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The Oxford Study Bible Study Bible supplemented with commentary from scholars of various religions.

Deity in the Biblical Communities

Although the biblical communities shared many ideas about deity with their neighbors, they also developed some very distinctive features. First of all, among all the ancient nations of the Middle East, only Israel eventually moved to an explicit monotheism which concentrated all aspects of divinity into one being and denied the existence of other deities. The closest parallel to biblical monotheism was the short-lived exclusivistic worship of Aton (the sun disc) advocated by the Egyptian pharaoh Akhenaton (second quarter of the fourteenth century B.C.E.). Akhenaton sought to suppress the worship of other gods although he continued to view himself (and perhaps his wife Nefertiti) as an incarnation of divinity and as the intermediary between the Aton and the rest of creation. (His famous hymn to Aton has many parallels to Psalm 104.)

Second, in Israelite thought, the divine will was not subject to any higher order. In other major Near Eastern religions, deity operated within a system of order and fate to which deity could be and often was subservient. In Israelite monotheistic thought, the divine will stood above and beyond any order and, in fact, was the source of being for cosmic order.

Third, ancient Israel developed no theogony in the form of mythic narratives explaining the origin and descent of the divine. In biblical thought, the existence of the divine is accepted as a given and no effort is made to explain or narrate how deity came into being or to justify belief in the divine. Theogonic myths concerned with primordial conditions and how deity came into being are found in most of the non-biblical cultures from which any sizeable amount of literature has been preserved.

Fourth, the separation of the realm of the dead and the underworld from the divine realm was characteristic of official Israelite religion. Thus ancient Israel, unlike other cultures, developed no theory of underworld powers, and the realm of the dead was considered an arena of impurity. In early Israel, the dead were considered cut off from God (Pss. 6.5; 88.10–12; 115.17–18 ) and no reference is made to reward and punishment in the afterlife, to prayers for the dead, or to any hope of resurrection, although the dead could be consulted regarding the future (1 Sam. 28; Isa. 8.19 ) and food offerings could be made to the deceased (Deut. 26.14 ).

Finally, polytheistic religious systems tended to be both more conservative and more inclusively tolerant than monotheism, which could be both innovative and exclusive. In polytheism, new deities and new perspectives could be absorbed into the system through accretion. New deities were integrated into the pantheon, identified with other gods, or one deity could be stressed over against others without greatly disrupting the overall theological perspectives. Only innovations which threatened or called for the rejection of established concepts and practices were greeted with hostility. Reforms of religion and the cult which introduced new concepts or practices that required the rejection of traditional matters were attempted in Egypt by Akhenaton and in Mesopotamia by Shalmaneser V (726–722 B.C.E.) and Nabonidus (555–539 B.C.E.), but all encountered enormous opposition and were quickly reversed. Monotheistic religion tended to be very zealous and exclusive, generally opposing the accretion of radical new elements into the system. At the same time, however, monotheistic religion was more open to significant adjustments and reform than polytheistic systems since only one deity was involved in the change of theological perspectives.

Several historical and sociological factors contributed to the development of an exclusivistic monotheism in Israel. First of all, ancient Israel was a latecomer on the stage of history. Israel developed into a national state under Saul and David near the end of the eleventh century B.C.E., centuries after many other nations and city-states. These older political powers already possessed full-blown theological systems. Israel had to define itself and its beliefs over against these established political and religious entities. Israel began its history as a rather loosely defined tribal grouping and thus with only the rudimentary elements of a religious system. As such, it could evaluate and pick and choose in developing its theology. As a new entity without the baggage of a centuries-long inherited religious system and long venerated institutions and rituals and, therefore, without a strong reverence for tradition, Israel was fairly free to create, adopt, and modify. Thus an inherent critical stance was a strong influence in Israel from the very beginning. It was only relatively late in history that Israel described its origins to claim that a full-blown and unchallengeable “traditional” religious system existed from its earliest days (primarily found in the so-called “priestly material” of the Pentateuch).

Second, throughout its history, Israel remained a small state, generally both on the defensive against its neighbors and at the mercy of major foreign powers. The consequences of this posture were two-fold. On the one hand, Israel did not control an empire in which religious views had to undergo expansion and accretion in order to hold together a diverse constituency. On the other hand, Israel had to protect itself and express its faith in tension with, and even hostility toward, others. This contributed to the zeal and exclusiveness of Israelite religion. National identity and religious exclusivity went hand in hand.

Third, as a culture, Israel allowed and engaged in self-criticism to a degree unparalleled in ancient times. This willingness to question, challenge, and deny can be illustrated in various ways: by the prophets who called into question policies of state and religion, by such counter-culture groups as the Rechabites whose life-style opposed normal patterns of life (see Jeremiah 35 ), by the production of radical judgmental portrayals of Israelite history (especially Judges–2 Kings), and by such protest literature as Job and Ecclesiastes. (In other ancient Near Eastern cultures, most protest-questioning positions are limited to wisdom literature and to the theme of deity and human mortality and undeserved suffering.) This capacity for self-criticism gave to Israelite religion a dynamic quality that allowed for reform and made it possible for religious thought to adjust to changing times and changing concepts.

The biblical understanding and depiction of deity obviously developed and evolved over the years. An overt monotheism that proclaimed Yahweh, the God of Israel, to be the only deity was reasonably late in developing and represents the climax of the Old Testament understanding of God rather than the starting point of Israel's theological pilgrimage. The overall course of that pilgrimage is difficult to reconstruct for three reasons. First of all, the content and the shaping of much of the biblical material reporting on early Israelite history, especially in the Pentateuch, was produced in light of later stages of faith and thus is retouched history. Secondly, some of the highly judgmental literature in Judges—2 Kings probably presents the Israelites as being more inclined to worship other gods than actually was the case. Thirdly, the biblical material does not provide us with many depictions of the religious faith and practices of the general population since it is more concerned with state policies and practices than with the life of common folk.

The origins of the worship of Yahweh and the nature of early Israel's faith cannot be determined with any certainty. One stream of biblical tradition assumes that Yahweh was worshiped by the earliest humans (see Gen. 4.26 ) while another stream proposes that Yahweh was first revealed to Moses (see Exod. 6.3 ). The name Israel, which contains the element “el,” may suggest that the Israelites were originally worshipers of El, but this is uncertain since “el” was not only the personal name for a god but also a word simply meaning “god.” The patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, are shown worshiping El (Gen. 14.18–20; 16.13; 17.1; 21.33; 31.13; 43.14; 48.3 ) and Jacob calls an altar erected at Shechem “Elelohey-israel” (“El, god of Israel,” Gen. 33.20 ) and at Bethel El-Bethel (“God [of] Bethel,” Gen. 35.7 ). In addition, in some texts the deity of the patriarchs is said to have been “the god of the father(s)” (Gen. 26.24; 28.13; 31.42; 32.9; 46.3; 49.25 ).

Biblical tradition associates Yahweh with the vicinity of Edom (Seir, Deut. 33.2; Judg. 5.4 ; Teman, Hab. 3.3–8 ), and the earliest appearance of the word Yahweh outside the Bible is an Egyptian inscription which refers to the same geographical region. Given present evidence, it is impossible to know where the worship of Yahweh originated or the meaning of the name (Exod. 3.13–15 offers a folk etymology). By the time of King Saul, the worship of Yahweh had become the national religion of Israel and remained so throughout its history.

Early Israel's national religion would have to be described as henotheism or monolatry, that is, belief in and worship focussed on one deity but without denying the existence of other gods (see Exod. 20.2–3 ). Although the editors of the history of Israel in Judges–2 Kings blamed the Israelites for worshiping other gods (see 2 Kgs. 17.7–12 ), this is probably an exaggeration if one assumes this means that some god other than Yahweh was worshiped as the state deity. The editors of this historical material used the charges of infidelity to Yahweh and the practice of polytheism to explain why Israel's history ended in tragedy and their account thus probably skewed actual conditions.

During three periods in Israel's history, the cults of other national gods seem to have been sponsored and participated in by the nation's leaders, but not as replacements for the national Yahwistic cult. During these times, the nation was a member of multi-national political coalitions organized against either the Assyrians or the Babylonians and “ecumenical” religious practices went hand in hand with “ecumenical” politics. The three periods were during the reigns of Omri-Ahab when there was close cooperation with Phoenicia and other states (see 1 Kgs. 16.23–33; 2 Kgs. 10.18–31; 11.17–18 ), the reign of Pekah (2 Kgs. 15.27–31; 16.5–9 ), and the reign of Zedekiah when Judah rebelled against Babylonia with the encouragement of the Egyptian pharaoh Psammetichus II in 592 (2 Kgs. 24.18–20; Ezek. 8 ). During these three periods Israelite rulers participated in foreign cults in the land of Israel. These “ecumenical” activities were condemned by such prophets as Elijah, Hosea, and Ezekiel. To deny that Israelite national religion was ever polytheistic does not mean that Israelites never worshiped gods other than Yahweh. This many of them certainly did as is evidenced by Jeremiah's condemnation of the worship of the queen of heaven (Jer. 7.18; 44.15–28 ).

Many of the aspects associated with other deities—creation, rule over the world as king, provider of fertility, and so on—and the forms and terminology in which these were expressed may have been borrowed by Israel, especially from the El and Baal cults. Like Baal, Yahweh smote the sea (Exod. 14 ) and like El ruled in the assembly of the gods (Ps. 82 ). Although Gen. 1–2 presuppose that God formed creation and cosmic order out of preexistent stuff, only poetic remnants have survived of any concept of opposition between Yahweh and cosmic forces or beings (see Isa. 27.1, 51.9; Pss. 74.12–17, 89.5–10; 104.26 ).

Three commonly used metaphors were employed to speak of Yahweh's relationship to Israel. First, and possibly oldest, was the language of parent-child. Israel/Judah was the adopted child of Yahweh. This imagery, also used to speak of the reigning monarch (Pss. 2.7; 89.26–29; Isa. 9.6–7 ) was dominant in the eighth-century prophets Isaiah and Hosea (see Isa. 1.2; Hos. 11.1; see Exod. 4.22 ), and as a child could be punished for wrongdoing but not destroyed without the hope and opportunity of repentance (see Deut. 21.18–21 ) so with Israel/Judah; thus the prophet's preaching of both judgment and hope. Second, the capital cities, Samaria and Jerusalem, were conceived, as was common in western Semitic cultures, as the spouses of Yahweh joined with him in marriage (see Hos. 1.10–2.23 where the wife is Samaria; Isa. 1.21–23; Ezek. 16, 23 ). Thirdly, the metaphor of ruler-subject, suzerain-vassal, Yahweh-people relationship, expressed in the form of treaty or covenant language, became the dominant metaphor (probably in the seventh century) and was used to shape the form and structure of the Hexateuch and the lives of Jews and Christians ever since.

In the Shema (Deut. 6.4 ) the oneness and unity of Yahweh was expressed in credal form and with the anonymous prophet of the exile, Second Isaiah, Israelite monotheism found its poetic expression (Isa. 41.21–29; 43.10; 44.6–11 ).

The early Christian community inherited its views of deity from Israel, but modified these in some important ways. The parent-child metaphor was taken literally and applied to Jesus so as to understand him as the incarnation of deity. Christians could speak of Jesus as divine, not—as in the ruler cults—of man-God, but as God-man. Although the New Testament does not yet elaborate a doctrine of the Trinity, it certainly formulates the seeds of such a doctrine (see for example Matt. 28.19 ). The monotheism of Judaism was universalized so as to include Gentiles, by denying the eternal validity of the Mosaic Law (Gal. 3; Rom. 3 ), thus opening the way for universal community regardless of background. Finally, participation in the life and being of the deity and sacramental union with the divine, as in the mystery cults, was realized through the eucharist (Mk. 14.22–25 and parallels).

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