Scholars debate whether the Israelites recognized only one God or worshipped only one God.

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Since many critical scholars believe that the laws banning the worship of other gods really do go back to Moses, but that the denial of the existence of other gods does not, they conclude that Moses only taught monolatry, not monotheism. And since historical books such as Judges and Kings state that the Israelites continued to worship other gods throughout their history, these scholars conclude that even the requirement of monolatry was not widely accepted in Israel until shortly before the Babylonian exile, or even later.

The doctrine of monotheism is thought by these scholars to have originated long after Moses, perhaps as late as the seventh century B.C.E. when it was emphasized by Deuteronomy and the prophets.

Monotheism, Not Monolatry

The most effective challenges to this view were those of the Israeli biblical scholar Yehezkel Kaufmann and the American archaeologist W. F. Albright. Kaufmann and Albright argued that the explicit statements about monotheism do not tell the whole story. So far as we can tell from the Bible and from archaeological evidence, most Israelites were de facto monotheistic ever since the time of Moses. From its earliest stages biblical religion viewed all gods other than YHVH as ineffective nonentities. Rarely does a biblical character refer to another deity as doing anything.

Most Israelites accused of worshiping other gods seem to have worshiped only images, and do not seem to have believed in living powers behind the images as authentic paganism did; they believed, in other words, that the images themselves possessed divine powers and that the gods were the images and nothing more. This seems clear from the fact that when Israelite reformers purged idolatry from the land their efforts were confined to removing images and other objects; they never had to argue against belief in beings that the images represented.

Some Israelites also worshiped supernatural beings and phenomena that were part of the Lord's heavenly retinue, apparently in the belief that God himself required people to honor His subordinates. That the worshipers of these beings believed that God required men to worship them is implied by God's denial that He ever commanded the worship of heavenly bodies (Deuteronomy 17:3). There is no evidence that these worshipers believed these beings to be independent of YHVH or on par with Him.

Furthermore, the number of people who worshiped statues and supernatural beings does not appear to have been large. The book of Judges does not quantify its statements that the Israelites worshiped foreign gods, and the number of specific incidents reported in the book is small. That these incidents were regarded as having such disastrous consequences for Israel is probably not due to their prevalence but to the gravity of the sin and to the biblical doctrine of collective responsibility, which holds the entire nation responsible for the sins of even a small number of its members.

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Dr. Jeffrey Tigay

Dr. Jeffrey Tigay is A.M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania.