Jonathan Zasloff at the Reality-Based Community has a lovely piece up this morning reflecting on a place where the Psalms refer to the God of the Jews as being “among the gods.” It certainly puts a different spin on the idea that monotheism meant “only one God exists.” There are multiple places in the Jewish scriptures where the existence of other gods is explicitly noted. Jews aren’t told that other gods don’t exist, only that they shouldn’t worship them. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” as the commandment goes.
It’s only many hundreds of years later that the idea develops that only one God exists and all others are “false gods” or evil spirits masquerading as gods. (I’m not even going to get into the discussion of why people would say that an immortal, invisible being with supernatural powers isn’t a god. Ditto the saints.) The same problem faced Islam when it arose in the midst of polytheistic Arabia, so much so that Islam’s definitive statement of faith starts out, “There is no god but God.”
I think it’s interesting to note that monotheism isn’t necessarily a natural idea for humans, and it certainly didn’t sweep away that old-fashioned polytheism in one fell swoop thousands of years ago.