GODS (אֱלֹהִים, H466; θεός, G2536, (sing.), θεοί (pl.).

False divinities.

The Biblical terms are used generically to mean gods, divinities, objects of worship, sometimes meaning the true God, and sometimes meaning the false divinities of paganism. Academic treatments of cultural anthropology usually betray strong influence of the theory of human evolution, maintaining that the difference between “true” and “false” religion is one of degree rather than of kind, and that there is a basic continuity between the idolatry of primitive paganism and the ethical monotheism of the great OT prophets, the NT apostles and Christ. Over against this idea, Scripture teaches that the original religion of mankind was monotheism, and that belief in and worship of gods as distinguished from the worship of the true God is to be regarded as a corruption of the primitive monotheism which appears at the beginning of the OT. Actually, the factual data discovered by field researches in anthropology tend to confirm the Biblical view. Various “primitive” tribes recognize the reality and power of a supreme God who created the universe, but they do not worship Him. It has also been shown that the oldest known religion of China was monotheism, the worship of Shang Ti, the supreme ruler, which is much older than any of the historical religions of China. The Apostle Paul outlined the downward process by which belief in the one true God, known but not worshiped, thanked or served, deteriorated to the most debased forms of polytheism and idolatry (Rom 1:18-25).

Treatment in OT.

The first mention of idolatry or polytheism in the Bible occurs in connection with the history of Jacob, whom Laban accused of having stolen his “gods” (Gen 31:30), actually the images of household divinities (31:19). The Philistine champion Goliath “cursed David by his gods” (1 Sam 17:43). Through the course of OT history and until the end of the Babylonian Captivity in the 6th cent. b.c., there was a constant struggle to maintain consistently the purity of monotheism against the constant tendency to lapse into polytheistic belief and worship. There is a typical example of this long continued polemic against false gods in Psalm 115:1-8. By the time of the return from the Babylonian captivity this tendency of the people of Israel to recognize and honor other gods was effectively and permanently corrected; from then on, to be a Jew was to be a strict monotheist and a hater of idols.

The plural form

אֱלֹהִים, H466. used of the true God. This usage, which occurs throughout the OT, is not to be understood as implying any recognition of or concession to polytheism, or plurality of being or essence. The form is pl., but when used for the true God the meaning is sing. The pl. form accompanies the strictest monotheism of teaching. The pl. form may be explained as a pl. of majesty, as earthly rulers call themselves “we,” or it may be regarded as a veiled hint of the doctrine of the divine Trinity, later to be revealed explicitly in the NT.

The term “gods” applied to men.

The usage of Psalm 82:6, “I say, ‘You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like men, and fall like any prince,’” and its quotation by the Lord in John 10:35, 36, presents a difficulty. Men are called “gods” and the term actually is used in contrast to “men.” “You are gods...nevertheless, you shall die like men.” It must be remembered that the context both in Psalm 82 and John 10 is one of strictest monotheism. Jesus’ statement that those who were called “gods” were those “to whom the word of God came” indicates that members of the covenant nation of Israel were meant. The generally accepted interpretation is that in these two passages “gods” refers to the judges or other rulers of OT times, who are called “gods” not because they were divine, but because they were dignitaries clothed with an authoritative commission from God.

Treatment in the NT.

The later Judaism in the context of which the NT revelation was given by God was the strictest possible monotheism. Among and around the Jews, however, were Gentiles who were polytheists and often idolaters. Hence, the NT emphatically contradicts all claims for divinity of any others than the one true God. In the face of the manifold idolatry of Athens, Paul proclaimed the God “who made the world and everything in it” (Acts 17:24 RSV). At Ephesus Demetrius the silversmith objected violently to the preaching of Paul because the latter had said that “gods made with hands are not gods” (Acts 19:26). Paul stated his monotheism over against the prevalent polytheism emphatically in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6, “...‘there is no God but one.’ For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.”

Demonic character of pagan gods.

In using the term “god” for the objects of pagan worship, Scripture does not mean to imply their objective reality, but only their subjective existence in the minds of their worshipers. Amaziah king of Judah, after decisively defeating the Edomites, brought back to Jerusalem a collection of Edomite idols, which he then set up and worshiped (2 Chron 25:14, 15), and was rebuked by a prophet of Jehovah for worshiping gods which were manifestly unreal and helpless, since they had not been able to save their own people, the Edomites, from conquest by Judah. Evidently Amaziah, though a worshiper of Jehovah, found it difficult to hold a pure enough monotheism to regard the Edomite gods as mere lifeless images. What is important to note is not merely Amaziah’s inconsistency, but the Lord’s rebuke to him through the prophet.

In 1 Corinthians 10:19-21 Paul sets forth the demonic character of pagan divinities: “...what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God.” While the pagan divinities are non-existent and mere figments of human imagination (Rom 1:21-25), still the worship offered to them was claimed and appropriated by demons, who of course are objectively real and concerned to oppose the truth of God.


A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology (1912), 56, 531-532; ISBE (1929), II, 1270-1272; G. Vos, Biblical Theology. (1948), 73, 74, 255-257; O. T. Allis, The Five Books of Moses (1949), 152-155, 246, 324; M. F. Unger, Archeology and the OT (1954), 202, 278, 279, 167-178; TCERK (1955), I, 464, 465; Von Allmen, A Companion to the Bible (1958), 145, 146; M. F. Unger, Biblical Demonology (1958); Archaeology and the NT (1962), 259, 260; J. B. Noss, Man’s Religions (1963), 50-117; B. W. Anderson, Understanding the OT (1966), 412.

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

(’elohim; theoi):


1. Superhuman Beings (God and Angels)

2. Judges, Rulers

3. Gods of the Nations

4. Superiority of Yahweh to Other Gods

5. Regulations Regarding the Gods of the Nations

6. Israel’s Tendency to Idolatry



I. In the Old Testament.

1. Superhuman Beings (God and Angels):

The following are the more important usages of the word in the Old Testament: The translation of Ps 8:5 is disputed. The Septuagint and the King James Version translate it "angels," the Revised Version (British and American) and the American Standard Revised Version, "God," with "angels" in the margin. The Epistle to the He has the word "angels." This seems to be more in keeping with the Old Testament ideas of the relation between God, men and angels. Ge 1:26 has the plural "us," but it is not certain to whom it refers, most probably to the angels or mighty ones which surrounded the throne of God as servants or counselors; compare Job 38:7, and see Sons of God. In Ps 97:7 the expression "worship him, all ye gods," may possibly refer to the gods of the nations, but more probably to the angels or mighty ones.

2. Judges, Rulers:

Judges, rulers, are regarded "either as Divine representatives at sacred places, or as reflecting Divine majesty and power" (see BDB, under the word). Ex 21:6 might better be translated as in the margin, "the judges." These were men appointed to represent God and adjudicate on important matters of law. Septuagint has "Criterion of God." In Ex 22:8 the word is used in the same sense, and 22:9 would also be better translated "the judges"; 22:28 likewise. See also 1Sa 2:25; Ps 82:1,6, where the reference is to those who act as judges.

3. Gods of the Nations:

(1) The ancestors of Israel "beyond the River" had their gods (Jos 24:14 f). While there is no mention of idolatry before the Deluge, the ancestors and kindred of Abraham were idolaters. Ur of the Chaldees was the center for the worship of Sin, the Moon-god. Many others were worshipped in the various cities of Babylon.

See Babylonia.

(2) The gods of Laban and his family (Ge 31:30,32; 35:2,4) were household gods or teraphim, and were stolen by Rachel and carried off in her flight with Jacob.

See Teraphim.

(3) Gods of Egypt: For many centuries before the time of Abraham there had been numerous objects of worship in Egypt. Many of these were animals, birds and natural objects. Horus, the hawk, was one of the earliest of all. The cat, the bull, etc., were worshipped at times. The plagues of Egypt were specially directed against these wretched deities (Nu 33:4; Ex 12:12). Yahweh took vengeance on all the gods of Egypt. These terrible events showed that "Yahweh is greater than all gods" (Ex 18:11). He redeemed His people from the nations and its gods (2Sa 7:23). Jeremiah predicted the time when Yahweh should destroy the gods of Egypt (Jer 43:12 f; 46:25).

(4) Of the gods of the Amorites (Jud 6:10) no names are given, but they probably were the same as the gods of the Canaanites.

(5) The gods of the Canaanites were Nature-gods, and their worship was that of the productive and chiefly reproductive powers of Nature. Their service was perhaps the most immoral and degrading of all. The high places and altars of the different Baals, Ashtoreths, etc., were numerous throughout Canaan. These deities were always represented by images and Moses makes frequent reference to them with warnings against this seductive worship (De 7:25; 12:3,10,31; 13:7; 20:18; 29:18; 32:16, etc.).


(6) Gods of the Philis: The champion Goliath cursed David by his gods (1Sa 17:43). Perhaps it would be better rendered "god." Saul’s and his son’s armor was put into the house of their gods (1Ch 10:10).


(7) The two golden calves erected by Jeroboam at Da and Bethel to keep the people from going to Jerusalem to worship are called gods (1Ki 12:28; 2Ch 13:8 f).

See Golden Calf.

(8) The gods of Damascus: Ben-hadad was accustomed to worship in the house of the god Rimmon (2Ki 5:18). No other names are mentioned, but from 2Ch 28:23 it is clear that there were many gods in Syria.

See Rimmon.

(9) Solomon’s many wives worshipped their own gods, and he provided the means for their worship. Chief among these were Chemosh of Moab and Molech of Ammon (1Ki 11:2,4,8).

See Chemosh; Molech.

(10) The mixed peoples transplanted into Samaria by Sargon had their various gods and mingled their service with that of Yahweh, after being taught by a priest of Yahweh. The names of some of these gods were Succoth-benoth, Nergal, Ashima, Nibhaz, Tartak, Adrammelech (2Ki 17:29,30,31,33). See separate articles.

(11) Of the gods of Seir, which were brought to Jerusalem by Amaziah, the names are not given (2Ch 25:14).

(12) The gods of the nations conquered by Sennacherib and his fathers, namely, Hamoth, Arpad, Sepharvaim, Hena, Ivvah (2Ki 18:33-35; 19:13). Also those conquered by Sennacherib’s fathers, Gozan, Haran, Rezeph, Eden or Telassar (2Ki 19:12; Isa 36:18,19,20; 2Ch 32:13 f).

(13) Gods of Moab are mentioned in Ru 1:15; 1Ki 11:1,7. Possibly Ru 1:15 should be translated "god."

See Chemosh.

(15) Nineveh’s gods are merely referred to in Na 1:14. Sennacherib was worshipping in the house of Nisroch his god when slain by his sons (2Ki 19:37).

(16) The coastlands or borders and peninsulas of the Aegean Sea had numerous idol gods, shrines and devotees. Isaiah challenges them to prove that they are gods (Isa 41:22 f).

Yahweh was "greater than all gods" (Ex 15:11; 18:11); "God of gods, and Lord of lords" (De 10:14,17); "The Mighty One" (Jos 22:22); "to be feared above all gods" (1Ch 16:25; 2Ch 2:5; Ps 96:4 f);

4. Superiority of Yahweh to Other Gods:

5. Regulations Regarding the Gods of the Nations:

6. Israel’s Tendency to Idolatry:

II. In the Apocrypha.

The Apocrypha reiterates much of the Old Testament teaching: the defection of Israel (2 Esdras 1:6); the gods of the nations (Judith 3:8; 8:18); the gods which their fathers worshipped (Judith 5:7 f); the sin of Israel (Additions to Esther 14:7). The Book of The Wisdom of Solomon refers to the "creatures which they supposed to be gods" (12:27; 13:2,3,10; 15:15). Mention is made of the gods of Babylon (Baruch 1:22; 6:6-57 passim; Bel and the Dragon 1:27).

III. In the New Testament.

The expression "gods" occurs in six places in the New Testament:

(1) Jesus, in reply to the Pharisees, who questioned His right to call Himself the son of God, quoted Ps 82:6: "I said, Ye are gods." He argues from this that if God Himself called them gods to whom the word of God came, i.e. the judges who acted as representatives of God in a judicial capacity, could not He who had been sanctified and sent into the world justly call Himself the Son of God? It was an argumentum ad hominem (Joh 10:34-37).

(2) When Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel in Lystra they healed a certain man who had been a cripple from birth. The Lycaonians, seeing the miracle, cried out in their own dialect, "The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men. And they called Barnabas, Jupiter; and Paul, Mercury" (Ac 14:11 f). Their ascription of deity to the apostles in such times shows their familiarity with the Greek pantheon.

(3) As Paul preached Jesus and the resurrection at Athens the people said he seemed to be a setter forth of strange gods. The conception of only one God seemed to be wholly foreign to them (Ac 17:18).

(4) In 1Co 8:5 Paul speaks of "gods many, and lords many," but the context shows that he did not believe in the existence of any god but one; "We know that no idol is anything in the world."

(5) While at Ephesus, Paul was said to have "persuaded and turned away much people, saying that they are no gods, that are made with hands" (Ac 19:26).

(6) The Galatians had been "in bondage to them that by nature are no gods" (Ga 4:8). Indirect references are also found in Ac 17:16, where Paul observed the city full of idols. Likewise in Ro 1:22 f,25 ff. Paul refers to the numerous gods of the heathen world. These were idols, birds, four-footed beasts and creeping things. The results of this degrading worship are shown in the verse following.