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.
Benjamin Sommer is professor of Bible at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Prior to teaching at the Jewish Theological Seminary, he served as Director of the Crown Family Center for Jewish Studies at Northwestern University. His book The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (Cambridge University Press, 2009) won several awards. His most recent book is Revelation and Authority: Sinai in Jewish Scripture and Tradition (Yale University Press, 2015).
A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.
A religious system characterized by belief in the existence of a single deity.
A term from Psalm 89:8, describing a heavenly council of divine beings.
The supreme male divinity of Mesopotamia and Canaan.
Gods or goddesses; powerful supernatural figures worshipped by humans.
Characteristic of a deity (a god or goddess).
A supernatural ability granted to a human by a deity, or exhibited by the deity.
The ability to act without outside constraint; within theology, the idea that humans can choose their actions freely, despite an omnipotent God.
The set of Biblical books shared by Jews and Christians. A more neutral alternative to "Old Testament."
Associated with a deity; exhibiting religious importance; set apart from ordinary (i.e. "profane") things.
People who study a text from historical, literary, theological and other angles.
The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).
A Babylonian deity who becomes the chief god of the Babylonian pantheon, as recounted in the Babylonian creation story Enuma Elish.
Of or related to a religious system characterized by belief in the existence of a single deity.
Of or belonging to any of several branches of Christianity, especially from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, whose adherents trace their tradition back to the earliest Christian communities. Lowercase ("orthodox"), this term means conforming with the dominant, sanctioned ideas or belief system.
The belief in multiple deities.
Writing, speech, or thought about the nature and behavior of God.
The name of Israel's god, but with only the consonants of the name, as spelled in the Hebrew Bible. In antiquity, Jews stopped saying the name as a sign of reverence. Some scholars today use only the consonants to recognize the lost original pronunciation or to respect religious tradition.
2the sons of God saw that they were fair; and they took wives for themselves of all that they chose.
The Voice of God in a Great Storm
A Psalm of David.
1Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
6I say, “You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
8There is none like you among the gods, O Lord,
nor are there any works like yours.
7a God feared in the council of the holy ones,
great and awesome above all that are around him?
Attack on Job's Character
6One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them.
16and when we cried to the Lord, he heard our voice, and sent an angel and brought us out of Egypt; and here we are in Kadesh, a town on the edge of your territ ... View more
16But when the angel stretched out his hand toward Jerusalem to destroy it, the Lord relented concerning the evil, and said to the angel who was bringing destru ... View more
18Then the other said to him, “I also am a prophet as you are, and an angel spoke to me by the word of the Lord: Bring him back with you into your house so that ... View more
11Then they spoke to the angel of the Lord who was standing among the myrtle trees, “We have patrolled the earth, and lo, the whole earth remains at peace.”12Th ... View more
49He let loose on them his fierce anger,
wrath, indignation, and distress,
a company of destroying angels.
23Then, if there should be for one of them an angel,
a mediator, one of a thousand,
one who declares a person upright,
5Let the heavens praise your wonders, O Lord,
your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones.
1On that day the Lord with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, a ... View more
9Awake, awake, put on strength,
O arm of the Lord!
Awake, as in days of old,
the generations of long ago!
Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces,
who pierced th ... View more
8Was your wrath against the rivers, O Lord?
Or your anger against the rivers,
or your rage against the sea,
when you drove your horses,
your chariots to victory ... View more
13You divided the sea by your might;
you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters.14You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you gave him as food for the creatur ... View more
6For who in the skies can be compared to the Lord?
Who among the heavenly beings is like the Lord,7a God feared in the council of the holy ones,
great and aweso ... View more
5The shades below tremble,
the waters and their inhabitants.6Sheol is naked before God,
and Abaddon has no covering.7He stretches out Zaphon over the void,
and ... View more
A Plea for Justice
A Psalm of Asaph.
1God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:2“How long will you judge unjust ... View more
The Wickedness of Humankind
1When people began to multiply on the face of the ground, and daughters were born to them,2the sons of God saw that they were fair; ... View more
22Then the Lord God said, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of li ... View more