Va-etchannan: No Other

The god of Israel is the highest and strongest of all the gods in the first four books of the Torah—but other, inferior gods also appear to exist.

Death of the Firstborn, in a haggadah by Judah Pinḥas, Germany, 1747

For example, in the book of Exodus/Shemot, God tells Moses and Aaron: I will pass over the land of Egypt on that night, and I will strike down every first-born in the land of Egypt, from human to beast; and I will make judgments against all the gods of Egypt. (Exodus 12:12)

After Moses and the Israelites have crossed the Red Sea, they sing: Who is like You among the gods? (Exodus 15:11). The second of the Ten Commandments says: You shall not have other gods in front of me. (Exodus 20:3)

God also says that when the Israelites conquer Canaan, they must drive out the natives, because otherwise they would end up serving their gods. God tells Moses: “You shall not cut a covenant with them or with their gods.” (Exodus 23:32). It all sounds as if the gods of other people are not mere fantasies.

In the fifth book of the Torah, Deuteronomy/Devarim, Moses continues to warn his people not to serve other gods, but only after he has made it clear that no other gods actually exist. This week’s Torah portion, Va-etchannan  (“And I implored”), may contain the first written statement of monotheism, the belief that there is one and only one god.

This statement occurs, twice, in Moses’ speech to reassure the Israelites that God will not abandon them. In this context, he identifies which god he is talking about:

Elohim who created humankind on the earth, and from one end of the heavens to the other end… (Deuteronomy/Devarim 4:32)

elohim = gods; God. The word elohim is the plural of eloah = god, a variant of the more common word for a god, el. The Torah uses the word elohim with a singular verb to refer to God, and with a plural verb to refer to multiple other gods.

Next Moses says the creator of the universe is also the god who revealed itself to the Israelites.

Has a people heard the voice of Elohim speaking from the midst of the fire, as you yourselves heard, and lived? Or has Elohim nissah coming and taking for himself a nation from within a nation, …with great awe, like all that Y-H-V-H your Elohim did for you in Egypt before your eyes? (Deuteronomy 4:33-34)

nissah = tried, tested, experimented with.

Y-H-V-H = The four Hebrew letters י and  ה and ו and ה, called the Tetragrammaton, are the personal name of God in the Torah. These four letters are also used for various conjugations of the Hebrew verb hayah = be, become, happen, occur.

Then comes Moses’ first monotheistic statement, eyn od (“there is no other”).

You yourself have been shown in order to know that Y-H-V-H Itself is the elohim; there is no other besides It alone. (Deuteronomy/Devarim 4:35)

Next Moses says why God, the creator, intervened in the usual order of creation and made miracles for the Israelites:

From the heavens It let you hear Its voice, leyasrekha; and on earth It let you see Its great fire, and you heard Its words from the midst of the fire. And because It loved your forefathers, It chose in their place their descendants after them, and brought you out from Egypt with Its presence, with great power. (Deuteronomy 4:36-37)

leyasrekha = to reprove you, to discipline you, to train you.

God made miracles in Egypt out of love for the forefathers of the children of Israel, and made miracles on the fire at Mount Sinai in order to train the children of Israel.

Moses repeats his statement of monotheism in order to urge the Israelites to believe it.

And you shall know today, and you shall take it into your heart, that Y-H-V-H is the elohim, in the heavens above and on the earth below; there is no other. (Deuteronomy 4:39)

According to Moses, we know that there is only one God because the people who joined the exodus from Egypt saw the miracles and heard the voice at Mount Sinai. Those people were shown direct evidence. Yet in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses is speaking 40 years after the exodus. Many of the Israelites he is addressing were born after the miracles in Egypt, after the revelation at Sinai. They themselves were not shown anything; they have to go by what their elders have told them.

Anyone who reads the book of Deuteronomy is in the same position. Why should we believe that there is one and only one god?

Some people believe it because their elders (parents, teachers, culture) told them, just like the Israelites in Deuteronomy. And some believe it because it says so in the Torah. They assume that the books of Exodus and Deuteronomy report everyone’s direct experience of God literally, without exaggeration or metaphor.

Some people believe it because they have had their own mystical experiences, which they interpret as manifestations of a single, universal god.

Some people believe it because they find one of the many logical arguments for the existence of God compelling (despite all the counter-arguments philosophers have made over the centuries).

And some people do not believe it. The number of polytheists has dwindled, as world religions have redefined lesser gods as manifestations or aspects of a single god. But many people are atheists, unable to believe God is real according to any of the usual definitions of God. For example, when I examine the standard medieval theologian’s definition of God as an omnipotent, omniscient, omni-benevolent, and personal being, I always conclude that such a god is impossible. According to that definition of God, I am an atheist.

Yet when I use the word “God”, or a Hebrew name for God, I am referring to something I believe is real. I am still fumbling toward my own definition of what I mean by “God”.

The book of Deuteronomy contains no explicit definition of God, but this week’s Torah portion does offer several clues. In the verses I translate above, Moses describes God as:

* the creator of humankind, and the creator of all the heavens (and therefore the universe).

* a creator of miracles, e.g. isolated events violating the usual ongoing order of the universe.

* a god whose personal name is based on the verb meaning “be, become, happen”.

* a speaker.

* an experimenter.

* a trainer.

* a lover.

This list appears to describe two different kinds of god. One is the abstract, unimaginable creator of the cosmos, who continues to create new events. Existence itself is this god’s name.

The other kind of god is more understandable, because it has some human traits. It tests and experiments with humans, like a scientist. It speaks to human beings, trains them, and loves them, like a parent. It is more powerful than any king, but this god resembles a human king more than an abstract generator of the cosmos.

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses says Y-H-V-H and the Elohim are one; but he also assumes that the Cosmogenerator and the Invisible (but not inaudible) King are one.

Can you think of a way to reconcile the two notions of God, a reason why the two kinds of god are one? Do you find either version of God compelling?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s