“The Rise of Monotheism…”

In our study of pre-exilic prophets such as Ezekiel and Jeremiah, we are taking a deep look at the cultural and political structures  that led to both the destruction of Samaria and Judah.  This post is written in response to an article by Christopher A. Rollston:  “The Rise of Monotheism In Ancient Israel: Biblical and Epigraphic Evidence.”

What is Rollston trying to get across, using what evidence, and reasoning from it how?

The main point of Rollston’s article is that the nation of Israel, early in its history, believed in several gods, One of which was Yahweh.  As time progressed, this belief system morphed into a belief that Yahweh was head of a pantheon of gods; and then finally that He was the One, true God.

Rollston’s reasoning and evidence flow from the following points:

  1.  Israel, in its beginning, was a small nation surrounded by several large polytheistic nations.  Israel was influenced greatly through ongoing contact with these nations and its culture matured along with those around it. (page 98.)
  2. These primary nations, Ammon, Moab, and Edom held similar belief systems of a “divine council,” or assembly of gods.  Both epigraphic and biblical evidence supports the idea that all three nations had a chief, or national god, during the time period in discussion.  These national gods were part of the greater assembly of gods.
  3. “When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods; the LORD’s own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.”  – Deuteronomy 32:8
    1. It is believed the above scripture was an earlier form of this text.  In it, the head of the Pantheon and is assigning different nations to the care of other, lesser gods.  Yahweh was “assigned” the nation of Israel.
    2. It is also believed, that as the belief in monotheism grew, this verse was changed from “the number of the gods;” to “the tribes of Israel,” in many later translations.  The later translations presented the more Deuteronomistic historical view of the “One true God belief.”
    3. Yahweh, it appears was Israel’s “national” god for some time, while operating within the construct of a divine assembly.
  4. Multiple excavation sites in Israel have unearthed religious inscriptions referring to “Yahweh and Asherah.”  Asherah was a believed female goddess and venerated in the surrounding areas. Along with the discovery of abundant numbers of female idols from archaeological projects in Israel (pg. 109,) we also have scriptural evidence of Israelite Asherah worship in 1st Kings chapters 14 and 16 for example.


What differences emerge between the “world in the text” (the biblical narratives) and the “world behind the text” (the actual history that produces the biblical narratives)?

The biblical narratives have been found by scholars to contain many “pseudo-corrections.”  These are alterations made to the original texts by the scribes as they were copying them.  These “corrections” were motivated by religious objections held by those responsible for the preservation of the stories. Most changes to the stories and oral traditions were made as the nation moved from a polytheistic belief system to a monotheistic one. One correction, noted above, was the change of Deuteronomy 32:8-9 (page 105).

As the cult belief system moved from polytheist to monotheist, the language and sometimes whole stories regarding the prophets were changed to reflect a more Deuteronomistic view.  As well, narratives regarding the reforming kings, namely Josiah and Hezekiah, were changed to later take on the theme of monotheism as a core value.  Many times, actions taken as military or political strategies were presented as theological reforms by the revisionists (Lectures.). In many ways, these “good” kings were portrayed as being first and foremost concerned with the worship of the One true God, when in reality, one could argue they were more interested in protecting themselves from the encroaching hostile nations surrounding them.

How might a religious community of your own experience respond to Rollston’s piece…or to the discovery that the piece’s claims are not even slightly controversial in the field of biblical studies?

On first read, I believe most in my faith community would be shocked, if not horrified to read this article.  The idea that the chosen ones of Israel would have, at any time, worshiped anyone except Yahweh would be unthinkable.  We are very much ingrained with the idea, “You shall have no other gods before me,” leads us to assume that the Israelites were monotheistic from the very beginning.

But if we truly think about it, of course they were polytheistic.  That was the main theme for the prophets for hundreds of years!!  “Turn back to Yahweh, stop worshiping foreign gods.  Don’t marry foreign women, they will pollute you with their idol worship!”

Of course they worshiped other gods.  The Bible tells us so, repeatedly.  However, we are so conditioned in the way that we think, we can be very closed-minded when it comes to “heresy.” I don’t know exactly how my congregation would react to this article, but my first thought is “OH NO!”  and then after a while of thinking about it, “probably so…”

5 responses to ““The Rise of Monotheism…”

  1. While I had a very difficult time understanding the article, you seem to have a good handle on it. You managed to bring out the main points, make the whole thing much easier to understand. I am afraid our congregation would react similarly to yours. First would come the “What did that say?” question and then through great discussion, I want to believe that they would (while maybe not agree with the idea) at the very least understand this author’s point of view.

  2. Hi, Lana! Good summary and reflection of Christopher A. Rollston’s article, “The Rise of Monotheism In Ancient Israel: Biblical and Epigraphic Evidence”! As for me, I was not surprised that much about the polytheism of the early Israel regarding the socio-historical background of Christianity that I learned last semester through the History of Christian faith and practices and the New Testament classes. However, as a Christian, I also didn’t expect this story about the Israelite Monotheism. I agree with you in that we are so conditioned and very closed-minded in our thought when it comes to “heresy,” which sometimes appears to be more reasonable than what we believe.

  3. I enjoyed especially reading your closing paragraphs that relate your initial first read understanding of the article and the orientation and disorientation given your current knowledge, followed by your re-orientation to ‘Of course they were polytheistic!’ based on the prophets messages found in the Bible itself. Very nice reflection on the article and how you moved through those stages of understanding as your worked through the article.

  4. Your post helps me to better understand the article overall because you seem to have a much better understanding. You brought out the main points in a simple to read way for myself an others! I love the obvious “of course” points you make here, we can see so clearly that they were polytheistic from what the prophets were speaking.. or warning people about so much!

  5. Reading this article by Rollstone, I was shocked as well. I had no idea how to understand it. But your writing lead me how to understand and approach it through your explanation. As you said, if my church family have a chance to read it, they would surely be surprised it. Great Job!

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