It will surprise some readers to learn that biblical scholars debate whether the ancient Israelites and the Hebrew Bible they produced were monotheistic. After all, isn’t one of the great contributions of biblical Israel to civilization the concept of monotheism? Aren’t the Israelites famous for believing in only one God?
The Hebrew Bible provides ample evidence that many Israelites believed in the existence of multiple deities. This is the case for polytheistic Israelites whom biblical prophets criticize for worshipping other gods; but even some authors of the biblical texts seem polytheistic. The Hebrew Bible refers to many heavenly creatures, calling them “gods” (Gen 6:2; Ps 29:1, Ps 82:6, Ps 86:8, Ps 89:7; Job 1:6), “angels” (Num 20:16; 2Sam 24:16; 1Kgs 13:18; Zech 1:11-12; Ps 78:49; Job 33:23), and “the assembly of holy ones” (Ps 89:5).
If we adopt the common definition of monotheism as the belief that no deities exist other than the one God, then the Hebrew Bible is not a monotheistic work. We may ask, however, how useful this definition is. After all, the so-called monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam exhibit belief in angels—beings who reside in heaven and who do not normally die. Catholic and Orthodox Christians believe in and pray to saints residing in heaven—humans who died without any long-term effect on their continued existence.
In short, the common definition of monotheism is not terribly useful: it fails to capture something essential that distinguishes the religion of the Hebrew Bible from ancient Mesopotamian, Canaanite, and Egyptian religions, as well as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam from Hinduism and Shintoism. A category of polytheism including Hinduism and Judaism, the worship of the Greek pantheon and the worship of the biblical God, is so large as to be meaningless.
The philosopher Hermann Cohen (1842-1918) and the biblical scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann (1889-1963) proposed a different and more useful definition. For Cohen, it is God’s uniqueness rather than God’s oneness that is the essence of monotheism. What distinguishes the Hebrew Bible from other ancient Near Eastern texts is not that it denies that Marduk and Baal exist—it doesn’t—but that it insists that Yhwh, the God of Israel, is qualitatively different from all other deities: Yhwh is infinitely more powerful.
Monotheism, then, is the belief that one supreme being exists whose will is sovereign over all other beings. These other beings may include some who live in heaven and who are, in the normal course of events, immortal; but they are subservient to the unique supreme being, unless that being voluntarily relinquishes a measure of control. It is not the number of divine beings that matters to monotheism but the relationships between them. A theology in which no one deity has ultimate power over all aspects of the universe is polytheistic (even if that theology knows only one deity); a theology in which one deity has supreme power is monotheistic (even if it knows other heavenly beings).
Kaufmann and others showed that biblical texts are monotheistic by this definition. The lower gods or angels of the Hebrew Bible differ from those of Canaanite, Mesopotamian, and Greek literature because they never successfully challenge Yhwh. Many Canaanite, Mesopotamian, and Greek texts narrate conflicts in which a high god is seriously threatened or overthrown. To be sure, biblical texts describe a conflict between Yhwh and the Sea (Isa 27:1, Isa 51:9-11; Hab 3:8; Ps 74:13-15, Ps 89:6-14; and Job 26:5-13). Unlike other texts about fights among gods, though, these passages lack real drama. They convey no sense that Yhwh had to engage in real exertion to suppress the insurrection. Baal and Marduk, Zeus and Kronos toil in order to attain an exalted status; Yhwh had that status to begin with and retains it with ease. I stress this point, since without it one could formulate a facile argument that Yhwh is merely another high god like Marduk, Baal, or Zeus.
In polytheistic theologies, the gods’ power is great, but they are subject to matter or to forces stronger than themselves. In the Hebrew Bible, Yhwh’s will is never frustrated by forces of nature, matter, or other gods. Only in one area can Yhwh be thwarted: by human free will. This exception results from Yhwh’s own decision to create beings with the ability to choose for good and for ill. This single limitation is self-imposed, whereas the limitations on gods in polytheistic texts often result from forces beyond themselves.
There may be some exceptions to these generalizations. Some interpreters understand Ps 82 to suggest that Yhwh became king of the universe at a particular moment, and Gen 6:1-4 could imply that Yhwh was genuinely worried by potential adversaries. In Gen 3:22, Yhwh seems anxious that humans might claim divine power for themselves, which differs, however, from the power Yhwh voluntarily cedes to humans. But there are no unambiguously polytheistic texts anywhere in Hebrew Scripture, whereas polytheistic elements are ever-present in ancient Near Eastern and Greek literature. What modern scholarship shows most of all, however, is that the question of monotheism is much more complex, and much more interesting, than most people suppose.