Does the Old Testament Teach Absolute Monotheism? Part I

Does the Old Testament Teach Absolute Monotheism? Part I March 16, 2010

Introduction: Was Ancient Israel Monotheistic?

Western Society is perhaps more indebted to the Hebrew Bible than to any other book, and arguably the most famous teaching associated with the Hebrew Bible is that of absolute monotheism.  This position famously affirms that there is only one god in existence and no other(s).  For example, Deuteronomy 6:4, known as the Shema, has often been cited since antiquity as supporting this understanding of monotheism.[1] It declares, “Listen, O Israel, YHWH is our god, YHWH alone [lit. YHWH (is) one]” (שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד). This understanding of ancient Israelite faith, found in both popular and scholarly circles, purportedly traces itself in the biblical narrative to at least the time when YHWH revealed himself at Sinai to Moses and Israel,[2] if not all the way back to the creation of the world in Genesis 1 when God alone created the world by his word.[3] Naturally, this view has been held to be in direct opposition to the Mesopotamian theogonic and cosmogonic myths, such as the infamous Enuma Elish,[4] which recounts the creation of the gods and the world through fierce battles and rivalries between the personified primal elements of nature and the many gods who eventually tame them.

As familiar as this description might sound, it nevertheless has been severely critiqued by modern Biblicists and Assyriologists, especially for the time of pre-exilic Israel.[5] All along, it seems, Israel believed in the existence of a multiplicity of divine beings, as numerous biblical texts reveal.  Thus, for example, after the miraculous escape of the Israelites from Egypt through the divine power of YHWH, Exodus 15:11, part of one of the oldest poems in the Hebrew Bible, simply asks, “Who is like you among the gods, O YHWH?” (מִֽי־כָמֹכָה בָּֽאֵלִם יְהוָה). Of course, for the author of this text, YHWH is supreme among the gods, yet the question implies that there are other gods in existence, just as Exodus 20:3 assumes that there are indeed other gods that the Israelites might worship at YHWH’s expense.[6] Nevertheless, such texts might seem to be paltry evidence that Israel was polytheistic in any meaningful sense of the word, even in its earliest periods.  Yet for the ancient historian the evidence is significant enough to warrant further examination of the biblical, epigraphical, and archaeological evidences that might be brought to bear on the issue of determining whether or not ancient Israel was truly monotheistic.

[1] For a lengthy discussion of the Shema and the history and difficulties of its interpretation, see Nathan Macdonald, Deuteronomy and the Meaning of “Monotheism.” Forschungen zum Alten Testament, 1. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003), 59-71.  Paul echoes the Shema in a Christian formulation of monotheism in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6.  All translations from ancient texts are the author’s own unless otherwise noted.


[2] Perhaps the most articulate proponent of a unique Israelite monotheism dating to the time of Moses is Yeḥezkel Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel: from its Beginning to the Babylonian Exile (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960).  Also note the conservative views of Jeffrey H. Tigay, You Shall Have No Other Gods: Israelite Religion in the Light of Hebrew Inscriptions, HSS 31 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986); and W. F. Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan: An Historical Analysis of Two Conflicting Faiths (Garden City: Doubleday, 1968).

[3] Although other divinities appear to be present during the creation of the world in Genesis 1 (see, for instance, Gen. 1:26-27; cf. Gen. 3:22; 11:7).

[4] For a good translation of ancient Mesopotamian myths, including Enuma Elish, see Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).  For Ugaritic and Canaanite myths, see Mark S. Smith, The Ugaritic Baal Cycle 1, Introduction with Text, Translation and Commentary of KTU 1.1 – 1.2 (Leiden: Brill, 1994); Smith, Mark S. The Ugaritic Baal Cycle 2, Introduction with Text, Translation and Commentary of KTU/CAT 1.3 – 1.4 (Leiden: Brill, 2009); Mark S. Smith and Simon B. Parker, Ugaritic Narrative Poetry (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997); and Michael Coogan, Stories from Ancient Canaan (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978).

[5] Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. The Biblical resource series. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002); John Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan. Journal for the study of the Old Testament, 265 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000); Ziony Zevit, The Religions of Ancient Israel: A Synthesis of Parallactic Approaches (London: Continuum, 2001); and Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1973).

[6] Cyrus Herzl Gordon and Gary Rendsurg, The Bible and the Ancient Near East (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1997), 148-149.  Also note the title of J. Tigay’s book, You Shall Have No Other Gods.

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