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


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

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.

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

“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

The Decalogue and most of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. Psalm 105.40-46 “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)

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.


“I the Lord make you holy” (Leviticus) 20.7-8 The Shema. Deut 6.4-9 ;