Are There Secondary Gods?
When describing the sin of Israel in Parashat Nitzavim, the Torah states:
דברים כט :כג וְאָמְרוּ כָּל הַגּוֹיִם עַל מֶה עָשָׂה יְהוָה כָּכָה לָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת מֶה חֳרִי הָאַף הַגָּדוֹל הַזֶּה.כד וְאָמְרוּ עַל אֲשֶׁר עָזְבוּ אֶת בְּרִית יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבֹתָם אֲשֶׁר כָּרַת עִמָּם בְּהוֹצִיאוֹ אֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. כה וַיֵּלְכוּ וַיַּעַבְדוּ אֱלֹהִים אֲחֵרִים וַיִּשְׁתַּחֲוּוּ לָהֶם אֱלֹהִים אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדָעוּם וְלֹא חָלַק לָהֶם.
Deut. 29:23 All nations will ask, “Why did the Lord do thus to this land? Wherefore that awful wrath?” 24 They will be told, “Because they forsook the covenant that the Lord, God of their fathers, made with them when He freed them from the land of Egypt; 25 they turned to the service of other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they had not experienced and whom He had not allotted to them.”
The implication in the last part of the verse is that there are gods other than Israel’s God but that Israel was forbidden to worship them only because God did not allot them to Israel! A very disturbing notion to find in the Torah.
R. Ovadiah Seforno tries to remove any possibility of the existence of these gods and explains: “that the did not know their existence in any manner.” However, Ramban says that the correct explanation is that these gods exist but are not their own source of power and God has not placed these gods with power over Israel like God did with the other nations. Ramban then refers to his commentary in Leviticus 18:25 where he elaborates
כי השם הנכבד ברא הכל ושם כח התחתונים בעליונים ונתן על כל עם ועם בארצותם לגוייהם … כי חלק לכולם מזלות בשמים וגבוהים עליהם מלאכי עליון נתנם להיותם שרים עליהם…
“God in His glory created everything, and He put control of the lower realms in the upper realms, and he put over each and every one, in their lands and by their nations… He gave them sublime angels to be princes over them…
והנה השם הנכבד הוא אלהי האלהים ואדוני האדונים לכל העולם אבל ארץ ישראל אמצעות הישוב היא נחלת ה’ מיוחדת לשמו לא נתן עליה מן המלאכים קצין שוטר ומושל בהנחילו אותה לעמו המיחד שמו זרע אוהביו…
Now, God in his glory is the God of gods and the Lord of Lords, for the entire world. However, the Land of Israel, the center of the civilization, is God’s portion, dedicated to His name; He does not appoint over it any angel as an officer, marshal, or governor. Instead, He gives it as a portion to the nation” which unifies His name, the seed of his beloved…
In other words Ramban recognizes that the verse indeed speaks of the existence other powers / gods only he explains that were created by God to rule over the other nations.
Looking at another passage in Deuteronomy, the possibility that other gods exist according to the Torah is even starker Deut. 4:19 describes why it is forbidden for Israel to worship planets and stars.
יט וּפֶן תִּשָּׂא עֵינֶיךָ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְרָאִיתָ אֶת הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ וְאֶת הַיָּרֵחַ וְאֶת הַכּוֹכָבִים כֹּל צְבָא הַשָּׁמַיִם וְנִדַּחְתָּ וְהִשְׁתַּחֲוִיתָ לָהֶם וַעֲבַדְתָּם אֲשֶׁר חָלַק יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ אֹתָם לְכֹל הָעַמִּים תַּחַת כָּל הַשָּׁמָיִם. כ וְאֶתְכֶם לָקַח יְהוָה וַיּוֹצִא אֶתְכֶם מִכּוּר הַבַּרְזֶל מִמִּצְרָיִם לִהְיוֹת לוֹ לְעַם נַחֲלָה כַּיּוֹם הַזֶּה.
And when you look up to the sky and behold the sun and the moon and the stars, the whole heavenly host, you must not be lured into bowing down to them or serving them. These the Lord your God allotted to other peoples everywhere under heaven; but you the Lord took and brought out of Egypt, that iron blast furnace, to be His very own people, as is now the case (Deut. 4:19-20).
According to this verse, the reason Israel may not worship the heavenly beings is because the Lord purchased the right to their exclusive worship by bringing Israel out of Egypt. The other nations, whom God did not chose, were each given one of these heavenly beings as their personal god – perhaps without knowing that they were all subservient to the chief God, the God of Israel.
Rashi offers two interpretations. First he interprets the verse to mean
“אשר חלק וגו’ לכל העמים” – (מגילה ח) להאיר להם
which the Lord…God allotted: to illuminate for them [all peoples]. (Meg. 9b)
In other words God allocated the sun, moon and stars for the function of illumination but not as a deities. This explanation cannot be peshat. After all God surely created the sun for the Israelites as well. This is probably why Rashi continues;
דבר אחר לאלוהות לא מנען מלטעות אחריהם אלא החליקם בדברי הבליהם לטרדם מן העולם וכן הוא אומר (תהלים לו) כי החליק אליו בעיניו למצוא עונו לשנוא
Another explanation: Which God assigned to them as deities; He did not prevent them from erring after them; rather, He caused them to slip, [i.e., to err], with their futile speculations, in order to drive them out of the world. Similarly, it says: “He [God] smoothed the way for him in his eyes to find his iniquity to hate [him]” (Ps. 36:3) (Avodah Zarah 55a).
Not a very easy Rashi to explain. It seems that Rashi in his effort to avoid any explanation in the Torah that assumes the existence of other gods is forced to explain this verse to mean that God allowed the nations of the world to err and worship what seemed to them as gods.
Rashi’s effort and strained interpretation points us back to Ramban and the peshat of the verse. The simplest reading of these verses in Deuteronomy, as shocking as it may be, is that they testify to the existence of other deities, personified in the heavenly bodies, which God fully expects other nations to worship. It is the Israelites alone who are forbidden to do so, since God chose them to be under God’s direct care when God freed them from Egypt.
Nowadays, though, thanks to the monotheistic religions and scientific revolution, God has developed a relationship with the world and the stars/planets have become just balls of gas and hunks of rock.
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August 30, 2013
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