Perpetual Forge

The Roman pantheon was a temple dedicated to the worship of all gods
God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
“How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? 

Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.”
Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!
Ps 82

Israel's religion didn't just suddenly appear out of nowhere. It evolved. And here in Psalm 82 I see signs of that evolution. In ancient polytheistic cultures, different peoples were aware of the fact that their gods and their neighbors' gods had different names and even had different powers and priorities. When one nation conquered another, it wasn't just the people who were thought of as triumphant, but also (especially) that nation's gods. Among these nations, Israel was unique in that it had not a variety of gods, but only One God. They hadn't chosen that God, rather they were God had chosen them. Unique among the nations, also, was Israel's refusal to allow depictions of their God. They were not to worship human-made representations of God, but the God they couldn't see.

But this does not mean that Israel believed that other gods didn't exist. Originally, it seems to be the case that they acknowledged other gods' existence, but refused (or were forbidden) to worship them, believing their God to be the greatest of them all. The worship of many gods is called polytheism, but Israel originally practiced henotheism: the acknowledgment of other gods, but the worship of only One. It wasn't until later that the belief developed that the Lord was the only God, and that other nations' gods were, in fact, nonexistent. Or, if they did exist, they were not gods but lesser beings... and this is probably the origin of our belief in the existence of angels: servants of the One God, but not themselves divine.

In the 82nd Psalm, the Lord sits among these lesser gods and judges them harshly. They are small-minded and oppressive. Their divinity is acknowledged, but it is (or will be) diminished, and they will die off as though they are mortals. Later interpretation of this psalm claims that the writer is referring to an assembly of human leaders. But to me, this seems unlikely. For this is not the only place in the scriptures where other gods seem to be acknowledged. [1] We believers simply need to face the fact that our faith has been evolving since the dawn of history.

And it's not a one-way street. Whether I believe that the Lord was revealed to Israel as the only God, or that Israel's faith developed into a belief in the existence of only one God (or a combination of both), God's people often turned aside from this belief and incorporated the worship of idols into their religion. I, too, have had it revealed to me that there is but One God, and that that God is Israel's God. And yet I still manage to incorporate the worship of other gods into my own religious system. No, I don't have statues set up in my house, but way too often I place God lower than finances, relationships, status, etc.  "The human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols." [2]

I need constantly to guard against the shiny things that catch my eye so that they do not in my god-manufacturing mind take the place of the One. Like ancient Israel, perhaps it's best at times to acknowledge the existence of these other gods and to realize that they have no power over me. Even then, however, I need to pray that this, too, will change...

Deliver me, O God, from the gods that hold sway in my life. May you be my treasure and my great love, and may all my pride be not in what I think I've gained or what good other people imagine that I've accomplished, but in your Name and in your glory. Finally, deliver me from even the thoughts of these other gods, until you are my All-in-All. I pray in the Name of the One who taught me: Our Father...

  1. One excellent example is found in Deuteronomy 32:8-9, where Moses seems to differentiate between the Most High and Yahweh, the Lord of the Israelites. The Most High (עֶלְיוֹן, or Elyon... when Amy Grant sang about El Elyon, she was saying "God Most High") gave each god her or his nation. Yahweh received Israel, and it was Israel's God who protected, delivered, and nurtured them—not because the other gods didn't exist, but because Yahweh was the greatest among them and loved them most. This passage from Deuteronomy is confirmed in the final verse of today's psalm, in which the divisions among the peoples end, other gods die off, and all nations—not just Israel—finally belong to Yahweh. 
  2. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 1.11.8