Many readers will know that the Old Testament affirms “Yahweh our God is one” (Deut 6:4) and frequently makes the point that “there is none besides Yahweh.” And yet passages like Psa 82:1, 6 and Psa 89:5-7 affirm that there are many gods (ʾelohim). These ʾelohimare spirit beings who serve God in a council or assembly, the heavenly host (Psa 82:1; 1 Ki 22:19-23). They are not idols, as God does not run the affairs of the spiritual or the terrestrial world with the assistance of evil beings. They are not human beings, as the council is clearly in the heavens or spiritual world (1 Ki 22:19-23; Psa 89:5-7). This raises an obvious question: are these ideas self-contradictory? How can there be no gods “besides Yahweh” then?No Gods Besides Yahweh?
Phrases that deny other gods “besides” Yahweh have nearly a dozen variations in the Old Testament. Many Bible readers will not realize that several of these phrases occur in biblical books that affirmthe existence of other ʾelohim.For example, consider Deut 4:35, 39 and Deut 32:39.
Deuteronomy 4:35 – To you it was shown, that you might know that the Lord is God (ʾelohim); there is no other besides him.
Deuteronomy 4:39 – know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the Lord is God (ʾelohim) in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other.
Deuteronomy 32:39 – See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god (ʾelohim) beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.
These verses cannot be denials of the existence of other gods because Scripture forbids that conclusion. In Deut 32:17 we read that the Israelites “sacrificed to the demons, not God (ʾeloah), to gods (ʾelohim) they had not known…” (NLT). This verse calls the gods “demons” (Hebrew: shedim). The apostle Paul quotes this passage in 1 Cor 10:21-22 when warning the Corinthian believers to avoid entering into fellowship with demons. Paul clearly did not deny these demons existed, and so we cannot deny the reality of the ʾelohimin Deut 32:17, his source text. And yet in the same chapter (Deut 32:29) we read that “there is no god (ʾelohim) besides the Lord. The same tension exists for the verses in Deuteronomy 4. The gods of Deut 32:17 were “allotted” to the nations in punishment by Yahweh after the tower of Babel incident:
When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance,
when he divided mankind,
he fixed the borders of the peoples
according to the number of the sons of God.
But the Lord’s portion is his people,
Jacob his allotted heritage. (Deut 32:8-9, ESV)
This passage has a parallel in Deut 4:19-20:19 And beware lest you raise your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, things that the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven. 20 But the Lord has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own inheritance, as you are this day.
These “host of heaven” allotted to the other nations in Deut 4:19-20 are called ʾelohimin Deut 17:3 and Deut 29:26. Consequently, when we read Deut 4:19-20 in context with Deut 32:8-9 and Deut 32:17, we cannot conclude that Deuteronomy denies the existence of other gods any more than we can conclude Deuteronomy 32 denies their existence—and yet both chapters of Deuteronomy contain so-called “denial statements” that there are other gods besides Yahweh.There is no God like Yahweh
The solution to this apparent conundrum is actually not difficult. When the biblical writer says that there are no gods “besides” Yahweh or no god “beside him,” they are not denying other gods exist. Rather, they are saying Yahweh is incomparable. Yahweh is one of many ʾelohim,but no ʾelohimcan compare to him. He is unique. There is only one Yahweh. There is none like him.
The same “denial language” used elsewhere illustrates this point quite well. In Isa 47:8, 10 the text as Babylon claiming ,“I am, and there is none else beside me.” The city of Nineveh makes the same assertion in Zeph 2:15. The claim is not that Nineveh, Babylon, or the biblical writers believe no other cities exist! Rather, Babylon and Nineveh are claiming to be incomparable.