Were the Earliest Israelites Monotheists or Monolatrists?

Monotheism is the belief that there is only one God. Christians are trinitarian monotheists who believe that the one true God exists eternally as three distinct coeternal and coequal persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit who share equally the attributes of God or one divine nature. But there is another term known as monolatrism or monolatry which describes a belief in many gods while only worshiping one. Monolatrism is a form of polytheism, but what distinguishes monolatrism from traditional polytheism is that monolatrists only profess to worship one god while still believing that many gods exist.

Liberal Old Testament scholars such as Julius Wellhausen proposed that the earliest Jews were not actually monotheists, but monolatrists and that monotheism is a relatively late belief in Judaism which evolved from monolatrism which in turn evolved from traditional polytheism. This evolutionary view, a product of viewing all religions through the lense of the theory of evolution, is still dominant in secular scholarship. The belief that the earliest Israelites were monolatrists is used as an argument against the existence of the one true God of the Bible since he cannot be real if he evolved from paganism. They also argue that the origins of the Old Testament are pagan because the authors of the Pentateuch borrowed from the nonhistorical myths and stories of the nations around them. This argument is also used by those who believe in a “wider hope” who argue that polytheist members of other religions can possibly be saved because the early Israelites were saved despite their belief in polytheism.

A key verse that disproves the thesis of monotheism evolving from monolatrism is Exodus 15:11: “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in glorious deeds, doing wonders?” Exodus 15 is relevant to the question of what the early Israelites believed about God because it is considered by Old Testament scholars to be one of the earliest passages in the Hebrew Bible. The poetic language uses archaic expanded forms of Hebrew words in comparison to later shortened ones. The spelling of Hebrew words is one way scholars determine the date of a particular passage of Scripture. For example, the shorter spelling of David’s name is characteristic of older portions of the Hebrew Bible whereas the longer spelling signifies passages written at a later date. Brevard S. Child writes in his commentary on Exodus 15 that, “the tenses function in a way more closely analogous to Ugaritic poetry than to ordinary Hebrew poetry. The sequence of affixed and prefixed verbal forms is characteristic of the early Canaanite epic style” and that there is, “an impressive case for an early dating of the poem, particularly the tense stem and orthography.”

A liberal scholar might interpret this verse to mean that the Israelites believed that the gods of Egypt were real, but Yahweh was superior to them. Peter Enns, before his complete apostasy, says in his commentary on Exodus: “We should not read into this passage later idol polemics, such as we find in Isa 44:6-20, into Exodus 15:11 or 20:3. The passage in Isaiah (and other prophets) reflects a more mature time in Israel’s understanding of who God is, that there truly are no other gods.” But does a careful reading of the text support his thesis?

Exodus 15:11 is a monotheistic statement because the same exact language is used in portions of Scripture which even liberal scholars agree are monotheistic such as Psalm 35:10; 71:19; 113:5; Isaiah 44:7; and Jeremiah 49:19. It is an example of what is known as “an explicit incomparability formula” which is composed of the interrogative pronoun min “who?” followed by the preposition kaf “like.” The Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament defines this formula as, “Expressing the incomparability of Yahweh. The question, which implies a negative answer, presupposes an individual’s realization that the ‘side-glance’ at something comparable, generally possible under all circumstances, is impossible here.”

If the Israelites believed that the gods of Egypt were real, they never could have said to Yahweh, “Who is like you?” If the Israelites were monolatrists, then one of the Israelites could have responded by saying that the gods of Egypt were like Yahweh in at least some sense since they truly did exist and therefore a comparison could be made even if Yahweh is far superior to them. The divine incomparability formula presupposes that none can be compared to Yahweh because even the possibility of the slightest comparison with him is viewed as impossible. If an Egyptian had said, “Who is like the sun god Ra?,” the Egyptians would have responded by saying that there were, in fact, many like Ra since many other gods exist even if they are lesser than him. Only a monotheistic worldview can account for divine incomparability statements. Monolatrists could never say to their god, “Who is like you?” since such a question would be absurd because many other gods do exist and thus a comparison could be made, even if it is a weak one.

The Israelites knew that the gods of Egypt had no real existence because God had clearly demonstrated this truth by means of the plagues which served as polemics against specific Egyptian gods. Each plague corresponds to a unique god of the Egyptians and demonstrates the powerlessness of their idols. The second to last plague, darkness, for example, corresponds with the Egyptian sun god Ra who was regarded as the most powerful of their deities. The plagues are the fulfillment of God’s promise in Exodus 9:14: “For this time I will send all my plagues on you yourself, and on your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth” and Exodus 8:10: “Be it as you say, so that you may know that there is no one like the LORD our God.”

A similar verse is Psalm 86:8: “There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, nor are there any works like yours.” This verse, if taken by itself, could be interpreted as a monolatrist statement where the author believes that the “gods” have a real existence. But then verse 10 says, “You alone are God,” an unmistakably monotheistic statement. When Scripture speaks of “gods,” it does so in derision mocking the worship of false idols made by human hands. An example of this is Psalm 96:4-5: “For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the LORD made the heavens.” By identifying these gods as idols, the Psalmist is not saying God is quantitatively better than lesser gods, but qualitatively better than idols which have no real existence.

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