Beyond Monotheism — 3. “No god but me”: the roots of monotheism in Israel

The history of the emergence of monotheism in Israel has been a subject of much debate, complicated by many scholars’ clear desire to secure Israel as “the first locus of revelation for the oneness of divinity” (27)–either for ideological or pietistic reasons. This history has even higher stakes due to the fact that Judaism and the religions that came from it, Christianity and Islam, stake their identity on belief in one God.

Investigation continues even now that the ideological project of grounding modern monotheistic progress has largely fallen by the wayside, with new research focusing on the influence of surrounding cultures like Egypt, Persia, and Assyria on Israel’s religious viewpoint. Now it is clear that Israel was not the first to develop a society centered in monolatry and that it was only during the Babylonian exile that exclusive monotheism emerged (in Second Isaiah). There are seeds of exclusivity even before the exile, however, most notably in King Josiah’s attempt to get rid of all cults but that of YHWH, a project linked to the threat of Assyrian conquest and the need to present a unified front — but it didn’t prove sufficient to prevent later conquest by Babylon and subsequently Persia, which led to the exile.

The achievements of the Jewish elites were quite impressive given the huge temptation to give up on their apparently defeated God and conform to the broader culture. Before laying out the one-God doctrine they arrived at, though, Schneider looks at the precursors. One-God systems did exist in many of the states that succeeded the collapsed Egyptian empire, and of course Egypt famously experimented with exclusive monotheism under Akhenaten. Babylonian emperor Nabonidus declared himself to be the one God, and in Persia there was also a movement toward monotheism associated with Zoroaster. Given the ever-shifting empires of the era, cross-cultural fertilization is likely here. In addition, since evidence against a sudden conquest of Canaan is mounting, we also need to take into account ancient Canaanite forms of worship. The history that emerges is one of gradual change, rather than a jump out of polytheism into monotheism. In the milennium leading up to the exile, even the name of Israel’s God was up for grabs, meaning that perhaps the various Bible stories are actually talking about different deities that only later became condensed into one.

While the roots are complex and sometimes unclear, the emergence of an exclusive one-God doctrine in the exile, as represented by Second Isaiah, is not a subject of debate. This doctrine emerged and evolved over a milennium “of almost unceasing threat to Jewish identity,” coming to a climax with the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70CE. In that context, “the genius of this period is the transformation of the political downfall of Israel into the political ascendancy of Israel’s God” (32). A local god is promoted to ruler of the universe, and the exile is all part of his plan. This shift is the climax of a long history of convergence among different cultures into a single identity, which the invention of monotheism then secured.

Monotheism took three forms. The first was a polemic against other gods, which provided families with a way to help their children resist the temptation of assimilation so as to preserve their identity as Jews, a struggle akin to that against “Americanization” today. The second sought to connect with the colonizing culture, as was necessary when the more tolerant Persians took control and polemics no longer seemed wise. This strain engaged with Hellenistic and perhaps Zoroastrian thought to develop a more philosophically sophisticated monotheism. The first form is an ethnic exclusionism, where the second one is a more class-based exclusionism, mocking the practices of commoners without access to philosopy, etc. The third form was a way of dealing with the splits within the Jewish nation itself, attempting to provide some continuity between the diaspora and the land itself. The process was complex and variegated, but the result was that “the transcendence of the One-God freed the people’s identity from the limitations of geographic space or from narrow and fragile national boundaries, all of which had been shattered by the exile and continued to be threatened by superpower empires on every side” (35). This led to a shift toward acts of fidelity and obedience as the focus of worship, as opposed to bonds of genealogy and temple, “though memory of the god of the land never disappeared” (35). What began as an attempt to preserve the nation from danger became a way to reconceive its identity after the worst had already happened.

All this is captured in Second Isaiah, which works especially hard to reconcile its ideal of a cosmic god with previous understandings of gods as military leaders of particular nations, creating a concept of God who “is the warrior king and cosmic creator in one” (36). Second Isaiah represents the heart of Israel’s influence on later religions such as Christianity and Islam, and Schneider seems to believe that it was in many ways a positive development: “This theological move, or realization [that God wasn’t bound to a particular nation or place], set Israel’s theocracy up to become Judaism, by freeing its God from the sacral necessity of temple or land, to be as ubiquitous as life itself, and as mobile as a Torah scroll” (37). This development in the context of exile “suggests strongly that the theological imagination is always responding to the question of divine presence, interest, and legitimacy in social and political affairs” (37)–in this case, by making an audacious paradigm shift. Yet this paradigm shift wasn’t entirely new or unprecedented — Egypt had long known of the possibility of an exclusive One-God doctrine, as did the same Persian empire that allowed the Jewish elites return to their own land, and meanwhile the Nile provided a conduit for “a wide range of African cosmologies…, many of which supported unified ultimate divine principles” (37). In other words, the emergence of Jewish monotheism took place in a context that would find the basic idea plausible, but that doesn’t take away from the profound religious genius that the conditions of exile drew forth.

Reflections/questions: I assume that this chapter was largely review for most of our theologically-trained leaders, but I think the particular emphases in the presentation are valuable — most notably the insistence on cross-cultural influences and above all the focus on the ways that the specific context of exile and the threat of cultural dissolution played into the development of Jewish monotheism. It’s one of history’s great ironies that this concept of God that would prove so helpful to empire arose as a protest against empire. Surely this confirms Schneider’s earlier claim that theology always has to deal with unintended consequences.

9 thoughts on “Beyond Monotheism — 3. “No god but me”: the roots of monotheism in Israel

  1. Yeah, all fairly basic stuff. I found the early modern stuff from earlier chapters more interesting.

    One of the reasons I’ve been reticent despite actually following this daily reading thing is that I’m waiting for discussion of New Testament texts like 1 Cor 8. I now see in the text index that this won’t be coming up.

    And that’s kind of my main criticism of The Book So Far: it is skimming over the top of issues. Nitty gritty treatment of texts seem below it. We are told that monotheism is complicit with monarchy. OK: but what prevents us from reading “no God but God” (i.e. not the king either)? Rather than “one God, one king”? And how relevant is a criticism of monarchy at the moment anyway? Surely the current form of government looks a lot more like a heavenly host than a supreme God.

    I think the book needs to go a little slower, tease out the arguments a bit more, and take more time. But maybe these discussions will come later. I’m just following the reading days, and so genuinely haven’t skipped ahead.

    Extremely useful exercise though!

  2. Andy,

    W/R/T the monarchy stuff, I think Schneider is piggy-backing a lot on the work of Moltmann and Jennings and so doesn’t feel she has to give the same slow argument. I take this beginning, genalogical section to simply be a tracing (which may be too quick and dirty in some ways) of the variety of ways the logic of the One may be found in the Christian tradition (Jew, Greek, post-Christian science, etc.), but also the ways that this logic is exceeded in that tradition. So, that said, I didn’t take it to be a criticism of the current political situation, but there is no denying that “no God but God” was not taken in the radical way you suggest and so it must be dealt with even as memory. That said, I too am reticent, somewhat, about a number of historical issues that I will be bringing up in the post tomorrow. As someone who is generally sympathetic to the project here I thought it important to treat it as a kind of self-questioning, that seems to me to be in the spirit of the book anyway.

    Could you say more about 1 Cor 8 for the less Biblically aware amongst us (i.e. me)? What exactly were you hoping to see?

  3. Yeah, I’m aware of the tradition (although cannot claim to know Moltmann and Jennings as well as I should): but I think that’s part of the tradition that could be contested. Particularly Paul’s political practice of aping the emperor has a theological as well as an obviously christological grammar.

    The bible bit I was referring to says this:
    “we know that an idol is nothing in the world and that there is no god but the one. Even though there are said to be “gods” in heaven or on earth, just as their are many gods and many lords, but for us there is one god, the father, from whom is all and we in him, and one lord Jesus Christ, through whom is all and we through him. But not everyone has knowledge.” (1 Cor 8.4-7, my translation).

    You can see how I think this is important for discussions of sovereignty, monotheism and monolatry in the Christian tradition. Furthermore, the Greek-style references (references to “all”) make it all the more important for tomorrow’s discussion.

    That said, I am also extremely sympathetic to the book, and consider this self-questioning as well. Which is why it is a little annoying to have my solidarity assumed. I want to learn, not pat myself on the back for being so right: I’m teaching this course this year and am therefore considering the book for next year’s reading list too.

  4. I think we only disagree about whether or not Schneider agrees that this is part of the tradition that could be contested. I think she does this throughout the first part, particularly in the way she shows the “tactical” use of monotheism in the history of Israel and Greece, but especially in the chapter on Dante. We’ll see if you agree once you get there and then we can take this further if not.

  5. Is there any discussion of Islam? Surely Islam is the hyper-monotheism, which weirdly, in Sufi mysticism, means all things are related because all differences are imaginary – hence unity is multiplicity. Tawhid being the character of Allah’s oneness, means that creation in dependence must demonstrate this concept, so does through the oneness of being – wahdat al-wujud. Interesting consequences of this mean that no object is unrelated to every object since all division is in fact false.

  6. No in-depth discussion of Islam, though if one wanted to they could undertake a similar project in Islamic theology. Sufi Islam being an instance where the logic of the One is exceeded, especially in some of the obviously Queer traditions found in Turkey and parts of India that rely on Sufi thought.

    You should get ahold of the book and read along though. It is very interesting. The Notts library has a copy.

  7. I’m not sure that a slower opening section would really serve Schneider’s goal, which is to present (the beginning of) a positive constructive alternative to monotheism. In that light, it also seems strange to complain that she’s not pointing out how there could conceivably be a “good” version of monotheism that doesn’t support monarchy, etc. To be fair, she seems fairly sympathetic to the work monotheism was doing in exilic Judaism, so presumably she’d acknowledge that it could be and perhaps even has been appropriated in more positive ways in history beyond that — but I agree with her that the overwhelming thrust has been to use monotheism in the opposite way, and it seems hard to dispute that.

    On your point about 1 Corinthians 8 — it’s not clear to me that that’s a necessary go-to passage. To me, that sounds like one of the core insights that virtually every Christian theologian has shared.

  8. I’m not disputing that her account of monotheism doesn’t include ambiguity: the description of Isaiah did give us two different ways in which it could work. So I’m fine with Anthony’s reactions. He’s right.

    My niggle is that there is not enough argument. We have a lot of claims, a fair number of quotations, and summarising of literature. But I should like to hear interpretations of texts, philosophical arguments, anything really that will stop me from reading this and thinking ‘maybe, maybe not…’ – because I’m not being persuaded here. Not because I’m being stubborn. She’s not trying (yet).

    1 Cor 8 strikes me as a text that brackets the question of how many divinities there are for the sake of worship: monolatry rather than monotheism. I don’t know of any other text in the New Testament that does so quite so explicitly. To the extent that the existence of gods is left entirely unquestioned (outside idolatry criticism, which strikes me as something else) in the Old Testament, we could say that no other place in the Christian Bible really does this. The best candidate I know of is John 10.34.

    The other reason is that it has been argued that this passage takes a shema form.

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