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Why the Word “God” Makes me Uncomfortable

God makes me sxc smallOne of the problems with being a biblical theologian is the discomfort I suffer whenever someone’s question crosses lines between biblical and “Christian” categories. We have our way of talking. Biblical authors had their ways of talking.

A simple question like, “Were the Hebrew prophets monotheists or henotheists?”[1] can be answered according to our labels (causing later confusion if the questioner reads the whole Bible carefully) or according to biblical labels (causing immediate confusion and a lengthy conversation that runs the risk of tarring me with the epitaph “closet-pagan.”)

 One problem is that in English, we invest the word GOD with meaning that is simultaneously less and more than its Hebrew counter-parts’—אל El, אלוה Eloah, אלהים Elohim and other variations connected to the idea of strong.

We use God as our primary personal name for YHWH, representing that category-of-one—deity— as distinct from other spiritual entities. Thus, even though אלהים Elohim is applied to entities possessing no eternal qualities, Christians tend to invest the word God with all the attributes of YHWH: omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, immutability, etc. Anything less just isn’t worthy of the name God… unless we are reading fantasy.

So, using biblical categories, do the Scriptures recognize the existence of other gods?

Yes… and I don’t just mean idols. Other entities fall under the category אלהים Elohim that we would shudder to permit under the category God. YHWH is designated as unmatched & supreme above all these, yet, by the label אלהים Elohim is still one of many. Exo 15:11 makes a comparison that is more than just idol vs. YHWH, saying, “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” For while idols are empty nothingness, a dark and insidious joke (Isaiah 44), the reality of other spiritual entities under the rubric of אלהים Elohim is not doubted. Even Paul recognizes a difference. (1 Cor 10:20)

 Using our categories, do the Scriptures recognize the existence of other gods than YHWH?

No… just lesser entities, dependent on YHWH for existence, in willing or unwilling subjection to Him, and the physical representations of idols. The Hebrews seem to ascribed ontological holiness to only one, YHWH, plainly declared in Rev 15:4, “Who will not fear, O Lord, and glorify your name? For you alone are holy.” YHWH was in a class by Himself; Deu 6:4 “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” So great by comparison is He, that He may speak of Himself as אלהים Elohim alone (Isaiah 44:6) in spite of the fact that we find within the pages of Scripture the ready recognition of beings, and not just fanciful statues, which are named among the אלהים Elohim.

  • Genesis 3:24: כרבים Cherubim
  • Deuteronomy 32:8: אלהים בני sons of God
  • Psalm 8:5 Man made a little lower than אלהים Elohim
  • 1 Sam 16:14  רעה רוח evil spirit
  • 1 Kings 22:19ff רוח a spirit, as רוח שׁקר lying spirit
  • Job 1:6 השׂטן Satan among  בני אלהים  sons of God
  • Mark 3:23: Σατανᾶς Satan is both a single figure and a category.
  • Isaiah 6:2ff: שׂרפים Seraphim
  • Ezekiel 1:5: The likeness of four  חיות   living creatures.
  • Deut 32:17: שׁדים demons?
  • Leviticus 17:7 שׂעירם goat demon?
  • Matthew 8:31 δαίμονες demons
  • Matthew 12:43: ἀκάθαρτον πνεῦμα unclean spirit
  • Daniel 3:28: מלאך  angel
  • Jude 1:9: ἀρχάγγελος Archangel
  • Daniel 10:13: השׂרים הראשׁנים Chief Princes
  • Daniel 10:13: שׂר מלכות פרס prince of the kingdom of Persia
  • Ephesians 3:10: ἀρχαῖς καὶ ταῖς ἐξουσίαις ἐν τοῖς ἐπουρανίοις Principalities and Powers in heavenly places.

The exact relationship between these diverse entities, represented often by overlapping labels, is not easy to discern, but the tendency to opt for a dismissive modern vocabulary (i.e. God, Angels, Demons) that hammers it simple is less than helpful… almost as unhelpful as our English word God can be when reading the whole of Scripture, but I’ll keep using it anyway.

 


[1] A henotheist believes in multiple “gods” but worships one in exclusion of all others. Yes, I am asked this question in different places… though I must admit not in these exact terms.

[2] media pic is from sxc.hu

3 thoughts on “Why the Word “God” Makes me Uncomfortable

  1. Nathan says:

    The Christian concepts of God, angelic spiritual beings, and demonic spiritual beings are broad but how would we go about nuancing them if the prophets themselves are not clear and are only working from partial revelation?

    Can we even trust the prophet’s perspective about these categories? In the same way that we excuse their mistaken view of a flat disk shaped earth or the waters above the sky, do we also reject their partial and immature view of supernatural beings?

    1. That is a huge discussion. One which is outside the scope of biblical theology, which concerns itself with understanding the vocabulary and categories of the inspired writers. It is also a question that won’t be solved until we are dead and can get a first hand look at things. Either way, the hope of the article is that we will attune our minds to the concept of shifting spheres of meaning between our vocabulary and categories and the biblical writers’ vocabulary and categories. If we keep the potential problems in mind when we read, we’ll be better readers.

      As for me, I am cautious about denying the legitimacy of the prophetic pictures… as a group of backwoods mountain folk with little sophistication in a worldly sense, they have produced the most powerful literature in human history and transformed almost every society on the planet with their visions. I am also wary of thinking that I will find within the pages a scripture any form of cut&paste cosmology of the spirit world… there are things beyond science in this world and the limits of scientific method does not, indeed, cannot, disallow realms beyond measure but not beyond experience. It humbles me.

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