Monotheism

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

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Most of the idolatry reported in Kings was sponsored by the kings themselves, often for political reasons connected with foreign policy; few of these reports indicate that large numbers of common people were involved. Archaeological evidence of polytheism is also scant: few, if any, representations of male deities have ever been found in clearly Israelite contexts, and most of the figurines of females found at Israelite sites represent humans, not goddesses. Israelite inscriptions with religious content rarely mention other gods, and of Israelite personal names that refer to a deity, only six percent refer to deities other than YHVH; the other ninety-four percent mention YHVH.

That most Israelites ignored not only the gods of foreign nations, but even the gods of natural phenomena on which all humans depend, can only mean that they did not consider these phenomena to be divine or independently effective. So far as our evidence goes, therefore, ever since the time of Moses most Israelites seem to have regarded only YHVH as an independently effective divine power, and that belief is most simply explained as due to the teachings of Moses himself.

The belief that only YHVH is an independently effective divine power is de facto monotheistic. It reduces all other supernatural beings to the level of angels, spirits, and the like. Since biblical Hebrew generally continued to use words for "gods" (elim and elohim) to refer to those supernatural beings, whose existence was not denied, we cannot speak of monotheism in the etymological sense of the word but only in the practical, de facto sense just described.

As Albright put it, "Mosaic monotheism, like that of the following centuries (at least down to the seventh century [B.C.E.]) was…practical and implicit rather than intellectual and explicit…The Israelites felt, thought, and acted like monotheists."
The above article explores whether the early Israelites believed in the existence of only one God or pledged their allegiance to one particular God without denying the existence of others. The author presents both views, but seems to agree with the former. Though the author does not present the latter view in as much depth, it has scholarly approval as well.

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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.