God stands in the divine assembly; he pronounces judgment among the gods. (Psalm 82:1)

This mysterious verse has fired the imagination and raised questions in the minds of Jewish and Christian scholars as well as everyday readers of the Bible. In Hebrew, elohim is the word for God, but it can also be used for other gods, as in this verse. In addition, it can sometimes refer to heavenly beings or earthly rulers, depending on the context.

So which is the case here? Are we to picture God judging other deities, spiritual beings or human authorities? The short answer is yes, all of the above.

Skeptics may argue that the God of the Bible is just another ancient tribal deity among many. However, the testimony of Scripture, nature and history puts a lie to such claims. Together, these witnesses reveal a God who is infinitely above and beyond all other gods in a myriad of ways, of which we’ll look at five.

The power of God

In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness covered the surface of the watery depths, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. (Genesis 1:1-3)

The opening verses of Genesis are among the best-known in Scripture, in addition to being foundational for everything that follows. However, they weren’t written in a vacuum, but against a backdrop of the religious beliefs that were prevalent in the Ancient Near East (ANE). Through these first words, God revealed himself to his people as the Sovereign Creator, in contrast to the gods that their ancestors and neighbours worshipped.

The contrast couldn’t have been more extreme. In the mythologies of the ANE and the Mediterranean world, the first gods arose from primordial chaos and proceeded to engage in wars and sexual unions, thereby creating more gods, monsters and the physical universe. According to the Enuma Elish, the oldest surviving ANE creation myth, Tiamat was the goddess of the chaotic ocean depths, whose son, Marduk, fought and killed her and used her corpse to make the universe. He then created humanity as slaves for the gods, allowing the gods to live in carefree pleasure.

In Genesis, there are no wars or liaisons between the gods. In fact, there are no gods, except for the one God who is pre-existent and independent, the unmoved mover. He created everything – time, space, the vast cosmos, the spiritual realm and all life – simply by speaking it into existence. Unlike the ANE myths, there’s no struggle to overcome the chaotic watery depths (Hebrew tehom, from the same semitic root as Tiamat). Instead, God fashioned and formed it into order, displaying his infinite power and wisdom as the Sovereign Lord over his creation.

The character of God

The Lord is a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger and abounding in faithful love and truth, maintaining faithful love to a thousand generations, forgiving iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But he will not leave the guilty unpunished, bringing the consequences of the fathers’ iniquity on the children and grandchildren to the third and fourth generation. (Exodus 34:6-7)

When Moses asked to see God’s glory, the Lord responded with this self-description that encapsulates his character – compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, full of faithful love and truth, forgiving sin yet punishing the guilty. The formula is restated throughout the Old Testament in various forms and contexts, a steady reminder to God’s people that this is the essence of his nature.

Such a description is entirely at odds with the deities from every ancient mythological pantheon. As gods invented by humans, they’re essentially people writ large, prone to all our faults and failings but with the unbridled power to fully indulge them. Proud, lustful, capricious, vindictive, they’re basically the supervillains of the ancient world.

Describing the gods of ancient Greece, classicist Natalie Haynes wrote, “They are immortal, hugely powerful, and have the emotional range and sense of proportion we might expect to find in a toddler deprived of a favourite toy. The smallest slight or setback meets with coruscating rage; gods don’t hesitate to unleash violence on mortals and other gods alike. Not only did the ancient Greeks seem to have modelled gods in their mortal image, but they apparently chose their worst selves as the template.”

Compared with these gods of the ancient world, who raped, murdered, punished the innocent, demanded human sacrifice and betrayed their worshippers, the God of the Bible is beyond human understanding in his goodness, beauty and holiness.

The image of God

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, according to our likeness. They will rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, the livestock, the whole earth, and the creatures that crawl on the earth.” So God created man in his own image; he created him in the image of God; he created them male and female. (Genesis 1:26-27)

The fundamental truth of human existence is that we’re made in God’s image, designed to reflect his nature and be his representatives in his creation. This is what gives us intrinsic value and dignity and forms the basis of our conviction that all people are created equal and have inalienable human rights.

To think that we’re image bearers of the infinite, eternal and holy God should stagger our imagination. For people in the ancient world, it was an even more staggering concept, a direct reversal of the idolatry associated with their various religious beliefs. The key is found in the Hebrew word tselem, translated eikon in Greek and imago in Latin, from which we get “image” in English. Variations of this word, which means model, shadow or representation, appear in the Scriptures to describe humans made in God’s image, but also the images of other gods made by humans.

For the ancients, the image of God would’ve meant a statue made of gold, bronze, stone or wood that represented the god they worshipped, whether Baal or Asherah, Artemis or Zeus. Into this world of inert models representing unliving gods, the Sovereign Lord declared that he created humans to be his living images, giving us the ineffable privilege of modelling his nature and character as his representatives in the world. It’s no wonder God takes a dark view of those who turn this truth upside down, making gods in their own fallen image and worshipping creation rather than their Creator.

The judgment of God

“I will pass through the land of Egypt on that night and strike every firstborn male in the land of Egypt, both people and animals. I am the Lord; I will execute judgments against all the gods of Egypt.” (Exodus 12:12)

Throughout the Old Testament, the two most pervasive sins that bring down God’s judgment are idolatry and injustice, and these two are always intertwined. The gods of the ancient world were petty, cruel and unjust. They gloried in violence and warfare and cared little or nothing for the plight of the poor and marginalized. They sided with victimizers against their victims and concocted sadistic tortures for the slightest offences. Their worship called for sexual revelry with temple prostitutes and the sacrifice of innocents in the fire to appease their wounded pride.

Gods made by humans represent our yearning for something beyond ourselves that can only be satisfied by our Maker. However, these idols wind up reflecting the darkest aspects of human nature, and those who worship them become more and more like them.

Consequently, God’s righteous judgment doesn’t just fall on idolaters, but on the idols they create. Through the Ten Plagues of Egypt, God delivered his people from slavery while also displaying his power and judgment over the gods of the people who had enslaved them. The nature of each plague demonstrated God’s supremacy over one or more Egyptian deities, of which this is only a partial list:

  1. Water to Blood: Osiris, god of the Nile; Hapi, the water-bearing god
  2. Frogs: Heqet, frog-headed goddess of fertility and renewal
  3. Dust and Gnats: Geb, the god of earth and soil
  4. Swarm of Flies: Khepri, fly-headed god of rebirth; Uatchit, the fly goddess
  5. Death of Livestock: Hathor, cow-headed goddess of love; Apis, the bull god
  6. Boils: Sekhmet, lioness-headed goddess of epidemics; Serapis, god of healing
  7. Hail: Nut, goddess of the sky; Set, god of storms
  8. Locusts: Nepri, god of grain; Ermutet, goddess of crops
  9. Darkness: Ra, god of the sun; Thoth, god of the moon
  10. Death of Firstborn: Isis, mother goddess of protection; Pharaoh, god to his people

The Exodus is the central event in Old Testament history and the ultimate display of God’s supremacy over the gods of the nations. Unlike those deities, the Lord is perfect in goodness and his judgments are thoroughly just. While the ancient gods are unmoved by the suffering of their worshippers, the Lord hears the cries of the needy and the outcast and rescues them. Whereas the gods made by humans are impotent and unable to save, the Lord has unlimited power to rescue his people and accomplish his will.

The grace of God

Who is a God like you, forgiving iniquity and passing over rebellion for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not hold on to his anger forever because he delights in faithful love.
(Micah 7:18)

Like the creation account in Genesis, the Old Testament sacrificial system did not occur in a vacuum. Animal sacrifices, drink and grain offerings, and covenants ratified with oaths and blood all have parallels in the religious practices of the ANE and the Mediterranean world. In Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, the Greeks prepared their feasts according to strict sacrificial observance, offering a cut of meat and pouring out a cup of wine to the gods before they ate and drank. The Hittites and other ANE cultures made treaties and covenants that invoked blessings for keeping them and curses for breaking them.

There’s one element, however, that’s conspicuous by its absence from these transactional rituals: grace. As a rule, the gods of the ancient world weren’t known for being merciful or loving. The religious practices of their worshippers were aimed at appeasing them and perhaps earning their favour, however tenuously. The relationship between humans and their gods wasn’t marked by joy or trust, but by slavish fear and the dread of a dark fate. There was no salvation to anticipate, only a shadowy afterlife in the underworld.

This is arguably the greatest area of contrast between the gods created by humanity and the God who created humanity. “Who is a God like you,” marvels the prophet Micah as he ponders the faithful love and grace of the Lord. The same sense of wonder is echoed and re-echoed through the writings of the prophets. Isaiah writes:

Let the wicked one abandon his way and the sinful one his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, so he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will freely forgive. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways.” This is the Lord’s declaration. “For as heaven is higher than earth, so my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:7-9)

As the all-knowing and all-powerful Sovereign of the universe, and as our kind and gracious Saviour, God’s ways and thoughts are infinitely beyond us, and beyond the gods we fashion in our image. Whether they’re made of metal or stone or our imagination, worshipping them can only destroy us. Conversely, worshipping the God who fashioned us in his image, who loved us and gave himself for us, will lead us to unimaginable life and joy in his presence forever, for which he created us.

Sources and further reading

Cory Baugher, “Yahweh versus the gods of Egypt,” Knowing the Bible, 2007.

Stephanie Dalley, translator, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, The Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others, Oxford University Press, 2009.

John J. Davis, Moses and the Gods of Egypt: Studies in Exodus, BMH Books, 1985.

Laszlo Garzuly, “Enuma Elish: Discover the Babylonian poem of creation,” The Collector, November 28, 2023.

Natalie Haynes, Divine Might: Goddesses in Greek Myth, Harper Perennial, 2024.

Homer and Emily Wilson, translator, The Iliad, W.W. Norton, 2024.

Homer and Emily Wilson, translator, The Odyssey, W.W. Norton, 2018.

Alexandra O. Hudson, “Human beings are stewards, not slaves to God: The biblical concept of imago Dei sets the Judeo-Christian narrative apart from other ancient origin stories,” Christianity Today, February 27, 2023.

David Hulme, “The hapless gods of Egypt,” Vision, Spring 2014.

Geraldine Pinch, Egyptian Mythology: A Guide to the Gods, Goddesses, and Traditions of Ancient Egypt, Oxford University Press, 2004.

What the Bible tells us about the 10 plagues of Egypt,” Zondervan Academic, May 2, 2018.

Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.

© 2024 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.

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