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That's not unreasonable. Many languages use the plural this way, particularly for kings and lords who represent not only themselves but the people they govern. In the past, English made a difference between "you" for those above us on the social scale and "thou" for friends and family. French has "vous", Russian "vi", German "Sie", Spanish "Usted" and so on for formal use when talking to one person.
Besides, believers point out, the idea that Elohim refers to only one being is reinforced by the verb bara (created), which has a singular, not plural (baru) ending. There was only one God - and grammar supports that position.
It's a good point, and on its own it might be conclusive, but it ignores other, stronger evidence, both internal (from the Bible itself) and external (from history and archaeology).
The first problem is that the word used to refer to God changes as the Bible progresses. By the middle of the Old Testament Elohim has almost disappeared, to be replaced by Yahweh (Jehovah), which is used almost 7,000 times. Other names - El ("God") and Adonai ("Lords") - are also used occasionally. Why this shift in vocabulary?
Take a step back to look at the historical background. The Jewish faith emerged out of Canaanite beliefs, which both predate and are contemporary with the Bible. The Canaanites, whose primary city was Ugarit (now Ras Sharma in modern Syria), had many deities. First came El, the Most High and the father of the gods; his many children included Yahweh, Asherah (also known as Athiratl, the fertility goddess) and Baal.
Yahweh, therefore, was originally only one of several gods. To prevent them squabbling, El divided the different tribes that inhabited the land we now know as Israel / Palestine among his children. Yahweh was awarded the Israelites, and in Deuteronomy 32.8 - 32.9 he confirms that he is a junior god, telling his people: "When the Most High [El] gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided all mankind, he set up boundaries for the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel. For the LORD's [Yahweh's] portion is his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance." (New International Version)
1.5d From some to one
The Israelites soon learn that Yahweh is a demanding deity who insists that his people repudiate all other gods. He demands that the Asherah poles be destroyed. His anger explodes when his orders are ignored - as when the Jews worship Baal's golden calf while Moses is absent receiving the Ten Commandments (Exodus 32). As time passes, the Jews abandon the idea of Elohim - many gods - and refer only to Yahweh who, in their eyes and perhaps in reality, has become all-powerful while his parents and siblings disappear from history.
This interpretation is not some atheist conspiracy. It is the word of the Bible itself, supported by evidence from non-Biblical sources. At the core of Jewish, and Christian, belief, is the idea that there were several gods at Creation. These gods persisted through many generations, including the Flood and flight from Egypt and only when Yahweh, the self-described jealous god, becomes pre-eminent, are the Elohim, the many gods, replaced by one single god. Polytheism has become monotheism.
1.5e The triumph of reason
It is good to remind ourselves of the process of reasoning that brought us to this understanding. Firstly, our minds were open, not closed: we started with the question, not an answer (the question "what does the Bible tells us?", not the answer "the Bible tells us there is one god"). Secondly, we gathered all the evidence, not just the evidence that agreed with our theory (we looked at history and archaeology as well as the Bible).
Should we accept this new interpretation or tell ourselves that no, there was only ever one God in the Bible? No, because we must also apply the Occam's Razor test, which tells us that the simplest solution to a problem is always more preferable to the more complicated one. If the word says "gods", it means "gods", not "god"; if Yahweh tells us that there are other gods, we should believe him rather than try to interpret his words differently.
Where are we now? Our reasoning has led us to the following possible conclusions:
a. If the Bible is literally true, there were originally many gods. Only one of these, Yahweh, appears to have survived; the Bible does not record what happened to the other gods. They may have been forgotten, but do they still exist?
b. If the truth is that there has only ever been one God, then passages in the Bible which point to several gods are false. That should lead us to suspect that other passages in the Bible may also be false.
c. The Bible tells a story which may or may not contain truth. In itself, it neither proves nor disproves the existence of one or more gods.
This section has not brought us to the point where we can confirm whether all, part or none of the Bible is true. However, it has allowed us to confirm that in the Jewish-Christian Bible there are several gods - and Yahweh was not always the most powerful.
Later in this website we will look at other passages in the Bible which may undermine popular belief. In the meantime, the rest of this chapter continues to look at definitions and perceptions of God.
Next: Chapter One: Section 6
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If God existed, he would...
admire the beauty of a universe that he did not create
recognize that eternity is meaningless
deny both heaven and hell
disown all men and women who speak in his name
denounce the harm caused by religious "morality"
help the human race to thrive without him
If God existed, he would be an atheist.
What is the difference between science and faith?
science is certain of nothing and requires proof of everything
faith is certain of everything and requires proof of nothing
Which do you trust?
"I know there is no God"
"I believe there is no God"
Check the answer