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).
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).
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.”
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.
 See the numerous texts in Shmuel Aḥituv, Echoes from the Past (Jerusalem: Carta, 2009), 315-323.