The idea that there are other “gods” who exist as real supernatural beings, albeit infinitely inferior to the only Creator and Redeemer, pervades the Bible. The Psalms fairly explode with evidence. “There is none like you among the gods, O Lord” (86:8); “For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods” (96:4); “Our Lord is above all gods” (135:5); “Ascribe to Yahweh, [you] gods, ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength” (29:1, my trans.); “He is exalted above all gods” (97:7); “For Yahweh is a great god, and a great king above all gods” (95:3, my trans.). And so on.
But it’s not just the Psalms. In Exodus Yahweh predicts that he will execute judgments “on all the gods of Egypt” (12:12). The author of Numbers then declares that that is indeed what happened: “Yahweh executed judgments against their gods” (33:4). There is no hint that Yahweh is the only God. Instead it is clearly implied that Egypt has her own gods, and Yahweh will defeat them.
When Yahweh gives his people the Ten Commandments, the first commandment implies the existence of other gods: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3; see also Deut. 5:7). In Exodus 23:32–33 Israel is told not to covenant with or worship other gods; there is no suggestion that the gods of Israel’s neighbors do not exist.
In Deuteronomy 4:19 the Israelites are forbidden from worshipping “the sun, the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven . . . [which] Yahweh your god has allotted to all the peoples everywhere under heaven.” In other words, they were told not to worship other gods, not because those gods did not exist, but because they were supposed to rule other peoples, not Israel.
Yahweh himself, who created and rules the other gods, would rule Israel directly. He would rule the nations indirectly through the delegated authority of other gods. This, apparently, was the original intent behind the strange passage regarding the “prince of Persia” in Daniel 10: “The prince of Persia withstood me [perhaps the angel Gabriel] twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me” (v. 13).
Something had gone terribly wrong in Psalm 82. The supernatural beings He had appointed to rule the nations justly had failed to perform. They were supposed to rule with justice, executing judgments on behalf of the poor, the widows and the rest of the nations. But because they did not judge properly, Yahweh would judge them. And the punishment was ferocious.
[Yahweh] has taken his place in the divine council,
In the midst of the gods he passes judgment. . . .
And all of you, sons of Elyon [God Most High]
Instead like Adam you shall die,
And like one of the ‘Shining Ones’ you shall fall.”
“Arise, O Yahweh; Judge the earth!
May you take possession of all the nations!”
If these “gods” were really human beings, verse 7 would not make sense, for all humans die like Adam. Why would this be a special punishment? Instead, there is a hint in this verse of cosmic rebellion against Yahweh. It calls to mind Isaiah 14 and Ezekiel 28, where the king of Babylon and prince of Tyre are condemned for their rebellious pride. In Isaiah 14:13–14, the rebellion is explicit. The “Shining One, son of Dawn” (the same phrase used here in Ps. 82:7) tried to place himself above “the stars of El [the highest God, or Yahweh]” to “sit enthroned in the Mount of Assembly (of the gods),” to “be like Elyon [the fuller name for the Most High God].”
The drift of these passages is that the gods—which are sometimes regarded in the Hebrew Bible as fallen angels and arguably are the genesis of Paul’s “principalities and powers”—are condemned to death not simply because of their failure to rule with justice, but more importantly, for their rebellion against their Maker, Yahweh. Their unjust rule of the nations was simply one of many expressions of their rebellion, which was the principal reason for Yahweh’s discipline.
Christians later came to see these two stories in the prophets as allusions to Satan’s fall from grace. Once created as God’s most gifted and beautiful supernatural being, Satan abused his authority and then led a rebellion against Yahweh. God punished him by limiting his authority on earth; he is still the “god of this world” (2 Cor. 4:4) but his authority is checked by God’s sovereign purposes, and his final destruction is decreed.
N. T. Wright calls this “creational monotheism,” which means that Yahweh rules over a cosmos thick with not only good angels but also fallen angels masquerading as the true God. Wright insists that “we have very few examples of ‘pure’ monotheism anywhere, including in the Hebrew Bible.”
For the biblical authors, these weak and beggarly “gods” helped explain why this cosmos seems to be at war, both spiritually and politically. They believed the ancient pagan religions were animated by powers hostile to Yahweh, actively fighting Yahweh’s control of the cosmos. It was no surprise to them that history is full of conflict, because its driving animus is conflict between supernatural forces, which are visibly represented by both religious and political communities.
In other words, wars between nations were really only the shadowy surface of the deeper and more fundamental combat between spiritual powers. So Samuel Huntington, the Harvard political scientist whose Clash of Civilizations claimed the real inspiration for modern wars would be cultural and religious, was making what might be seen as a biblical argument.
Gerald McDermott is the Jordan-Trexler Professor of Religion at Roanoke College. He is the co-author of A Trinitarian Theology of Religions (forthcoming from Oxford University Press).