BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

When Did Monotheism Emerge in Ancient Israel?

Arad Shrine


The well-known Iron Age temple discovered at Tel Arad in southern Israel was likely dedicated to Israel’s God YHWH. Pictured here is the reconstruction of the site’s inner sanctuary, which included altars and two standing stones, or masseboth. Image credit: Ian Scott/CC BY-SA 2.0

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.

 

—–

Philip D. SternPhilip D. Stern  studied with renowned scholar, Baruch A. Levine at NYU, who mentored his doctorate on the Biblical Herem. The published edition is a revision of the doctoral dissertation, and is in a real sense a book. Philip Stern has also contributed to other books, as co-translator in the “Haftarah Commentary” (UAHC Press, 1996), and as philological editor of the Book of Genesis in the revised version of “The Torah: A Modern Commentary” (URJ Press, 2005). He has also contributed many times to scholarly and popular journals and magazines, especially to Midstream: A Jewish Review.

—–

Notes:

[1] Dating biblical poetry is a vexed question; while scholars generally agree that the poems cited here are very early, it would be misleading to provide specific dates for their composition.

[2] See Jeffrey H. Tigay, Deuteronomy, JPS Torah Commentary (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1996), p. 512. The poem could be slightly earlier or later, Tigay recognizes.

[3] I follow the NRSV, NIV, and NASB translations in the latter half of this verse; the New Jerusalem Bible and NJPS read “beside Me.”


Related reading in Bible History Daily

Video: Exodus and Memory: Remembering the Origin of Israel and Monotheism

Epilepsy, Tutankhamun and Monotheism

Piecing Together the Past: Ancient Fragments of the Song of the Sea

Related reading in the BAS Library:

The Universal God: How the God of Israel Became a God for All
Did Akhenaten’s Monotheism Influence Moses?
Monotheism: The Egyptian roots
Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.


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17 Responses

  1. Dr. Craig B. Miller says:

    The translations are over-interpreted. That a text stipulates that there are “no other besides” or “no other except” does not necessarily negate other deities….the sense may just as readily be a restatement of monolatry, using rhetoric that gives primacy but, in a larger cosmological context, not singularity to YHWH…One could over-interpret the “sons of YHWH” (as in Job) as evidence of monotheism, wherein a monadic YHWH is surrounded by dependencies (that said, has-satan seems feistier than a dependency). However, nowhere in such a statement does the text eliminate these “sons” as other gods in the entourage. The admonition is not to convert exegesis into eisegesis. Numerous texts from other ancient Near Eastern cultures portray some specific god in similar terms within a henotheistic framework: a god selected as primary among a legitimized pantheon. Alternatively, a god, sovereign in a particular sphere, points back to a creator god from which he/she derives, e.g. Egyptian Heka, sovereign over magic, pointing back to Amun as progenitor. The cautionary note: We too often conjure proofs or even indicators of proofs into artificial existence by too narrowly interpreting the evidence….conveniently tossing aside the cultural matrices within which these enticements appear.

  2. Sandra Scham says:

    It has been my impression that Israelite religion, as opposed to Judaism which many believe did not emerge until after the Babylonian Exile, was monolatrous–one primary god who was worshiped more than others–but also alongside others. This form of worship was also practiced in Mesopotamia (Marduk) and Egypt (Amun) during the Israelite period. This article is pure speculation that is not borne out either by the Biblical text or archaeology. The worship of Yahweh may have been a “State religion” in the first millennium BCE (or by the time of Hezekiah) but monotheism it was not. How else does one explain the “Yahweh and his consort Asherah” artifacts as well as numerous Biblical references that make it clear that the majority of Israelites did not just worship one god.

  3. Dennis B. Swaney says:

    Judaism’s path was from many gods down to two, Yahweh and Asherah, then the male priests of the former were able to marginalize the latter to enforce a male dominated society. It is interesting that Mohammed did something similar when he created Islam by selecting one of the many gods of the Arabs, Allah, and suppressing the rest.

  4. Since the title of this article is “The Emergence of Monotheism in Ancient Israel,” may I then assume that any awareness of and adherence to monotheism in the time of the patriarchs falls outside of the purview of the article, and thus not considered?

  5. Johann Cronje says:

    It is not a question as to when monotheism suddenly emerged in Ancient Israel. Yahweh formally confirms:
    There is only one Creator, one God and one Saviour by the name of YAHWEH.
    There are no other gods besides YAHWEH.
    There is no other saviour besides YAHWEH.
    YAHWEH does not share His praise and honour with another.
    YAHWEH can’t be subdivided into different persons, being three gods, personalities or characters.
    The Trinity is the biggest lie ever told by Constantine and the Catholic Church. Nowhere in scripture has YAHWEH ever declared to be part of a trinity. YAHWEH confirmed to be the eternal, single (only) God and (only) Saviour which, cannot be disputed. He has never changed His mind about all of it. No one should doubt the statements made by Yahweh. It is blasphemous!

    1. Belief in the Holy Trinity is integral to the New Testament amd Jesus clearly refered himself as God and accepted worship. Here are just a few examples: Gospel of John, chapter one, verses 1 through 18; chapter 5, verses 17 through 18; chapter 8, verses 57 through 58; chapter 20, verse 28; Hebrews chapter one, verse 8 and many others.
      Constantine had nothing to do with it. Such an assertion is a repitition of an 19th century protestant slander which was a feeble attempt to ascribe to him all that they thought was wrong with Roman Catholicism (and I am not Roman Catholic).

  6. Marc Luxemburg says:

    There are two ways to interpret the bible – the “heads down” method – which is the classic way which involves a detailed analysis of the text; and the “heads up” method which is to look at the biblical passages in light of the events occurring outside the text which give context to the written materials. This analysis is an example of heads down – it focusses on the written words. It must be evident to anyone who has visited Egypt that the Israelite religion was heavily influenced by Egyptian practices. One clear example is that the Egyptian temples from the New Kingdom – eg Luxor – bear unmistakable resemblance to the Jerusalem temple – especially because the innermost sanctuary open only to the priests was known as the “Holy of Holies.” Monotheism was adopted by Akhenaten in the mid-1300s BCE – or probably shortly before the exodus. It would seem entirely possible if not likely that the Israelites brought this idea with them – particularly in light of the Book of Exodus with its emphasis on one God. That this article does not discuss any of this is a serious omission.

  7. Ureno says:

    You are mistranslating “El” as “God.”

    El, in the Torah is used to mean “Power.” Laban famously uses the word El to describe that he has the power to hurt Jacob. In ancient times, “Gods” were primarily metaphors for natural forces. The ancients had little idea of what these forces were so they sometimes imagined that these were cosmic beasts, or stars or animals or whatever.

    Thus, ancient poetry describing God as “Elohim” = all the powers does not demonstrate a leaning toward polytheism. Similarly, the poetic verses you cite don’t imply pagan beliefs anymore than the belief in a world that is guided by many powers.

    Mistranslating El as “god” makes it impossible to interpret the Sh’ma sensibly, you would have “YHVA is our Gods, YHVA is one.”

    In the end of the day, the creation story itself is the surest affirmation of monotheism because all of the forces of nature, which are the basis of all the other gods in the ancient world, clearly are created by God according to its will. How unfortunate that this didn’t make your list.

    1. Philip D Stern says:

      If I am mistaken in my translation of El, then so are all the major translations and the biblical lexica (see for instance, the entry El in Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, vol. 1, p.253ff.).. El was originally the proper name of the head of the Ugaritic pantheon and in Biblical Hebrew the name was generalized to mean God or god. I did not intend to catalog in my little article every instance of biblical monotheism–only to focus on the evidence of early Yahwistic poetry.. As for the Shema, that is an instance of a clearly monotheistic passage that biblical scholars often mischaracterize as non-monotheistic. Your point about El in the Shema is unsound, because the word El does not appear in the Shema, only Elohim, which means God and I translated it as such.

      1. Absolutely right, Dr. Stern!

  8. Ureno says:

    You are mistranslating “El”

  9. Javad Sanayei says:

    I do believe what you are saying here is great.
    But
    I do have to point out that what you are stating here is not necessarily monotheistic.

    Polytheism is acknowledging multiple gods, all worthy of worship.
    Henotheism is acknowledging multiple gods, worshiping one and allowing others to chose their own.
    Monolatristm is acknowledging acknowledging multiple gods, but finding only one deserved of worship (thus the term “false idols”).
    Monotheism is the belief that only one god exists.

    I believe we see the evolution through all of these in the Bible.

  10. Kenneth Howes says:

    It seems to me that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had a henotheistic religion. From what I can tell, they worshiped only one God, yet they didn’t know whether there were other gods–they didn’t necessarily acknowledge other gods, but they did not seem to insist that there was only one God.

  11. Rosalind Gnatt says:

    I am not convinced by Professor Stern’s examples for monotheism among the early Israelites. The notations sited seem to be more of a “My god is better than your god.” There are certainly numerous examples of the gods warring or at least being put to the test in the Torah. It is interesting to me that, even though, in the creation story, Elohim – a plural of “the gods” is used and not Adonai – the later singular.

  12. Phillip Matous says:

    Given the genealogy in Genesis, Noah was alive during Abraham’s first 58 years on earth. Given that Noah believed in one God, was alive during Abraham’s early life, lived in the Ararat region which isn’t that far from Haran where Abraham spent time, I see no problem appreciating Abraham’s belief in one God and subsequently Israel’s belief in one God as well. For all we know, it’s possible Abraham met Noah or Shem. Counting from Adam, Abraham would have been born in 1948 while Noah would have died in 2006 and Shem in 2058.

  13. fred bieker says:

    Abraham preceded Ankenaton by almost 1000 years

  14. Ira Friedman says:

    Thank you for seeking to shed further light on the origin of Jewish monotheism. As far as I (a layman) am aware, modern biblical scholarship (“MBS”) has not dealt dispassionately with the core question as to when and how “the idea of monotheism developed.” If YHWH was just one of many polytheistic gods, how did He vanquish all other ancient near eastern gods worshipped by powerful societies, particularly since His original adherents may well have been no more than a small confederation of tribes? (And if He was the Shasu Yavneh, how did their god gain predominance even though the Shasu themselves faded into obscurity?) How many generations/centuries did it take for belief in an abstract YHWH, who could not be seen and of whom objects could not be made and worshipped, to become fully internalized in His adherents? If MBS had not dismissed the traditional view of Deuteronomy so forcefully, it might have noticed that it is entirely realistic to believe that a Moses who lived and led as Deuteronomy describes struggled with these challenges. Many, if not most, of the Israelites who stood on the Plains of Moab were idol worshippers and the children of idol worshippers. They were about to enter Canaan where they would face a daunting mission of conquest and be subjected to a culture of idol worship. And they had been ordered to trust and believe in an abstract god. Extensive evidence of figurines that may have been prayed to in some fashion, and the struggles against idolatry reported in the Books of Judges, Samuel and Kings, likely testifies to the proposition that it took centuries for Jewish monotheism to take hold among Israelite society as a whole. But in the end Moses’ teachings, and the institutions he put in place, all as described in Deuteronomy, bore fruit.

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17 Responses

  1. Dr. Craig B. Miller says:

    The translations are over-interpreted. That a text stipulates that there are “no other besides” or “no other except” does not necessarily negate other deities….the sense may just as readily be a restatement of monolatry, using rhetoric that gives primacy but, in a larger cosmological context, not singularity to YHWH…One could over-interpret the “sons of YHWH” (as in Job) as evidence of monotheism, wherein a monadic YHWH is surrounded by dependencies (that said, has-satan seems feistier than a dependency). However, nowhere in such a statement does the text eliminate these “sons” as other gods in the entourage. The admonition is not to convert exegesis into eisegesis. Numerous texts from other ancient Near Eastern cultures portray some specific god in similar terms within a henotheistic framework: a god selected as primary among a legitimized pantheon. Alternatively, a god, sovereign in a particular sphere, points back to a creator god from which he/she derives, e.g. Egyptian Heka, sovereign over magic, pointing back to Amun as progenitor. The cautionary note: We too often conjure proofs or even indicators of proofs into artificial existence by too narrowly interpreting the evidence….conveniently tossing aside the cultural matrices within which these enticements appear.

  2. Sandra Scham says:

    It has been my impression that Israelite religion, as opposed to Judaism which many believe did not emerge until after the Babylonian Exile, was monolatrous–one primary god who was worshiped more than others–but also alongside others. This form of worship was also practiced in Mesopotamia (Marduk) and Egypt (Amun) during the Israelite period. This article is pure speculation that is not borne out either by the Biblical text or archaeology. The worship of Yahweh may have been a “State religion” in the first millennium BCE (or by the time of Hezekiah) but monotheism it was not. How else does one explain the “Yahweh and his consort Asherah” artifacts as well as numerous Biblical references that make it clear that the majority of Israelites did not just worship one god.

  3. Dennis B. Swaney says:

    Judaism’s path was from many gods down to two, Yahweh and Asherah, then the male priests of the former were able to marginalize the latter to enforce a male dominated society. It is interesting that Mohammed did something similar when he created Islam by selecting one of the many gods of the Arabs, Allah, and suppressing the rest.

  4. Since the title of this article is “The Emergence of Monotheism in Ancient Israel,” may I then assume that any awareness of and adherence to monotheism in the time of the patriarchs falls outside of the purview of the article, and thus not considered?

  5. Johann Cronje says:

    It is not a question as to when monotheism suddenly emerged in Ancient Israel. Yahweh formally confirms:
    There is only one Creator, one God and one Saviour by the name of YAHWEH.
    There are no other gods besides YAHWEH.
    There is no other saviour besides YAHWEH.
    YAHWEH does not share His praise and honour with another.
    YAHWEH can’t be subdivided into different persons, being three gods, personalities or characters.
    The Trinity is the biggest lie ever told by Constantine and the Catholic Church. Nowhere in scripture has YAHWEH ever declared to be part of a trinity. YAHWEH confirmed to be the eternal, single (only) God and (only) Saviour which, cannot be disputed. He has never changed His mind about all of it. No one should doubt the statements made by Yahweh. It is blasphemous!

    1. Belief in the Holy Trinity is integral to the New Testament amd Jesus clearly refered himself as God and accepted worship. Here are just a few examples: Gospel of John, chapter one, verses 1 through 18; chapter 5, verses 17 through 18; chapter 8, verses 57 through 58; chapter 20, verse 28; Hebrews chapter one, verse 8 and many others.
      Constantine had nothing to do with it. Such an assertion is a repitition of an 19th century protestant slander which was a feeble attempt to ascribe to him all that they thought was wrong with Roman Catholicism (and I am not Roman Catholic).

  6. Marc Luxemburg says:

    There are two ways to interpret the bible – the “heads down” method – which is the classic way which involves a detailed analysis of the text; and the “heads up” method which is to look at the biblical passages in light of the events occurring outside the text which give context to the written materials. This analysis is an example of heads down – it focusses on the written words. It must be evident to anyone who has visited Egypt that the Israelite religion was heavily influenced by Egyptian practices. One clear example is that the Egyptian temples from the New Kingdom – eg Luxor – bear unmistakable resemblance to the Jerusalem temple – especially because the innermost sanctuary open only to the priests was known as the “Holy of Holies.” Monotheism was adopted by Akhenaten in the mid-1300s BCE – or probably shortly before the exodus. It would seem entirely possible if not likely that the Israelites brought this idea with them – particularly in light of the Book of Exodus with its emphasis on one God. That this article does not discuss any of this is a serious omission.

  7. Ureno says:

    You are mistranslating “El” as “God.”

    El, in the Torah is used to mean “Power.” Laban famously uses the word El to describe that he has the power to hurt Jacob. In ancient times, “Gods” were primarily metaphors for natural forces. The ancients had little idea of what these forces were so they sometimes imagined that these were cosmic beasts, or stars or animals or whatever.

    Thus, ancient poetry describing God as “Elohim” = all the powers does not demonstrate a leaning toward polytheism. Similarly, the poetic verses you cite don’t imply pagan beliefs anymore than the belief in a world that is guided by many powers.

    Mistranslating El as “god” makes it impossible to interpret the Sh’ma sensibly, you would have “YHVA is our Gods, YHVA is one.”

    In the end of the day, the creation story itself is the surest affirmation of monotheism because all of the forces of nature, which are the basis of all the other gods in the ancient world, clearly are created by God according to its will. How unfortunate that this didn’t make your list.

    1. Philip D Stern says:

      If I am mistaken in my translation of El, then so are all the major translations and the biblical lexica (see for instance, the entry El in Dictionary of Classical Hebrew, vol. 1, p.253ff.).. El was originally the proper name of the head of the Ugaritic pantheon and in Biblical Hebrew the name was generalized to mean God or god. I did not intend to catalog in my little article every instance of biblical monotheism–only to focus on the evidence of early Yahwistic poetry.. As for the Shema, that is an instance of a clearly monotheistic passage that biblical scholars often mischaracterize as non-monotheistic. Your point about El in the Shema is unsound, because the word El does not appear in the Shema, only Elohim, which means God and I translated it as such.

      1. Absolutely right, Dr. Stern!

  8. Ureno says:

    You are mistranslating “El”

  9. Javad Sanayei says:

    I do believe what you are saying here is great.
    But
    I do have to point out that what you are stating here is not necessarily monotheistic.

    Polytheism is acknowledging multiple gods, all worthy of worship.
    Henotheism is acknowledging multiple gods, worshiping one and allowing others to chose their own.
    Monolatristm is acknowledging acknowledging multiple gods, but finding only one deserved of worship (thus the term “false idols”).
    Monotheism is the belief that only one god exists.

    I believe we see the evolution through all of these in the Bible.

  10. Kenneth Howes says:

    It seems to me that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had a henotheistic religion. From what I can tell, they worshiped only one God, yet they didn’t know whether there were other gods–they didn’t necessarily acknowledge other gods, but they did not seem to insist that there was only one God.

  11. Rosalind Gnatt says:

    I am not convinced by Professor Stern’s examples for monotheism among the early Israelites. The notations sited seem to be more of a “My god is better than your god.” There are certainly numerous examples of the gods warring or at least being put to the test in the Torah. It is interesting to me that, even though, in the creation story, Elohim – a plural of “the gods” is used and not Adonai – the later singular.

  12. Phillip Matous says:

    Given the genealogy in Genesis, Noah was alive during Abraham’s first 58 years on earth. Given that Noah believed in one God, was alive during Abraham’s early life, lived in the Ararat region which isn’t that far from Haran where Abraham spent time, I see no problem appreciating Abraham’s belief in one God and subsequently Israel’s belief in one God as well. For all we know, it’s possible Abraham met Noah or Shem. Counting from Adam, Abraham would have been born in 1948 while Noah would have died in 2006 and Shem in 2058.

  13. fred bieker says:

    Abraham preceded Ankenaton by almost 1000 years

  14. Ira Friedman says:

    Thank you for seeking to shed further light on the origin of Jewish monotheism. As far as I (a layman) am aware, modern biblical scholarship (“MBS”) has not dealt dispassionately with the core question as to when and how “the idea of monotheism developed.” If YHWH was just one of many polytheistic gods, how did He vanquish all other ancient near eastern gods worshipped by powerful societies, particularly since His original adherents may well have been no more than a small confederation of tribes? (And if He was the Shasu Yavneh, how did their god gain predominance even though the Shasu themselves faded into obscurity?) How many generations/centuries did it take for belief in an abstract YHWH, who could not be seen and of whom objects could not be made and worshipped, to become fully internalized in His adherents? If MBS had not dismissed the traditional view of Deuteronomy so forcefully, it might have noticed that it is entirely realistic to believe that a Moses who lived and led as Deuteronomy describes struggled with these challenges. Many, if not most, of the Israelites who stood on the Plains of Moab were idol worshippers and the children of idol worshippers. They were about to enter Canaan where they would face a daunting mission of conquest and be subjected to a culture of idol worship. And they had been ordered to trust and believe in an abstract god. Extensive evidence of figurines that may have been prayed to in some fashion, and the struggles against idolatry reported in the Books of Judges, Samuel and Kings, likely testifies to the proposition that it took centuries for Jewish monotheism to take hold among Israelite society as a whole. But in the end Moses’ teachings, and the institutions he put in place, all as described in Deuteronomy, bore fruit.

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