On the cusp of Canaan, Moses reminds the Israelites that they “know that the Lord is God; besides him there is no other” (Deut 4:35). Yet just a few verses beforehand, Moses asks, “Which other nation is so great as to have its gods (אלהים; elohim) so close to it, as the Lord our God is whenever we call upon him?” (4:7). This question not only seems to affirm the existence of other national deities besides Israel’s God, but it also aligns with many other biblical texts that also reflect a multiplicity of gods [for specific verses, click on each of the blue links]. But if these other gods exist, how can it also be true that besides the Lord “there is no other”? The answer lies in the precise meaning of the Hebrew phrase אין עוד (ein ‘od): “There is no other.” Rather than meaning “there is no other in existence,” the Hebrew means that “there is no other as great.”
Isaiah reuses Deuteronomy’s dictum several times. For instance, God declares through the prophet, “I am the Lord, and there is no other (אין עוד; ein ‘od)…. There is none besides me (אפס בלעדי; ephes biladi). I am (אני; ani) the Lord, and there is no other (אין עוד)” (Isa 45:5-6; cf. 45:14, 21; cf. Mk 12:32). At first glance, such declarations appear to assert that no other gods exist except for the one God of Israel. However, Isaiah’s language does not preclude others’ existence; rather, it highlights one’s superiority over other contenders. Speaking of Babylon, Isaiah states, “You said, ‘No one sees me.’ Your wisdom and knowledge led you astray; you said in your heart, ‘I am, and there is no other (אני ואפסי עוד; ani v’aphsi ‘od)” (47:10). Isaiah is not suggesting that Babylon was the only nation in existence, but rather that Babylon thought of itself as superior to the other nations. Similarly, when Isaiah uses the same terminology of God, the text exalts the Lord above all other gods.
Zephaniah echoes Isaiah with reference to Nineveh: “This is the exultant city that lived securely, that said in her heart, ‘I am, and there is no other’ (אני ואפסי עוד; ani v’aphsi ‘od)” (Zeph 2:15a). The prophet does not mean that no other cities exist apart from Nineveh, but rather that the Ninevites saw themselves as superior to all others. Indeed, the latter half of this same verse confirms that other people exist apart from the Ninevites: “What a desolation [Nineveh] has become, a den for wild beasts. Everyone who passes by her hisses and shakes their fists” (2:15b). Zephaniah explicates that other cities exist apart from Nineveh, and that the inhabitants of those cities will mock the Assyrian capital after its demise.
Therefore, in the original Hebrew context, “there is no other” does not mean that nothing else exists; instead, the phrase denotes the superiority of one entity over the others. More simply, it’s a matter of quality, not quantity. When Moses or Isaiah or Zephaniah assert of their God that “there is no other,” they underscore the fact that the God of Israel is the best of all gods, and the only one worthy of worship.