On Monotheistic Origins

We all learn in our Western Civilization 101 class that Judaism is the oldest monotheistic religion in the world- the oldest religion that believes in only one god. Two of the world’s top three religions, Christianity and Islam, are monotheistic, and they both have roots in Judaism. Christians, Muslims, and Jews make up roughly 54.8% of the world’s population. Since so many people place their faith, directly or indirectly, in Judaism, this subject is one of the weightier in all of theology: has Judaism always believed in “’edach el” (one god)? I couldn’t resist the urge to make this complex question my blog topic after reading Genesis 14. Before Mosaic Judaism, the Jewish God is referred to as “elyon” or the most high god. Did the pre-Mosaic Jews believe in gods under “elyon?” This theological inquiry lured me in like a vermin into a snare; the research began, and down into the rabbit hole I went.

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The nation of Israel begins with Abraham. His beliefs shaped the faith of the nation that followed after him. According to Midrash, a Jewish tradition, Abraham’s father, Terah, worshiped pagan gods and was an idol maker. Abraham, after concluding that only one god deserves worship, entered his father’s shop and destroyed all the idols except one- the largest one. He placed a hammer in the hand of the largest statue, and blamed the mischief on it. Abraham was known as “Ho-Ivri,”-“the Hebrew,” which also means “the-one-on-the-other-side.” Abraham was a diametric opposition to the other religions around him; he was a stark contrast to the pagans.

abraham What Abraham (probably) looked like according to Google.

But monotheism is not the only philosophy or brand of theology that would place Abraham at odds with the pagans. It is hard to tell whether pre-Mosaic Jews were monotheistic or monolatristic. Monolatrism is the belief in more than one god, but the worship of only one. The Jewish people didn’t unite as a nation or all officially prescribe to one set belief system until Moses’s covenant with Yahweh on Mt. Sinai (Exodus ch 19.)It isn’t until this episode that we see terms like “bene yisrael” meaning “children of Israel” and this is the first time we see “Yahweh,” the Hebrew word for their God- the god of Christians and Muslims today. This ambiguity or lack of unity makes hypothesizing Jewish beliefs pre-Exodus particularly difficult, but some clues point to monolatrism, not monotheism, as the chief philosophy of Abraham and his offspring.

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Depiction of Exodus 19

In Hebrew history, Abraham worships “Elohim,” the plural form of “El” meaning “lord” in Hebrew. This leads scholars to believe that the early Hebrews might have believed in, or maybe even worshiped, more than one god. In early Hebrew tradition we also see God and celestial beings take on some anthropomorphic characteristics– God wrestling with Jacob (Genesis Ch 32), angels procreating with women (Genesis ch 3) and God resting (Genesis ch 2)- which blurs the distinguishing characteristics that separate the Hebrew God from pagan gods, thus making the border of the Mosaic distinction difficult to defend. In Joshua we see that Jews are prone to worship other gods (Joshua 24:14&15), and it isn’t until the 8th century BC prophets that we see consistent, polarizing evidence that the Jews don’t recognize their neighbors’ gods, repeatedly calling them false gods.

Jon D. Levenson, one of the most distinguished American Hebrew Bible scholars, said “But the familiar image of Abraham as the discoverer of the true God and the uncompromising opponent of idolatry isn’t found in Genesis or anywhere else in the Hebrew Bible. It is an idea that originated in Judaism after most of the Hebrew Bible had been composed, and from there it spread into the literature of the Talmudic rabbis…” For the Jewish faith, though, the question arises:  “How could Abraham speak to God and why would God speak to Abraham if Abraham believed in false gods?” It is an essential teaching of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic history that Abraham founded monotheism. Is this true? Ancient Jewish storytellers thought the answer was yes. The history, though, is murky, and the true philosophy and theology of Abraham remain a mystery. It is unlikely that we will ever know anything substantial about Hebrew theology before their Exodus out of Egypt.

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