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We read in Exodus 15 how Moses and the Israelites sing a song praising the Lord who defeated the Egyptians. In verse 11 we see the words “Who among the gods is like you?”

Of course, the Israelites had been aware of the worship of pagan gods that the Egyptians were doing. However, did they acknowledge the actual existence of such pagan gods? Note that the Ten Commandments had not yet been given in writing to Israel at the time of the song. Is it possible that some Israelites worshipped lesser gods apart from the True God Yahweh?

My question therefore is: Does Exodus 15:11 hint at the possibility of the existence of lesser gods? Inputs from scholars of any denominations (please specify) are welcome.

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    Believing that other gods exist and other gods actually existing are two different things. Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 11:47

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There are several questions here. I'd like to address two of them.

  • Does Exodus 15:11 hint at the possibility of existence of lesser gods?

The answer here depends on whether the question "who is like you among the gods" is taken literally or as a rhetorical device meant to emphasis that other supposed deities are not real. But it is probable that the early Israelites did believe the other gods were real, and continued to do so for centuries.

In Exodus 18:11, Moses' father-in-law Jethro, a priest of Midian, declares "Now I know that the LORD is greater than all gods." This attitude may also have been typical of the Israelites themselves. The other gods are real, but Yahweh is the greatest. Also, even though the OP's verse presents itself as coming from the time before the Torah was given, another much later OT verse uses this same question, namely Psalm 86:8.

The technical term for this attitude is called either henotheism or monolatry. The person or nation believes there are many gods but he is to worship only his nation's deity exclusively. This may be the idea behind the second commandment:

7 You shall not have other gods beside me... For I, the Lord, your God, am a jealous God... (Dt. 5:7-9)

Note that this core scripture does not deny the existence of other gods; rather it describes Yahweh as commanding that he alone be worshiped. Perhaps the clearest Biblical expression of the principle of henotheism is seen in Dt. 32, where Yahweh himself is seemingly subservient to a deity called the Most High:

Ask your father, he will inform you, your elders, they will tell you: 8 When the Most High allotted each nation its heritage, when he separated out human beings, He set up the boundaries of the peoples after the number of the divine beings; 9 But the Lord’s portion was his people; his allotted share was Jacob.

Here the Supreme Deity is "the Most High" (ʿelyôn), and it he who apportions various peoples to the other divine beings. Yahweh's portion is "his people... Jacob." Other translations prefer "sons of Israel" to "divine beings" here, but in either case there is a deity called 'Elyon - the the Most High God - who gives Jacob's descendants to Yahweh.

  • Is it possible that some Israelites worshipped lesser gods apart from the True God Yahweh?

Yes. They were not supposed to, because according to the Ten Commandments they were allowed to worship the LORD (Yahweh) alone. But they definitely hedged their bets on occasion, or even switched allegiances; and the Bible often describes them as being punished for doing so.

So, whether the OP's verse intentionally hints at the real existence of other gods or not is debatable. There does indeed seem to have been a time in Israelite history when the real existence of other deities was presumed. However, the Israelites were not allowed to worship any god other than the LORD.

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    Deut. 32 employs Yahweh, Elohiym, Elyon, Rock of salvation, etc. with little contextual reason to assume multiple referents. Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 11:53
  • Thanks, Dan, for the resourceful answer. t is written in Exodus 20:5 " ....For I, the Lord your God am a jelous God " . We normally feel jelous of someone comparable to us in status, and is claiming something which was otherwise due to us. We do not feel jelous of someone much inferior to us .So, who was God jelous of ? Was there someone claiming the worship, reverence and love from Israel, that were due to Yahweh ? Or, was Yahweh simply drawing an imaginary sketch of such a non- existing element ? Someone needs to clarify. Commented Aug 16, 2023 at 15:58
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Does Exodus 15:11 hint at the possibility of existence of lesser gods?

Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods? who is like thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders? - Exodus 15:11

The short answer is no.

Among the gods is often interpreted as to mean princes or powers.

Remember that Egyptians viewed the ancient pharaohs as gods, so in this context we can understand what the Scriptures intended to means, especially after the Exodus had just took place!

Egyptologists have long debated the degree to which the pharaoh was considered a god. It seems most likely that the Egyptians viewed royal authority itself as a divine force. Therefore, although the Egyptians recognized that the pharaoh was human and subject to human weakness, they simultaneously viewed him as a god, because the divine power of kingship was incarnated in him. He therefore acted as intermediary between Egypt's people and the gods. - Ancient Egyptian religion

Commentaries are almost unanimous in this line of thought.

Benson Commentary

Exodus 15:11. Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods? — So called; the idols or princes. To the wonderful relation above mentioned, succeeds a wonderful expression of praise. And how, indeed, could the writer possibly avoid being transported, and carried, as it were, out of himself at the sight of such a wonder? Well might he describe Jehovah, that performed it, as glorious in holiness — In justice, mercy, and truth; fearful in praises — A Being that ought to be praised with the deepest reverence, and most exalted adoration.

Even the Nicene Creed is to be understood in this light when we read ”God of God, Light of Light, true God of true God”.

The gods of pagans of old were false gods and Moses was clearly making this distinction. Pagan gods were not gods at all.

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