The one God and the many gods

Council of gods before the Deluge. Engraving by Virgil Solis for Ovid's Metamorphoses Book

A verse that I find very interesting is Psalm 82:1, which states, “God [elohim] presides in the great assembly; he [singular] renders judgment among the gods [elohim].”

I find the verse very interesting because it contains two very different uses of the Hebrew word elohim, using the word to denote both a singular God and a plurality of gods. It leads me inescapably to the conclusion that (a) biblical monotheism can be a bit more, well, complicated, than modern scholars have often been willing to admit and (b) we probably need to pay close attention to context elsewhere in the bible too before interpreting elohim in the plural or singular, despite it being a naturally plural word.

Sometimes the writers of the sacred texts have helped us out by singling out the singular God as “El Elohim” or God Most High. Sometimes they have helped us out by calling the members of this great assembly “angels” or other things instead. But there’s enough instances where the difference is left ambiguous enough that greater care is required.

The impression I’m left with is that, for at least some writers of the bible, it’s not that they denied the existence of a divine pantheon so much as they saw an important differentiation between the many powers who govern the world and the uncreated Power from whom all the powers originate. And this differentiation had important implications for their worship practices. As such I think it’s sometimes more an issue of monolatry than monotheism per se.

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