Bible Study · Names of God · Old Testament · Polytheism

Did the Old Testament Prophets Promote Polytheism?

A question was posed to me recently  from someone trying to understand Amos 4:11: “‘I overthrew some of you, as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and you were as a brand plucked out of the burning; yet you did not return to me,’ declares the LORD.” In this verse Amos is speaking God’s words here to the people of Israel as we see from the end of the verse “declares the LORD.”

The question becomes, “If God is speaking  through Amos, why does he say ‘I overthrew” and then ‘God overthrew’ in the same sentence?  Or stated another way, since the ‘I overthrew’ is God speaking through Amos, is Amos speaking of another god here in the second part of the sentence where he says ‘God overthrew?’”

The interesting thing is that once this was posed to me, I found this occurrence throughout the Old Testament. I’ve read these passages of course, but never noticed how much this actually occurs in Scripture.

Some who  only desire to discredit Scripture would jump immediately to the “two god view.” which states  that the Old Testament prophets were just as polytheistic, believing in many gods, as the Greeks and Romans of old. They easily jump of the cliff of their own belief, making their end goal their only reasoning for believing such things.

Other great Christians of old, such as Justin Martyr, the Second Century Christian apologist, and Martyr and Luther of the Reformation, jumped to the conclusion that these were Trinitarian allusions in the Old Testament. Scripture does teach that the Trinity exists eternally. Jesus Christ and The Holy Spirit definitely existed in the Old Testament, but the functions were different before the birth of Christ and the time of Pentecost.

I also believe that Scripture itself is Christocentric meaning Christ-centered, even in the Old Testament. We must remember that often this happens on a macro level, not in micro theology. In other words we can see Christ and the leading up to Jesus as Messiah throughout the Old Testament, but that does not mean that we are to attempt to do theological magic tricks in order to fit Him into every Old Testament verse or passage.

So while we stand on much great theology of Justin Martyr and Martin Luther today, we need to be careful.  We should test their theology, and take what we find true from them, and continue in our pursuit of what Scripture definitely means. (To assume that everything which Martyr and Luther taught is infallible, or incapable of being wrong on any theological point, actually flies in the face of who these men were, as they too challenged the status quo of their times, and fought for theological accuracy.) We should be like the Bereans, who in Acts 17:11, were described as having   noble character who checked the apostle Paul’s theology to make sure that he was Biblically accurate.

Nowhere in Scripture are we taught a theological polytheism, meaning that there are many gods. In fact, God clearly states in  the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:3 “You shall have no other gods before me.” If we are not also quick to believe that every time there seems to be an Amos 4:11 occurrence, where it  seems to mention two gods, or a Trinitarian allusion, what option are we left? The simple answer is illeism.

Illeism is the Latin term for self-reference, or in other words speaking of oneself in the third person. This is a form often used in speaking and the written word which is not unknown to us, or to those in ancient times.

Speaking in the third person is not alien to non-scriptural works and people, even in ancient times. We  reading about the Gallic Wars, we see that Caesar often referred to himself in the third person. Shakespeare often used this syntax to convey specific rhetoric. The most famous modern “person” (which we would like to forget as parents), to use this form of speech would be that of Elmo.

We should also note that Jesus Himself used the third person form at times. John 17:1-3 Jesus refers to Himself in the third person.

For us to say that illeism is being used here, or in other places of Scripture where there seems to be a potential “two god” reference, we would need to suffice of why that was being done, so we are not quick to only form a guess as to a fix to this theological question or problem. Let me give five potential options for why God would speak of Himself in the third person. Most of these proposals would be backed up in the doctoral dissertation on this subject by Andrew S. Malone, and one or two are my own ideas.

  1. REMINDER OF THE SPEAKER: Often times when this form of speech is used, it is done so by the prophets. These prophets spoke God’s Word to His people. When this rhetoric is used, it may be that the speaker is reminding the people, this is not man’s words, but God’s words, and therefore must be taken seriously. Along with this idea, it could be that the prophets, who often spoke harsh potential judgement  for those who would not turn to God, as Amos is doing in Amos 4:11, are reminding the people to not “shoot the messenger.”

2. REPETITION BREEDS EMPHASIS: A simple idea is that repetition breeds emphasis. It’s much like when we speak to our children about the consequences of what will happen if they don’t behave. We are reminding them of who is laying down the edict. I may say, “This is what dad is going to do if this room is not cleaned up.” Instead of using the same name or pronoun twice, the author may be attempting to get the attention of the listener by using this form.

3. SPECIFIC REFERENCE: The New Testament authors quote the Old Testament much more than we think. Between direct quotations, to allusions, to potential allusions, some scholars believe there may be around 1,000 references of the Old Testament in the New. Sometimes a specific saying repeated in different passages are used to connect ideas. In fact the idea of God overthrowing Sodom and Gomorrah in Amos 4:11 is specifically cited also in Isaiah 13:19 and Jeremiah 50:40. There may be times when the “two god” problem comes up and the author is quoting a specific passage to attempt to connect ideas, or give reminders.

4. DIFFERENT NAMES OF GOD: There may be times where God is using different names to convey different ideas. While there are not many gods, we know that there are many different names for the one True God. We look at our English Bible and often only see the term “God,” but in Hebrew it may be Elohim, Yahweh, Abba or another name for God. The author may be using the third person idea to specifically communicate a specific characteristic of God other than the pronoun being used earlier or later in the same sentence.

5. LEGAL COVENANT: The last idea for some of the passages which include third person speech would be that of understanding what is used as legal terms. There are times when God is making a contract with His people because He wants to make sure that specific terminology which refers to Himself, not the speaker, is who the contract is with. An example of this is found  in several verses in Exodus such as 3:12, 9:5-6, and 24:1-2.

Each time that third person speech is being used for God, one must study what the potential reasons are that God would speak of Himself in the third person. We may not be given the specific reason directly in each of these passages, but we can often decipher how one or more of the potential reasons may fit that passage. It is clear that the Old Testament prophets are not speaking or alluding to a polytheistic god, in fact, many times when they are speaking, they  warning against following and serving several gods.

God used a variety of rhetoric to attempt to make clear His message, and that is often what He is doing with illeism as He is doing in Amos 4:11. He is reminding them that the same God which spoke to His people in Isaiah and Jeremiah is the same God speaking to them here. He is reminding them that Amos is not the one giving this edict, but they must take this warning very seriously, as it comes from God Himself, and God will fulfill His words.

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