Monotheism in Ancient Israel

Introduction: One of the presuppositions held by many contemporary critical scholars of the Old Testament is that it is inappropriate to introduce the idea of revealed truths into their academic discipline. Instead, the Old Testament should be studied like any literary text set within the backdrop of Ancient Near Eastern Texts (ANET). Since the Old Testament inescapably shares the cultural and religious mindset of its milieu, it should be analyzed with reference to the dominant thought forms of the Ancient Near East in order to arrive at an accurate understanding of the text. It is natural that these scholars regard the (spiritual) insights found in the Old Testament to be the fruit of the religious genius of the Jewish people developed through their painful experience of history rather than to be truths of divine revelation.

However, Yehezkel Kaufmann (1889-1963), challenged the reigning paradigm of critical scholarship and argued that the ideas found in the ANET are not comparable to the distinctive ideas that flow from the monotheistic religion of ancient Israel. In this regard, a pertinent question to ask believers who have adopted the fashionable methods of critical scholarship today is whether faith for them is founded on the Old Testament, with the distinctive ideas of the Old Testament as its determining factors or whether faith is built on a sophisticated eclectic system which combines refine ideas of the Ancient Near East milieu. [c.f. Norman Snaith,  p. 187]


Yehezkel Kaufmann’s Critique of Critical Scholarship of the Religion of Israel

Critical scholars who dominate contemporary academia work on the basis of an evolutionary theory of religion. As such, they assert that there is an organic connection between the religion of Israel and the surrounding pagan religions. They reject the idea that the Old Testament is divinely inspired and argue that Israel’s faith is basically a refinement of the religious notions of her pagan neighbors. Even the “unique” elements of the religion of Israel must be understood in the light of her neighboring religions. It is therefore necessary to compare and correlate the Old Testament with other Ancient Near Eastern Texts in order to arrive at an accurate understanding of the meaning of words and concepts of the Old Testament. One consequence of the presupposition that Israel shared the same religious milieu with the surrounding nations is that the Israelite religion prior to the Babylonian Exile was basically polytheistic. Monotheism was initially promoted by a minority group comprising the priestly and prophetic elite, and it was not until the period of the Exile before they succeeded in overcoming the pagan notions of popular religions.

Yehezkel Kaufmann contends strongly that the above theories are fallacious and that a careful examination of the biblical testimony will reveal that Israel’s faith was unique. Israel’s world was its own creation, notwithstanding its utilization of some pagan materials. Monotheism appeared suddenly  and did not evolve slowly from polytheism and quickly became central to the faith of Israel right from its very beginning.

For Israel, monotheism goes beyond just affirming a god who is an all-powerful creator since this idea is also found in the pagan world. Pagan religions envisage a more fundamental primordial realm from which the gods, including the god who created this world emerged. Since the gods are rooted in this realm, they are subject to its laws. Indeed, they must submit to the inexorable decrees of fate. In contrast, Israelite monotheism rejects the idea of a god who emerged from a preexisting realm since he is the source of all being and he is not subject to a cosmic order. “The basic idea of Israelite religion is that God is supreme over all. There is no realm above or beside him to limit his absolute sovereignty. He is utterly distinct from, and other than, the world; he is subject to no laws, no compulsions, or powers that transcend him. He is, in short, non-mythological. This is the essence of Israelite religion, and that which sets it apart from all forms of paganism. ( pp. 29, 60)

The uniqueness of Israel’s faith
a) The biblical stories lack theogony which is the fundamental myth of paganism. Israel’s God has no pedigree. He has no need to battle over enemies to exist. This gives rise to a peculiar Israelite conception of the demonic realm as a whole. The evil spirits are not from a primordial evil root but from sin. This is only logical for “Biblical religion, having concentrated divinity in one transcendent being, at once did away with theogony and theomachy. Since there was no ‘womb’ out of which YHWH sprang, he could have no ‘brother’, divine or demonic. No antagonist could therefore, be on par with him.” (p. 66)

b) Israel’s concept of creation has no need for a pre-existent realm. God could have fashioned some of His creatures out of matter already at hand. But this matter is no alive, charged with divine forces; it neither opposes not participates in creation.

c) Naturally, the Bible knows only one supreme law: the will of God. God holds the destiny of all in His hands. What a contrast to the pagan gods! Theogony makes the birth of the gods part of the eternal, self-operating process of becoming that governs the universe. Hence, the gods – like the rest of the universe – are subject to the succession of ages (ending frequently in annihilation) which are beyond their control. The biblical God, however, is outside of the flux of becoming and change; He controls time and sets seasons. “The Bible has no conception of overriding fate and unalterable destiny…The Bible knows only one supreme law; the will of God. Destiny is determined only by God; from him emanate the decrees that binds all.” (p. 73)

d) Israel rejects the concept of salvation through apotheosis in the manner of the pagan mysteries. The idea of mystical union with God is alien to biblical thought. Though later Jewish eschatology may aspire for the states of angels, it is still not a salvation of a mystical regimen but the grace of God toward his faithful servants.

Israel’s monotheism
Historians are all in agreement that with the Exile, Israel’s idolatry comes to an end. This phenomenon has only one adequate explanation: that pre-exilic Israel was not a monotheistic faith exclusive among a narrow elite but was accepted by the nation as a whole based on the Covenant made under Moses. This is consistent with the fact that monotheism was not set forth as a philosophical system. It was based on popular stories and beliefs drawn from the common folks. The theophany at Sinai and the miraculous conquest of Canaan are repeatedly set forth as proofs that “YHWH is God, there is no one else.”

It is granted that there were times when Israel failed to draw out the ultimate cultic conclusion of its monotheistic belief and tolerated belief in the magical power of idols and the influence of the heavenly hosts. However, these idols were never raised to any divine rank comparable to YHWH. There was no serious challenge to the primacy and uniqueness of YHWH. This interpretation is entirely consistent with the fact that the biblical struggle with idolatry restricts itself entirely in the area of cult and ritual, “Israelite idolatry was a vulgar phenomenon; it was magical, fetishistic, ritualistic and never attained the level of a cultural force. The fact that the Bible never shows awareness of the symbolic, representative character of images, but takes them to be gods in themselves, reveals how shallow was the impression made by idolatry, and how far Israel was from a true understanding of pagan beliefs.” (p. 147)

Consequently, Israelite idolatry could never take on the character of genuine syncretism, for genuine syncretism presupposes an essential parity between the amalgamated deities. Only then, can they be integrated into a single divine order or an enlarged divine family. But when, as in Israel, there was a belief that only one Being is supreme, that he is alone of his kind, and that all other cult objects are magical or lesser beings, no genuine syncretism is possible. In short, paganism was never a creative force in Israel’s culture.

The Old Testament critics been misguided about the nature of Israel’s idolatry as an earlier phase of Israel’s development of faith. The truth is that despite the adoption of idolatry by sections of Israelite society, nevertheless, in the popular consciousness there was always the recognition that only “YHWH was God.” Only this can account for the zest with which the people took part in the eradication of Baal worship in Israel.

If Israel had extensively worshiped foreign idols and deities they would have adopted the ‘more powerful’ gods of the conquering nations during the Exile. But this was not the case. Instead, Israel abandoned any worship of idols. Such a phenomenon has no parallel in the history of religions. Kaufmann explains, “This phenomenon has only one adequate explanation: pre-exilic Israel must have already had a monotheistic faith that was not the property of a narrow elite, but of the entire nation. Israelite idolatry must have been sufficiently shallow for the shock of the catastrophe to uproot it without a struggle. The change that took place spontaneously in the exile and that manifests itself in the community of the Restoration could have occurred only in an environment of popular monotheism.” (p. 134)

It is clear that the evidence demands a reversal of contemporary Old Testament methodology. The critics presuppose and customarily relegate all allusions and citations to monotheism in Israel’s sacred writings to the post-exilic period without taking the internal evidence of the Old Testament writings into account. They then satisfy themselves that they find no monotheism in early Israel. This is a case of circular reasoning. Surely an unbiased reading of Israel’s writings will reveal that the national poetry, narrative, prophecy, ethics and politics were all permeated with the belief in the one Covenant God, YHWH.

These are only a few of the numerous evidences marshaled by Kaufmann. It is enough, however, to demonstrate how tenuous the hypothesis of evolution of Israel’s religion is. As such, it is imperative that scholars respect the integrity of Israel’s religion by maintaining the incomparability and priority to the teachings of the biblical text over that of ANET. Scholars must analyze Israel’s faith and the Bible on its own terms to ensure success in gaining an accurate understanding of the uniquely revealed religion in the world.

Source: Yehezkel Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel (Uni. Chicago Press, 1960), pp. 7-20, 60-78, 122-152.

Useful Books
John Currid, Against the Gods: The Polemical Theology of the Old Testament (Crossway, 2013).
John Oswalt, The Bible Among the Myths (Zondervan, 2009).
Norman Snaith, The Distinctive Ideas of the Old Testament (Epworth Press, 1944).
Benjamin Sommer, “Appendix: Monotheism and Polytheism in Ancient Israel” in The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (Cambridge UP, 2009).
—————-“Yehezkel Kaufmann and Recent Scholarshp: Toward a Richer Discourse of Monotheism” in Job Jindo, Benjamin Sommer & Thomas Staubli (eds.), Yehezkel Kaufmann and the Reinvention of Jewish Biblical Scholarship (Academic Press Fribourg, 2017).

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Reading the Bible as God’s Word: The Redemptive Historical Method and Progressive Revelation. Part 2