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Monotheism: What Are the Ism’s in the World of the Bible?

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Jon Kehrer

Jon Kehrer teaches Old Testament and Biblical Languages at Ozark Christian College. He and his wife April live with their five children in Joplin, Missouri.

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.

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.[1]

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.

Some call this arrangement the “Great Symbiosis,”[2] 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.[3] 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.”[4] 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.[5]

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? That will be the subject of the next article.

[1] 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).

[2] See John Walton, Ancient Near Eastern Thought and the Old Testament, Second Edition (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2018), 97-98.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.”