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The meaning of Gods in the Bible
(From International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)

('elohim; theoi):


1. Superhuman Beings (God and Angels)

2. Judges, Rulers

3. Gods of the Nations

4. Superiority of Yahweh to Other Gods

5. Regulations Regarding the Gods of the Nations

6. Israel's Tendency to Idolatry



The Hebrew plural 'elohim is generally known as the plural of "majesty" and is the ordinary name for God. The meaning of the plural seems to be "plenitude of powers." It denotes the fullness of those attributes of power which belonged to the Divine Being. Thus it is usually translated in the singular, "God," when referring to the God of Israel. When reference is made to the gods of the other nations the word is translated in the plural, "gods." The heathen nations usually had a plurality of gods. Among the Semites it was customary for one nation or tribe to have its own particular god. Often there were many tribes, or families, or communities, in one nation, each having a particular god. Thus, even among Semites a nation may have many gods and be polytheistic. Among the other nations, Iranian, Hamitic, etc., there were always a number of deities, sometimes a multitude. There are many references to these in the Old Testament. In a few cases where the plural is used, the singular would be better, e.g. Genesis 3:5 the King James Version; Exodus 32:4, Exodus 32:8, Exodus 32:23; Ruth 1:15 the King James Version; Judges 17:5; Judges 18:24; I Samuel 17:43. This, however, might be disputed.

I. In the Old Testament.

1. Superhuman Beings (God and Angels):

The following are the more important usages of the word in the Old Testament: The translation of Psalms 8:5 is disputed. The Septuagint and the King James Version translate it "angels," the Revised Version (British and American) and the American Standard Revised Version, "God," with "angels" in the margin. The Epistle to the He has the word "angels." This seems to be more in keeping with the Old Testament ideas of the relation between God, men and angels. Genesis 1:26 has the plural "us," but it is not certain to whom it refers, most probably to the angels or mighty ones which surrounded the throne of God as servants or counselors; compare Job 38:7, and see SONS OF GOD. In Psalms 97:7 the expression "worship him, all ye gods," may possibly refer to the gods of the nations, but more probably to the angels or mighty ones.

2. Judges, Rulers:

Judges, rulers, are regarded "either as Divine representatives at sacred places, or as reflecting Divine majesty and power" (see BDB, under the word). Exodus 21:6 might better be translated as in the margin, "the judges." These were men appointed to represent God and adjudicate on important matters of law. Septuagint has "Criterion of God." In Exodus 22:8 the word is used in the same sense, and Exodus 22:9 would also be better translated "the judges"; Exodus 22:28 likewise. See also I Samuel 2:25; Psalms 82:1, Psalms 82:6, where the reference is to those who act as judges.

3. Gods of the Nations:

(1) The ancestors of Israel "beyond the River" had their gods (Joshua 24:14 f.). While there is no mention of idolatry before the Deluge, the ancestors and kindred of Abraham were idolaters. Ur of the Chaldees was the center for the worship of Sin, the Moon-god. Many others were worshipped in the various cities of Babylon.


(2) The gods of Laban and his family (Genesis 31:30, Genesis 31:32; Genesis 35:2, Genesis 35:4) were household gods or teraphim, and were stolen by Rachel and carried off in her flight with Jacob.


(3) Gods of Egypt: For many centuries before the time of Abraham there had been numerous objects of worship in Egypt. Many of these were animals, birds and natural objects. Horus, the hawk, was one of the earliest of all. The cat, the bull, etc., were worshipped at times. The plagues of Egypt were specially directed against these wretched deities (Numbers 33:4; Exodus 12:12). Yahweh took vengeance on all the gods of Egypt. These terrible events showed that "Yahweh is greater than all gods" (Exodus 18:11). He redeemed His people from the nations and its gods (II Samuel 7:23). Jeremiah predicted the time when Yahweh should destroy the gods of Egypt (Jeremiah 43:12 f.; Jeremiah 46:25).

(4) Of the gods of the Amorites (Judges 6:10) no names are given, but they probably were the same as the gods of the Canaanites.

(5) The gods of the Canaanites were Nature-gods, and their worship was that of the productive and chiefly reproductive powers of Nature. Their service was perhaps the most immoral and degrading of all. The high places and altars of the different Baals, Ashtoreths, etc., were numerous throughout Canaan. These deities were always represented by images and Moses makes frequent reference to them with warnings against this seductive worship (Deuteronomy 7:25; Deuteronomy 12:3, Deuteronomy 12:10, Deuteronomy 12:31; Deuteronomy 13:7; Deuteronomy 20:18; Deuteronomy 29:18; Deuteronomy 32:16, etc.).


(6) Gods of the Philis: The champion Goliath cursed David by his gods (I Samuel 17:43). Perhaps it would be better rendered "god." Saul's and his son's armor was put into the house of their gods (I Chronicles 10:10).


(7) The two golden calves erected by Jeroboam at Dan. and Bethel to keep the people from going to Jerusalem to worship are called gods (I Kings 12:28; II Chronicles 13:8 f.).


(8) The gods of Damascus: Ben-hadad was accustomed to worship in the house of the god Rimmon (II Kings 5:18). No other names are mentioned, but from II Chronicles 28:23 it is clear that there were many gods in Syria.


(9) Solomon's many wives worshipped their own gods, and he provided the means for their worship. Chief among these were Chemosh of Moab and Molech of Ammon (I Kings 11:2, I Kings 11:4, I Kings 11:8).


(10) The mixed peoples transplanted into Samaria by Sargon had their various gods and mingled their service with that of Yahweh, after being taught by a priest of Yahweh. The names of some of these gods were Succoth-benoth, Nergal, Ashima, Nibhaz, Tartak, Adrammelech (II Kings 17:29-31, II Kings 17:33). See separate articles.

(11) Of the gods of Seir, which were brought to Jerusalem by Amaziah, the names are not given (II Chronicles 25:14).

(12) The gods of the nations conquered by Sennacherib and his fathers, namely, Hamoth, Arpad, Sepharvaim, Hena, Ivvah (II Kings 18:33-35; II Kings 19:13). Also those conquered by Sennacherib's fathers, Gozan, Haran, Rezeph, Eden or Telassar (II Kings 19:12; Isaiah 36:18-20; II Chronicles 32:13 f.).

(13) Gods of Moab are mentioned in Ruth 1:15; I Kings 11:1, I Kings 11:7. Possibly Ruth 1:15 should be translated "god."


(14) Gods of Babylon: The graven images of her gods referred to in Isaiah 21:9; Isaiah 42:17; Bel and Nebo mentioned in Isaiah 46:1; other gods of silver and gold (Ezra 1:7; Daniel 4:8-9, Daniel 4:18; Daniel 5:4, Daniel 5:11, Daniel 5:14, Daniel 5:23).

(15) Nineveh's gods are merely referred to in Nahum 1:14. Sennacherib was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god when slain by his sons (II Kings 19:37).

(16) The coastlands or borders and peninsulas of the Aegean Sea had numerous idol gods, shrines and devotees. Isaiah challenges them to prove that they are gods (Isaiah 41:22 f.).

Yahweh was "greater than all gods" (Exodus 15:11; Exodus 18:11); "God of gods, and Lord of lords" (Deuteronomy 10:14, Deuteronomy 10:17); "The Mighty One" (Joshua 22:22); "to be feared above all gods" (I Chronicles 16:25; II Chronicles 2:5; Psalms 96:4 f.);

4. Superiority of Yahweh to Other Gods:

"King above all gods" (Psalms 95:3; Psalms 97:7, Psalms 97:9; Psalms 86:8; Psalms 135:5; Psalms 136:2; Psalms 138:1; Jeremiah 10:11; Zephaniah 2:11; Daniel 2:18, Daniel 2:47). Jeremiah advances so far toward a pure and well-defined monotheism that he speaks of all other gods as "not gods." They have no existence to him (Jeremiah 2:11; Jeremiah 5:7; Jeremiah 16:20). A similar position is taken in Isa. 41; 43, etc.

5. Regulations Regarding the Gods of the Nations:

The laws of Moses give no uncertain sound concerning them. The Decalogue begins: "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." Whatever may be the exact meaning of this, it is perfectly clear that Israel was to have nothing to do with any God but Yahweh (Exodus 20:3; Deuteronomy 5:7). No images shall be made of them (Exodus 20:4, Exodus 20:23; Exodus 34:17; Leviticus 19:4; Deuteronomy 5:8 f.). No mention shall be made of them (Exodus 23:13; Joshua 23:7). They are not to be worshipped but destroyed (Exodus 23:24). They are to make no covenant with the people or their gods would be a snare to them (Exodus 23:32; Deuteronomy 6:14; Deuteronomy 7:4, Deuteronomy 7:25). A curse will follow any defection from Yahweh to them (Deuteronomy 11:28; Deuteronomy 28:14 ff.; Deuteronomy 12:3, Deuteronomy 12:10; Deuteronomy 13:7; Deuteronomy 20:18; Deuteronomy 29:17). These gods are an abomination to Yahweh (Deuteronomy 12:31; Deuteronomy 20:18; Deuteronomy 29:17; Deuteronomy 32:37; Ezekiel 7:20; I Kings 11:5; II Kings 23:13). They are to be as foreign gods to Israel (I Samuel 7:3 f.; Joshua 24:20, Joshua 24:23; Judges 10:16; II Chronicles 14:3; II Chronicles 33:15).

6. Israel's Tendency to Idolatry:

The constant tendency of Israel to go after other gods was first made manifest at Sinai (Exodus 32:1, Exodus 32:4, Exodus 32:8, Exodus 32:23, Exodus 32:11; Exodus 34:15). Hosea says (Hosea 11:2), "The more the prophets called them, the more they went from them." Ezekiel declares (Ezekiel 16:3), "The Amorite was thy father, and thy mother was a Hittite," referring doubtless to the idolatrous taint in the blood of Israel. The tendency manifested itself also at Baal-peor where Israel was led into the licentious rites of the Moabites (Numbers 25:2 f.). Moses saw the taint in the blood, foresaw the danger and repeatedly warned them (Deuteronomy 17:3; Deuteronomy 18:20; Deuteronomy 29:26; Deuteronomy 30:17; Deuteronomy 31:18). Perhaps the most striking passages in Deu. are chapters 13; 28; 30, where are pictured the consequences of going after other gods. Joshua also warns them (Joshua 23:7), and the history of the period of the Judges is the story of their periodical defection from Yahweh and the punishment resulting therefrom (Judges 2:12, Judges 2:17, Judges 2:19; Judges 5:8; Judges 10:6 f.; I Samuel 8:8). Solomon himself gave an impetus in that direction (I Kings 11:5-8). After the disruption, the religion of the Northern Kingdom became very corrupt (I Kings 14:9; II Chronicles 13:8 f.). The golden calves of Jeroboam opened the door for an inrush of idols and other gods. Ahab's marriage to Jezebel threatened to wipe out Yahweh-worship and substitute Baal-worship, and, but for the powerful ministry of Elijah and Elisha, might have effected such a result. Partly checked for a time, the evil broke out in other forms, and even the preaching of Amos and Hosea failed to turn the tide of idolatry. The result was the destruction of the kingdom (II Kings 17:7 ff.; Jeremiah 3:6-8; I Chronicles 5:25). The Southern Kingdom fared better. Other gods were countenanced by Rehoboam, Abijah, Athaliah, Jehoram, Ahaz, Amon, Manasseh, Jehoiakim, etc. Reform movements were attempted by Asa, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah and Josiah, but did not wholly avail. In the reign of Manasseh the nation plunged into the worship of other gods. The ministries of Isaiah, Jeremiah, etc., availed not to stop the tide (II Chronicles 34:25; Jeremiah 11:13; Jeremiah 5:19; II Kings 22:17; Jeremiah 1:16; Jeremiah 19:4; Jeremiah 7:6; Jeremiah 13:10; Jeremiah 16:11; Jeremiah 44:5, Jeremiah 44:8). The nation was carried into exile because of its going after other gods (II Kings 22:17; Deuteronomy 29:25 f.). The captivity had its desired effect. The Israel that returned and perpetuated the nation never again lapsed into the worship of other gods.

II. In the Apocrypha.

The Apocrypha reiterates much of the Old Testament teaching: the defection of Israel (2 Esdras 1:6); the gods of the nations (Judith 3:8; 8:18); the gods which their fathers worshipped (Judith 5:7 f.); the sin of Israel (Additions to Esther 14:7). The Book of The Wisdom of Solomon refers to the "creatures which they supposed to be gods" (12:27; 13:2,3,10; 15:15). Mention is made of the gods of Babylon (Baruch 1:22; 6:6-57 passim; Bel and the Dragon 1:27).

III. In the New Testament.

The expression "gods" occurs in six places in the New Testament: (1) Jesus, in reply to the Pharisees, who questioned His right to call Himself the son of God, quoted Psalms 82:6 : "I said, Ye are gods." He argues from this that if God Himself called them gods to whom the word of God came, i.e. the judges who acted as representatives of God in a judicial capacity, could not He who had been sanctified and sent into the world justly call Himself the Son of God? It was an argumentum AD hominem (John 10:34-37). (2) When Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel in Lystra they healed a certain man who had been a cripple from birth. The Lycaonians, seeing the miracle, cried out in their own dialect, "The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men. And they called Barnabas, Jupiter; and Paul, Mercury" (Acts 14:11 f.). Their ascription of deity to the apostles in such times shows their familiarity with the Greek pantheon. (3) As Paul preached Jesus and the resurrection at Athens the people said he seemed to be a setter forth of strange gods. The conception of only one God seemed to be wholly foreign to them (Acts 17:18). (4) In I Corinthians 8:5 Paul speaks of "gods many, and lords many," but the context shows that he did not believe in the existence of any god but one; "We know that no idol is anything in the world." (5) While at Ephesus, Paul was said to have "persuaded and turned away much people, saying that they are no gods, that are made with hands" (Acts 19:26). (6) The Galatians had been "in bondage to them that by nature are no gods" (Galatians 4:8). Indirect references are also found in Acts 17:16, where Paul observed the city full of idols. Likewise in Romans 1:22 f., Romans 1:25 ff. Paul refers to the numerous gods of the heathen world. These were idols, birds, four-footed beasts and creeping things. The results of this degrading worship are shown in the verse following.


J. J. Reeve

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