The Hebrew Bible – Monotheism or Monolatry?

A friend of mine, familiar with my argument in my book on the Hebrew Bible “Reconciling a Contradictory Abraham” that monotheism is not found in the Bible, raised objection from the following verse from the Book of Deuteronomy (32, 39) – “see now that I, even I, am He, and there is no god with Me” (the verse can also be translated “there are no gods with Me”). On the face of it, this verse SEEMINGLY is a clear monotheistic statement that there is only one God and no other gods.

I want to add that there is a widespread conception, with which I disagree, that the Book of Deuteronomy, from which my friend chose the verse that he cited (Deuteronomy 32, 39), presents a monotheistic conception. I deal with this in my book, and I have a specific chapter “Monotheism and the Book of Deuteronomy” in which I cite, as SEEMINGLY expressing a monotheistic conception, the verse (Deuteronomy 4, 35) – “To you it was shown, that you might know that the Lord (YHVH), He is God, there is none else beside Him”.

The great revolution of the Hebrew Bible

Before addressing the verse from Deuteronomy (32, 39) cited by my friend and the verse from Deuteronomy (4, 35) that I relate to in my book on the Bible (and the question of whether such verses do actually express a monotheistic conception), I want to summarize my argument in my book on the Bible.

In my book “Reconciling a Contradictory Abraham”, I argue that the Bible, regardless of religious assumptions (without assuming that the Bible is Divinely revealed or inspired), is the most influential piece of literature ever written (at least in the western world) – and, yet, in spite of its enormous influence upon western civilization, nevertheless the Hebrew Bible is, in my view, a widely misunderstood document.

The great revolution of the Hebrew Bible is not, as is widely and (in my eyes) mistakenly thought, a theological and orthodox (correct doctrine) revolution in conceiving of God in a monotheistic sense and in conceiving of the essence of religion as faith in one God. Rather, the great revolution of the Hebrew Bible is a pragmatic and orthoprax (good deeds) revolution in conceiving of God as a moral God who demands morality – and, the Biblical revolution is also a revolutionary conception of religion in which the essence of religion is morality and not faith or ritual.

The great revolution of the Hebrew Bible is not monotheism, but the way in which God is conceived (as a moral God who demands morality), as reflected in the opening statement of the ten statements (and, the Biblical term is not ten commandments, but ten statements) in which God is strikingly presented not as the Creator of the universe, but as the God of Israel who is a God of revelation and redemption (Exodus, 20, 2) – “I am the Lord your God who has brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery“.

From the story of creation, we can necessarily infer only that God is powerful, but not that God is inherently moral demanding morality – and, it is possible that an evil God created the universe. But, from this (the opening of the ten statements), that God is revealed within history to redeem the people Israel from slavery, injustice and oppression, we necessarily infer that God is an inherently moral God who demands morality. Immediately following this declaration in the opening of the ten statements come moral demands and commandments of God that are incumbent upon the people Israel.

In the surrounding pagan cultures in the ancient, Biblical world, the gods were conceived of as forces or powers of nature that were powerful, but not inherently moral – and, act within nature, and influence human affairs, not as an expression of moral will, but as an expression of their power. The gods in the pagan conception can be influenced or appeased by offering sacrifices, or by performing some other ritual practice – and, ritual practice is conceived as the very essence of religion.

The great revolution of the Hebrew Bible is that for the first time in human history God is conceived of as a God who is revealed within history, as an expression of moral will in order to redeem (as a God of revelation and redemption), and demands morality as an inherent part of God’s nature – and, this revolutionary conception of God in turn transforms the essence of religion from ritual practice (as in the pagan conception) to morality. So, for the first time in human history, there is a necessary connection between religion and morality, in which the very essence of religion is conceived to be moral character (of the heart) and moral action.

Monotheism is foreign to the Biblical literature and culture

Monotheism (a theological conception) and theology are read into Biblical texts that are not monotheistic or theological in their plain meaning because people read Biblical texts through the lens of an orthodox and theological perspective that is foreign to the Bible and Biblical culture. Monotheism is a theological belief or claim that one God alone exists, and the existence of other gods is denied. In the Bible not only is there no monotheistic, theological conception – but, the existence of other gods of other peoples is presupposed rather than denied.

Abraham, the spiritual father of the Jewish people, says “I have raised my hand to the Lord (YHVH), the most high God” (Genesis 14, 22) – and, the concept of a “most high God”, which appears in other places in the Hebrew Bible as well, clearly implies that other gods, besides YHVH, exist, and that YHVH is the highest God among a pantheon of gods. In the opening of the ten statements, the statement “I am the Lord your God” declares that YHVH is the God of Israel (to whom the people Israel are to be faithful and loyal) among the many gods that are presumed to exist – and, the statement “You shall have no other gods before Me” is a demand of the people Israel to be faithful or loyal to, and serve (worship), YHVH alone without denying the existence of other gods of other peoples. After the crossing of the Reed Sea (the Biblical term is Reed Sea and not Red Sea) it is written, “Who is like unto You, among the gods, Lord (YHVH)?” (Exodus 15, 11). The verse presupposes the existence of other gods who cannot be compared to YHVH. In addition, in the ten statements YHVH is referred to as a “jealous God” (Exodus 20, 5 and Deuteronomy 5, 9) who demands exclusive service (worship) and loyalty. Of whom is YHVH jealous if no other gods exist?

The Biblical verse Shema (Deuteronomy 6, 4) is widely misunderstood as a monotheistic statement, and widely mistranslated as “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”. However, the Hebrew word that is translated as one can also mean alone, which is the meaning in the verse Shema (as Rashbam, a great commentator of the 12th century understood) – and, the correct translation then of the verse Shema is “Hear O Israel, the Lord (YHVH) is our God, the Lord (YHVH) alone“. The verse is then in accordance with the conception of the opening of the ten statements – “I am the Lord (YHVH) your God” and “You shall have no other gods before Me”. In both cases (the opening of the ten statements and the verse Shema) the conception is that YHVH is the God of Israel, and the people Israel are to serve and be faithful or loyal to only one God, YHVH and YHVH alone, among the many gods (and, significantly, the existence of other gods of other peoples is not denied but presupposed).

Monotheism in ancient Israel is an evolution and not a revolution

The revolution of the Bible as literature is that YHVH as the highest God among a pantheon of gods and as the God of Israel is conceived as a moral God who demands morality as opposed to the pagan gods who were powers of nature (powerful but not inherently moral) – and, the revolution of the Bible is that the essence of religion is morality (and not ritual practice as in the pagan conception).

According to many historians, monotheism, though not found in the Biblical literature, develops in ancient Israel toward the end of the Biblical period as part of an evolutionary, gradual process (and not as a revolution) in which YHVH, the God of Israel, comes to be seen as the one God of all peoples rather than as the highest God among a pantheon of gods.

By the way, the term YHVH in the Biblical literature is the actual name of the God of Israel. In the Biblical culture that is polytheistic assuming the existence of many gods, there is a need for a name, YHVH, of the God of Israel to distinguish the God of Israel from the gods of other peoples – the gods of other peoples having names as well. When monotheism develops in ancient Israel as part of an evolutionary process in which YHVH, the God of Israel, comes to be seen as the God of all peoples, there is no longer a need for the name YHVH to distinguish the God of Israel from pagan gods – and, then the term Adonai (Lord) comes into use (rather than the name YHVH) to refer to God as the one God of the universe and of all peoples.

Thus, the Biblical literature (from a literary point of view) is completely absent of any monotheistic conception – and, the Biblical literature represents an intermediate, revolutionary stage (with revolutionary conceptions of God and religion) prior to the evolutionary (and, not revolutionary) development of monotheism in ancient Israel.

Monotheism and Monolatry

I want to add one other thing here by way of background that I do not speak about in my book on the Bible – regarding the term monolatry that is used in the academic world to distinguish the Biblical conception from monotheism.

Monotheism is a theological belief or claim that there is one God and one God alone that exists in reality. That is, monotheism reflects philosophic thinking of the rational mind in making a metaphysical claim about the nature of reality that only one God exists, and no other gods exist.

Monolatry involves no theological or metaphysical claim – and, is worship of one God without denying the existence of other gods. Worship is not a matter of philosophy, and does not reflect philosophic thinking of the rational mind – rather, worship is a matter of the heart and behavior (practice and ritual rites). Worship is an expression of faithfulness and loyalty (of the heart). Monolatry without question exists in the Biblical literature and describes the ancient Israelite worship in the Biblical literature and Biblical culture.

The Biblical literature is concerned not with philosophic matters – as the Biblical literature is completely absent of philosophic thinking of the rational mind that did not originate until the rise of systematic philosophy in ancient Greece (toward the end of the Biblical period). Rather, the Biblical literature is concerned with matters of the heart and behavior – the Bible demands (only of the Israelites, and not of other peoples) the worship (monolatry) of one God, YHVH (the God of Israel) who demands morality. The worship of YHVH will necessarily express itself in a life of moral character (the heart) and moral action (behavior).

The Book of Deuteronomy and monotheism

Now, with this as background, we can approach the verses from Deuteronomy (32, 39 and 4, 35) in which Moses says explicitly that there is one God and no other gods – verses that on the face of it SEEMINGLY express a monotheistic conception.

However, these verses (and, others like them in the Book of Deuteronomy such as the verse Shema) must be viewed in the context of the Book of Deuteronomy as a whole in order to properly understand the concern of the verses. From a literary point of view, the Book of Deuteronomy is written in the form of a speech given by Moses to the Israelites in the plains of Moab prior to entering the land of Canaan. Moses is clearly functioning not as a philosopher or theologian, but as a political and religious leader. Moses, in the Book of Deuteronomy, is preparing the people Israel for their entering the land of Canaan that was dominated by Canaanite city-states that were superior to the nomadic Israelites militarily and technologically.

The message that Moses, as a political and religious leader, is delivering to the people Israel is that the only thing that can maintain their unity as a people, without a land of their own, and upon entering the land of Canaan dominated by powerful Canaanite city-states and cultures, is their voluntary faithfulness and loyalty to YHVH, the God of Israel. For the Israelites then there can be no other gods besides YHVH – “To you it was shown, that you might know…there is none else beside Him”. In the absence of a land of their own, it is only their religion, and worship of YHVH, the God of Israel, that can hold the people of Israel together and allow them to survive. So, the message of Moses, both in the case of this verse in the Book of Deuteronomy (4, 35) and the verse (Deuteronomy 32, 39), as well as other similar verses in the Book of Deuteronomy (such as the Shema), is not that of a philosopher or theologian, but of a political and religious leader whose message is directed to a particular people, arising out of a concern for their survival and welfare. Such verses express the loyalty and commitment of the Israelites to YHVH, the God of Israel.

Such verses from the Book of Deuteronomy (4, 35 and 32, 39) SEEMINGLY express a monotheistic conception to us only because we read the Biblical literature and texts through the lens of an orthodox (correct doctrine) and theological conception that is foreign to the Biblical literature and culture. In the context of the Biblical literature and culture, the verses actually express a monolatrous conception in which Moses is addressing only the Israelites (and not other peoples) and demanding only of the Israelites worship of (and loyalty to) their one God, YHVH, the God of Israel – and, Moses is denying the existence of other gods of other peoples only for the Israelites (and, not for other peoples).

Indeed, Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy explicitly states that God prohibited the Israelites from worshipping the sun, moon and stars, while giving permission to other peoples to worship them (Deuteronomy 4, 15-19) – “Take heed to yourselves, for you saw no manner of form on the day that the Lord spoke unto you in Horeb out of the midst of the fire…unless you lift up your eyes unto heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, even all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and worship them, and serve them, which the Lord your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven”. This verse clearly indicates that Moses in the Book of Deuteronomy is not denying for other peoples (pagans) the worship of forces of nature – and, in such verses (Deuteronomy 4, 35 and 32, 39), Moses is denying only for the Israelites the existence of such gods of other peoples. That is, the statements of Moses in such verses (Deuteronomy 4, 35 and 32, 39) are monolatrous and not monotheistic.

Parenthetically, in one of the most remarkable passages of the Bible, Micah, the prophet, expresses an anti-theological messianic vision of all people living in peace and security – together with theological tolerance and freedom of worship. Strikingly, there is no demand or expectation that other peoples will adopt Jewish theological beliefs or adopt a monotheistic conception that one God exists and one God alone (Micah 4, 3-5) –

And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nations shall not lift up sword against nation, nor shall they learn war anymore.  But, they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and none shall make them afraid:  For the mouth of the Lord of hosts has spoken it.  For all people will walk everyone in the name of his god, and we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever.

I want to point out that Micah, the prophet, says that “all people will walk everyone in the name of his god” (and, the verse can also be translated as “in the name of his gods”) – and, the word walk is very significant. The word walk clearly implies action, and indicates that Micah is speaking not only about theological tolerance toward others concerning their different beliefs but he is speaking about tolerance toward their way of worship and way of life as well. In Micah’s vision, other peoples will continue to worship as they wish according to their own culture (“everyone in the name of his god”, or “in the name of his gods”), and what will unite us is our living together in peace and security without fear – as the essence of religion in the anti-theological conception of Micah is peace and justice (morality), and not theology.

Thus, when Moses says in such verses (Deuteronomy 4, 35 and 32, 39) that there is only one God and no other Gods, Moses is not denying the existence of other Gods as an expression of monotheism – and, he is not making a theological claim of the rational mind that from a metaphysical point of view there exists only one God in reality. Rather, Moses is addressing only the Israelites and denying the existence of other gods only for the Israelites as an expression of monolatry – a psychological matter of the heart that the Israelites must worship, and be loyal to, their one God of Israel, YHVH.

Moses in the plain meaning of Scripture, from a literary point of view, is functioning not as a theologian concerned with philosophic and metaphysical truth – a matter of the rational mind. Rather, Moses is functioning as a political and religious leader of the Israelites concerned with their faithfulness and loyalty to their God, YHVH – faithfulness and loyalty being matters of the heart (moral character traits) necessarily expressing themselves in moral action (as YHVH, the God of Israel demands morality in the Biblical conception).

The enormous implications of the distinction between monotheism and monolatry

The distinction between monotheism and monolatry in relation to the Hebrew Bible has enormous implications concerning the question of what it means to be religious in the Biblical conception.

Monotheism is a theological claim revealed in a philosophic declaration that there is one God and one God alone that exists in reality – and, such a philosophic claim and declaration is abstract and divorced from behavior. One can believe and declare that God exists – and, yet, act in a wicked way. Conversely, one can deny that God exists – and, yet, act in a righteous way.

By contrast, monolatry, characteristic of the Biblical conception, is worship of one God (without denying the existence of other gods of other peoples). This involves no philosophic claim – and, is a matter of the heart and behavior (practice and ritual rites). Worship is an expression of faithfulness and loyalty (of the heart). Worship is a pragmatic matter necessarily connected to behavior – and, the heart, the seat of moral character traits (such as faithfulness and loyalty) is necessarily expressed in external behavior, and external behavior reveals what is in the heart. The heart (moral character traits) is revealed not in philosophic declarations, but in behavior. Righteous behavior is testimony, in the Biblical conception, of faithfulness and loyalty to YHVH, the God of Israel, who demands morality – and, conversely, wicked behavior is testimony, in the Biblical conception, of unfaithfulness and disloyalty to YHVH, the God of Israel, who demands morality.

The Bible is completely absent of any monotheistic claim and absent of any systematic theology. In the plain meaning of Scripture, there are no theological beliefs that must be accepted, no theological analysis and no theological arguments to prove the existence of God. By the way, God appears throughout the 5 Books of Moses as a character – just as Moses is a character. Nowhere in the Bible is there any discussion regarding the question as to whether Moses really existed as an actual, historical figure (and, in terms of academic scholarship there is no evidence external to the Bible indicating that there was such a figure). Such a historical question of whether Moses existed is not a religious concern of the Bible. Similarly, nowhere in the Bible is there any discussion whatsoever regarding the question of whether God exists. Such a theological question of whether God exists, like the historical question of whether Moses existed, is simply not a religious concern of the Bible.

The historical background, which explains the complete absence of systematic theology in the Bible, is that systematic philosophy in the western world originated in ancient Greece toward the end of the Biblical period. The Biblical authors were unfamiliar with systematic philosophy living prior to the spread of Greek culture throughout the ancient near east during the later Hellenistic period – and, systematic philosophic thinking is foreign to the Biblical culture. The Biblical culture as reflected in the Biblical literature is an oriental, near eastern culture in which systematic philosophy does not exist. Biblical thought is concrete and pragmatic, and not abstract and philosophical.

For example, the Hebrew word “emunah”, which is widely and mistakenly (in my eyes) misunderstood and often mistranslated as faith or belief, is concrete, and from the same root as the Hebrew words art and practice – and, the term “emunah” then calls to mind a picture or image, among other things, of an artist or artisan (and, a work of art or artistry is an external act that is a creation of the heart such that the act cannot be separated from the heart). By contrast, the terms faith or belief in English, as an influence of the ancient Greek culture in which systematic philosophy originated, are usually understood in an abstract, philosophic and propositional sense of rational belief – of believing that some proposition (such as the existence of God) is true, which is a matter of the rational mind. In the Biblical literature, no such philosophic conception of faith or belief exists. There is no word faith or belief in a philosophic and propositional sense in the Biblical literature and culture – as the term “emunah” is a matter of the heart and moral character, and means faithfulness, loyalty or trust.

The religious concern of the Hebrew Bible is an orthoprax (pragmatic) concern with the heart (moral character traits) and behavior – and, not an orthodox (theological) concern with correct theological doctrine (of the rational mind). In the Biblical conception whether one is truly faithful and loyal to God is revealed not in theological beliefs and declarations, but in behavior – whether moral or immoral. Just to make the implications here clear – in the Biblical conception, a theist who declares that he or she believes in God but acts immorally displays in his or her behavior a lack of faith in God (in the Biblical sense of faithfulness and loyalty to God), while an atheist who declares that he or she does not believe in God but acts morally displays in his or her behavior faith in God (in the Biblical sense of faithfulness and loyalty to God). I repeat and emphasize that in the Biblical conception the religious concern is not with theological doctrines and declarations, but with the heart (moral character traits) and behavior.

Jeffrey Radon

Author of orthopraxjudaism.com

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