As Western Protestants living thousands of years after Moses, we often take for granted the idea that there is only one God. The general influence of the Bible and the church upon Western culture have made monotheism the majority creed, over against polytheism.
This was not true in Moses’ day. He wrote the Pentateuch for a nation that had spent 430 years in the polytheistic culture of Egypt (Ex. 12:40). Having been redeemed from bondage, Israel was about to conquer a land that also worshiped many gods. On the plains of Moab before this invasion, Moses warned the people not to serve these false deities (Deut. 12:29–31). In addition to these explicit warnings, Moses also implicitly emphasizes the nonexistence of other gods in his writings. In fact, Genesis 1 is as much a polemic against other gods as it is a description of God’s work of creation.
Today’s passage describes the creation and placement of the heavenly lights on the fourth day. The stars are mentioned as an afterthought (v. 16), as they have no place in determining the fate of man like other peoples in the region believed. Rather than being eternal like the Egyptian sun-god, the sun and the moon are also created objects (v. 16). These heavenly bodies are not given proper names but are simply the “greater” and “lesser” lights, probably to avoid confusing them with the pagan gods Shamash and Yarih, whose names are similar to the Hebrew terms for the sun and the moon.
The polemic against false gods is also evident in the descriptions of the other days of creation. Many nations believed the great sea creatures were rivals equal in power to the Canaanite creator-god Baal. But this view of these animals is misguided — they too are created beings and not rivals to the true God who made them (v. 21).
Finally, Moses emphasizes that fertility is a created capacity, set in motion by Yahweh alone (vv. 12, 22, 28). The Canaanites believed the cycle of seasons and new life was controlled by the annual death and reappearance of Baal. Genesis 1 makes the error of this conviction clear, and it thus teaches Israel not to join in the pagan rituals that celebrated the yearly ascendancy of Baal.
In the modern world, few of us are tempted to worship idols of wood or stone like the ancient Israelites were. However, the proclivity of the human heart to serve false gods remains as strong as ever. Which modern idol do you find enticing? Perhaps you have defined your life by what you possess. Maybe you serve idleness and are not doing all you can for the kingdom. Search your heart and renounce anything that has taken the place of the Lord.