Polytheism and Monotheism

Back when I was writing my book, I remember a day where I was sitting at table with Vidal the Maestro at Café Madoka in Guadalajara talking about, you guessed it, Satan. Of course it was among other things. Believe it or not, I do actually talk about things other than the Devil. And actually I don’t remember the overall theme of that conversation that we were having. I only remember a particular reaction he had to something I said. I made the statement that “Satan doesn’t believe in God.” The Maestro was shocked at the statement. He responded something like, “How can Satan be rebelling against God if he doesn’t believe God exists?”

Neither the Maestro nor Satan has a good idea what God really is. Well, the Maestro does in general, but for the purposes of the subject of the rebellion of Satan against God he doesn’t. And Satan, well, his take on God, that’s a subject of discussion. Satan is a polytheist. The chief issue on his mind is who gets to be Zeus. He wants to be. It’s not working out for him. Yeah, this all sounds pretty strange. So I am going to write an essay on exactly what the difference between polytheism and monotheism really is. You’d be surprised at how few people have any idea. So getting this subject straightened out will provide a foundation for further writings that will be coming down the pipe.

I’ll start with laying out some English terms, then some Hebrew ones. Concerning the English, capital letters will be important. First, and it’s kind of funny to say it, but I am going to have to tell you what reality is. Now I am not accusing you of being psychotic or saying that you can’t see what’s in front of your face. But the term “reality” is something that we speak of all the time, yet very few have actually defined it. So I am going to help out. “Reality” basically means “that which appears.” In a sense it can also be described as “that which is,” since the term “appears” evokes connections to the sense of vision in particular, and the senses in general, and in our modern thinking we are quite conditioned to understand that our senses only give our impression of reality. On the other hand it is also becoming more and more common for people to espouse the philosophy that there is no objective reality or objective truth, and that each individual’s perception of reality actually is reality. So these waters are muddy. I’ll say that reality is not simply what an individual sees. However, it is that which is there. It is that which is distinguishable from nothing. Maybe this unfamiliar definition hasn’t clarified a whole lot, but keep this term in mind. Reality is basically what there is. And it’s where we and everything exist.

Next, in English, the word ‘god’ refers to a higher or more powerful personal being. In its most basic sense, it has historically referred to the gods of Greece, the Norse, and the higher beings from other universes that the tales recount in the various cultures throughout the world. An interesting common denominator of all these beings, these gods, is that they exist within reality. They may not exist within the universe. They may exist in heaven or hell or Asgard or Olympus or whatever, but all of these other worlds are places within “reality.”

Now with time and our modern understanding, as we’ve developed science fiction and other forms of literature and explored the planets of our solar system and made observations further into our universe, we’ve pondered the concept of beings from other planets, which we call aliens or extraterrestrials. And with still more time, and a few too many hours watching the History Channel and shows like Ancient Aliens, these concepts have become interconnected, and a great many have drawn the conclusion that the ancient gods of Babylon, the Annunaki, were in fact aliens from other planets. This brings us to an interesting point. By definition, these aliens from other planets, as we conceive of them being extremely technologically advanced with their spaceships and ray guns and whatever, do actually fit the definition of being “gods.” They are more advanced or higher beings.

And now the next slate of Marvel Movies as well as apparently the forthcoming Flash superhero movie, if it is ever released now that Ezra Miller has been made public enemy number one, is going to be centering around the multiverse and concentrate on beings from alternate universes and parallel realities. Extradimensional beings are the new space alien. And these beings also do fit the definition of being “gods” as well. Yeah, superheroes from other universes, the pagan gods of the various cultures of the world, and aliens from outer space are all getting mixed together in our modern consciousness, yet it does hold true that they all actually do fit the definition of being “gods,” which again are defined as higher personal beings that exist within reality.

Then finally, just to be thorough, we have our literary uses of the word “god.” That is, Michael Jordan was a basketball god. David Bekham was a soccer god. The kid at the end of the block who is orders of magnitude better on the skateboard that any other kid is the skateboard god. That definition isn’t going to much apply to what we are going to talk about here, but it does fit the definition that “a god” is a higher being. This kid can do things on a skateboard nobody imagined anybody could ever do. So he is a kind of a god of sorts.

Now we’ll mix a little Hebrew and English. The modern English language has its origin in the works of William Shakespeare, the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, and the various Reformation-era translations to English of the Christian Bible with its Old and New Testaments, such as the Bishops Bible, the Coverdale Bible, the Geneva Bible, and the King james Bible. Because of this, English is a kind of a Christian langauge. This is why I still use a number of Christian theological terms despite the fact that I am converting to Judaism. I haven’t quite made the jump to hebraized speech in English. When I was in Israel and speaking Hebrew, pretty much all traces of that were gone from my mouth, but in English you’ll still hear me talking about the Antichrist and all because that’s just what the English term for that guy is.

So in Early English, the Hebrew name word יהיה (Yahweh) was rendered as Lord, with capital L, and the Hebrew word אלוהים (Elohim) was rendered God, with capital G. These are the two most fundamental names of the monotheistic deity of the Bible. There are many, but the others are generally titles, and generally based on one of these two names here. With the capital G, they basically took the term “god” and made it into a proper name. Over time, this idea of calling the monotheistic deity God expanded beyond Christianity to Sikhism, where the monotheistic deity Ik Onkar is occasionally called God in English. Also, in Islam the monotheistic deity Allah is occasionally called God in English, and certain monotheistic strains of Hinduism call the monotheistic deity Brahman (Or Vishnu or Shiva – Hinduism is a complex mess) God in English. With time, “God” with a big G transcended the idea of a proper name and became in our modern English the term for God in monotheism.

Yes, there is a difference between “God” and “a god.” That’s a primary point that we are going to talk about here. But first, let’s dig just a bit into the two Hebrew terms described above. I’ve written pretty extensively about יהוה, transliterated YHWH because of the Jewish tradition that this name is too sacred to say. It means “he who causes to be.” Or “that which causes to be” since in Hebrew masculine terms are used for general references, where feminine terms are reserved for that which is specifically female. However, porting that understanding over to English can be difficult, as in English, neutral terms such as “that” and”it” connote that something is inanimate, and in Hebrew we are clearly talking about something alive. So while it might seem a bit sexist to some, and while others may be a bit confused about whether the language is trying to say that God has a penis or a Y chromosome, we’ll just go with “he who causes to be” to refer to a living being that causes everything else.

But for all that, in this essay I want to concentrate more on the other name, the one that I haven’t written much about previously. This other name, Elohim, bears quite intensely on the polytheism/monotheism issue.

This name is grammatically plural. Its origins are rather obsure. There is another name for God אל (El), with the plural אלים (elim), that appears in certain places in the Bible as well as some ancient Canaanite writing that it could be related to, and there is another name אלוה  (Eloah) that Elohim is very likely a plural of. Both el and eloah refer to a god (note the small g). The plural elim invariably refers to the plural gods (again, note the small g). But the plural Elohim can refer to the plural gods (small g) or a singular God (big G). Context and grammar tell us which. Occasionally there is some doubt whether God or gods are referred to, but these occasions are rare. In the huge majority of cases, grammatical requirements eliminate all doubt about what is being referred to. I’m already bogging you down with very complex, nuanced, and confusing issues of ancient languages, so I’ll just ask you to trust me on this. There really isn’t much room for doubt here.

Concerning the names of God, there is one other name that I would like to introduce. It’s actually not a biblical name for God, having been brought into the Hebraic sphere through Kabbalah. This name is אין סוף (Ein Sof). In the Bible, this term simply means “without end,” and is the clearest way to express the idea of infinity in Hebrew. The term doesn’t actually show up as a name for God until we find it in Jewish mystical literature from centuries after the close of the writing of the Bible, but it is actually an important contribution, as it is a natural extention of the first and most important name, YHWH. And with this I would like to take a major detour and talk a bit about “causing to be.”

So over the years I have stumbled upon and collected various “laws of causation.” I’ll list them.

  • Every effect has a cause.
  • Cause precedes effect.
  • A thing cannot cause itself because it cannot exist prior to itself.
  • A cause is something.
  • “Nothing” cannot cause an effect because a cause is something.

There are more, but this list already contains more than is really relevant here for us. I just put it down to show you that there is a logical body of thinking surrounding this idea of causation that goes way back. But really the only law that I am going to concern myself with here is the last one. It basically asks the question about where the stuff that makes us comes from. It can’t come from nowhere.  Therefore, we might want to consider that everything comes from infinity. This is an important concept that we get from Kabbalah: that our reality of distinct and finite things is actually a contraction, limitation, or articulation of infinite being. It’s called צימצום (tzimtzum) in the literature.

To make this illustration clear, let’s use the analogy of a sculptor in order to describe creation. There are two ways a sculptor can make a sculpture of Napoleon. He can start out with empty space and grab clay and keep piling on the clay until he gets a head, and then form that head into the likeness of Napoleon. Another method he can use is to get a block of clay and carve away everything that is not a head and likeness of Napoleon.

So when it comes to creating everything, you can’t apply the first illustration to it. Where would the creator get the clay? He is supposedly creating everything…even the clay.

However, the second illustration paints a different picture. We can say that the block of clay the scultpor starts with is “infinity,” and he carves out our reality of distinct and finite things from that infinity. So creation is an act of subtraction, not addition. It’s an act of differentiation, not specifically generation. So ultimately, where did “he who causes to be” get us from? He got us from “infinity,” which is another way of saying, “himself.”

This note on creation seems to have been a bit of a detour, as we have not yet finished defining our terms. I’d just like to profer that we are dealing with three names of God here, Elohim, YHWH, and Ein Sof, as well as two terms for gods, elim and elohim. The points on creation will become relevant later, though.

I am, however, going to have to saddle you with one final linguistic issue before we move on to the concepts. In Hebrew, the word for an angel is מלאך (Mal’akh). Its etymology is also debated. After giving everybody headaches with the whole Elohim thing, though, I am not going to dig deeply into the entire history of this word. If someone doubts me or wants to know, I can add to subsequent drafts of this essay.

So we’ve defined the relevant English and Hebrew terms, but ultimately we haven’t dug into the heart of what the conceptual difference between a god of polytheism is and what God in monotheism is. Again, that’s our subject, and I want to start to tackle it with yet another perplexing issue.

In the Bible, elohim when referring to gods and mal’akhim when referring to angels are often referring to the same thing. That is, the word elohim often refers to angels, really just as often as mal’akhim does. So in other words, the plethora of beings in God’s court are called angels or gods rather interchangeably. This is something that doesn’t occur to a lot of people. Everyone understands that in polytheism there are many gods. What they don’t know is that in monotheism there are many gods also – the angels. Remember, a god is simply a higher being that exists within reality, though maybe not our planet or universe. Angels certainly fit this definition, and the Bible agrees with this by referring to this same class of beings as mal’akhim (angels) or elohim (gods).

And therein lies the rub. If polytheism has many gods, and monotheism has many gods (the angels), then what’s the difference between the two? Well, let’s take a polytheistic example and compare it to the biblical, monotheistic example. Let’s use the Greeks. So the Greeks have a god Apollo, a god Hermes, and a god Aries, and these gods work for another god, Zeus. Zeus is the king of the gods. Well in the Bible we have a god (angel) Michael, and a god (angel) Gabriel, and a god (angel) Raphael but they work for God (notice the big G – Elohim – which means God/gods). Confused yet?

Further, though, in monotheism there is a king of the angels.

Once, when Joshua was near Jericho, he looked up and saw a man standing before him, drawn sword in hand. Joshua went up to him and asked him, “Are you one of us or of our enemies?” He replied, “No, I am captain of the LORD’s host. Now I have come!” Joshua threw himself face down to the ground and, prostrating himself, said to him, “What does my lord command his servant?” The captain of the LORD’s host answered Joshua, “Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy.” And Joshua did so.

Joshua 5:13-15

So the community of “the Lord’s Host” refers to the angels, and this guy is their boss. The Christians and the Rabbis have argued about who this guys is forever. To the Christians, it’s Jesus the Messiah. To the Rabbis, as far as I have been told by most people who I have talked to about the subject, it’s the archangel Michael, the chief of the angels. Though this in itself is interesting, as various Christian fringe sects, say the Jehovah’s Witnesses, actually think Jesus is Michael. So we have quite a conceptual salad to work with. Suffice it to say that the army of angels has a captain, or a king, or a ruler. So I guess this guy then functions as Zeus in the biblical understanding, so to speak.

The key difference here is that this Michael/Zeus king of the gods/captain of the angels character is admitting that he is not the top of everything. That is, even though he is king of the gods or captain of the angels, he is still serving YHWH, his Lord. He is, furthermore, still a god or an angel himself. He is not God. He still exists within reality. God, also called Ein Sof or Infinity, is not localized within space and time or within reality as we know it at all. Reality is in fact a contraction of him, or his infinity. God doesn’t exist within reality as a god does. It can actually be said to be the other way around: reality exists within God.

This concept of God is in fact biblical, and explained at length in the Kabbalistic writings, but also has a great deal in common with Brahman in Hinduism. Yet before one gets up in arms and calls it pagan, one must also consider that the alternative, that God is simply another part of reality, a single solitary monotheistic monad existing separately and alongside all else, this idea was developed to its fullest at the platonic academy of Athens. It’s simply neoplatonism. So pick your poison: Greek or Indic.

We cannot deny the fact that nature itself tells us about things spiritual and divine, and contemplation itself leads to observations of truth. So if the only ideas you will accept are those that have not ever been uttered from the lips of a gentile or a pagan, well, you’re not going to accept any ideas. More important is to evaluate whether it makes sense that the ultimate governor and source for all things is an element within the set of all things, or if the set of all things is something carved out of the ultimate governor and source of everything: living, perfect infinity.

At this point, this monolog could go into so many interesting directions, but I am going to try to cap it with an original point, so I’ll return to the fundmental contrast between monotheism and polytheism as being that monotheism describes a reality populated by a variety of higher beings that are operating alongside everything else in compliance with a perfect infinity, which produces and governs all things: God (with a big G). Polytheism, on the other hand, describes a plethora of higher beings that just do as they will without any consideration of anything higher than themselves.

One of the key takeaways from this observation becomes clear that when one considers that the monotheistic God, even when described as “infinity,” and even when thought of in absolutely transcendent terms as something beyond direct comprehension, which is omnipresent, not bound by a limited body or singular perspective, is very clearly stated in the Bible and in the literature of various religions that harbor this concept of deity to be living and intelligent. Intelligence is the organization of information or that which organizes information. So I am not saying that God being intelligent makes him a limited consciousness like ours that has one thought at a time in a definite stream limited by time, but simply that God somehow provides meaning to things. Consequently, to say there is no God is basically to say that there is no ultimate meaning behind things.

That is, Satan considers himself a god, the king of a group of gods in fact (the demons), who is in conflict with another group of gods, the angels, with their king, Michael according to the predominant rabbinic Jewish understanding, or Jesus the Messiah according to the New Testament and Christian understandings. But to Satan, there is no God over all. That’s what makes him a polytheist.

So this puts us at the very beginning of a fascinating line of intellectual contemplation. But while this essay hasn’t exactly been my longest, it most certainly is not my most entertaining, given its exhaustive reference to Hebrew and English terminology. So I am going to close this essay with the acknowledgement that the basic distinction between polytheism and monotheism has been defined, but we have the cliffhanger that Satan is a polytheist, which I’ll concentrate on in a future essay. In closing, though, I’ll throw in some pictures just to make everything as clear as possible.

Here is a standard illustration of the conflict between the gods using examples from the pagan Greek pantheon. Standard polytheism that we are all familiar with.
Here we innovate a little. We describe the conflict between the good gods and the bad ones, just like the previous image, but we are calling them angels now and we are using names from the Bible and Abrahamic religious literature. It is, however, a polytheistic view. And this is the view of Satan.
In a monotheistic view, we understand that the various gods, or angels we will call them, all exist within an order produced and governed by an absolutely transcendent God. We could call God “infinity,” but it’s important to understand that God is “alive” and “intelligent,” which ultimately boils down to providing meaning to things.
Finally, and this may be a bit of a jump or a teaser that I haven’t explained enough in this essay written to explain ad nauseum, but in a monotheistic understanding, the distinction between the good gods/angels and the bad gods/angels is that the good gods/angels act in harmony with the will and nature of God, while the bad gods/angels act contrary to the will and nature of God.

So with those images, I’ve laid out as simply as I possibly can the difference between the fundamental underlying concepts distinguishing polytheism and monotheism. The last picture, though, does contain the enigmatic statement about gods acting in harmony with God and gods that don’t do so. They don’t because they don’t believe that God exists, and they don’t see any higher meaning that it would behove them to participate in and comply with. But all of this is a completely new idea that would double the length of this essay, so I will write a followup of some sort to clarify it at a later date. We will just satisfy ourselves with having explained the difference between polytheism and monotheism while also throwing in a few engimatic statements about Satan that will be developed elsewhere.

2 Comments

  1. Very interesting article. I just have a question. How can Satan, who initially served God, now outright reject his existence after having been cast out of heaven?

    1. That’s what the essay is trying to explain. There is a being who represents God. That being can even be called God. The Bible calls that being God when he walked in the Garden of Eden, when he wrestled with Jacob, when he spoke with Moses, etc. Satan served that being, and then rebelled against that being. But Satan does not believe in the existence of that which this being represents.

      Does that make anything clearer?

      To sum up, Satan believes in, and hates, the guy walking around in the Garden of Eden, but he doesn’t believe that guy is the representative of God as understood by the monotheistic religions of the world.

      Judaism has a term, דבר יהוה, (Davar Hashem) that means “the Word of God.” Basically, Satan believes the Word of God is God, but that the Word of God is not a representative of God.

      Stating it in New Testament terms, Satan believes in, rebelled against, and hates the Son of God, but doesn’t believe that God exists.

      Stating it in the terms of traditional Christian derived doctrine, Satan believes in, rebelled against, and hates God the Son, but he does not believe God the Father exists.

      So I am trying to clarify it for you in the the terminology of the Bible, including the New Testament, as well as the traditional formulations of the religious groups with which I am most familiar. I hope it helps.

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