Monotheism and Israel Part 3

Was Israel monotheistic?

Now that we understand that Israel was a nation that contributed lightly to the ancient Near Eastern culture in relation to political and economic status, we must observe their social contributions, the greatest being religion. The distinct difference throughout history between Israel and other nations has been their religion. Israel has been a nation that maintained a strong monotheistic religion from Abraham to Malachi. The religious doctrines of Israel held that Yahweh God was creator God. It also held that Yahweh had no jurisdiction and was the absolute authority of the universe. These religious doctrines were contrary the pagan religious doctrines of all of the major political powers of the ancient Near East. Monotheism was the foundational doctrine of Israel’s culture and religion. Israel’s chronicles even refer to Israel’s rise and failure as a nation in direct relation to their devotion to Yahweh as the one God. Israel’s most foundational documents, actions, and culture are rooted in maintaining and prostelyszing their monotheistic religion upon the ancient Near East and eventually the world. In his work, Mission in the Old Testament, Walter Kaiser says it this way, “It is clear that God’s mission was not exclusively Jewish in the Old Testament. While Israel remains at the center of the story, this is not to say that there was not globalization of the gospel in view.” [1]

Israel was about the glory of God among the nations, even the nations of the ancient Near East. Understanding this, we must ask what evidences we have of Israel’s monotheism among the nations.

Semantics

The understanding that Israel exercised a doctrine of monotheism within their religious system is seen primarily in how they distinguished their God from the pagan gods. The initial way of distinguishing was through language. The language used to describe Yahweh initially raises questions, but ultimately answers the question that Israel was monotheistic. The term translated God in the English Bible is generally a translation from the Hebrew word Elohim. Elohim is a plural form of the word el. Translation has had some difficultly conveying and translating the use and meaning of the words el and elohim. The words el and elohim are used in several contexts in several senses. El could be generally used to describe something as strong or mighty, but the word also carries with it a sense of divinity. It is used in both contexts. The word elohim is also used in both contexts. For instance, in the book of Jonah, Nineveh is called a great city to or for elohim. This use is translated in the English Standard Version as “that great city” or in the RSV “that exceedingly great city”. Though we acknowledge the use of elohim in other contexts and senses, we must focus on its use to describe Yahweh. These uses will determine if Israel was in fact monotheistic. The use of elohim, though it is a plural form that could describe “gods”, is often used to describe something greater than its actual definition. This use is called “abstract plural”. According to Walter Eichrodt, the uses of elohim as an “abstract plural” is evidence that elohim refers to a sense of supremacy above all things. Eichrodt says this, “As an ‘abstract plural’, however, the term corresponds to our word ‘Godhead’ or ‘divinity’ and is thus suited to the task of summing up the whole of divine power in a personal unity”. He further suggests that the use of the term was common in the ancient Near East to describe one who was above the rest. He continues, “… the Armarna letters afford evidence that not only in Babylonia, but in pre-Israelite Palestine also, the plural was in current use in religious thought to express the higher unity subsuming the individual gods and combining in one concept the whole pantheon”.[2] This concept of Yahweh as Elohim is commonly seen in Scripture, for instance, in Deuteronomy 6:4 it is clearly seen, “Hear, O Israel, Yahweh our Elohim Yahweh is one”.[3] This most foundational teaching of Moses and the Israelites is a fantastic use of the “abstract plural”. The use of elohim alongside Yahweh or in reference to Yahweh attests to Israel’s monotheistic doctrine. In his work, John McKenzie provides a summation of the use of the “abstract plural” that is unrivaled,

“Yahweh is elohim, indeed, He alone is elohim. Others are called elohim and worshipped as elohim, but they are not truly so. Still other things are called elohim or said to belong to elohim in a sense which may be abusive, but which to the Hebrews was apparently unobjectionable. In a word, they did not seem to object to saying that a thing was elohim or belong to elohim as long as it was not made equal with Yahweh.” [4]

A study of the word elohim and its usage has proven that Yahweh was the supreme being and was totally worthy of all worship, and this worship He would demand from all nations.

Mesopotamia

The land of Mesopotamia was a polytheistic society. The clearest indication in archaeological findings is revealed in the Akkadian account of Creation, Enu Elish. The Akkadian story of creation was composed around the 11th Century B.C. and the story tells of a cosmic conflict between Tiamut the mother goddess and Marduk. Marduk kills Tiamut and creates the universe from her carcass, humankind from her blood. He leaves humankind to do hard physical labor and leaves the gods free from work. In gratitude to Marduk, the gods build the city of Babylon. [5] Marduk is elevated as the supreme being of the universe. This account is often studied for its similarities with the creation account of Moses recorded in the book of Genesis. In observance of the similarities, one must also acknowledge the differences. In his work, Encountering the Biblical World, Bill Arnold acknowledges two distinct differences between ancient Near Eastern religion and Yahwism, “The plurality of the gods and the insignificance of humanity were unquestioned assumptions in the ancient Near East.”[6] The foundational teachings of Genesis 1-11 attack both assumptions, mentioned by Arnold, of the ancient Near Eastern culture. Notice the language of Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God”[7] this is the foundation for the rest of Mosaic Yahwism. This initial sentence combats creation by assistance or as a result of conflict. It places all power and authority in the hands of the God-head. Moses continues to attack the cultural assumptions in Genesis 1:26, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’”

This verse elevates humanity as something valuable and significant. It gives humanity purpose and constitutes the relationship that would follow between God and man throughout the book of Genesis and the rest of the Bible. The accounts of Israel’s monotheism influencing and challenging the culture of the ancient Near East is also found in its relation to Egypt.

Egypt

The clearest account of Yahweh making Himself known as the one God among the nation of Egypt is found in Exodus 11:9, “Then the LORD said to Moses, ‘Pharaoh will not listen to you, that my wonders may be multiplied in the land of Egypt.’” The statement made by Yahweh is in reference to the final of ten plagues that were performed in Egypt. In his work, Charts of the Old Testament, John Walton provides insight into the similarities between the gods of Egypt and the plagues. Walton finds that the plagues described by Moses and carried out by Yahweh do more than punish Egypt; they combat its religious ideology. For instance, the first plague performed by Yahweh in which He turned the Nile into blood defies the Egyptian gods of the Nile; Khumn, Hapri, and Osiris. According to Walton, this process can be traced through at least 7 of the 10 plagues with the final plague directly attacking the deity of Pharaoh by killing his first-born son, the god to be.[8] This understanding proves that Israel continued to maintain monotheism and combat polytheism within the context of slavery.

Persia

The Persian Empire ushered in a different policy toward religious ideology. As discussed earlier in the paper, the Persians tolerated a plurality of all religions. This plurality created a culture for Israel’s religious doctrine of monotheism to grow. Within Cyrus’s first year of reign, he issued a decree that freed the Jews to return to their homeland and eventually allowed the rebuilding of a temple to Yahweh.[9] The book of Nehemiah is a chronicle of this time and attests to the fact that Israel maintained their monotheistic doctrine through the exile and persecution brought by neighboring people groups.

Greeks

The Greeks maintained and even accelerated the policies that the Persians had exercised towards religious ideology. The Greek philosophy of Hellenism created a pluralistic and polytheistic society. This pluralism, or mixing of religion, appeared to challenge the monotheism of Israel. In his work, The Holman Bible Atlas, Thomas Brisco discusses the challenge of Hellenism and how Israel adapted,

“Greek values stood in strong opposition to traditional religious and cultural values. People lived under the tension of loyalty to the old and the hope of prosperity from the new. Jews, with their traditional worship of only one God, stood under extreme threat and tension from Hellenism. Still, the new international traffic and trade led to rapid expansion and development of Judaism outside of Palestine.” [10]

One of the more popular places for Hellenized Jews was the North African city of Alexandria. The Jews would continue with this struggle to maintain their religious doctrines in an ever-changing world, but the struggle had now taken a different form: education, philosophy, and ideology. This struggle would prepare Israel to make its greatest contribution to society on society’s biggest stage.

Romans

The Roman Empire was Israel’s biggest stage. Travel, policy, and education were at an all-time high. The Romans were in total control of most of the known world. The Roman policies, though challenging to Judaism, allowed Israel to maintain their religious doctrines. During the height of this empire, Israel’s greatest contribution to society would be born and monotheism would soon become the primary religious view of the world, but it would not necessarily be Judaism. During the reign of Caesar Augustus, a prophesy of old was fulfilled. Yahweh became a man, lived, died, rose, and established a new Jewish sect. For a time this sect was considered a heretical sect within the Jewish community. It caused much controversy and even rioting within the Jewish community. A good illustration of this rioting is given by Suetonius, a Roman historian, in which he writes that the Jews were expelled from the capital city for their disorderly conduct “because of Chrestus”. Chrestus refers to Christ.[11] It would only be a matter of time before this sect would move outside of Judaism and pursue the nations. The problem with this moving outside of Judaism was that Christians could now be charged with atheism, which was punishable by law. Atheism carried the understanding that the individual chose to reject the worship of traditional Roman gods.[12] Christianity was the new monotheism. Christ was Yahweh! This persecution, though it was more intense at certain times, continued until the reign of Constantine. Constantine was the first self-proclaimed Christian emperor in Rome. He gained full control of the Roman Empire in 324 A.D. and quickly began a process of stopping the persecution of Christians. Within 70 years of his conversion, Christianity had moved from a persecuted religion to the state religion. The church of Christ was the dominant religion of Rome and thus the world. Henceforth, Israel’s monotheism had survived its first 2000 years and would rule the next 2000.[13]

Monotheistic worship and ideology has governed and lead both political and economic changes from 300 A.D. until present day. The Christian monotheistic worship and doctrine has fashioned the western culture as much as any political or economic power that has ever existed. American literature professor Chris Harrison says it this way,

“Christian ideology has been a baseline of influence for art, literature, and even policy for much of what we call “Western Culture”. Biblical thinking was the basis for law and authority for most of Europe throughout and beyond the Middle Ages – Kings were kings supposedly because God said so – this was true until nearly the 1700s. Even during the Enlightenment, a period notorious for its “secularizing” influence, people still saw “God” as the answer to questions beyond the scope of reason – Newton saw calculus as insight into the mind of God, the architects of the Constitution, despite being clearly against a state ordained religion, still followed the teachings of Jesus and saw our “human rights” as being endowed by God, and thus irrevocable by the state unless by way of tyranny. Christianity, from a secular perspective – if you look at it as a cultural “thing” regardless of any divine or spiritual elements, has been a cultural multi-tool used for good and bad, as a point of intellectual reference or departure, a means of control and punishment, and a justification for freedom, justice, and mercy. Kind of like a hammer – whoever’s using it has a lot to do with the product, but ideologically, it’s by far – in the West, at least, the most popular hammer around.”[14]

 



[1] Kaiser, Walter C., Mission in the Old Testament, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000) 49

[2] Eichrodt, Walter, Theology of the Old Testament Vol I, (Philadelphia: Westminister,1961) 185

[3] Emphasis is the authors.

[4] McKenzie, John L., “The Appellative Use of El and Elohim”, Catholic Biblical Quarterly, (April 1948) 172

[5] Arnold, Bill T., Readings from the Ancient Near East, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002) 31

[6] Arnold, 78

[7] All Scripture unless otherwise noted is from the English Standard Version

[8] Walton, 85

[9] Arnold, 351

[10] Brisco, 176

[11] Gonzales, Justo L., The Story of Christianity, (Peabody: Prince Press, 2005) 32

[12] Adapted from History of Christianity lecture by Dr. Stacey Boutwell

[13] Gonzales, 120-125

[14] Adapted from an email interview with Professor Chris Harrison

 

 

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