They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known, to new gods that had come recently, whom your fathers had never dreaded. (Deuteronomy 32:17)

This 'demons that were no gods' is strange. I thought there are simply no other gods. That means, if some people believe in other gods, those other gods are just figments of their imagination. Those other gods are not demons or anything. They're nothing. That's it. That's the fundamental faith of Judeo-Christian and Islamic tradition.

I thought that one of the most fundamental aspects of monotheism is that the doctrine is atheistic when it comes to other gods.

Yet, it seems that G-d is complaining that Israelites are worshiping gods that are actually demons.

In fact, I thought Judaism doesn't believe in demons at all.

Yet here we have a bunch of beings:

  1. demons that were no gods
  2. gods they had never known
  3. new gods that had come recently

2 and 3 could be gods in an atheistic sense. They are real in someone's head, and that's it. God calls them gods nevertheless, perhaps in an atheistic sense.

But what about the demons?

Explanation for #2 and #3 would be great, too.

If 2 and 3 means gods in an atheistic sense (that is, they're not really gods, but they are gods in the beliefs of the Israelites), this fits standard Judeo-Christian theology. There are simply no other gods. Those other gods exist only in the believers' minds.

The demons, however do not fit the pattern.

It seems that case 1 suggests that G-d knows that Israelites think that those beings are gods but they are actually demons. But that means, in an atheistic sense those beings are gods. The Israelites think they are gods. So why does G-d call them demons?

They should be just nonsense gods that exist only in believers' minds. G-d is apparently atheistic, so to speak, when it comes to other gods.

Another way to interpret this is to see that 1, 2, and 3 are describing real beings. So, 1 are demons that Israelites think are gods. Number 2 and 3 are gods that Israelites think are gods. G-D thinks the Israelites are stupid not for worshiping non-existent gods but for worshiping gods that they had never known and that had come recently

So we do have other gods, namely demons and those that "they had never known and that they had come to know recently."

Another explanation is that when people believe in other gods, those other gods are actually demons. That means demons exist.

That does not fit common theology. Common theology says when people believe in other gods those other gods are just figments of their imagination, not actually demonic beings.

In any case, I am very confused. What are those demons anyway?

  • 2
    why is #1 any different from your provisional understanding of 2 and 3? As they are not gods, they are inventions of the individual. Is it that the text uses a different word to label them as invalid? Are you wondering whether the use of the word indicates that they exist?
    – rosends
    Nov 27, 2013 at 11:50
  • #1 doesn't fit the pattern of common theology that no other gods exist at all. They're not demons. They just don't exist.
    – user4951
    Nov 27, 2013 at 12:05
  • The text in other places refers to gods which don't exist and mentions objects of worship which aren't real (such as names of idols). Why is this any different? Are you asking about whether there is an idea of sheidim in Judaism or if their mention here makes them something different?
    – rosends
    Nov 27, 2013 at 13:29
  • You can ask three independent questions about a thing: (a) do people believe the thing is a god? (b) does it exist and have some kind of power? (c) does it have power independent of G-d? The answer to (c) is always no. For (a) and (b), you can find any permutation. Polar bears: (a) yes (b) yes (c) no. Global warming: (a) no (b) yes (c) no. Zeus: (a) yes (b) no (c) no. Crossbreed between a lion and a shark: (a) no (b) no (c) no. Demons are either like polar bears or like Zeus.
    – Heshy
    May 31, 2018 at 12:29

3 Answers 3


See Rashi there, which renders it as Onkelos does: "They sacrificed to demons, which have no power." The name for god there has to do with power/rulership.

On the essential question of their existence, see here. Theologically, demons are no more problematic than angels or Satan the Adversary vis-a-vis monotheism. And someone worshiping them is no different that someone worshiping a rock. It doesn't ascribe any power to the rock to observe that it is worshiped.

  • Hmmm... the translation is a little bit different again. So there is no god but YHWH. However, there are indeed other beings (like us). And then there are no other beings with power? Actually I am quite confused with what monotheism means. We are quite powerful our self don't we? And we're not YHWH.
    – user4951
    Nov 28, 2013 at 2:05
  • Of course there can be at most one almighty beings. Two almighty beings are philosophically impossible because one would beat up the other one. That being said, what about other not so mighty beings, like angels, demons, or Hulk Hogan? They do exist but not deities?
    – user4951
    Nov 28, 2013 at 2:13
  • @JimThio, it is a topic well beyond a 600 character comment. For futher reading, try here, but it is really a drop in the bucket: chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/45637/jewish/…
    – Yishai
    Nov 28, 2013 at 14:48

You say, 'I thought Judaism doesn't believe in demons at all.' Not true. The Talmud is replete with references to demons. Rabbis had conversations with them (for example, Chullin 105b), provided a way to see them (Berachot 6a), overheard them (Succa 28a), and established laws based on their existence (for example, Berachot 3b and Pesachim 100b). King Solomon and the king of Sheidim, Asmodai, were said to be acquaintances, so to speak (Gittin 68b). And the Egyptians are said to have been adept at both magic and harnessing sheidim (Sanhedrin 67b).

See further in this forum 'Judaism and demon possession' and 'Sheidim: are they fact or fiction?'


The word translated 'demons' in Deuteronomy 32:17 (sheidim) occurs only here and in Psalm 106:37. It is a Babylonian loan-word, shedu, a good demon figured in the bull-colossi that guarded the entrances to temples. But according to Psalm 106:37 human sacrifices were offered them:

34 They did not destroy the peoples, as the Lord commanded them, 35 but they mingled with the nations and learned to do as they did. 36 They served their idols, which became a snare to them. 37 They sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons.

See further Jewish Encylcopedia: www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/5085-demonology.

  • 1
    Shedu is the male counterpart of Lamassu.
    – user18041
    Sep 25, 2020 at 3:45

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