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.
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.
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. 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
 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.