My recent post on “God’s Wife” provoked strong feelings in a few readers. One reader believed that the information about Israel’s monotheism was a view proposed by liberal scholars to destroy the idea that ancient Israel was a monotheistic religion. Another reader said that, instead of looking at the evidence from archaeology, he would take what the Bible says about Israel.
The reason that my post created these reactions was because I did not explain where I stand on the issue. One reader asked about my view whether Asherah was God’s wife. It is for this reason that I decided to write a post explaining my view on monotheism and the faith of Israel.
First, it must be said that the development of monotheism in Israel is not as easy to understand as some Christians believe. Many Christians believe that ancient Israel’s understanding of God was monotheistic from the beginning. They believe that the people of Israel have consistently worshiped God alone. One of my students wrote that monotheism begins with Genesis 1:1: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” In his view, since God created everything, then Israel was called to believe in only one God, the true creator of the universe.
However, when one studies the concept of monotheism in ancient Israel, one concludes that many Israelites were not monotheists. In this post, I will use only the biblical evidence to illustrate this view. I will avoid the archaeological evidence because some readers may say that the evidence is based on a humanistic understanding of the biblical text. In the near future, I may write a series of posts dealing with the development of monotheism in Israel.
To properly understand the concept of monotheism, it becomes necessary to define some terms. All definitions below are taken from The Random House Dictionary of the English Language: The Unabridged Edition.
Monotheism. “The doctrine or belief that there is only one God.” Thus, monotheism requires the exclusive worship of one god. Monotheism also denies the existence of other gods.
Polytheism. “The doctrine of or belief in more than one god or in many gods.” Polytheism allows people to worship more than one god. The Hittites were known as “the nation of a thousand gods.”
Henotheism. “The worship of one of a group of gods, in contrast with monotheism which teaches that only one god exists.” Henotheism means that an individual worships one god without denying the existence of other gods.
Monolatry. “The worship of but one god when other gods are recognized as existing.” Monolatry is similar to henotheism. The difference is that in monolatry the person chooses to worship only one specific god to the exclusion of others gods, however, without denying the existence of others gods.
With these definitions in mind, let us look at the biblical text. Although Abraham came from a polytheistic family (Jos. 24:2), Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob believed and worshiped only one God, whom they called El Shaddai: “I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as God Almighty [El Shaddai], but by my name ‘The LORD’ [Yahweh] I did not make myself known to them” (Exod. 6:3). There is no evidence in the Pentateuch that the patriarchs worshiped any of the gods of the land of Canaan. However, Jacob’s wives and members of his household worshiped other gods: “Jacob said to his household and to all who were with him, ‘Put away the foreign gods that are among you’” (Gen. 35:2).
When Moses received the Ten Commandments from God, God expected the people of Israel to worship only him: “Do not have other gods besides Me” (Exod. 20:3 HCSB) or as the New Jerusalem Bible translates: “You shall have no other gods to rival me.” This commandment is a basic statement in the formation of the faith of Israel. However, the first commandment does not deny the existence of other gods. The commandment teaches that Yahweh was the only God whom the Israelites should worship.
Although Moses’ understanding of God is a continuation of the faith expressed by Abraham, many people in Israel had a difficult time accepting the belief in Yahweh alone. While Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving the Law, the people of Israel made the Golden Calf to worship. The people told Aaron: “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us” (Exod. 32:1). Aaron did not protest nor did he defend a monotheistic faith. He said to the people: “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” (Exod. 32:4).
The Golden Calf represents the Egyptian bull god Apis. The fact is, as Joshua said, many Israelites worshiped other gods in Egypt. When Joshua renewed the covenant with a new generation of Israelites, he told them: “Now therefore revere the LORD, and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness; put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD” (Josh. 24:14). The gods that the ancestors served in Egypt probably included Apis, the bull god.
The Bible is filled with prohibitions against worshiping or serving other gods. Below are a few references out of almost one hundred references found in the Hebrew Bible forbidding the worship of pagan gods:
“Do not invoke the names of other gods” (Exod. 23:13).
“Do not follow other gods, any of the gods of the peoples who are all around you” (Deut. 6:14).
“If you transgress the covenant of the LORD your God . . . and go and serve other gods and bow down to them, then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you” (Josh. 23:16).
“[The people of Israel] lusted after other gods and bowed down to them” (Judg. 2:17).
“They [the people of Israel] have forsaken the LORD their God . . . and embraced other gods, worshiping them and serving them” (1 Kings 9:9).
These verses and many others show that the people of Israel served other gods, worshiped them, and even lusted after them. The prophet Hosea proclaimed the rebellion of Israel with these words: “They kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols” (Hos. 11:2). But not all Israelites believed in the same way. There were a few faithful people who believed that they should worship Yahweh alone. The prophet Micah proclaimed: “For all the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the LORD our God forever and ever” (Mic. 4:5).
Space does not allow me to list all the texts showing how the people of Israel believed in Yahweh and worshiped other gods in addition to the God of Israel. I will cite three more examples that reflect the faith of many Israelites.
The writer of 1 Kings writes the following about Solomon:
“For Solomon followed Astarte the goddess of the Sidonians, and Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem” (1 Kings 11:5-7). Solomon, the king who built God’s magnificent temple in Jerusalem, “followed Astarte the goddess of the Sidonians.” He also built temples for Chemosh and for Molech, gods to whom human sacrifices were made.
Solomon died in 962 BC. Three hundred years later, in 622 BC, those temples were still on the mountain east of Jerusalem. Josiah, during his religious reform, destroyed the high places Solomon had built: “The king [Josiah] defiled the high places that were east of Jerusalem, to the south of the Mount of Destruction, which King Solomon of Israel had built for Astarte the abomination of the Sidonians, for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites” (2 Kings 23:13).
Why did these pagan temples remain in Jerusalem for more than three hundred years? Because many people in Israel worshiped at these pagan temples.
During the time of Elijah, Jezebel built a temple for Baal in Samaria and brought “four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and four hundred prophets of Asherah” to serve in Baal’s temple (1 Kings 18:19). These prophets gained so many converts for their faith that Elijah believed that he was the only prophet left in Israel (1 Kings 19:10). Yahweh told Elijah that he was not alone: “I will leave seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have not bowed to Baal, and every mouth that has not kissed him” (1 Kings 19:18). In a nation that had hundreds of thousands inhabitants, only seven thousand had not bowed to Baal and had not kissed the idol representing Baal.
During the time of Ezekiel, God took him to Jerusalem to see the abomination of the people. There, in the temple, Ezekiel saw all kinds of creeping things and loathsome animals portrayed on the walls of the temple. He saw women sitting at the entrance of the north gate of the house of the Lord weeping for Tammuz. He saw twenty-five men at the entrance of the temple, between the porch and the altar, with their backs to the temple of God and their faces toward the east, prostrating themselves to the sun (Ezek. 8:10-16). All these pagan forms of worship were practiced in the temple of the Lord.
Although time and space does not allow me to present the other side, that is, how Israel came to believe that Yahweh was the only God or how the nation came to accept monotheism as their basic statement of faith, one can see that many people in Israel believed in Yahweh and at the same time believed and served other gods. As stated above, it will take several posts to trace the development of monotheistic faith in Israel.
Many Israelites were monotheists and this is found throughout the Old Testament, especially in the prophetic books. However, it is not until the exile, especially in the writings of the exilic prophet known as Deutero-Isaiah that pure monotheism is expressed unequivocally. Deutero Isaiah wrote: “Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel, and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god” (Isa. 44:6).
To conclude this long post. I do not believe that Asherah was God’s wife, but many Israelites in the Northern Kingdom believed she was. The biblical text clearly shows that many people in Israel worshiped pagan gods alongside Yahweh. Although there were many efforts to promote the worship of Yahweh alone in Israel, it is not until the exile that the faith of Israel began to reject belief in other gods and proclaim that Yahweh alone was the only God, Lord, and Creator and besides him, there was no other god.
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary