Monotheism: Definition, Biblical Usage, and Meaning for Our Life
What is monotheism? Monotheism is the belief that only one God exists. While the New Testament church takes monotheism for granted, ancient Israel in the Old Testament shifted back and forth between monotheism and polytheism. It was a struggle for ancient Israel to maintain its monotheistic convictions surrounded by polytheistic nations, just as it can be a struggle for people today to resist worshiping idols of one kind or another.
Monotheism: What Are the Ism’s in the World of the Bible?
Monotheism, or the belief in only one God, is a central part of the Christian faith. Many people just take for granted that this belief has always been prevalent among the people of God, even from the earliest pages of the Old Testament. The reality, however, is not so clear. The Bible presents a complicated picture surrounding the adoption of monotheism among God’s people, but I think the process can provide insight and even hope for us today.
When we open our Bibles, one of the most helpful things we can do is to realize this: the book we are holding was not written in the last 50 years. It is a foreign book. Yes, the translation into English may be recent. However, our perspectives, culture, sensitivities, and literary styles were not in use when this book was originally written.
Yet even though it is a foreign book, it is our book, God’s good word to us and to every generation of believers through the ages. Our job is to determine how to read it well.
Archaeological evidence from the ancient Near East, the setting of our Old Testament, points to a widespread belief in many deities. In this cultural context, not all deities were the same; some gods had cosmic powers, while other divine beings were just deceased ancestors existing in some ethereal state.
“Archaeological evidence from the ancient Near East, the setting of our Old Testament, points to a widespread belief in many deities.”
Not all cultures believed in the same gods, either; one city may be devoted to a certain set of gods, while another city may have other gods entirely at the center of their beliefs. Cultures also varied in the functions they attributed to their gods. What was recognized across the ancient Near East, however, was that there were numerous gods.
There was no set or defined number, but there were many. Essentially, this is a belief we might call polytheism. Perusing even the first few lines of an ancient text like Enuma Elish or the Epic of Gilgamesh quickly reveals this underlying belief.
Much like modern societies, these ancient Near Eastern cultures realized the need to prioritize their time and efforts in the name of efficiency. They believed a mutual relationship existed between gods and people: the gods needed food, which people offered in the form of sacrifice, and the people needed blessing, which the gods provided in the form of abundant crops, good weather, freedom from disease, etc.
“They believed a mutual relationship existed between gods and people: the gods needed food…the people needed blessing.”
Some call this arrangement the “Great Symbiosis,” and if this was really how gods worked, then people needed to choose which god was most interested in their well-being so they could know where to direct their devotion.
As a result, ancient Near Eastern cultures began to funnel their worship toward just one deity. While they recognized that other gods may exist, their interest was in worshiping the god they believed had their best interest at heart. All over this region, it seems that different cities worshiped different gods.
We see glimpses of this cultural practice when the Philistines set the ark of Yahweh in their own temple to Dagon (see 1 Samuel 5), or when Jezebel tried to popularize the Baal cult in Israel (see 1 Kings 16:29-33), or when the king of Assyria claimed that the gods of other peoples had been unable to stop his advances (see 2 Kings 18).
If a culture began to develop a practice of worshiping only one god among many, this is a practice we might call henotheism. A distinct but related belief is what we might call monolatry, or the practice of worshiping one god because that god is the only one worthy of worship. This perhaps explains the policy under the rule of Ahab and Jezebel to drive Yahweh worship from the land (see 1 Kings 17-18).
All of this is in direct contrast with monotheism. Monotheism claims there is only one God; no other god exists. As far as scholars can determine from the archaeological evidence of the ancient Near East, monotheism was virtually unknown in the ancient Near East outside of Israel. Every culture seemed to believe in the existence of many gods, even if their culture only worshiped certain ones.
One noted exception comes from the reign of Pharaoh Akhenaten in Egypt during the fourteenth century BCE. It seems he sought to distinguish the sun god Aten from every other god, even exclaiming: “O sole God beside whom there is none! You made the earth as you wished, you alone.” However, within just a few years after his reign, successors to Pharaoh Akhenaten reinstated the Egyptian pantheon, and worship continued much as it had for centuries. What is even more striking is that this seems to be the only account of monotheism at work in the ancient Near East outside of the Old Testament.
All of this is important when considering monotheism in ancient Israel. If all the cultures surrounding them believed in a multitude of gods, where did the idea of one God come from?
Monotheism: Where in the Bible Do We Learn There Is One God?
The Bible begins like no other ancient Near Eastern text; it claims that the heavens and the earth were the creation of a single deity. This deity seems to operate without interference or assistance, and his sovereignty is supreme. This alone should give us pause; the book of Genesis assumes that the Creator does not need or desire any other deity alongside of him.
In Genesis 1:1, that deity is called “Elohim,” a Hebrew plural form of the word “El.” In Semitic languages, “El” was a common name for deity and referred to “god” in general. Just as our English letters G-O-D refer to either the one we call Yahweh or to the other deities people believe in, so “El” would be a way of talking in general about the category of deity. In the Old Testament, the plural form of the name “El” is consistently used with grammatically singular verbs to refer to the deity of Israel. His personal name, it seems, is represented by the letters Yhwh, which we often pronounce as Yahweh.
“His personal name, it seems, is represented by the letters Yhwh, which we often pronounce as Yahweh.”
In Genesis 1-3, there is only one recognized deity. As the generations continue, however, there isn’t much information about how people thought about the gods or how their perspectives on deity developed. Aside from the much debated “sons of the elohim” in Genesis 6:2, we get very few hints as to humanity’s theological belief system in Genesis 4-10.
However, in the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, the people living in the plains of Shinar attempt to build a tower to the heavens for the sake of their own name. Scholars generally agree that this tower is likely a ziggurat, a common ancient structure found throughout the ancient Near East that was built to facilitate the coming and going of deity. While it was not a place of worship, it was built for the gods.
In fact, the city’s name even suggests this fact: the word Babel is the combination of “gateway of” (Hebrew bab) and the name for deity (Hebrew el). It seems, then, that the Tower of Babel reveals a culture of polytheistic belief, much like what is found all throughout the ancient Near East.
The Call of Abraham
Just one chapter later, a deity named Yahweh calls Abraham to go from his own country, people, and father’s household, all places connected to the worship of other gods, and go to the land that Yahweh will show him.
We don’t know Abraham’s background, but if it was anything like any of the cultures revealed by documents from the ancient Near East, he came from a polytheistic culture. Yahweh doesn’t seem to clue in Abraham at this point that Yahweh is the only God; he just seems to appear to him as the one deity who has his best interest at heart. Of course, Abraham believes God, and he leaves. The rest, as they say, is history.
“Does Abraham, then, convert to monotheism? It seems he is on a journey.”
Does Abraham, then, convert to monotheism? It seems he is on a journey. Abraham’s choices may reflect a functional monotheism, or even monolatry (the practice of worshiping only one deity). However, we just don’t have enough information to know for sure what he thinks about the gods. He certainly seems to act as if Yahweh is the only deity that matters.
So, then, what of Abraham’s descendants? There is limited information on Isaac’s beliefs as well, but Jacob’s practices seem a bit clearer. In Genesis 28:20-22, after a frightening encounter with Yahweh in a dream, Jacob makes a deal of sorts: if Yahweh will lead him, then Jacob will worship him alone. This seems an odd contingency if Jacob is a committed monotheist! Indeed, perhaps Jacob has adopted much of the faith of the cultures around him.
Some time later, Jacob’s wife Rachel steals the household gods (Hebrew teraphim) from her father, Laban (see Genesis 31:19), again suggesting an underlying polytheistic belief. Even later, after becoming convinced of Yahweh’s faithfulness to him, Jacob announces a new commitment to Yahweh among his family and declares that everyone should give up the images of their foreign gods (Hebrew elohim) to be buried under a great oak tree (see Genesis 35:2-4). At this point, it certainly seems clear that Jacob has at least tolerated a belief in multiple gods within his family. With the burial, however, he is moving closer to monotheism.
Little information is given about the development of these beliefs over the next several chapters, but the story of the plagues in the book of Exodus provides a helpful window into the ancient beliefs about gods. In God’s instructions to Moses about the final plague, he notes: “Over all the gods (Hebrew elohim) of Egypt I will execute judgment” (Exodus 12:12).
“The story of the plagues in the book of Exodus provides a helpful window into the ancient beliefs about gods.”
Was Yahweh actually suggesting that the Egyptian gods were real? Perhaps not. Instead, it seems the text is intended to point to Yahweh’s power over any and every authority that people set up over themselves. It is worth noting, however, that he does not declare at this point that no other gods even exist.
The Covenant at Sinai
A turning point occurs in Exodus 19, when Yahweh meets the people at Mount Sinai. He declares his intentions to enter into a committed relationship with them, and then he begins the Ten Commandments with three instructions about his identity: there are to be no other gods before Yahweh, there are to be no images made of other gods, and the people are to represent the name of Yahweh well to the nations.
The progression is important here. How does one get an entire group of people, born and raised in a culture of polytheism, to shift their worldview to see Yahweh as the only deity? Yahweh’s approach does not begin by reprimanding the Israelites for their beliefs in other gods or lecturing them on the finer points of monotheistic belief. Instead, he gradually demonstrates to them through the ten plagues and the Red Sea deliverance that Yahweh is the only God that works.
“He gradually demonstrates to them through the ten plagues and the Red Sea deliverance that Yahweh is the only God that works.”
By the time the people arrive at Sinai, their faith in other gods has been seriously undermined. It is at this point that God introduces the people to exclusive worship, and the people are to see Yahweh as the only God who can actually function. Some 40 years later, as Moses delivers his final words to the people, he makes several statements suggesting that God is the only God, such as his pronouncement in Deuteronomy 32:39 (see also Deuteronomy 32:15-19, 30-32, 40-43):
“See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand” (Deut. 32:39, ESV).
All of this simply confirms the reality that the people have experienced since they left Egypt.
While some see Yahweh’s commands at Sinai more in terms of henotheism (worshiping only one God among many), the exclusive nature of Yahweh’s claims in Exodus 19-20 and the reflections of Moses in the book of Deuteronomy seem to suggest that monotheism is the paradigm God is introducing here. While references are still made to other “gods,” the references suggest the counterfeit nature of those other gods and not simply Yahweh’s prominence over them. Yahweh is very concerned that his people serve him alone, and part of that commitment involves a complete rejection of any other deity.
“Yahweh is very concerned that his people serve him alone, and part of that commitment involves a complete rejection of any other deity.”
What emerges from the text, then, is a complicated picture of the development of monotheistic belief. While the patriarchs may not have held firmly to our category of “monotheism,” it certainly seems that they directed their devotion and worship to the deity that worked on their behalf: Yahweh. The God of the family of Abraham became the God of the nation of Israel, and Israel gradually began to realize that the God of their nation was the one Creator and Sustainer of all things.
Monotheism: Why Did God’s People Keep Missing It?
Perhaps the biggest problem with monotheism for ancient Israel was its uniqueness. Surrounded by cultures and peoples that believed in other gods, a monotheistic perspective would surely seem strange, simple-minded, backwards and perhaps even judgmental.
What’s more, the Israelites who came out of Egypt had grown up in a thoroughly polytheistic culture. It is hard to shed a worldview like that so quickly, as evidenced by the disastrous account of the golden calf (see Exodus 32).
“The Israelites who came out of Egypt had grown up in a thoroughly polytheistic culture.”
Even Moses knew the peoples’ tendency towards polytheism, and this theme emerges throughout his speech in Deuteronomy 6-8, a speech that even begins with a statement on the exclusivity of Yahweh worship! (See the “Shema” in Deuteronomy 6:4.) Moses tells the people:
“Fear the Lord your God, serve him only and take your oaths in his name. Do not follow other gods, the gods of the peoples around you; for the Lord your God, who is among you, is a jealous God and his anger will burn against you, and he will destroy you from the face of the land” (Deuteronomy 6:13-15, NIV).
Unfortunately, as they say, culture eats strategy for breakfast, and the culture of ancient Israel was still too thoroughly polytheistic to overcome Moses’ strategy for faithfulness. One doesn’t have to read very far into the book of Judges before the people begin slipping into polytheistic practices:
“And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals. And they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt. They went after other gods, from among the gods of the peoples who were around them, and bowed down to them. And they provoked the Lord to anger. They abandoned the Lord and served the Baals and the Ashtaroth” (Judges 2:11-13, ESV).
Even individual judges display the full scale of pagan polytheism that Israel adopted. In Jephthah’s speech to the Ammonites, he relegates Yahweh to the same category as their deity: “Will you not take what your god Chemosh gives you? Likewise, whatever the Lord our God has given us, we will possess” (Judges 11:24, NIV).
“Even individual judges display the full scale of pagan polytheism that Israel adopted.”
From the warnings in texts like Deuteronomy and the reality of texts like Judges, we are not surprised to see the history of Israel unfold in long periods of syncretistic or polytheistic religious practice among the people punctuated by brief moments of fidelity to Yahweh.
The books of Kings are shining examples of this failure. Before the people of Israel are exiled from the land, idolatry is a constant temptation, and unfortunately a constant companion, for them. Not only did the Israelites worship other gods, but it seems they merged this practice at times with their worship of Yahweh. This is even seen in archaeological discoveries from Israel from this period, such as the now-famous discovery at Kuntillet Ajrud of blessings pronounced in the name of “Yahweh . . . and his Asherah.”
“Before the people of Israel are exiled from the land, idolatry is a constant temptation, and unfortunately a constant companion, for them.”
It should also not come as a surprise that the biblical prophets take up their discourse against the gods of the nations. Since the people were so reluctant to trust Yahweh alone, God’s messengers continually remind them of his relationship with them and their exclusive commitment to him. Isaiah’s rants against the gods of iron and cedar are scathing (see Isaiah 44:9-20), but perhaps there is no clearer statement in the Old Testament on monotheism than that of Isaiah:
“Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: ‘I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let him proclaim it. Let him declare and set it before me, since I appointed an ancient people. Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen’” (Isaiah 44:6-7, ESV).
Unfortunately, Isaiah’s call to allegiance to Yahweh went largely unheeded within Israel.
Monotheism: How Does This Affect My Life?
The idea of monotheism in the Old Testament may seem esoteric, boring, or stale, but few things could be more relevant to the church today. A monotheistic faith is one that claims there is only one God to worship; all other gods are frauds.
Most western cultures tend to eschew polytheism like we find in the ancient Near East, but a new kind of polytheism is at work in our day. If a god is something you look to for hope, salvation, blessing or deliverance, then surely our culture is rife with options for worship. The gods of business, finances, religion, sports, politics, sex, and power press for our allegiance on a regular basis.
“The gods of business, finances, religion, sports, politics, sex, and power press for our allegiance on a regular basis.”
Tim Keller proposes that
“A counterfeit god is anything so central and essential to your life that, should you lose it, your life would feel hardly worth living.”
Seen through this lens, surely we are flush with worship opportunities in our culture. Perhaps the recent global pandemic has revealed some of our own counterfeit gods.
Speaking personally, I know I have found myself frustrated and dumbfounded at times when science was not able to understand, explain, stop or cure COVID-19. Even my hopes for life returning to normal in the near future hinged on a faith in science to deliver an answer, a vaccine, or a cure.
I hear the echoes of Moses’ and Isaiah’s words even as I write: “Fear the Lord your God, serve him only!” (Deuteronomy 6:13) and “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god” (Isaiah 44:6). I know that believing science is not a sin, but perhaps my belief has moved beyond understanding to trusting.
Perhaps for you it is trust in a political party or a particular movement, your secret habits, or your growing nest egg. Whatever the style or flavor, counterfeit gods can never deliver more than their name promises. They will always be found out.
“Perhaps for you it is trust in a political party or a particular movement, your secret habits, or your growing nest egg.”
In moments like this, perhaps it doesn’t seem so odd that Yahweh spoke to Abraham in a land where he was surrounded by other gods and asked him to take a step of faith. Biblical faith is saying yes to God, even when everything or everyone around you would seem to pull you in another direction.
The story of monotheism in the Old Testament is one of Yahweh’s relentless pursuit of relationship with his people, and that same pursuit continues today through the person of Jesus. May this reality push us closer to hearing the voice of God in our day, and may it inspire us to say yes, in full allegiance, to him.
 This article is only intended to address the question of monotheism and ancient Israel. For the history of monotheism on a global scale, see Winfried Corduan, In the Beginning God (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2013), as well as an interview with Corduan here.
 See John Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018), 97-98.
 See a helpful discussion of the topic and definitions of some of these terms in Matthew J. Lynch, “Monotheism in Ancient Israel,” in The World Around the Old Testament, edited by Jonathan S. Greer, et al. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018), 340-348.
 Miriam Lichtheim, trans., “The Great Hymn to the Aten,” in The Context of Scripture, vol. 1, William W. Hallo, ed. (New York: Brill, 1997), 44-46.
 See an extensive discussion of the history of monotheism among Semitic peoples in Corduan, In the Beginning God, 324-329. Corduan points to moments like Melchizedek’s interactions with Abraham in Genesis 14 as evidence of more widespread monotheism among ancient Semitic cultures, but I am hesitant to see Melchizedek’s reference to El Elyon, the most high God, as proof of monotheism. However, I think Corduan’s argument about original monotheism stands true. My understanding is that monotheistic belief was present in Genesis 1-4, but as sin increased polytheism came to the forefront. The gradual move to monotheism in Israel could then be called a “recovery” of monotheism rather than an “invention.”
 See John Walton, “Genesis” in Zondervan Illustrated Bible Background Commentary on the Old Testament, John Walton, ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2009) 1:61-65.
 For a full treatment of the often-confused third commandment, see Carmen Imes, Bearing God’s Name (Downers Grove, IVP: 2019), 48-52.
 See Imes, 48.
 See the numerous texts in Shmuel Aḥituv, Echoes from the Past (Jerusalem: Carta, 2009), 315-323.
 Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods (New York: Penguin Books, 2011), xx.