The first of the Ten Commandments says, “You shall have no other gods before me.” It doesn’t say Yahweh was the only god, just that he demanded to be the primary god. The Bible itself documents the transition from many gods to one god.
This odd wording of the First Commandment is because that section of the Bible was written in roughly the tenth century BCE, the early days of the Israelite religion, when they believed in many gods. The next commandment declares, “I, Yahweh your god, am a jealous god”—jealous because other gods were available, and Yahweh insisted on a commitment.
Acknowledging many gods and worshiping many gods is polytheism. Acknowledging many gods but worshiping only one is henotheism, and the Israelites at this time are more properly labeled henotheists. In this view, different gods ruled different territories just as kings did, and tribes owed allegiance to whichever god protected them. Deuteronomy makes this explicit: “When Elyon divided the nations, … he established the borders of the nations according to the number of the sons of the gods. Yahweh’s portion was his people, [Israel] his allotted inheritance.”
Here we see Elyon, the head of the divine pantheon, dividing humankind among his children. Each received his inheritance, and for Yahweh, it was Israel. The idea of a divine pantheon with a chief deity, his consort, and their children (the council of the gods) was widespread through the Ancient Near East. Elyon (short for El Elyon) is the chief god, not just in early Israelite writings but also in the literature of other Canaanite tribes.
We find clues to polytheism elsewhere in the Old Testament. For example, in the six-day creation story, God said, “Let us make mankind in our image.” Later, he warns the others about man’s new knowledge (“The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil”), and that they must disrupt society lest projects like the Tower of Babel succeed (“Let us go down and confuse their language”).
A common Christian response is to say the “us” is either the Trinity or a heavenly assembly of angels. But the original audience for Genesis would never have understood the Trinity. And there is no need to imagine an angelic assembly when the henotheistic interpretation of Genesis growing out of prior polytheistic Canaanite culture is the more natural explanation.
Psalms is another old book that holds snapshots of the many gods in early Israelite religion. We see the assembly of the gods: “For who in the skies can compare to Yahweh? Who is like Yahweh among the [sons of God], a God who is honored [in the great assembly of the holy ones], and more awesome than all who surround him?” Other verses celebrate Yahweh while acknowledging the existence of others: “All the gods bow down before Yahweh.”
Near the end of the Babylonian exile in the sixth century BCE the evolution from polytheism to monotheism was complete. Yahweh said, “Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me.” While that’s a confident statement, the Bible as a whole tells a changing story.
Image credit: Giovanni Lanfranco c. 1625 (public domain) via Wikimedia
“You shall have no other gods before me”: Exodus 20:3.
“I, Yahweh your God, am a jealous God”: Exodus 20:5.
“When Elyon divided the nations”: Deuteronomy 32:8–9. This is the Dead Sea Scrolls version, and the translation is from Thom Stark, The Human Faces of God (Wipf & Stock, 2011), 71–2.
“Let us make mankind in our image”: Genesis 1:26.
“The man has now become like one of us”: Genesis 3:22.
“Let us go down and confuse their language”: Genesis 11:7.
“For who in the skies can compare to Yahweh?”: Psalm 89:6–7 (NET).
“All the gods bow down before [Yahweh]”: Psalm 97:7 (NET).
“Before me no god was formed”: Isaiah 43:10.