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Florine Cleary

Part I.

Was biblical religion monotheistic? (Please note that the question is focused on biblical

religion, that is, the religion that is sketched, presented, and assumed by the texts of the Hebrew

Bible). Do the authors of the biblical texts acknowledge the existence of other gods and heavenly

beings? Does the prohibition of worship imply the denial of existence?

The Tanakh does not present a clear consistent monotheism as we define the term today

(the existence of one unified divine being, the only divinity existent). The conception of

monotheism does find its foundation in the same logic expressed in the monolatry of post

covenantal Judaism, that there is one and only one who holds power and force over “us” and with

whom we have a significant relationship. The possibility of lesser gods is left open in some

passages, but that the god of Gen. is God (who chooses His people) and is the superior power is

coherently maintained. After the covenants it is natural that the question of other gods loses its

relevance except insofar as the monolatrus relationship may be strengthened or weakened. The

theory that (whether there are other gods or not) there is only one god “for us” and He is

therefore God, and the only one “we” ought to be concerning ourselves with, is what is most

evident in the Tanakh. Another possibility is that it would be unreasonable to hope to find a

consistently complete version of monotheism by today’s standards in the Bible given the care that

was given that nothing be lost and all be included; this is not to say that nothing was lost or
altered along the way but rather that a stronger emphasis seems to be on inclusion than editing

for readability. Yet another possibility is that the language, conventions and jargon of the day

make it difficult for us to understand the reference to other gods as was intended and the

Israelites and patriarchs really were from the beginning talking about strict monotheism, though

this seems to be more of a leap.

This question becomes frustrating when trying to understand the prohibitions on worship

of other gods and on idolatry. Are we meant to think that the worship of other gods and idols is

just based on the faulty belief in their existence or is it because God is simply a “jealous god” and

due to the covenant others have no force for “us”? If it is that the belief in them or in them having

any power at all is a false belief then the references to other gods for other nations could signify

that by virtue of being His chosen people, the Israelites are being let in on a great truth.1 The

chosen have been shown the reality of divinity in the world, other peoples “having” other gods

could simply mean that this is the way they are given to understand God’s divinity. Again the

importance of the special relationship is key but also obscures the distinction between one God

only and one God only for you. If God were simply the most superlatively godly of multiple gods

it would not be illogical to say “the Lord alone is God; there is none beside Him” (Deut 4.35), the

greatest god is God and He is the only about whom that may be said and so He is alone and Lord

and if you are lucky enough to know this you are profaning his identity as such to worship lesser

1
This would go along with the interpretation of Shabbat being a gift of divine knowledge to the Israelites.

This is God’s day of rest since the beginning of all and to you he lets it be known that you may observe and have it be

a sign of your special stature among peoples.


gods.2 The derogatory and subjugated way we see the other gods depicted in the passages where

they are mentioned supports the thought that their followers are in some way ignorant or

unfortunate. It would be ungrateful for Israelites to backslide then into worship of others once

God’s superiority and concern for them is shown. Passages stating that “it has been clearly

demonstrated” or “know therefore this day, and keep in mind that the Lord alone is God in

heaven above and on earth below” may not truly be meant to support the absence of other

divinities, but rather just the absence of other divinities on par with God and in this case

pertaining to the Israelites. Alternatively these “other gods” could be synonymous with idols – in

terms of constructing (in thought) something that one believes has force but is empty. If there are

other gods one should not worship/believe (put faith) in them for you ought to know “that the

Lord is great, that our Lord is greater than all goods” (psalm135.5) so “praise the God of gods”. 3

God is “most high” and “much acclaimed …held in awe by all divine beings” and “among the

divine beings He pronounces judgment”. While this is definitely not monotheism it is not far from
2
Deut. 4.19 And when you look up to the sky and behold the sun and the moon and the stars, the whole

heavenly host, you must not be lured into bowing down to them or serving them. These the Lord your God allotted to

other peoples everywhere under heaven, but you the Lord took and brought out of Egypt, that iron blast furnace, to

be His very own people, as is now the case.” The worship need not be of the sun and moon but is a generalization for

those natural phenomena that are attributed divinities (“god of grain”, “god of the river”, “god of death”) God either

is the originator of all of these phenomena as he is the only one of such power or God has delegated these tasks to

subordinates.

3
Exodus 15.11-12 “who is like you, O Lord among the celestials, who is like You, majestic in holiness,

awesome in splendor working wonders!” Psalm 86.8 “There is none like you among the gods, O Lord, and there are

no deeds like yours. All the nations you have made will come to bow down before You, O Lord, and they will pay

honor to your name. For You are great and perform wonders; You alone are God.”
it in that there is one alone who is most powerful and who is deserving of all worship and praise.

Perhaps it is just simply “O Lord God of Israel, in the heavens above and on the earth

below there is no god like You, who keep Your gracious covenant with Your servants when they

walk before you in wholehearted devotion..”(1Kings 8.23) and there is no god like that save God

and no people like that save the Israelites.

Part II: Answer either A or B:

B. According to the biblical texts that we have read so far, what is the relationship of God

with the people of Israel?

The specialness of the people of Israel echoes the specialness of God, revolutionary

not only is the monolatry but the covenantal relationship. Abraham and his line are raised to a

privileged place with God and at Mount Sinai the people of Israel are made distinct among all

peoples.4 The relationship between God and the people of Israel and to a large extent the

patriarchs that came before is one of mutual selection and mutual obligations and benefits. The

covenants made are of ever increasing complexity and eternally binding for the two parties. They

follow a general pattern of revelation, setting of terms, and signifying the ratification with a sign

between the two parties as a remembrance of the special relationship. For instance; God chose

Abraham and Sara’s progeny and Abraham choose to go and follow God’s instruction, he choose

to trust God and obey him. For this he was given the promise that from him a great nation would

4
“you shall be holy to Me, for I the Lord am holy, and I have set you apart from other peoples to be Mine”

(Leviticus). 20.26) “you shall faithfully observe My commandments; I am the Lord. You shall not profane My holy

name, that I may be sanctified in the mist of the Israelite people – I the Lord who sanctify you, I who brought you out

of the land of Egypt to be your God, I the Lord” (Leviticus) 22.31-33) ; Exodus ch 6; Leviticus 26; psalm 105;
arise with the promise of land and God’s special protection. At this point each is boned to be or

do certain things, Abraham to have God as his god and God to have Abraham and Sarah’s line be

the origin of His people. The bond is made manifest by a sign between the two parties, in this case

circumcision. This is an ongoing process until it culminates at Mount Sinai with God giving the

people his laws5 and the promise of his dwelling among them. There is a downside to either

party not keeping up their end of the bargain, for God the downside would be that it would

poorly reflect his might if the sinning Israelites went un-punished or if he punished them too

severely, for Israel though it does not seem that God could wipe them out entirely both out of

consideration for His reputation among the nations and because of the covenant He made with

Noah, still disasters will befall them6 and He may decide not to have his dwelling on earth among

them7 . God has chosen the patriarchs and the people of Israel for reasons which are not

presented in the Tanakh but we may extrapolate that it was due to certain attributes that pleased

him about the patriarchs8 but none of this is directly said in the torah. The metaphor of a

matrimonial bond takes precedence over the parental bond established with all peoples, the

Israelites have been chosen for and have accepted a more mature relationship with greater

obedience expected from them but with the privileges of God’s special protection (subject to how
5
The Decalogue and most of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.

6
Psalm 105.40-46

7
“You shall faithfully observe all My laws and all My regulations, lest the land to which I bring you to settle

in spew you out” (Leviticus). 20. 22-24)

8
Abraham’s generosity and trusting good nature would indeed make him receptive as would the promise of

being the father to a great nation to a childless old man (and his wife). Moses for his humility, sense of justice, etc. but

none of this is directly said in the torah.


well they keep up their end and follow His laws) and insights veiled from other peoples9. In

return they must follow his laws and worship him properly10. God likewise has an obligation not

to “abandon the bride of His youth” Israel and it is unclear whether it would be at all possible for

him to dissolve the covenant entirely. God is not only the arbitrator of all justice be seems to

necessarily be subject to His justice and so bound to keep the covenants he makes.

9
“I the Lord make you holy” (Leviticus) 20.7-8

10
The Shema. Deut 6.4-9 ;

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