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 Reed 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?”

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.

 

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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.”


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Related reading in the BAS Library:

The Universal God: How the God of Israel Became a God for All by André Lemaire

Israel not only survived but thrived in exile. Indeed, Israelite Yahwisma became universal monotheism in the Babylonian Exile. In the preceding article, Professor Seymour Gitin explains why the Philistines, unlike the Israelites, did not survive the Babylonian Exile, although their cities were destroyed by the same Babylonian ruler, Nebuchadnezzar, who destroyed Jerusalem and burned the Israelite Temple. Professor Gitin suggests that culture made all the difference. Perhaps so, but I think we can be more specific in the case of the Israelites..

Did Akhenaten’s Monotheism Influence Moses? by Brian Fagan

In late spring, 1349 B.C., the chariot of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten drew up in an open space before a dazzling white inscription on a cliff face overlooking the Nile. There Akhenaten and his queen Nefertiti made lavish offerings to the solar god Aten.

Monotheism: The Egyptian roots by James P. Allen

Among the many features of Western intellectual history that can be traced to the ancient Near East, none has been more powerful than the idea of transcendental monotheism—the belief in only one god who exists eternally and apart from his creation. The early Hebrews are generally given credit for this concept, and the Bible reflects their persistent, often painful attempts to maintain this belief in an exclusive god in the face of the ancient world’s dominant belief in its opposite, immanent polytheism—the belief in many gods who personify the forces and elements of the universe.

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12 Responses

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

  4. 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.

  5. Ureno says:

    You are mistranslating “El”

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. fred bieker says:

    Abraham preceded Ankenaton by almost 1000 years

  11. 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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12 Responses

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

  4. 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.

  5. Ureno says:

    You are mistranslating “El”

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. fred bieker says:

    Abraham preceded Ankenaton by almost 1000 years

  11. 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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