Mark Smith: Origins of Biblical Monotheism

Below are some excerpts from Mark Smith’s book Origins of Biblical Monotheism.

The historical context for understanding the biblical God includes other gods and goddesses. (pg 19)

At first glance, Israelite monotheism would seem theoretically to stand at odds with the imagery of Israelite assembly with its multiplicity of divinities, even if they are minor or subservient to Yahweh as their absolute king. In fact, the divine assembly is not oppositional to monotheistic statements in biblical literature. For example, it is commonly held by biblical scholars…that the opening of “Second Isaiah” (Isaiah 40) involves a divine council scene, yet this chapter is part of a larger work that contains the greatest number of monotheistic statements in the Bible….Divine council language and scenes also appear in the “priestly work” of the Pentateuch and post-exilic books (Zechariah and Daniel), which assumedly are monotheistic. In other words, monotheism requires one divine assembly headed by one divine ruler, but it makes little or no impact on the language of the assembly in itself. (pg. 51)

Some scholars would accept as monotheistic passages that condemn the veneration of other deities, without commenting on their existence. One might then include the First Commandment (Exodus 20:3 and Deuteronomy 5:7) or Deuteronomy 32:12, 15b-21, and 37-37. Or one might be tempted to add the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4 to the list of monotheistic claims.
J.H. Tigay has a similar view: “For all its familiarity, the precise meaning of the Shema is uncertain and it permits several possible meanings. The present translation indicates that the verse is a description of the proper relationship between YHVH and Israel: He alone is Israel’s God. This is not a declaration of monotheism, meaning that there is only one God.” (pg. 153)

To understand the monotheistic statements in “Second Isaiah,” one must recognize them as part of the work’s rhetoric. Indeed, biblical claims of monotheism are generally rhetorical. Israelites continued to worship deities other than Yahweh both before and possibly after the exile. We may assume on the basis of available evidence that the ruling priestly groups of the post-exilic theocracy maintained a Yahwistic monolatry expreseed in its rhetoric of monotheism, but such a historical conclusion does not justify claims for an entirely “monotheistic culture.” Because of the relative rarity of monotheistic claims and the ongoing presence of polytheism in ancient Israel, no one can confirm a clear evolution from monarchic monolatry (the worship of only one god, e.g., Exodus 22:19) to a new stage of religion called monotheism (belief in and worship of only deity). (pg. 154)

Monotheistic statements do not herald a new age or religion but explain Yahwistic monolatry in absolute terms. As rhetoric, monotheism reinforced Israel’s exclusive relationship with its deity. Monotheism is a kind of inner community discourse establishing a distance from outsiders; it uses the language of Yahweh’s exceptional divine status beyond and in all reality (“there are no other deities but the Lord”) to absolute Yahweh’s claim on Israel and to express Israel’s ultimate fidelity to Yahweh. Monotheism is therefore not a new cultural step but expresses Israel’s relationship to Yahweh. C. Seitz insightfully asserts:

This is not a sublime monotheism capable of differentiation from a more concrete henotheism-rather it is henotheism of a particularly potent stripe. The other elohim that continue to claim allegiance from humanity have detachable names and detachable existences-to the degree that YHWH insists that they do not exist at all and envisions a time when representatives of the nations will make the confession once enjoined of Israel only.

Monotheistic statements attempted to persuade Judeans still unconvinced of this perspective. Perhaps these declarations represent the efforts of a minority of “monotheists” to persuade a majority of Judeans who held Yahweh as the head of a larger group of divinities or divine powers. Perhaps the main point of such statements was not simply to move the latter into the “monotheistic camp” but to convince them of the reality of Yahweh’s power in the world. (pg. 154-155)

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