On the origin and formation of Biblical monotheism

TIAN Haihua1

(1.Institute of Taoism and Religious Culture, Sichuan University)

【Abstract】The appearance of monotheism in the Hebrew Bible can be traced back to the sixth century B.C. The origin and development of Biblical monotheism is a complex and dynamic cultural process. Through the analysis of Biblical texts, archaeological discoveries and the Ugaritic literature, this article shows the process of how Yahweh inherited and integrated the characteristics of El. After the period of the monarchy and Josiah’s religious reform, worship of Yahweh developed into the Israelites’ monolatry. The Babylonian Exile incident caused worship of Yahweh to fall into a deep crisis. With the advocacy of Second Isaiah, Yahwistic monolatry evolved into monotheism. With absolute aniconism, the disappearance of the pronunciation of the four holy letters, and the destruction of the Second Temple in A.D. 70, cosmological monotheism in the strict sense was formed. The whole process has experienced a historical evolution of over a thousand years.

【Keywords】 Biblical monotheism; Yahweh; EI; Second Isaiah; Exile;

【DOI】

【Funds】 Sichuan University Innovation Spark Project (2018hhf-02) Interdisciplinary Study Innovation Fund of Chinese Language and Literature and International Communication of Chinese Culture Discipline Group Construction of Sichuan University (XKQKXK01)

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(Translated by ZHANG Sa)

    Footnote

    [1]. (1) Jack Miles, God: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995, p. 3. [^Back]

    [2]. (2) Monotheism or monotheistic religion is relative to atheism and polytheism, and is a concept of modern theory. It reflects the modern situation. Compared with non-European cultures, it is a way of defining Western religious tradition. Francis Schimidt, “Polytheism: Degeneration or Progress?” in History and Anthropology 3(1987): 9–60. [^Back]

    [3]. (3) Raphael Patai, The Jewish Mind. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1977, p. 349. [^Back]

    [4]. (4) Robert K. Gnuse, No Other Gods: Emergent Monotheism in Israel. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997, p. 14. Assmann believes that Biblical monotheism has revolutionary significance, but it probably has slowly evolved from polytheism. See Jan Assmann, Of God and Gods: Egypt, Israel, and the Rise of Monotheism. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008, pp. 107–108. [^Back]

    [5]. (5) Karl Jaspers. The Origin and Goal of History. Wei, C. & Yu, X. (trans.) Beijing. Huaxia Publishing House, 7–8 (1989). Regarding the connection between Biblical monotheism and the Axial Age, see Jan Assmann, “The Axial Age and the Separation of State and Religion: Monotheism as an Axial Movement”, idem, Of God and Gods: Egypt, Israel,and the Rise of Monotheism, pp. 76–89. [^Back]

    [6]. (6) I use Yahweh in this article. Jehovah is a combination of the four holy letters YHWH (consonants) and ǎdōnāy (vowel). Yahweh is the usual translation used by Western scholars, which is based on translation from Greek by Clement of Alexandria, Epiphanius of Salamis, Theodoretus of Cyrrhus, etc. See Karel van der Toorn, “YAHWEH”, in Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking and Pieter W. van der Horst, eds., Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Hebrew Bible(abbr. as DDD, Leiden: Brill,1999), p. 910. [^Back]

    [7]. (7) Regarding discussions on the Ugaritic texts and Bible research in the 20th century, see Mark S. Smith, Untold Stories: The Bible and Ugaritic Studies in the Twentieth Century. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2001. Smith points out, “Ancient Ugaritic and early Israelite literatures were not completely different, especially in the general parameters of language, social structure, religious terminology, and religious practices, and even conceptualizations of divinity. None of these points of contact between Ugaritic literature and “Canaanite” culture should be construed as suggesting a simple equation between them. Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001, p. 17. [^Back]

    [8]. (8) William F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity: Monotheism and the Historical Process. Garden City: Doubleday, 1957, pp. 400–401. [^Back]

    [9]. (9) William F. Albright, Yahweh and the Gods of Canaan: A Historical Analysis of Two Contrasting Faiths. London: Athlone Press, 1968, p. 166. [^Back]

    [10]. (10) William F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity: Monotheism and the Historical Process, pp. 257–272. [^Back]

    [11]. (11) Kaufman even traces monotheism to Adam. Yehezkel Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel from the Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile, trans. by Moshe Greengerg. New York: Schocken,1960, pp. 142–147. [^Back]

    [12]. (12) Gösta W. Ahlström, Aspects of Syncretism in Israelite Religion. Lund: Gleerup, 1963, p. 8. [^Back]

    [13]. (13) Jeffrey H. Tigay, You Shall Have No Other Gods: Israelite Religion in the Light of Hebrew Inscriptions. Atlanta: Scholars, 1986. [^Back]

    [14]. (14) Benjamin Uffenheimer, “Myth and Reality in Ancient Israel”, in Shmuel N. Eisenstadt ed., The Origins and Diversity of Axial Civilizations. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986, p. 144. Also see P. Sanders, The Provenance of Deuteronomy 32(Leiden: Brill, 1996), pp. 426–429. [^Back]

    [15]. (15) Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts, p. 150. [^Back]

    [16]. (16) El and his consort Athirat belong to the first level, and on the second level are their seventy sons. See Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts, pp. 54–58. [^Back]

    [17]. (17) In the Ugaritic texts, Elis the father of all gods of Canaan. In the Hebrew Bible, he appears many times, and is associated with Yahweh. See W. Herrmann, “El”, in DDD, pp. 274–280. Baal is one of the important Canaan gods, and also appears many times in the Bible. The worship of Baal by the Israelites was condemned, but there are many similarities between Yahweh and Baal. See W. Herrmann, “Baal”, in DDD, pp. 132–139. [^Back]

    [18]. (18) Zeev Meshel, Kuntillet ʽAjrud: A Religious Centre from the Time of the Judean Monarchy on the Border of Sinai. Israel Museum Catalogue no. 175, Jerusalem, 1978. Also see J. A. Emerton, “New Light on Israelite Religion: The Implication of the Inscriptions from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud”, in Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft94(1982): 2–20. [^Back]

    [19]. (19) Helga Weippert, “Synkretismus und Monotheismus. Religionsinterne Konfliktbewältgung im alten Israel”, in J. Assmann and D. Harth eds., Kultur und Konflikt, Frankfurt/Main,1990, p. 156. Qtd. from Othmar Keel and Christoph Uehlinger, Gods, Goddesses and Images of God in Ancient Israel. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1998, p. 3. [^Back]

    [20]. (20) André Lemaire, The Birth of Monotheism: The Rise and Disappearance of Yahwism. Washington: Biblical Archaeology Society, 2007, p. 60. [^Back]

    [21]. (21) Yehezkel Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel from the Beginnings to the Babylonian Exile, pp. 134–147. [^Back]

    [22]. (22) Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. Dearborn: Dove Booksellers, 2002, p. 7. [^Back]

    [23]. (23) Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. Dearborn: Dove Booksellers, 2002, pp. 8–9. [^Back]

    [24]. (24) Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. Dearborn: Dove Booksellers, 2002, pp. 7–9. [^Back]

    [25]. (25) Mark S. Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. Dearborn: Dove Booksellers, 2002, p.11. [^Back]

    [26]. (26) The letters consist of more than 300 wedge-shaped clay tablets in Akkadian, recording the diplomatic letters between the Egyptian Pharaohs in mid-14th century B.C. Amarna is the capital built by Pharaoh Akhetaten (on the throne from about 1359–1342 B.C.). See William L. Moran, The Amarna Letters. Baltimore: John Hopkins University, 1992. [^Back]

    [27]. (27) André Lemaire, The Birth of Monotheism: The Rise and Disappearance of Yahwism, pp. 14–16. [^Back]

    [28]. (28) Exodus 6:2–3: “And God spake unto Moses, and said unto him, I am the LORD: And I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac, and unto Jacob, by the name of God Almighty, but by my name Yahweh was I not known to them.” The Chinese version, the Chinese Union version, the new translation and the modern Chinese translation, all translate Baal/El Berit as “巴力比利土,” but do not tease out Berit’s meaning of “约,” while the Chinese translation by Lyu Zhenzhong translates it as “护约主.” Smith believes that this passage shows that the patriarch is a worshipper of El. See Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts, p. 141. [^Back]

    [29]. (29) André Lemaire, The Birth of Monotheism: The Rise and Disappearance of Yahwism,p. 37. [^Back]

    [30]. (30) The Mehsa Stela records the deed of Moabite king Mehsa defeating the king of Israel Omri and obtaining liberation. The Dan Stela records the various victories gained by the kings of Israel, and mentions “House of David.” At first, rituals of Yahweh existed outside Israel. Before 1200 B.C., the name Yahweh never appeared in Semitic texts. Besides the Bible, it was the Mehsa Stela that first mentions Yahweh. See K. van Der Toorn, “Yahweh”, in DDD, pp. 910–911. [^Back]

    [31]. (31) André Lemaire, The Birth of Monotheism: The Rise and Disappearance of Yahwism, pp. 19–20. [^Back]

    [32]. (32) Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Israel, trans. by J. S. Black and A. Menzies. Edinburgh: A. & C. Black, 1885, p. 433, n. 1. Also see Frank M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973, pp. 60–75, and J. C. de Moor, The Rise of Yahwism. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 1997, pp. 310–369. [^Back]

    [33]. (33) T. N. D. Mettinger, “The Elusive Essence: YHWH, El and Baal and the Distinctiveness of Israelite Faith”, in Blum Erhard, Christian Macholz and Ekkehard W. Stegemann eds., Die Hebräische Bibel und ihre zweifache Nachgeschichte. Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1990, pp. 394–413. [^Back]

    [34]. (34) According to Exodus 3, Moses accepted Yahweh’s revelation in Midian, and therefore, Yahweh was probably a god worshipped by the Midianites. See Frank M. Cross, From Epic to Canon: History and Literature in Ancient Israel. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1998, pp. 61–67. Inscriptions unearthed in Kuntillet ‘Ajrud mention “Yahweh of Timan.” See T. N. D. Mettinger, “The Elusive Essence: YHWH, El and Baal and the Distinctiveness of Israelite Faith”, p. 404. The general areas associated with the ancient worship of Yahweh rituals appear many times in the Bible (Deuteronomy 33:2; Judges 5: 4–5; Habakkuk 3:3). [^Back]

    [35]. (35) T. N. D. Mettinger, “The Elusive Essence: YHWH, El and Baal and the Distinctiveness of Israelite Faith”, p. 412. [^Back]

    [36]. (36) Xiao Junliang thinks that the language and characteristics of the description of El are reflected in the ritual of Shiloh. See C. L. Seow, Myth, Drama, and the Politics of David’s Dance. Atlanta: Scholars, 1989, pp. 11–54. [^Back]

    [37]. (37) Theodore J. Lewis, “The Identity and Function of El/Baal Berith”, in Journal of Biblical Literature115 (1996): 401–423. [^Back]

    [38]. (38) Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts, p. 140. [^Back]

    [39]. (39) Ibid., pp. 142–145. The “sons of Israel” in Deuteronomy 32:8–9, in the translations of the Septuagint and the Dead Sea Scrolls, becomes the “sons of El,” that is, Yahweh is regarded as one of the sons of El. El is the head of the Pantheon, and Yahweh is one of its members. If El was the original Lord god of Israel, then, how did the worship of Yahweh in Israel form? Smith proposes the development steps of three hypotheses. See Mark S. Smith, “Cross-Cultural Recognition of Divinity in Ancient Israel”, in Beate Pongratz-Leisten ed., Reconsidering the Concept of Revolutionary Monotheism. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2011, pp. 259–266. [^Back]

    [40]. (40) John Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000, pp. 13–34. It was not until the period of the monarchy that Yahweh became Israel’s national god, and the patron of the royal family. See K. van Der Toorn, “Saul and the Rise of Israelite State Religion”, in Vetus Testamentum 43 (1993): 519–542. [^Back]

    [41]. (41) J. A. Emerton, “Some Problems in Genesis XIV”, in Old Testament Essays40 (1990): 73–102. [^Back]

    [42]. (42) And Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have lift up mine hand unto the LORD, the most high God, the possessor of heaven and earth (Genesis 14:22). [^Back]

    [43]. (43) Nahman Avigad, “Excavations in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, 1971”, in Israel Exploration Journal22(1972), pp. 195–196. [^Back]

    [44]. (44) André Lemaire, The Birth of Monotheism: The Rise and Disappearance of Yahwism, p. 40. [^Back]

    [45]. (45) Hans W. Wolff, “The Elohistic Fragments in the Pentateuch”, Interpretation(1972): 158–172. [^Back]

    [46]. (46) According to the Bible, on a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. Non-Yahweh religious activities were carried out there (1 Kings 11:5, 7). [^Back]

    [47]. (47) The Israelites not only realized the existence of other gods, but also recognized the diversity of Yahweh. The archaeological discoveries from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud indicate that there were “Yahweh of Samaria” and “Yahweh of Timan,” which may refer to different names of Yahweh. Therefore, the early religion in Israel not only was a kind of polytheism, but also had various forms of worship of Yahweh. In this context, Deuteronomy emphasizes Yahweh’s uniqueness. See K. van Der Toorn, “Yahweh”, in DDD, pp. 918–919. In Psalm 82, El, Elyon, and Elohim coexist. Regarding the relationship among them, see Robert P. Gordon, “Standing in the Council: When Prophets Encounter God”, in idem ed.,The God of Israel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007, pp. 190–204. [^Back]

    [48]. (48) André Lemaire, The Birth of Monotheism: The Rise and Disappearance of Yahwism, p. 47. In the northern kingdom of Israel, during Omri’s reign, worship of Baal was revived. Omri’s son Ahab built Baal’s sanctuary in Samaria, 450 prophets of Baal and the prophet of Yahweh, Elijah, fought by appealing to their separate gods (1 Kings 18:19–22). [^Back]

    [49]. (49) André Lemaire, The Birth of Monotheism: The Rise and Disappearance of Yahwism, pp. 40–41. [^Back]

    [50]. (50) André Lemaire, The Birth of Monotheism: The Rise and Disappearance of Yahwism, p. 85. [^Back]

    [51]. (51) Anson F. Rainey, “Hezekiah’s Reform and the Altar at Beer-Sheba and Arad”, in Michael D. Coogan, J Cheryl Exum and Lawrence E. Stager ed., Scripture and Other Artifacts: Essays on the Bible and Archaeology in Honor of PhilipJ. King. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994, pp. 333–354. [^Back]

    [52]. (52) Jeffrey Tigay, You Shall Have No Other Gods: Israelite Religion in the Light of Hebrew Inscriptions, pp. 5–63. [^Back]

    [53]. (53) André Lemaire, The Birth of Monotheism: The Rise and Disappearance of Yahwism, p. 100. [^Back]

    [54]. (54) “I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me” (Isaiah 43:10). “I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God” (Isaiah 44:6). [^Back]

    [55]. (55) Theophile J. Meek, Hebrew Origins. New York: Harper & Row,1936, p. 204–228. [^Back]

    [56]. (56) Many Biblical scholars accept J. Wellhausen’s view that absolute monotheism was completed by Second Isaiah during the Exile, and that its development was a gradual process, among which Elijah’s challenge of monolatry, the writings of classical prophets, and the reform movement of the Deuteronomic School played a key role. See John Day, “The Religion of Israel”, in A. D. H. Mayes ed., Text in Context: Essays by Members of the Society for Old Testament Study. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 428–453. [^Back]

    [57]. (57) Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts, p. 154. [^Back]

    [58]. (58) André Lemaire, The Birth of Monotheism: The Rise and Disappearance of Yahwism, pp. 110–111. [^Back]

    [59]. (59) The holy name “Yahô/YHW” continuously appeared in papyrus and clay tablets of the Jewish community from Elephantine Island in the 5th century B.C. is a substitute name of elah shemayya. See Thomas M. Bolin, “The Temple of YHW at Elephantine and Persian Religious Policy”, in Diana V. Edelman ed., The Triumph of Elohim: From Yahwisms to Judaism. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1996, pp. 127–142. A petition written to the ruler of Judah used elah shemayya, Yahô the God and Yahô the God of Heaven to refer to Yahweh. But in the answer, only elah shemayya was used. The same expression appeared in the decree of Artaxerxes II of Persia that was given to Ezra in the beginning of the 4th century B.C. See André Lemaire, The Birth of Monotheism: The Rise and Disappearance of Yahwism, p. 111. [^Back]

    [60]. (60) André Lemaire, The Birth of Monotheism: The Rise and Disappearance of Yahwism, p. 113. [^Back]

    [61]. (61) John Bright, A History of Israel. London: 1972, p. 439. [^Back]

    [62]. (62) Josephus, Jewish War5.219. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1976, p. 293. The Roman historian Tacitus also recorded this: There was no image in the empty temple, because God is the Most High and Eternal; His image cannot be expressed by worldly matter. Tacitus. History. Wang, Y. & Cui, M. (trans.) Beijing: The Commercial Press, 375 (2009) [^Back]

    [63]. (63) Interpretation of Habakkuk 2:13–14 from the Dead Sea Scrolls.The four holy letters were transcribed in italics in ancient Hebrew letters, which is different from other texts. This scroll is now kept in the Israel Museum. [^Back]

    [64]. (64) André Lemaire, The Birth of Monotheism: The Rise and Disappearance of Yahwism, p. 131. Joseph, who came from a family of priests, admitted that he was forbidden to speak the holy name, and could only use the Greek word despotès to substitute the four holy letters. See J. B. Fischer, “The Term DESPOTES in Josephus", in Jewish Quarterly Review49 (1958–1959), pp. 132–138. [^Back]

    [65]. (65) Smith thinks that Israel regards its culture and religion as unique cognition, destined to establish a covenant relationship with Yahweh. The existence of Israel did not appear in Mount Sinai from the beginning and became the nation described in Exodus. Indeed, the original image of the relationship between Israel and Yahweh in Sinai itself was part of later efforts to clarify a special religious identity for Israel. The Sinai narrative mostly was the product of the period of the monarchy and the late period, reflecting Israel’s long-term struggle, which is to understand itself as a nation of priests, and a unique nation that worship a single God. See Mark S. Smith, The Pilgrimage Pattern in Exodus. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997, pp. 144–179. [^Back]

    [66]. (66) Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts, p. 154. [^Back]

    [67]. (67) André Lemaire, The Birth of Monotheism:The Rise and Disappearance of Yahwism, p. 134. [^Back]

    [68]. (68) Tikva Frymer-Kensky, In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture, and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth. New York: Free Press, 1992, pp. 106–107. [^Back]

    [69]. (69) Regina Schwarts, The Curse of Cain:The Violent Legacy of Monotheism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997. Also see Jonathan Kirsch, God against the Gods: The History of the War between Monotheism and Polytheism. New York: Viking Compass, 2004. [^Back]

    [70]. (70) Jan Assmann, Of God and Gods: Egypt, Israel, and the Rise of Monotheism, p. 110. He points out that David Hume might have been right after all when he postulated a connection between monotheism and violence in chapter 9 of The Natural History of Religion (1757). (Jan Assmann, Of God and Gods: Egypt, Israel, and the Rise of Monotheism, p. 109.) Assmann constructs the Mosaic distinction, that is, the distinction between truth and error, and God and not God in religion. For over 1000 years, this distinction has created a secondary field of religious experience, and Jews, Christians, and Muslims view this distinction as a natural, normal, and universal form of religion. See Jan Assmann, The Price of Monotheism, trans. by Robert Savage. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2010, p. 11. For a discussion of the relationship between exclusive monotheism and the language of violence, see Jan Assmann, “No God but God: Monotheism and the Language of Violence”, idem., Of God and Gods: Egypt, Israel, and the Rise of Monotheism, pp.106–126. [^Back]

    [71]. (71) Mark Smith, God in Translation: Deities in Cross-cultural Discourse in the Biblical World. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2010, pp. 25–28. [^Back]

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ISSN:1000-4289

CN: 11-1299/B

Vol , No. 06, Pages 109-119

December 2019

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Abstract

  • 1 Introduction
  • 2 Yahweh and the Canaan god El
  • 3 Formation of Biblical monotheism
  • 4 Conclusion
  • Footnote