossible), people in trances being called from the trances by a priest's touch to a certain part of the forehead (and having no memory of their time in the trance) etc. And honestly? When I saw one of the women shrieking and losing control, my first thought (thanks to my evangelical upbringing and the bizarreness of the whole thing) was that it was demonic. But then I learned more about what the festival signifies--those carrying the fire and being pierced volunteer to do it, in order to do penance for their entire village, and afterwards the bearers have a duty to bless the local children--I don't know what I think (actually, symbolically, this festival has some very direct parallels with Good Friday/Easter, & occurs around the same time as Easter every year). So I think I'm somewhere in-between 2 and 3 on your list--maybe it depends on the supernatural situation.
    And in answer to your question about how ancient times viewed other religions, I can't cite a source, but I do remember learning once that insofar as polytheistic religions are concerned, they viewed other gods like modern day Hinduism views Jesus, Allah, and such: real gods and goddesses who might be partial to a particular people group.

  2. I think each particular incident needs to be examined separately. Any one of the above may be the answer in a particular case, but none of the above are THE blanket answer to all situations.

  3. I love that you aren't afraid of any of the questions reading the Bible brings to your mind!

    For whatever it's worth, here's my humble opinion.

    I would connect these mentions of "gods" in the Bible to the biblical concept of "idols." A god could have power in your life for 2 reasons: 1. because it externally exerts power into your life or 2. because you internally give it power in your life. Number 2 can be done, regardless of the actual physical existence of that god. So, it is a god to you, though it may not be an actual god with actual power over nature, circumstances, or anything but your own heart and decisions. (This is why in our modern day, things like money, power, and sex could be called gods in many peoples lives.) I think this is the heart of the first commandment- to not let any gods come before Yahweh is to not let anything or anyone else hold that position of authority and influence in our lives. Not because those things aren't important or valuable, but because Yahweh shows through His love that He is the one that can truly be trusted.

    Also, it's not necessary to prove that other gods aren't real in order to prove that the Christian God is real. Paul gave that model in Acts, when he is in a temple in Athens, and sees the monuments for all their gods. He sees a monument to an "unknown god" and delivers a sermon that declares this unknown god to be the Christian God.

    I hope you have a wonderful Easter weekend. Will you be able to celebrate the way you want to in China?

  4. If it helps any, in the sort of pre-Jewish form of the religion Yahweh wasn't the sole god that was worshiped. So there were other gods for even the Jewish people early on.