The Origins of Israel's Monotheistic Concept of God

Arising from Effusive Praise of the Deity
By Walter Reinhold Warttig Mattfeld
12 May 2001

Great efforts have been made by Humanist scholarship in attempting to identify the factors that played a role in the evolution of Hebrew religious belief resulting in a Monotheistic concept of God. The quest still continues today, no one has been able to present a theory which merits a scholarly consensus as to the origins of Monotheism in Israel, especially as she existed in a world that embraced Polytheism.

I am of the persuasion that Israel developed her Monotheistic concept of God in the course of the 8th-6th centuries BCE. True Monotheism, embraced by ALL Jews, however, did not come about until sometime after Ezra's arrival in Jerusalem. His Torah and Nehemiah's activities along with Persian Imperial support for the Torah, swept away whatever residual Polytheism there was, and one way only was now acceptable for honoring God. Ezra did not "invent" Monotheism, it was apparently a long time evolving and it evidently met fierce resistance from a peoples who desired to honor their God in the same manner that their ancestors had. It is my understanding that Israel's "original" God in the Late BronzeAge period was married to a goddess, the Queen of Heaven, he had children, the gods, and he was also the father of mankind; His royal symbol was the bull or bull-calf, he being called "Bull-El" in the Ugaritic myths (13th/12th centuries BCE).

I am of the suspicion that Israelite Monotheism was an outgrowth of what I would call "effusive praise for the deity." A phenomenon that appears in hymns to various gods in the Neo Assyrian and Neo-Babylonian periods.

Quoted at some length are various Assyrian and Babylonian hymns which are compared and contrasted with Hebrew hymns perserved in the Book of Psalms. I am indebted to Morton Smith for an observation he made which lies behind this presentation-

"Prayer and praise are usually directed to one god at a time, and peoples and persons are often represented as, or appear to have been, particularly devoted to the worship of a single god. The mythology tells of many gods, of course- you can't have much mythology about a solitary being- and it accounts for many of the practices of worship- no doubt because it was invented to do so. But the mythology seems rather a literary than a religious product. And just as it, for its own purposes, exploited polytheism, so prayer and praise, no doubt because of their own nature, are usuall directed to one god at a time. This fact is characterisitic of the rest of the theological pattern.

The god being worshipped is regularly flattered- that is to say, exalted. Though he may occupy a minor position in the preserved mythological works, yet in the worship addressed to him he is regularly represented as greater than all other gods. It is often said that he created not only the world, but also the other gods. He is the only true god; sometimes, even when worshipped in close connection with other deities, the only god. This does not mean, of course, that he is actually thought to be the only god; the expression is usually no more than a form of flattery; only in a few special cases does it come to be taken literally. As a form of flattery it is often an expression of local patriotism, which achieved it by a chain of exaggeration something like this : Our god is the greatest of all gods, there is none other like him, there is none other.

Such exaltation of the god worshipped is motivated also by the worshipper's desire to convince himself that this god can grant his requests. Therefore this god has all power necessary to do what his worshipper ask (and this is the important thing; this granted, whether or not he has all power is an academic question sure to be answered in the affirmative sooner or later by the natural development of flattery)." (pp.50-51, Morton Smith, "The Common Theology of the Ancient Near East." Frederick E. Greenspahn, editor. Essential Papers on Israel and the Ancient Near East. New York. New York University Press. 1991. ISBN 0-8147-3037-X )

I am positing that in the course of the 8th-6th centuries BCE, some priests came to the conviction that the effusive praise heaped upon a worshipper's god, ignited a new concept, that there was really only ONE GOD, the others were not gods at all ! This new development evidently met fierce resistance for several centuries from the population at large. THE BOOK OF PSALMS HAS PRESERVED VERSES THAT REVEAL THAT THERE WAS A TIME THAT THE HEBREWS UNDERSTOOD THAT GOD WAS NOT THE ONE AND ONLY GOD, he was merely a God of extraordinary powers amongst lesser gods- Nothing else makes any sense ! Smith's observation about a worshipper's effusive praise is also noted by Cumming. The following verses are from Cumming and are helpful in understanding the parallels between Hebrew and Assyro-Babylonian religious thought-

"It is only when the Assyrian hymn applies to its deity the superlative degree, that it touches common ground with the Hebrew hymn. For both Assyrian and Hebrew worshippers praise their deity as the incomparable god. Such passages from Assyrian hymns are :

O mighty God, to whom there is no rival in the assembly of the great gods (Hymn to Marduk no. 5)

Marduk, among all gods thou excellest (Hymn to Marduk no.6)

King of Kings, exalted one, whose decrees none can oppose, No god is like unto thy divinity. (Hymn to Sin No. 5)

Hebrew Hymns:

For I know that Yahwe is great, Even our Lord than all gods. (Ps.135:5)

For a great God is Yahwe, And a great King over all gods. (Ps. 95:3)

For great is Yahwe, and to be praised exceedingly; Terrible is He above all gods. (Ps. 96:4)

Also the existence of many gods is implied in the rhetorical question common to the Assyrian and Hebrew hymns. Assyrian:

O Lord who is like thee, who can be compared to thee; Mighty one, who is like thee, who can be compared to thee; Lord Nannar, who is like thee, who can be compared to thee ? (Hymn to Sin No. 5)

Identical in form is the question addressed to Nergal:

O Lord who is like thee, who can be compared to thee; Most mighty one, who is like unto thee, who can be compared to thee; Nergal who is like thee, who can be compared to thee ? (Hymn to Nergal No. 6)

Ishtar herself asks the question:

Who is equal to me, me; Who is comparable to me, me ? (Hymn to Ishtar No.4)

The question is followed by the answer in the following examples:

Who is exalted in heaven, THOU ALONE ART EXALTED; Who is exalted on earth, THOU ALONE ART EXALTED. (Hymn to Sin No.5)

What god in heaven or earth can be compared to thee, Thou art high over all of them Among the gods superior is thy counsel (Hymn to Marduk No.3)

Biblical examples of such rhetorical questions are :

For who in the skies can be compared unto Yahwe, Who is like Yahwe among the gods ? (Ps 89:7)

Yahwe god of hosts who is like thee ? Strong art thou Yahwe and thy faithfulness is round about thee. (Ps 89:9)

Moreover there is, for Assyrian, as for Hebrew, the council of the gods, in which one god is the supreme judge.

O mighty god to whom there is no rival in the assembly of the great gods. (Hymn to Marduk No. 3)

Then come the great gods for trial before thee. (Hymn to Shamash No.3)

Yahwe takes his stand in the council of the gods:

in the midst of gods he judgeth. (Ps 82:1)

A God very terrible in the council of the holy ones, And to be feared above all them that are around Him. (Ps 89:8)

Furthermore, both in Assyrian and Biblical hymns, the gods themselves do homage to the highest god :

O Sin, at thy appearance the gods assemble; Kings all of them, prostrate themselves. (Hymn to Sin No. 3)

There bow before thee the Igigi, the Annunaki, the gods, the goddesses. (Hymn to Marduk No. 1)

Worship him all ye gods. (Ps 97:7)

Ascribe unto Yahwe ye sons of God, Ascribe unto Yahwe Glory and strength. (Ps 29:1)

Yahwe, who is thus worshipped by the gods, can appropriately be called "God of gods and Lord of lords" :

O give thanks unto the God of gods. (Ps 136:2) O give thanks unto the Lord of lords. (Ps 136:3)

The Assyrian hymn passes beyond the point where the deity is exalted above other gods :

Whose great glory through Bel the regent of heaven, Is exceedingly high over all gods, (Hymn to Marduk No. 1)

to the point where the god alone is exalted :

O lord chief of gods, WHO ALONE IS EXALTED ON EARTH AND IN HEAVEN; Who is exalted in heaven, THOU ALONE ART EXALTED; Who is exalted on earth, THOU ALONE ART EXALTED. (Hymn to Sin No.5)

Likewise the Hebrew hymn speaks of the exaltation of Yahwe and passes beyond the point where Yahwe is high above all gods.

For thou art high over all the earth, Thou art gone up exceedingly above all gods. (Ps 97:9)

High over all nations is Yahwe; Over the heavens his glory- (Ps 113:4)

to the point where Yahwe alone is exalted in the earth :

Be still and know that I am God: I will be exalted in the earth; I will be exalted among the nations (Ps 46:11) "

(pp.102-105. Charles Gordon Cumming. The Assyrian and Hebrew Hymns of Praise. New York. AMS Press, Inc. 1966 [1934 Columbia University Press] pp.176)

Conclusions :

It is my understanding that Israel's Monotheism is an outgrowth of a common religious phenomenon, the effusive praise of a deity by his worshipper, as in the case of Sin being exalted-

O lord chief of gods, WHO ALONE IS EXALTED ON EARTH AND IN HEAVEN; Who is exalted in heaven, THOU ALONE ART EXALTED; Who is exalted on earth, THOU ALONE ART EXALTED. (Hymn to Sin No.5)

Evidently some Hebrew priests came to believe that their deity really was the "THOU ALONE IS EXALTED" and thus the ONE GOD, perhaps they were seen as "deluding themselves" by their contemporaries who used the same descriptive praises for their deities, but who also acknowledged the existence of other gods ? The people resisted this new interpretation, they probably had no problem with the effusive praise, it existed everywhere in the Pre-Exilic world of the 8th-6th centuries, but to claim there were no other gods- that was heresy ! As noted earlier, only after the activities of Ezra, and Nehemiah with Persian assent, did the nation give up Polytheism, and True Monotheism prevailed at long last.