The Religion of Israel
by James Akin
Belief in One God or Worship of One God?
Liberal scholars who believe that Israel was originally polytheistic argue that the nation was originally polytheistic, then moved into a position of monolatry, and finally to monotheism. In order to understand this supposed transition, one must understand the terms involved.
Polytheism, of course, is the belief in more than one god, but when it is distinguished from monolatry it denotes not only belief in more than one god but the active worship of more than one god. It is what we normally think of as paganism.
Monolatry differs from this kind of polytheism in that, while it acknowledges the existence of more than one god, it involves the active worship of only one god, usually thought either to be a tribal or national patron or to be the supreme God above other gods. These two might be referred to as monarchian monolatry (worship of the supreme God above all others) and egalitarian monolatry (worship of a tribal or national patron who is roughly equal to other gods).
Monotheism, of course, is the belief in and worship of only one God.
Advocates of the thesis that Israel transitioned from polytheism to monolatry to monotheism point to passages such as Judges 11:14-24, 1 Kings 11:33, and 2 Kings 1:3 as evidence of the middle, monolatrous state. These passages read:
“And Jephthah sent messengers again to the king of the Ammonites and said to him, ‘Thus says Jephthah: Israel did not take away the land of Moab or the land of the Ammonites . . . Will you not possess what Chemosh your god gives you to possess? And all that the Yahweh our God has dispossessed before us, we will possess.'” (Jdg. 11:14-15, 24)
“[B]ecause he [Solomon] has forsaken me, and worshiped Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god of Moab, and Milcom the god of the Ammonites, and has not walked in my ways, doing what is right in my sight and keeping my statutes and my ordinances, as David his father did. ” (1 Kgs. 11:33)
“But the angel of the Yahweh said to Elijah the Tishbite, ‘Arise, go up to meet the messengers of the king of Samaria, and say to them, “Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-zebub, the god of Ekron?”‘” (2 Kgs. 1:3)
It is thought that in these passages Yahweh is conceived of as the patron deity of the nation of Israel, while the other gods mentioned are the really existant patron deities of the surrounding nations and cities. Even though the passages stress that Israel must worship only Yahweh, it is thought that these passages also teach the existence of other deities.
For a conservative, one who reads these passages in harmony with other things the Bible teaches instead of absolutizing passages in isolation, this is unacceptable. What is not unacceptable is the thesis that some in Israel were monolatrous. In fact, the quotation from Jephthah might indicate that Jephthah (who was by all accounts a thorough scoundrel) was monolatrous.
Liberal scholars rightly criticize those who present ancient Israel as being uniformly monotheistic, but conservatives may equally well criticize liberals who present Israel as being uniformly polytheistic or monolatrous. The Hebrews were monotheistic from the time of Abraham on (cf. Judges 24:2), though there were also polytheists among them, and more than likely some monolatrists as well.
Unfortunately, we do not even have the luxury of saying that the “official” religion of Israel was always monotheistic, using the normal sociological definitions of “official” (as opposed to “popular”) religion as the religion of the king or the religion of the national temple. (Though if we were to define official religion as the religion the people had as a group covenanted to keep, the official religion would be monotheistic).
Some kings of Judah advocated he worship of other gods, such as Manasseh, who “rebuilt the high places his father Hezekiah had destroyed; he also erected altars to Baal and made an Asherah pole, as Ahab king of Israel had done. He bowed down to all the starry hosts and worshiped them” (2 Kgs. 21:3).
Likewise, the priests at the Temple were also unfaithful to Yahweh. During the reformation of King Josiah,
“The king ordered Hilkiah the high priest, the priests next in rank and the doorkeepers to remove from the temple of Yahweh all the articles made for Baal and Asherah and all the starry hosts. He burned them outside Jerusalem in the fields of the Kidron Valley and took the ashes to Bethel. He took the Asherah pole from the temple of Yahweh to the Kidron Valley outside Jerusalem and burned it there. He ground it to powder and scattered the dust over the graves of the common people. He also tore down the quarters of the male shrine prostitutes, which were in the temple of Yahweh and where women did weaving for Asherah. He removed from the entrance to the temple of Yahweh the horses that the kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun. They were in the court near the room of an official named Nathan-Melech. Josiah then burned the chariots dedicated to the sun. He pulled down the altars the kings of Judah had erected on the roof near the upper room of Ahaz, and the altars Manasseh had built in the two courts of the temple of Yahweh. He removed them from there, smashed them to pieces and threw the rubble into the Kidron Valley.” (2 Kgs. 23:4, 6-7, 11-12).
All told, the only institution in Israel that remained faithful to Yahweh were the prophets, and even they were surrounded by false prophets who encouraged the people toward polytheism.
Thus a realistic picture of ancient Israel shows that the population was mixed. Some (the righteous remnant) were always monotheists, but there were also polytheists and undoubtedly monolatrists. Yet the oldest of these groups were the monotheists, whose heritage stretched back to the dawn of humanity.