Discussion of monotheism in the ancient world sometimes blurs the distinction between theology and religion. In non‐Western settings, religion is a complex of behaviors that mark a culture. Theology, however, involves cohesive ideological speculation to justify behaviors. A single religion can have many competing or complementary theologies.
Scholars have traditionally taken a theological and prescriptive approach to the issue of Israelite monotheism: monotheism is the conviction that only one god exists, and no others. This conviction is, however, difficult to document.
Ancient Near Eastern Background.
Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Hittite, Greek, and early Canaanite myths all present developed pantheons. These texts relate how one generation of gods succeeds the next just as humans succeed one another; this succession entails war among the gods. In Mesopotamia, the creation of the universe results from this conflict. Mesopotamian, Hittite, and Canaanite myths relate how the storm god defeats the sea god (in Egypt, the battle is essentially between the Nile and the desert): a god responsible for life‐giving water wins control of the cosmos. The focus in all of these myths is the succession of a patriarchal high god's royal son.
These pantheons all have a high god, under whose direction other gods—of the sun, of pestilence, and so forth—act, often independently. The high god is usually the state god. In some cases, the subordinate gods in the state pantheon represent local high gods, of areas in an empire. Thus different states may share essentially identical pantheons but identify different high gods: in Mesopotamia, the Babylonian high god was Marduk; the Assyrian high god was Ashur. Sennacherib had the Babylonian creation epic rewritten to award Marduk's role in it to Ashur.
Yet state myths did not reflect the subjective experience of a worshiper in a god's cult. Mesopotamian literature is filled with pleas to gods and goddesses, such as Ishtar of Arbela, Ishtar of Nineveh, Shamash (the sun god), and Addu (biblical Hadad). In prayer, the god being addressed is the sole object of devotion.
Scholars refer to this phenomenon as effective henotheism, devotion to one god conceding the potency of others. This principle was elevated to state policy in Egypt under Akhnaton (ca. 1350 BCE), the pharaoh who channeled resources into the cult of the solar disk at a cost to competing cults. A similar attempt to impose a god atop a state pantheon, under the sixth‐century BCE Babylonian king Nabonidus, exhibits the same characteristics, with statues of all the other gods being brought to Babylon, possibly for the New Year. Nabonidus's attempt, like Akhnaton's, proved abortive.
These failures, however, show that the line between monotheism and polytheism should not be too precisely drawn. Akhnaton and Nabonidus, the two great religious reformers of Near Eastern antiquity, focused the cult on their respective gods. Not dissimilar are the monotheistic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: all admit the existence of subordinate divinities—saints, angels, demons, and, in Christianity and Islam, Satan, the eternal antagonist of the high god. But if these traditions are not monotheistic, no religion (as opposed to theology) is. The term monotheism loses its meaning.
Monotheism, Yehezkel Kaufmann observed, postulates multiple deities, subordinated to the one; it tolerates myths of primordial struggle for cosmic supremacy. Two elements distinguish it from polytheism: a conviction that the one controls the pantheon, and the idea of false gods.
Ancient Israel and Its Immediate Neighbors.
From the outset, Israelites identified themselves as “the people of YHWH” (Judg. 5.13). The expression implies a societal commitment to a single, national god. Israelite personal names offer confirmation: these include either the name of a god or a divine epithet. Almost uniformly, the god in Israelite personal names is YHWH or an epithet of YHWH, such as “god” (ʾēl), “lord” (baʿal), or “(divine) kinsman” (ʿamm).
This practice resembles that of the Transjordanian nations of Ammon, Moab, and Edom, Israel's nearest neighbors and, in the folklore of Genesis 12–25, closest relations. Conversely, in Canaanite and Phoenician city‐states, personal names include the names and epithets of a variety of gods and goddesses. The ethnic nations that emerged in Canaan in the thirteenth–twelfth centuries BCE, unlike the states of Syria and Mesopotamia, are early tied to national gods.
None of these cultures, however, denied the existence of divinities other than the high god. The ninth‐century Moabite Stone, though treating the national god, Chemosh, as Israel treated YHWH, nevertheless mentions sacrifice to a subordinate of his. An eighth‐century inscription from Deir ʿAllā, in the Israelite‐Ammonite border area, mentions a pantheon, or group of gods, called Shaddayin. Similarly, many biblical texts, from the twelfth century down to the Babylonian exile, describes the divine court over which YHWH presides as the council of the gods: these report to and suggest strategy to YHWH, praise YHWH, and are assessed by YHWH (Deut. 32.43b [with 4QDeuta]; 1 Kings 22.19–23; Isa. 6; Pss. 29.1–2; 82.1, 6; Job 1.6–2.10). In monarchic theologies, the subordinate gods administered other nations for YHWH (Deut. 32.8–9 [LXX]; Mic. 4.5; 1 Sam. 26.19). But they also received Israelite homage—the sun, moon, and host of heaven, the stars who fought as YHWH's army against Canaan (Deut. 33.2–3; Josh. 5.13–14; cf. 10.12–13; Judg. 5.20; 1 Kings 19.19–23): the host was YHWH's astral army, and YHWH was regularly represented through solar imagery.
The astral gods—the host of heaven—figure prominently in early sources. The meaning of YHWH's name has long been in dispute. However, the name associated with the ark of the covenant, and prevalent throughout the era of the monarchy, is YHWH Sebaʾot (“Lord of Hosts”). On the most common interpretation of the name YHWH, this means, “He [who] summons the hosts [of heaven] into being.” If so, the full name of Israel's god in the Pentateuch's Yahwistic source (J), YHWH Elohim, means, “He [who] summons the gods into being.” And before the revelation of the name YHWH to Moses, the Priestly (P) source calls the high god El Shadday: originally, this, too, associated YHWH with sky gods, Shaddayin, known from the Deir ʿAllā inscription. (See Names of God in the Hebrew Bible.)
The Israelite cult also embraced the ancestors. Israelites invoked the ancestors for aid in matters familial, agricultural, and political. The ancestral spirits could intervene with YHWH, to the benefit of the family, the landholding corporation that inherited its resources from the fathers. (See Israel, Religion of.)
The Emergence of Monotheism.
Starting apparently in the ninth century BCE, Israelites began to distinguish YHWH starkly from other gods. It is unknown whether the distinction originated from the opposition between YHWH and foreign high gods or between YHWH and local ancestral gods. Still, the alienation of the local gods from YHWH ensued, as subordinate gods were identified as foreign.
Our first indications of the cleavage come from a ninth‐century nativist revolution against the house of Omri, the ruling dynasty of the northern kingdom of Israel. Solomon had earlier constructed a Temple in Jerusalem. This Temple incorporated representations of cherubim (1 Kings 6.23–29) and, judging from later developments, probably of YHWH's asherah, or consort, Ashtoret (Astarte). Opposite the Temple, Solomon also consecrated shrines to YHWH's subordinates—Ashtoret, Milkom, and Chemosh (1 Kings 11.7; 2 Kings 23.13–14). After seceding from Jerusalem under Jeroboam I, the kingdom of Israel had maintained a more conservative separation of state shrines from the capital. Ahab, however, installed a new temple in Samaria (1 Kings 16.32); in the Near East, a temple in the capital signified a divine grant of dynasty. Jehu's revolt, however, destroyed the temple and reaffirmed Jeroboam's cultic policy (2 Kings 10.18–29; cf. Hos. 1.4). (See Kingship and Monarchy.)
The earliest biblical writer to contrast YHWH with his subordinate deities is Hosea. This eighth‐century prophet rejects calling YHWH Israel's “baal” (lord) and claims that attention to the “baals” (YHWH's subordinate gods) deflects attention from the deity responsible for their ministrations (see especially Hos. 2). The alienation of the subordinates (who in the traditional theology administer other nations for YHWH) from YHWH, who administers Israel, permits Hosea to identify pursuit of the “baals” with foreign political alliances. Intellectually, the same alienation was part of a critique of traditional culture leveled by the “classical,” that is, the literary, prophets.
In the eighth century, Israel enjoyed a trading network embracing the Assyrian empire in western Asia and Phoenician trade outposts around the Mediterranean. As a bridge on the spice trade route to the south, and as a producer of cash crops such as olives and grapes, Israel underwent incipient industrialization, developing capital reserves. Foreign goods, texts, and practices became increasingly familiar to a growing middle class. In reaction, the elite was impelled to define distinctively Israelite values and culture. Groping for its identity, the elite discovered the gap between the elite theology, in which YHWH was completely sovereign, and popular practice, with its devotions to subordinate deities and ancestors; between theology, in which repentance was increasingly individuated, and ritual repentance, a matter of behavior, not attitude; between theology, in which one worshiped an unseen god, and a cult employing icons. The critique by the literary prophets thus predicated that the symbol or manifestation—the icon, the ritual, the subordinate god—was alien from, and not to be mistaken for, the Reality—the high god, or one's own inner essence. (see Graven Image.)
Ahaz of Judah first implemented this critique, removing plastic imagery from the Temple nave (2 Kings 16.17). In preparation for the Assyrian invasion of 701, his successor Hezekiah concentrated the Judahite population in fortified towns; his ideologians articulated attacks on the high places, the centers of traditional rural worship, and on the ancestral cult, linked to the agricultural areas he planned to abandon to the aggressor (Isa. 28). Assyria then deported most of the population outside of Jerusalem; Hezekiah's spokesmen took this as YHWH's judgment on the rural cult, which they interpreted to be identical with the cult of the northern kingdom (Isa. 1–5)—Samaria had fallen prey to total deportation in 720. Jerusalem's survival, by contrast, represented YHWH's imprimatur on the state cult.
Some scholars hypothesize that Israelite monotheism was husbanded by a small, “Yahweh‐alone” party until the time of Hezekiah or even Josiah. However, no text indicates such a doctrine before Josiah's reign, and the chief indices suggest its gradual development rather than some perpetual keeping of a flame. Solomon's high places, for example, survived Hezekiah's reform, although the “Mosaic” snake‐icon, Nehushtan, did not (Num. 21. 5–9; 2 Kings 18.4). Child sacrifice continued in the Jerusalem Topheth—an activity directed toward the host of heaven (Jer. 19.13). Personal seals continued to include astronomical imagery, though this was increasingly astral rather than solar as earlier.
In the seventh century, however, Josiah destroyed Solomon's shrines to gods now identified as foreign and dismantled state shrines in the countryside. Josiah's campaign against the ancestral cult included tomb desecration and the exposure of bones for the first time in Israelite history. A term previously reserved for the ancestors, Rephaim, was now applied to the Canaanite aborigines allegedly proscribed by YHWH. Deuteronomy, the legal program of Josiah's court or of a later extension of it, enjoined the worship of YHWH alone. Deuteronomy, Jeremiah, and Zephaniah explicitly identified the host of heaven as foreign, as objects of apostasy. The Priestly source of the Pentateuch rewrote the traditional ancestral lore, suppressing all references to superhuman agencies other than YHWH; it forbids any imagery in the cult—correspondingly, seals are increasingly aniconic.
Sennacherib's deportations and the processes of industrialization and cash cropping had destroyed the effectiveness of the old kinship groups among whom the traditional religion, with its multiple divinities, was rooted. The imposition of state dogma of exclusive loyalty to the state god reflects the state's ambition to deal directly with the individual, bypassing the centers of resistance, the lineages. Thus, Deuteronomy 13.6–11 instructs the Israelite to inform on brothers, children, or wives who worship other gods, such as the host of heaven.
In this period, not in the exile as earlier scholars claimed, the notion of reliance on a single god took root. That idea survived, as a doctrine distinguishing Israel from other, polytheistic nations, through the exile and over the course of the restoration. Some of the elite, such as Second Isaiah, accepted the implications of philosophical monotheism, identifying YHWH as the source of evil as well as good (Isa. 45.7). Yet even in sources that accept the activity of subordinate deities, such as Job 1–2, the concept of exclusive loyalty to the state god had taken hold. Affirmation of the cult of the one god—the ultimate cause of events—could persist despite the assumption that other divinities existed, too. The doctrine of a Trinity, or of angels in heaven, or of a devil, coexisted happily with the idea in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam of an enlightened community distinguished from others by its monotheism.