Does the Old Testament Teach Absolute Monotheism? Part I

Introduction: Was Ancient Israel Monotheistic?

Western Society is perhaps more indebted to the Hebrew Bible than to any other book, and arguably the most famous teaching associated with the Hebrew Bible is that of absolute monotheism.  This position famously affirms that there is only one god in existence and no other(s).  For example, Deuteronomy 6:4, known as the Shema, has often been cited since antiquity as supporting this understanding of monotheism.[1] It declares, “Listen, O Israel, YHWH is our god, YHWH alone [lit. YHWH (is) one]” (שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד). This understanding of ancient Israelite faith, found in both popular and scholarly circles, purportedly traces itself in the biblical narrative to at least the time when YHWH revealed himself at Sinai to Moses and Israel,[2] if not all the way back to the creation of the world in Genesis 1 when God alone created the world by his word.[3] Naturally, this view has been held to be in direct opposition to the Mesopotamian theogonic and cosmogonic myths, such as the infamous Enuma Elish,[4] which recounts the creation of the gods and the world through fierce battles and rivalries between the personified primal elements of nature and the many gods who eventually tame them.

As familiar as this description might sound, it nevertheless has been severely critiqued by modern Biblicists and Assyriologists, especially for the time of pre-exilic Israel.[5] All along, it seems, Israel believed in the existence of a multiplicity of divine beings, as numerous biblical texts reveal.  Thus, for example, after the miraculous escape of the Israelites from Egypt through the divine power of YHWH, Exodus 15:11, part of one of the oldest poems in the Hebrew Bible, simply asks, “Who is like you among the gods, O YHWH?” (מִֽי־כָמֹכָה בָּֽאֵלִם יְהוָה). Of course, for the author of this text, YHWH is supreme among the gods, yet the question implies that there are other gods in existence, just as Exodus 20:3 assumes that there are indeed other gods that the Israelites might worship at YHWH’s expense.[6] Nevertheless, such texts might seem to be paltry evidence that Israel was polytheistic in any meaningful sense of the word, even in its earliest periods.  Yet for the ancient historian the evidence is significant enough to warrant further examination of the biblical, epigraphical, and archaeological evidences that might be brought to bear on the issue of determining whether or not ancient Israel was truly monotheistic.

[1] For a lengthy discussion of the Shema and the history and difficulties of its interpretation, see Nathan Macdonald, Deuteronomy and the Meaning of “Monotheism.” Forschungen zum Alten Testament, 1. (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2003), 59-71.  Paul echoes the Shema in a Christian formulation of monotheism in 1 Corinthians 8:4-6.  All translations from ancient texts are the author’s own unless otherwise noted.


[2] Perhaps the most articulate proponent of a unique Israelite monotheism dating to the time of Moses is Yeḥezkel Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel: from its Beginning to the Babylonian Exile (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960).  Also note the conservative views of Jeffrey H. Tigay, You Shall Have No Other Gods: Israelite Religion in the Light of Hebrew Inscriptions, HSS 31 (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1986); and W. F. Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan: An Historical Analysis of Two Conflicting Faiths (Garden City: Doubleday, 1968).

[3] Although other divinities appear to be present during the creation of the world in Genesis 1 (see, for instance, Gen. 1:26-27; cf. Gen. 3:22; 11:7).

[4] For a good translation of ancient Mesopotamian myths, including Enuma Elish, see Stephanie Dalley, Myths from Mesopotamia: Creation, the Flood, Gilgamesh, and Others (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989).  For Ugaritic and Canaanite myths, see Mark S. Smith, The Ugaritic Baal Cycle 1, Introduction with Text, Translation and Commentary of KTU 1.1 – 1.2 (Leiden: Brill, 1994); Smith, Mark S. The Ugaritic Baal Cycle 2, Introduction with Text, Translation and Commentary of KTU/CAT 1.3 – 1.4 (Leiden: Brill, 2009); Mark S. Smith and Simon B. Parker, Ugaritic Narrative Poetry (Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1997); and Michael Coogan, Stories from Ancient Canaan (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1978).

[5] Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. The Biblical resource series. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002); John Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan. Journal for the study of the Old Testament, 265 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000); Ziony Zevit, The Religions of Ancient Israel: A Synthesis of Parallactic Approaches (London: Continuum, 2001); and Frank Moore Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1973).

[6] Cyrus Herzl Gordon and Gary Rendsurg, The Bible and the Ancient Near East (New York: W.W. Norton & Co, 1997), 148-149.  Also note the title of J. Tigay’s book, You Shall Have No Other Gods.

17 Replies to “Does the Old Testament Teach Absolute Monotheism? Part I”

  1. Well, you have to wonder when there’s a commandment (and it’s a big one) “You shall have no other gods before me” That alone seems to suggest that there ARE other potential gods.

    I guess I assumed it meant worship the one true god, not those made-up ones those guys in Egypt pray to.

  2. Seems like a storm in a teapot. All those passages admit is that the other gods are referred to using the word god, not that they exist in actual fact. It is their existence in the mind of their worshipers that is the problem anyway, which is all those passages allude to. Worshiping a false (i.e. nonexistent god) takes away from Jehovah just as much as would worshiping Lucifer, an actual extant supernatural being.

    The Ashura references are much better indications of polytheism among Jehovah’s people for my money.

  3. Thanks all for your comments and participation here!


    I shall indeed discuss the goddess Asherah in a later post (this is, at least, a six part series; I believe I discuss goddess worship in parts four and five).

    Mike S,

    What book are you referring to? What is the name of the author?


    I agree that these passages rather neutrally imply that there are indeed other real gods in existence (at least in the minds of the biblical authors). Later understandings of these biblical texts have often reduced such references to “other gods” (acherim elohim) to non-existent beings that are merely supposed to exist by one group or another (e.g., the Egyptians, Assyrians, Philistines, etc.) but not by the biblical authors themselves. I don’t think this understanding can be sustained from a close reading of the texts in their socio-historical contexts, as I will discuss in future posts.

    Best wishes,


  4. “The Evolution of God” – Robert Wright
    Reviews on Amazon and other sites so I won’t bore you here – but essentially goes through the development of religion from primitive animism through polytheistic religions through monotheistic religions (Jews, Christians, Muslims) through today. Gives a number of reasons for the changes at each step. Not an LDS viewpoint, yet still very interesting.

  5. Sorry, forgot this. As pertains to this thread, from one reviewer:

    “In a fascinating discussion Wright argues that this Hebrew god evolved into a monolatry, which was a “way station on the road to full-fledge monotheism.” Monolatry didn’t deny the existence of other gods, it just affirmed that Yahweh was the highest of those gods in the pantheon. This was achieved mostly by King Josiah, who sought to solidify his reign and centralize worship in Jerusalem. Josiah even had his reforms written in much of the book of Deuteronomy. “

  6. Seems like a storm in a teapot. All those passages admit is that the other gods are referred to using the word god, not that they exist in actual fact.

    The Hebrew Bible/Old Testament is not my area of study, but my understanding of this argument is that the OT shows a movement from Jehovah as a tribal god, where Jehovah is the god of a certain group of people and other tribes have other gods; to claims about being the most powerful tribal god; to claims about being the only god in existence. In church we’ve been trained, for the most part, to read the entire OT in accordance with the last claims (although most LDSs will modify it to see it as a claim that Jehovah is the only god for our world, as other gods exist for other “worlds”).

    I do think, however, that if we take passages such as Exodus 15:11 at face value we come up with a reading that is more along the lines of the first claim; i.e., Jehovah was seen as the god of a particular group of people and other people had other gods.

  7. SmallAxe,

    Thanks for your comments!

    You said:

    In church we’ve been trained, for the most part, to read the entire OT in accordance with the last claims [i.e., that there is only one God/god in existence]…

    I think that your comment is important: the projection of the present onto the past causes a historical collapse, in this case removing the (interpretation of the) text from its original socio-historical context.

    I agree with your reading of Exodus 15:11 and will discuss those issues further in parts 2 and 3 of this series.

    Best wishes,


  8. How does this fit into Margret Barkers conception that the first Temple theology before Josiah’s reforms envisioned a high God El who had a son Yahweh ?

  9. There are always so many questions that I have regarding “God” in the OT: Who are the “Elohim”? Are YHWH (Jehovah), El, Adonis, God of A,I & J, etc. all to be considered “The One God”? Who were the ancient Israelites praying to? Was it Jehovah/Jesus? Was it the Father (who is Elohim?)? Did God (YHWH) have a consort (i.e. Mother in Heaven)? Why is there air?

    I, of course, expect YOU to answer these, and all my other unwritten questions, definitively in your six-part series.

  10. larryco_,

    I will see what I can do. This series is currently in six parts, and several of them engage questions of interest to you. However, I should probably add a seventh part dealing with LDS Christian discourse on Jehovah. Thanks for the extra idea.



  11. Yeah, appealing to psalmic literature or other non-prose narrative language styles can be shaky ground for establishing a *biblical* precedent for pre-exilic polytheism, IMO. Don’t get me wrong, I think the archaeology shows that they were polytheistic (Asherah, anyone?), but the Hebrew Bible has been white-washed by various redactors from different ages to wash out anything that might intimate otherwise (if it ever did).

    Great post.

  12. larryco,

    Two things

    1. Around biblical scholars, it is wise to avoid using the 3rd person plural form of “to be” when referring to Elohim (ie, don’t say “Elohim are”), unless you really are talking about multiple gods. If you’re talking about biblical Elohim in a generic way, I advise saying “is,” not “are.”

    2. Outside of Mormon circles, “Jehovah/Jesus” is not accepted.

    I know you all are Mormons, so it is OK to say these things here, I’m just giving you tips on dialogue with “goiim” (gentiles).

  13. David J,

    Thanks for stopping by. I am in agreement with you that the Hebrew Bible has been heavily edited–especially by the Deuteronomists, as well as Priestly circles–to expunge references to other gods. However, their editing does not appear to have been systematic (as a number of texts referring to the reality of other gods demonstrates), and I see not insubstantial evidence of polytheistic tendencies in the Hebrew Bible. Moreover, this is confirmed, as you suggest, by relevant archaeology. In my view, the Deuteronomists were really the innovators, and their texts and those they edited reflect this fact. Thanks for contributing!



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