When did the Israelites first begin to worship YHWH, refusing to worship or even recognize the existence of other deities? Was monotheism part of Israelite religious belief from the beginning, or was it an idea that developed later? While many biblical scholars view monotheism as a relatively late development within Israelite religion, I believe—based on evidence from early Israelite poetry—that the origins of biblical monotheism can be located early in Israel’s history, most likely by early in the first millennium B.C.E.
My first piece of evidence comes from Exodus 15, the Song of the Sea, which scholars generally agree is very early, perhaps dating to the very end of the second millennium B.C.E.1 The Song of the Sea is the song that Moses and the Israelites, followed by Moses’s sister Miriam, sang after the crossing of the Red Sea. In Exodus 15:11 and following, Moses sang, “Who is like You among the gods, O YHWH? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awe-inspiring in splendors, doer of miracles?”
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At first sight, the text seems to be acknowledging the existence of other gods. In my view, that is only a tease, for both are rhetorical questions, with the clear answer that there is no one like Israel’s God, YHWH. None of the other gods is majestic in holiness, awe-inspiring in splendors, nor do they perform miracles. In other words, the other “gods” lack divine attributes, hence they are “non-gods.” So, what at first sight is an acknowledgment of other gods is actually a denial that the gods people worshipped actually existed! Only YHWH, unlike the supposed gods, is majestic in holiness, awe-inspiring in splendors, and a performer of miracles. For instance, the Assyrians and Babylonians believed their gods exuded a supernatural radiance called melammu. By asserting that God, unlike the non-gods, is awe-inspiring in splendors, Exodus 15 says that YHWH has a supernatural radiance that the supposed gods do not. Therefore, they lack the intrinsic splendor that would make them divine. In this way, the passage affirms the one God, YHWH, and denies the existence of other gods. Hence this passage, with its rhetorical questions, is early evidence for Israel’s monotheism.
Another ancient Israelite poem that offers evidence of early monotheism is 2 Samuel 22, which is repeated with slight variations in Psalm 18. Verse 32 of 2 Samuel 22 says, “Who is a god besides YHWH? Who is a Rock besides our God?” Psalm 18:32 is worded slightly differently. It uses a different word for god and, in the second question, replaces “besides” with the Hebrew word for “except”—“Who is god besides YHWH? Who is a Rock except our God?” The word “rock” is capitalized because here the word is being used as a synonym for god or God. As with Exodus 15, this poem features a pair of rhetorical questions, with the answer being the same: Nobody is god except YHWH. This pair of rhetorical questions, taken together, clearly make a statement that YHWH is the only God.
We turn to yet another ancient poem, Deuteronomy 32, also known as the Song of Moses. Many scholars view the language of the poem as archaic, and Jeffrey Tigay dates it to the 12th–11th centuries B.C.E2 It reaches a climax in verse 39, which reads: “See, now that I, I am He, and there is no god besides Me.3 I deal death and I give life, I wound and I heal, and there is no one who can deliver from my hand.” Here we find the clearest statement of monotheism yet, denying the existence of other gods. In other cultures, there were gods of death and of healing—here, the one God is in charge of everything, and there is no countervailing power who can undo what God has done.
These passages from early Israelite poetry support and reinforce each other, showing unequivocally that the notion of monotheism was afoot far earlier than many scholars realize. That does not mean it was adopted by everyone. Far from it. Still another ancient poem, Psalm 29, begins as follows: “Ascribe to YHWH, O divinities (literally, “sons of gods”), ascribe to YHWH glory and might…” Although the rest of the poem lauds YHWH alone, it is not at all clear that the reference to divinities is meant to be tongue in cheek. Yet another ancient poem in Judges 5, the Song of Deborah, is compatible with monotheism in that the sole god mentioned is YHWH, but it lacks any clear references to monotheism such as we have already seen.
In light of the above findings, it is clear that we can take biblical authors seriously when they profess monotheism, as in the famous passage in Deuteronomy 6:4–9 known as the Shema: “Hear O Israel, YHWH our God, YHWH is one! You shall love YHWH your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength…” Monotheism existed as an idea when these verses were written, but in light of the broader polytheistic milieu in which Israelite religion developed, it needed to be confirmed. Monotheism did not reach the point of consensus in Israel until late in the biblical period, for the Israelites were a “stiff-necked people,” but the idea of monotheism arose in some of Israel’s earliest poems.
 I follow the NRSV, NIV, and NASB translations in the latter half of this verse; the New Jerusalem Bible and NJPS read “beside Me.”
The Universal God: How the God of Israel Became a God for All
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Monotheism: The Egyptian roots
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