Death Knell for the Pagan Gods, Part 1

Bible text: Psalm 82

Recently I was reading Psalm 82. It a very curious psalm. It does not quite fit my expectations on what I will find in the Bible.

The psalm begins with God, the Lord of Israel, taking his place in the divine council. As the next line makes clear, this is an assembly of gods, presumably in heaven.

Now that is where the puzzle arises. If Judaism is a monotheistic religion, how does this allusion to polytheism make it into the sacred text? Are we to conclude that the Israelites of the Old Testament believed in the existence of other gods?

This thought has troubled many commentators through the centuries. As a result there is one tradition of interpreting the word “gods” in the divine council as angels. Other interpreters understand the “gods” to be an inflated way of speaking about the ruling authorities in human society, the kings and the judges and other governing officials.

I think when the text says “gods”, it means just that. For the imagery of a divine council was a common one in ancient mythologies, whether Sumerian, Babylonian, Canaanite, Egyptian, or Greek. In Canaanite literature (the alternate religious environment in which Israel lived) we find references to this divine council of gods, headed up by the dominant father god El.

The psalmist is adapting this common mythological motif in structuring his psalm. He is using imagery his listeners were very familiar with.

This is one bit of evidence that pure monotheism was a long time establishing itself in the religious mindset of the Israelites of the Old Testament era. Some scholars suggest that the religion of ancient Israel should be more accurately labeled monolatry rather than monotheism.

Monotheism believes in the existence of only one god. There are no others. God is one god and one alone. Monolatry believes there are multiple gods in existence, but a particular people worship and serve only one god exclusively. Monolatrists are monotheists in practice, but not in their thinking. Psalm 82 fits best into a monolatrist view of divine world.

But it is interesting what Psalm 82 does with that monolatrist mindset. It does not deny the existence of other gods. Instead it puts those other gods on trial. And the judge is the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who reveals himself at Sinai as the I AM. He is affirmed in verse 8 as God of all nations and judge of the earth.

Charges are brought against the other gods, and they are found guilty. Then the God of Israel stands up in the assembly to pronounce their sentence:

I say: “You are gods,
sons of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you will die like men,
and fall like any prince.

The days of polytheism are numbered. These powerful and renowned gods that other nations worship and serve will be shown not to be immortal, but momentary powers here today and gone tomorrow just like the long succession of human emperors, princes, and warlords.

In this the psalmist does prove prescient. Where today do we find anyone who seriously worships and serves Marduk and Ishtar of Babylon, Osiris and Isis of Egypt, El, Baal, and Asherah of Canaan, or Zeus, Athena, and Apollo of Greece? Their temples are in ruins. No one brings the daily sacrifices to these gods.

As far as I know, only two gods from the ancient Near Eastern world of divinity continue to be worshipped and served today. One is Ahura Masda, the god of the Zoroastrian religion. The other is the God of ancient Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. All the other gods have died in effect, as the sentence in Psalm 82 predicts.

Now I don’t say this in a triumphalist note. I am simply saying this in a realistic note that this is indeed how things have worked out in the course of history. One can make of that what one wants.

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