God, “gods” and the First Commandment

Yesterday, while discussing Christianity in a chatroom, the discussion turned to the question of the Trinity. Now, I have an approach to the question of the Trinity that begins with a "no-brainer" question. "No-brainer" questions are questions that anyone should be able to answer immediately and without much thought because the answer is intrinsically obvious if you know anything about the subject – questions like, "Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?" or "In what town was the Battle of Gettysburg fought?" or "Which weighs more: a pound of feathers or a pound of lead?" My no-brainer question for opening discussion with the Trinity is "Does the Bible teach that there is one God?" My usual proof text is Deut. 6:4: "Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one."

Yesterday, a woman answered that the Bible teaches there are many gods, and the proof is found in the First Commandment: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me." (Ex. 20:2-3).

Now, this isn’t a bad argument. She argues that since God says that there will be no other gods before Him, that there must, in actuality, be other gods. This conclusion is not unreasonable, but it is wrong. Here’s why.

When God uses the word "gods" in this text, it had a very plain meaning to the people who had just been led out of the land of Egypt. In Egypt, there were a pantheon of "gods" including gods for the sun, the Nile, the crops, etc. These "gods" were everywhere, and the people of Israel knew exactly what God was speaking of when he said that they should have no other "gods" before Him. He was saying that He was the supreme God and no one should ever set up one of these other "gods" as superior to Him.

Does that mean that the other "gods" are real, living beings? Does the fact that God referred to other "gods" mean that the other "gods" existed beyond being stone or wooden idols? Without doing any research, it is obvious that there is nothing intrinsic in the wording of the commandment that would require a conclusion that the other "gods" were living beings of some sort. God could simply be saying "don’t set up 'gods' like the Egyptians did and worship them in place of me."

But perhaps you are saying, "but it is also possible, is it not, that God did mean other living beings existed who were 'gods' and that is who He is referencing." Yes, I agree that the wording allows both possibilities. The language used could reasonably be interpreted to be understood either that "gods" means "idols" or that "gods" means "other living beings who are deities." So, which is it?

The answer is to understand that the Bible, like other books, is subject to rules of interpretation. One rule of interpretation which applies to all writings regardless of whether they are religious or secular, is that the writing should be used to interpret itself. In other words, if a writer uses a term that can be interpreted in one of two ways, then it is fair to look to the rest of that author’s work to see how he or she uses the term elsewhere to help give meaning to the use of the word in a place that is disputed. To use a rather silly example, but one that makes the point, when Einstein says that time is "relative", he could mean that it is relative to the observer, he could mean that it is relative to the place, or he could mean that it is relative to the task at hand (the "watched pot never boils", after all). To know what he means in a particular sentence or paragraph, we have to read the rest of his writings so as to give context and fullness to his use of the word in the sentence that we are examining.

So, what does the Bible say elsewhere about these "gods" that could give us context for the statement in the First Commandment? I suggest 1 Chronicles 16:25-26. Verse 25 uses the same type of language as used in the First Commandment:

For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; He also is to be feared above all gods.

Notice how closely this language echoes the language of the First Commandment. Verse 25 begins by pointing out that God is great, while the First Commandment begins by pointing out the great things that God has done in leading the people out of Egypt. Verse 25 continues that God is to be feared above all gods which is very similar to the commandment to have no other gods before God. In effect, Verse 25 is a restatement and reaffirmation of the First Commandment. But then Verse 26 continues by further telling us about these other "gods":

For all the gods of the peoples are idols, But the LORD made the heavens.

If Verse 25 is a restatement and reaffirmation of the First Commandment, then Verse 26 clarifies what the word "gods" means in the First Commandment: idols. The Hebrew word used in Verse 26 which is translated as "idols" is "eliyl" which means "of nought, good for nothing, worthless, . . . of false gods."

So, the Bible, when read together consistently with the correct rules of interpretation of all literature, shows undoubtedly that when God says in the First Commandment that "you shall have no other gods before me", the gods to which He is making reference are good for nothing, worthless, false gods. It couldn’t be any clearer.

P.S., although it couldn’t be any clearer, the woman with whom I was discussing this issue contended that I just simply didn’t understand that the word "gods" meant "gods" and I was trying to muddy the waters. *sigh* As I have said before, I don’t ever expect someone to say "Wow! You convinced me that God is real," when I speak to them about the Good News. I just hope that I gave her some food for thought that will bug her later because, deep down, she must know that I am right. If I can plant doubts about her own belief system, perhaps one day she will be open to the Spirit. I will pray for her.


Weekend Fisher said…
You might give her Isaiah 43:10, 44:6-11, and actually Isaiah 43-45 has a whole bunch of "no other gods" passages. If you chance across her again.

Those verses are handy when talking to Mormons too. :)
SaintOfMe said…
"I just hope that I gave her some food for thought that will bug her later because, deep down, she must know that I am right."

Hm... I'm not sure that particular statement sits well with me, regardless of who is right.
BK said…
saintofme, I would be interested to know why it doesn't sit well with you.
SaintOfMe said…

It doesn't sit well with me because it is condescending. Also, if you're always so convinced that you're right, you don't come to discussions with the ability to openly exchange ideas. It shows an unwillingness to consider the possibility that some people just don't agree with you, as well as a lack of respect for those who do.

(I'm not accusing you of actually being like that or anything, because I don't know you.)

biblemike said…
SaintonMe, the reality is that BK is correct in what he said and factually correct in his remarks about what the scriptures say. Therefore his comment that "deep down she must know" he is right is at minimum a reasonable guess and at maximum absolutely correct. The discussion between the two was on what the Bible teaches about the existence of other gods. Factually BK is correct that the Bible teahces that all other gods are idols or, in other words, not real, false. His comment is an extension of something else the Bible teaches as well in that the law of God is written in our hearts and thus she knows "deep down" in her heart that he is correct in what he has said. There is nothing pompous in his statement, merely an affirmationof what scripture teaches.
SaintOfMe said…

The fact that I was disturbed by BK's statement has nothing to do with whether he was correct about the original argument. I simply think that victory should be declared with grace and without recourse to assumptions about the thoughts of others.

BK said…

I apologize for my ungraciousness, but at the same time, I don't want to be so careful in this blog that I don't make a strong statements about the truth of Christianity or correct interpretations of the Bible. I believe that there are right ways to read the Bible and wrong ways. I do acknowledge that while there are some ambiguities upon which reasonable people can differ, there are many claims that the Bible says something that are demonstrably wrong.

I do believe that the skeptic with whom I was discussing the Ten Commandments was wrong for the reasons I stated. I think that the argument I make that interprets "gods" as "idols" and not as other living deities on the level of God to be very strong.

So, while I will try to be more gracious in my approach, I don't think I have done something wrong for simply saying that I am right when I think it pretty clear that I am.

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