Mapping Monotheism: Modes of Monotheistic Rhetoric in the Hebrew Bible

in Vetus Testamentum
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Several biblical traditions give expression to Yhwh’s sole divinity in ways utterly unlike the “classic” expressions of monotheism in Deuteronomy, Deutero-Isaiah, or Jeremiah. Priestly literature, for example, does not deny explicitly the existence of other gods, or assert Yhwh’s sole existence. Instead, priestly writers portray a world in which none but Yhwh could meaningfully exist or act. While some biblical scholars have recognized this “implicit” mode of monotheistic rhetoric, the implications of this and other modes of monotheistic rhetoric for a broader understanding of biblical monotheism have gone unappreciated. In this article, I create a taxonomy of various “explicit” and “implicit” modes of monotheizing in the Hebrew Bible. Then, I consider several implications of these diverse modes for understanding the variegated shape of biblical monotheism, and for using the Hebrew Bible to reconstruct monotheism’s history.

Vetus Testamentum

A Quarterly Published by the International Organization for the Study of the Old Testament




S. M. Olyan, “Is Isaiah 40-55 Really Monotheistic?” JANER 12 (2012), pp. 190-201; J. Barr, “The Problem of Israelite Monotheism,” TGUOS 17 (1957-58), pp. 52-62 (53-55); P. A. H. de Boer, Second Isaiah’s Message (ots 11; Leiden: Brill, 1956), 47. The last two sources were cited by N. MacDonald, “Monotheism and Isaiah,” in Interpreting Isaiah: Issues and Approaches (ed. H. G. M. Williamson and D. G. Firth; Apollos, 2009), pp. 43-61 [50-51].


Discussed by H. Clifford, “Deutero-Isaiah and Monotheism,” in Prophecy and Prophets in Ancient Israel: Proceedings of the Oxford Old Testament Seminar (ed. J. Day; lhb/ots 531; T & T Clark, 2010), pp. 267-89.


M. S. Heiser, “Does Divine Plurality in the Hebrew Bible Demonstrate an Evolution from Polytheism to Monotheism in Israelite Religion?” JESOT 1/1 (2012), pp. 1-24 [5].


N. MacDonald, “Monotheism and Isaiah,” p. 51.


For other examples, see Hays, “Religio-Historical Approaches,” pp. 169-93.


Petersen, “Israel and Monotheism: The Unfinished Agenda,” in Canon, Theology, and Old Testament Interpretation: Essays in Honor of Brevard S. Childs (ed. G. M. Tucker, D. L. Petersen and R. R. Wilson; Fortress, 1988), pp. 92-107 [102]. Similarly, T. Frymer-Kensky argued that Exodus portrays Yhwh’s control over fertility, rain, and health (e.g., Exod 23:25-27; Gen 49:25), domains often associated with female deities: “[A]s YHWH appropriates each of these powers, the image of divine mastery emerges, with all its consequences for the conceptualization of nature and humanity” (In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture, and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth [The Free Press, 1992], p. 89). Later she writes, “In this monotheist view, all nature is one unified field. Everything is interrelated and under the control of one deity. . . . there are no forces in tension and cooperation. All of nature is unified . . . as manifestations of the power of one God. . . . All the jobs previously performed by the pantheon, all the forces exemplified by the many nature deities, now have to be performed by the One God of Israel.” (98-99).


K. Schmid, “Differenzierungen und Konzeptualisierungen der Einheit Gottes in der Religions- und Literaturgeschichte Israels: Methodische, religionsgeschichtliche und exegetische Aspekte zur neueren Diskussion um den sogenannten ‚Monotheismus‘ im antiken Israel,” in Der eine Gott und die Götter: Polytheismus und Monotheismus im antiken Israel (ed. M. Oeming and K. Schmid; AThANT; Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 2003), pp. 11-38 [30-35]. Cf. idem, “Der Gott der Väter und der Gott des Exodus. Inklusive und partikulare Theologie am Beginn des Alten Testaments,” Glaube und Lernen 16 (2001), pp. 116-125.


Schmid, “Differenzierungen,” p. 35. It deserves mention, however, that Deutero-Isaiah only uses אל in reference to actual non-Yahwistic entities (44:10), which it further redefines as non-sentient images. Deutero-Isaiah reserves אלהים for Yhwh alone, and does use אלהים as a category denied to any other being. To say that there are “no other gods” underscores the fact that Yhwh is the only member of the category אלהים, though Schmid is correct to observe that in P, אלהים is a name for Israel’s/the cosmic deity.


Schmid, “The Quest for ‘God’: Monotheistic Arguments in the Priestly Texts of the Hebrew Bible,” in Reconsidering Revolutionary Monotheism, p. 285. C. Nihan argues similarly, “[according to] the inclusive version of monotheism advocated by P . . . all the nations turn out to worship the same God, Yahweh, even though only Israel is aware of it” (From Priestly Torah to Pentateuch: A Study in the Composition of the Book of Leviticus [FAT 2/25; Mohr Siebeck, 2007], p. 386). Cf. E. A. Knauf, who claims that in priestly supplements (“sub-priesterschriftlichen Texten”) “wird die Identifizierung Jhwhs mit Göttern anderer Menschen weitergeführt (Gen 16,13f; 20,33), ausgehend von der in der Perserzeit beliebten Benennung des eigenen Gottes als “Himmelsgott”—denn so nannten die herrschenden Perser auch ihren Ahuramazda. Subpriesterlich wäre die Gleichsetzung von Yhwh mit Zeus oder auch Baal keineswegs notwendigerweise als Abfall oder Götzendienst zu qualifizieren” (“Ist die Erste Bibel monotheistisch?” in Der eine Gott und die Götter: Polytheismus und Monotheismus im antiken Israel [AThANT 82; M. Oeming and K. Schmid eds.; Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 2003], pp. 39-48 [40, 43]).


Kutsko, Between Heaven and Earth, p. 38. Thus, he never employs אלהים in reference to idols or pagan deities. Instead, Ezekiel employs a diverse vocabulary of substitute terms that deride idols’ presumption to divinity (38). On Ezekiel’s monotheism, see also S. Petry, Die Entgrenzung Yhwhs: Monolatrie, Bilderverbot und Monotheismus im Deuteronomium, in Deuterojesaja und im Ezechielbuch (FAT 2/27; Mohr Siebeck, 2007), pp. 377-78.


See discussion by B. Alster, “Tiamat,” in DDD, 867-869. Several scholars have criticized the connection between תהום těhôm and the Akkadian ti’āmat because תהום appears as a masculine in Hebrew, and the Hebrew h is an illogical development from Akkadian glottal stop ’. See D. T. Tsumura, Creation and Destruction: A Reappraisal of the Chaoskampf Theory in the Old Testament (Eisenbrauns, 2005), pp. 36-37; J. M. Sasson, “Time . . . To Begin,” in “Sha‘arei Talmon”: Studies in the Bible, Qumran, and the Ancient Near East presented to Shemaryahu Talmon (Eisenbrauns, 1992), pp. 183-94 [188-89]; J. C. Gertz, “Antibabylonische Polemik im priesterlichen Schöpfungsbericht? ZThK 106 (2009), pp. 137-55 [141]. Nevertheless, thm and thmt do appear as divinized cosmological terms in the West Semitic context, which may have mediated the Akkadian myths (Smith, Priestly Vision, pp. 69 and 239, nos. 185-87). See John Day, God’s Conflict with the Dragon and the Sea: Echoes of a Canaanite Myth in the Old Testament (University of Cambridge Oriental Publications 35; University Press, 1985), pp. 49-56. Notably, Day maintains that it is “unlikely that Gen. 1 is dependent on Enuma elish at all” (51). However, thm and thmt do not typically appear as hostile opponents (e.g., ktu 1.3 III 25; 1.3 IV 17; 1.1 III 14; 1.17 VI 12. The only possible exception is ktu 1.92.5). Genesis 1 either intentionally undercuts the divinity in these “deeps,” or simply includes them as necessary components of an ANE cosmology (Gen 1:2); cf. R. S. Watson, Chaos Uncreated: A Reassessment of the Theme of “Chaos” in the Hebrew Bible [bzaw 341; Walter de Gruyter, 2005], p. 271). Watson also notes God’s control over the תהום in Gen 7:11.


Smith, Origins, p. 169. The configuration of monotheism in Gen 1 pertains to God’s relationship with all creation—not the nations or other gods—and gives expression to God’s utter power and uncontested rule over creation. God and creation are in distinct categories. In short, Genesis 1 conveys what Smith calls a “monotheistic poetics.”


Garr, In His Own Image, p. 216.


Garr, In His Own Image, pp. 217-18. Garr’s use of “angelic” is anachronistic, but his point nevertheless stands.


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