Understanding Israelite Monotheism

Old Testament affirmations such as Deut 6:4 (“Hear, O Israel, Yahweh our God is one”) and the prophets’ repeated statements that “there is none besides Yahweh,” can easily lead to the assumption that the OT Israelites did not believe in the existence of other gods. According to this assumption, the definition of monotheism rules out the existence of other gods. In light of many ot passages, these assumptions cannot be sustained. Rather than producing contradictions within the biblical text, these passages that are often set aside demonstrate how godly Israelites thought about Yahweh and provide a more accurate picture of Israelite monotheism.

The Hebrew text of the OT uses the term elohim to refer to five different entities apart from Yahweh, the God of Israel (more than 2,000 times)—even though this distinction is rarely clear in the English translations:

1. The gods of Yahweh’s heavenly council, both loyal and disloyal (Ps 82; 89; compare Deut 32:8–9, 43; Ps 58:11)

2. The gods of foreign nations (e.g., 1 Kgs 11:33)

3. Demons (Deut 32:17)

4. Spirits of dead people (1 Sam 28:13)

5. Angels (see note on Gen 35:7)

Barry, J. D., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Mangum, D., & Whitehead, M. M. (2012). Faithlife Study Bible. Logos Bible Software, Bellingham, WA.