In Exodus 20: 3 “You shall have no other gods before[a] me." Which gods was Yahweh referring to? Is this just language of appearance meaning "don’t create gods" or does it means something else?
@ahoxha Good question! I think the simplest answer is that God is saying not to worship false gods - not to have them ‘in front of him’. It is not indicating that other gods really exist, but is exhorting the Israelites to faithfulness and to avoid idolatry / worship of pagan gods. Like when the Israelites worshiped idols and stars within God’s temple in Ezekiel 8.
It is helpful to define a few terms.
- polytheism - worship of many gods
- henotheism - worship of one deity, but admitting the existence of other gods
- monotheism - belief in only one true God
Some scholars claim that Exodus 20:3 suggests that the Israelites were henotheists - they worshiped Yahweh but admitted the existence of other gods. However, the following article points out that this claim is not sustainable. From Genesis 1 forward it is clear that the Bible is monotheistic - there is only one Creator God - one true God. That is not to say that some Israelites did not practice henotheism, but that the Bible itself is clearly monotheistic.
Unbelieving scholarship must focus on minutia and ignore larger contexts to “find” henotheism in Scripture. That Moses affirmed the existence of only one God is plain from the Pentateuch’s first chapter. Unlike other ancient Near Eastern creation accounts, we do not read that battles between deities brought forth the earth. Genesis 1 presents one God who “created the heavens and the earth” (v. 1). Yahweh, the sole actor in the narrative, formed the universe by His Word.
So how do we make sense out having no gods ‘before me’ in Exodus 20:3?
There are a number of possibilities.
- it is a prohibition against worshiping idols and false gods - the text uses the term ‘gods’ simply because that is what they were commonly called, but is not attributing true deity to them
- people in the ancient near east believed in a divine assembly of beings that all gathered for council - this verse may make the point that God alone reigns - there is no assembly of equal beings
Some notes from the NET Bible:
The expression עַל־פָּנָי (ʿal panay) has several possible interpretations. S. R. Driver suggests “in front of me,” meaning obliging me to behold them, and also giving a prominence above me ( Exodus , 193-94). W. F. Albright rendered it “You shall not prefer other gods to me” ( From the Stone Age to Christianity , 297, n. 29). B. Jacob ( Exodus , 546) illustrates it with marriage: the wife could belong to only one man while every other man was “another man.” They continued to exist but were not available to her. The point is clear from the Law, regardless of the specific way the prepositional phrase is rendered. God demands absolute allegiance, to the exclusion of all other deities. The preposition may imply some antagonism, for false gods would be opposed to Yahweh. U. Cassuto adds that God was in effect saying that anytime Israel turned to a false god they had to know that the Lord was there – it is always in his presence, or before him ( Exodus , 241).
Evidence from Ezekiel
I think Ezekiel 8 is a good example of what was meant by ‘have no other gods before me’. No one can deny that by the time Ezekiel had been written the Israelites were unabashedly monotheistic. And yet if we read Ezekiel 8, we see that the Israelites were worshiping false gods in the temple. The Scripture still calls them ‘gods’ even though they were known to be false gods - idols. So it is reasonable that Deuteronomy used similar language ‘have no other gods before me’.
Ezekiel 8:9-11,14-15 - And he said to me, “Go in and see the wicked and detestable things they are doing here.” 10 So I went in and looked, and I saw portrayed all over the walls all kinds of crawling things and unclean animals and all the idols of Israel. 11 In front of them stood seventy elders of Israel, and Jaazaniah son of Shaphan was standing among them. Each had a censer in his hand, and a fragrant cloud of incense was rising.
14 Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the Lord, and I saw women sitting there, mourning the god Tammuz. 15 He said to me, “Do you see this, son of man? You will see things that are even more detestable than this.”
I think it would be unfair to say that the Israelites themselves were monotheistic, since they repeatedly fell into idolatry throughout the Old Testament. It’s also worth remembering that the the first two plagues of Egypt (water to blood and swarms of frogs) were successfully reproduced by Pharaoh’s magicians, suggesting that they had access to some kind of supernatural power. Even so, the remainder of the plagues (which are essentially God displaying His power over the natural elements and the gods associated with them), combined with numerous other episodes throughout the Old Testament (ex. Gideon’s destruction of his father’s shrine with no repercussions, the destruction of Dagon’s statue when the Ark was placed before it, the contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal), show a clear pattern of the feeble power wielded by other “gods” compared to the absolute power wielded by Yahweh. Whether the Israelites believed in the existence of other gods or not was, I think, not as important to Yahweh as their recognition of the fact that He was the uncontested Creator and Ruler of the universe who alone was worthy of their devotion.
@MicahB Yes, there are some folks I respect who think the Israelites were some form of henotheists. Though I am inclined to think that was only ever a misunderstanding of what God was communicating. And I agree God does appear to be more concerned that we establish a meaningful relationship with Him than that we have a perfect understanding of the created order, seeing that He has left that process to the work of people over many generations. His ways are not our ways - His priorities not ours - that is certain.
If you are interested in this subject let me recommend this book. It is the most current book on this subject of the unseen realm and the supernatural.
Here is the companion website.
I’ll briefly jump in to invite the @Interested_in_Bible and @Interested_in_Theology groups to join this conversation… we’d love to hear your thoughts! This is a great question that benefits from careful research, study, and clear thought. Thanks for raising it @ahoxha!
So here is a similar verse.
9 For you, O Yahweh, are most high over all the earth. You are highly exalted above all gods. Ps 92:9
What is the writer saying? That God is greater that things that don’t exist? Or if we apply today’s western standards, God is greater that a car, or a boat or a job?
I will quote Heiser on this:
The denial that other elohim exist insults the sincerity of biblical writers and the glory of God. How is it coherent to say that verses extolling the superiority of Yahweh above all elohim (Psa 97:9) are really telling us Yahweh is greater than beings that don’t exist? Where is God’s glory in passages calling other elim to worship Yahweh (Psa 29:1–2) when the writers don’t believe those beings are real? Were the writers inspired to lie or hoodwink us? To give us theological gibberish?
To my ear, it mocks God to say, “You’re greater than something that doesn’t exist.” So is my dog. Saying, “Among the beings that we all know don’t exist there is none like Yahweh” is tantamount to comparing Yahweh with Spiderman or Spongebob Squarepants. This reduces praise to a snicker. Why would the Holy Spirit inspire such nonsense?
Heiser, M. S. (2015). The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (First Edition, p. 35). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
Jeremiah 16:18-21 NASB — “I will first doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted My land; they have filled My inheritance with the carcasses of their detestable idols and with their abominations.” O LORD, my strength and my stronghold,
And my refuge in the day of distress,
To You the nations will come
From the ends of the earth and say,
“Our fathers have inherited nothing but falsehood,
Futility and things of no profit.” Can man make gods for himself?
Yet they are not gods! “Therefore behold, I am going to make them know—
This time I will make them know
My power and My might;
And they shall know that My name is the LORD.”
Notice this statement—>“they are NOT gods.” (Emphasis mine)
But I will say there is one god of this world.
(2 Corinthians 4:4) NASB — in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.
I personally believe if there was anything supernatural that emanated from an idol, magician, sorcerer or supposed “god” it came from thee “god” of this world satan himself who has been from the beginning.
And can’t we all agree that he is at the head of every false religion, cult and occult? We believe that for today but seem to have some disconnect about satan and the religions of old. I for one do not.
If I may add a question on top of the original. Great question, by the way. Does anyone know how many religions in total that there are? And also how many made up gods in total there are? I’ve read bits and pieces of Ravi’s book “Jesus among secular gods” and I’ve nearly completed “Why Jesus?” So I don’t struggle with knowing the truth that Jesus is the only way, although I did until I researched for myself, the evidence was so overwhelming, I might add.
Thanks Carson I’ll look to get involved
This was first thing popped up on google
I expect that the idea of gods being real to the writer of the scriptures is a bit unsettling for a modern day Christian. It was for me and if were not for the very good question that @ahoxha asked I would be content to continue to noodle on this subject in a less public forum. But to be fair I have wonder and ask this question and others like it myself only to get the standard answer that that was not what the writer(s) was/were trying to communicate.
I have struggled with the idea of being able to read and understand the scripture as 1st century or a ancient Hebrew and not as a 21th century Christian. One way to do this is become ancient language expert but that ship has sailed. So, when I was introduced to the hold idea of an unseen realm and I found that it was not just an attempt to cast doubt or make a mockery of the faith that I so dearly love and believe in and when I consider how mush of the supernatural is actually driving the narrative in both the OT and NT and I accept it as fact real, “gods” do not seem out of line with the story. Heiser’s work is peer reviewed and is written for a lay person such as myself.
There is a health list of supernatural events in the bible starting with creation and it will end with a new creation. Just as a side note I never hear anyone arguing about how long it will take God to create our new world 14 billion year or 14 Nano seconds? But we can surely light up the internet with health discussion about who or how it was done.
I am hoping that this will be an interesting topic on many fronts. here is a link to his site were you will find much information.
I’m not sure if this is a gross oversimplification but here’s my overall understanding.
- God created beings that are spiritual (angels)
- Satan (pre-fall name of Lucifier), who in great pride wanted to be higher than God, rebelled against God, and was cast out of heaven with 1/3 (possibly) of the other angels who joined him, who then are called simply demons, or fallen angels
- God created heaven and earth (the physical world), and Satan appeared in the form of a serpent and tempted Eve to disbelieve God, in Genesis 1-3.
It’s not entirely clear when in the timeline of human history Satan fell? prior to the creation of the physical world, or just prior to the fall (between the creation of the physical world, and the fall of man)
My understanding is that
- spiritual beings do exist, and are not just a force, but with limited power and only within God’s sovereign purpose. You cannot have a conversation with a force; for example God in Job talks with Satan, or Jesus in the Gospels has a conversation with a demonic spiritual being before casting them out. Mary had a conversation with Gabriel, an angelic messenger throughout Scripture… Daniel had a conversation with Gabriel, who said that he was delayed and then Michael the arch-angel came to assist him after 21 days.
- God is not going to prohibit worship of some being or entity that does not exist
- fallen spiritual beings are perhaps behind many pagan religions, including for example Molech which required worshipers to sacrifice children in the arms of a huge statue. (reading about child-sacrifice to Molech actually made me quite sad when I researched it in the past)
Actually theBibleProject is coming out with a new video soon called ‘Spiritual Beings’, which I think is in the same series as their ‘God’ video, so that will be interesting. There are 22 discussion episodes at the BibleProject podcast about this topic, but I only got through about half of them.
Some other points of interest I’ve learnt from listening to theBibleProject which I did not know before,
- the world elohim can mean either God (Yahweh) when it’s capitalized and is translated LORD, or lower case elohim (being angelic), or sometimes just man
-The BibleProject guys also refer to the ‘divine council’ which I think is not referring to the Trinity, but rather just a synonym for God’s heavenly host.
I think in the modern western world, our gods are basically materialism, pleasure, money, power and fame - these are the things we struggle with and become first place in our lives, not the worship of spiritual beings…
Hope this is a helpful contribution?
Good catch, you really reading scripture intently if you seeing things like that!
The language used in the Hebrew for “before” is propositional, meaning physically in front of God. Since God is everywhere, no other object that signifies a god is allowed, anywhere.
God also says “you/thou” shall not have any other God before me.
So the subject is man, the object is a “god”.
God created everything, and He certainly would not have created any other “gods” vying for man-kinds attention especially if He has ruled that as abominable.
In short, the “you” is signifying that the subject “man” would introduce the object “ a god”. God knowing mankind’s heart created this as a commandment to stop man from creating “gods” and recognizing Him as the only one true God.
There are demons that have great power and could have displayed acts of this power through men worshipping idols etc. and this fits in perfectly with satans role as a deceiver and men recognizing those objects as “gods.” Leading themselves and others astray, hence Gods rule acting as an act of mercy and grace to protect the unwitting.
I would like to point out that the Hebrews did not think that God was everywhere in the same sense that we do today (omnipresent). For them the otherness of God (The Most High) was defined by holy. Besides the whole catalog of purity and pollution hurdles I have found the story of Naam helps me to better understand the concept of holy.
15 When he returned to the man of God, he and all of his army, he came and stood before him and said, “Please now, I know that there is no God in all of the world except in Israel. So then, please take a gift from your servant.” 16 And he said, “⌊As Yahweh lives⌋, before whom I stand, I surely will not take it.” Still he urged him to take it, but he refused. 17 Then Naaman said, “If not, then please let a load of soil on a pair of mules be given to your servants, for your servant will never again bring a burnt offering and sacrifice to other gods, but only to Yahweh. 18 As far as this matter, may Yahweh pardon your servant when my master goes into the house of Rimmon to worship there, and he is leaning himself on my arm, that I also bow down in the house of Rimmon: when I bow down in the house of Rimmon, may Yahweh please pardon your servant in this matter.” 19 He said to him, “Go in peace,” so he went from him ⌊a short distance⌋. (2 Ki 5:15–19LEB).
I thought it amazing that a man who was just cleansed from a skin disorder and wanted to show his gratitude with gifts to the prophet and was given a "no thank you" from Elisha he ask for dirt that he might keep his vow in verse 17. Who would have thought that there was a theological message in dirt.
Another verse that I think illustrates this is 2 Sam 26:17-19
17 Then Saul recognized David’s voice and said, “Is this your voice, my son David?” And David said, “It is my voice, my lord the king.” 18 Then he said, “Why is my lord pursuing after his servant? For what have I done? And what evil is in my hand? 19 And so then, please let my lord the king listen to the words of his servant: If Yahweh has incited you against me, may he delight in an offering; but if ⌊it is mortals⌋, may they be accursed ⌊before⌋ Yahweh, for they have driven me away today from sharing in the inheritance of Yahweh, saying, ‘Go, serve other gods!’ (1 Sa 26:17–19 LEB)
I am sure that your are familiar with David’s story, consider this:
Note that he does not complain of being driven from the Ark of the Covenant, located at Kiriath Jearim (1 Sam 7:2), or from the Tabernacle, apparently located at Nob (1 Sam 21–22). His complaint is being expelled from the “inheritance” of Yahweh—the holy land of his God. David can’t worship as he should if he is not on holy ground. The lands outside Israel belong to other gods.
Heiser, M. S. (2015). The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible (First Edition, p. 117). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
I hope this is received in spirit that it was intended.
In what sense did the Hebrews understand the presence of God being everywhere, compared to our understanding of Omnipresence? Psalm 139, in verses 7-12 the writer seems to show that wherever the writer physically went or that wherever he could theoretically go, God was there? He even included Sheol, the holding place of the dead. Was the Psalmist saying if he went there, God would ‘follow’ him there?
I just take it as literal, if I go anywhere, God is there already. Logically the poet would not assume that God only followed him personally wherever he went, because that would exclude God’s presence to other humans, wherever they went at that same time that the poet was going somewhere else? (yes it’s poetry- I understand that)… ?
I don’t disagree with your thoughts on this. As a Christian in the modern church God is everywhere and everywhere is accessible (available) to me and any believer at any time. Matt 18:20 maybe but Heb 4:16 in my mind gives the believer an access that David or Naam would have considered unconscionable.
I believe that David and Naam both would have understood that God was the creator of the universe and life itself and they also understood the concept of scared. I am going to include a short excerpt from a book by John Walton to make my point. Here he is discussing the temple(s) in ANE culture.
The residence of the deity in the temple required the recognition of sacred space. This objective is evident in the earliest steps of temple building. The selection of the site was determined by oracle so that the god could designate a sacred site. In the ancient world they believed that certain locations had gained sacred status as portals through which the gods traversed.23 Thus sacred space was identified even before the temple was built. The construction was then carried out in such a way as to preserve the sanctity of the space. The presence of the image endorsed the sacred status of the space. All of the architecture of the temple was designed to represent and preserve the sanctity of the site, generally through the establishment of sacred zones, barriers between those zones, and limited sight lines. The result of this architecture was that accessibility was limited so that nothing profane could approach. Likewise, the eyes of the curious were prevented from glimpsing the sacred image except as permitted in occasional festival processions. Israel shared in this ideology of sacred space at nearly every point.
Walton, J. H. (2006). Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament: Introducing the Conceptual World of the Hebrew Bible (p. 118). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic.
So in Naam’s case his best chance of doing so was to sacrifice to Yahweh as close to this scrared space as possible, hence load the mule with scared dirt.
For David, the inheritance to be assured of his election (not in the Calvinist sense) was the issue not a Kingdom and for David and any Israelite of that day this was accomplished by the worship of Yahweh on Yahweh’s terms and this included the very location that it was to be done.
David’ s Psalm of all it’s glory was in the end a lament to kill those who where God’s enemies.
I hope this make sense.
Ah ok. This is how theBibleProject describes temples as well, so that makes sense now, and also helps me to understand further what they are talking about. They describe it as a crossover between Heaven and Earth, where God’s space was fully ‘overlapping’ with Man’s space before the Fall, and that Man’s rebellion drove those two spaces apart. And it also adds more weight and meaning to the ‘Holiness’ video that they put out years ago, so thankyou.
This then makes clearer to me what Andy Stanley was talking about in his recent message (I forget which message exactly) when he said that the radical idea that our bodies are temples in 1 Corinthians . I still remember the way he put it while describing what a new Christian was thinking. Paul said your bodies are temples, and a new Christian was thinking, hang on, no a body is a body, and a temple is a temple.
Quite a radical idea at the time, but as a modern reader we (I) just gloss over it and tend to go oh excellent, our bodies are temples, where the Holy Spirit dwells, so I want to do my best to not grieve the Holy Spirit, and as a Christian I want to not subject the Holy Spirit to wilful sin (lust) as I remember my mother putting it many years ago during the teen years when hormones were raging (enough said ) .
And now this also makes sense why Naaman, when healed of Elisha wanted to save a dirt sample before he went home. He wanted some magic dirt from Israel…
Thank you for explaining further.
Being that this first commandment was given after the exodus from Egypt, it brings to mind the plagues that were unleashed on the Egyptians. Each plague addressed a specific Egyptian god. The Israelites were witness to God’s ultimate power and authority over the gods, and over pharaoh. God demands and deserves first place in our hearts and minds. He did not want His people to forget that the false gods were defeated.