There is a common assumption that because we received all knowledge about God through the Hebrew Scriptures then those ancient Israelites were always monotheistic. We see in our Old Testament pages a cut and dry story of One God revealing Himself to people who recognized exactly who He was, but willingly rebelled. But is this totally true? A growing number of individuals read a story of developing monotheism from the same pages. In this line of reasoning, earlier followers would have seen Yahweh as a God, perhaps the most powerful, but not the only god.
References to the LORD being “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” imply that others worshiped other gods. Indeed, the first of the commandments says “you shall have no other gods before Me.” Exodus 23:13 says not to “mention the name of other gods, nor let them be heard from your mouth.” Constantly, the Israelites are warned against worshiping the gods of the Canaanites or idols. This is certainly because the desire was present to pay homage to other deities.
We look back on these verses and say “this is because all other “gods” are fake or false.” This is true; however, we are not debating the singular stature of Yahweh as the ultimate power and source of all creation. Instead, we are calling the student’s attention to the possibly that the text shows a transition among God’s own chosen people who first see Yahweh as a God above other gods, and only later believe that Yahweh is the only GOD. The question is, how late?
Illumination for this concept may abide in the punishment of Israel. The Babylonian Captivity was punishment for the idolatry of Judah. Idolatry is simply picking an object, person, or spirit to have equal standing with (or greater than) God. Idolatry is polytheism to some extent. In that sense, monotheism did not exist among the bulk of those from Judah until after they returned from captivity. This is not to say that God changed; rather it may prove that it took that long for sinful man to really learn just who God was. However, the Israelites of the Northern Kingdom did not just worship Idols; they completely changed the Yahweh cult to suit their own purposes. While Judah tried to have their cake and eat it too, Israel sliced off a piece and remade it to their liking. Their punishment was much more severe; they did not have a remnant return from captivity.
This causes some to question if perhaps the issue is not just Israel getting it wrong about idols. Did God slowly reveal His singular stature? Was it the later prophets who finally got word from God that He was the only God, the only Supreme Being? Was Judah allowed to learn the truth through punishment because they recognized what God had revealed, but still also liked some other Gods? Was Israel punished more severely because they forgot who Yahweh was altogether?
Did Abraham know the true nature of God, or Moses? I like to think so, even if their peers did not. The Law is clearly a picture of how to do it right, while the History and Prophets show man consistently getting it wrong. Because I apply the perfection of revelation to the Bible and the messages to prophets within, I assume that any corruption or incompletion was in the reception, and not the transmission that was the problem.
The fact that Jacob bargained with God and told Him that he would not make Yahweh his god unless he got home safely, shows that he, at the least, did not have full confidence that God was who He said He was. How long did it take the common Israelite to believe that Yahweh was not just a God, but the God? The burden of proof is heavy for those that put this knowledge into the head of a common Israelite before the Babylonian Captivity. I think that it is out of God’s character (who calls himself a jealous God) to slowly let on that He’s the only One out there. Looking back, we see that revelation clearly. But, that does not mean that sinful man, even those who should know better, realized this. After all, the wisest man in the world fell into idol worship, and so displeased God.
So what? I think this has implications on our study, and our current environment. How many come to the church every time the doors are open who still don’t know the reality of God? What are we doing to help them? Are we taking our words beyond these blogs and research papers to the every-day-Joe who doesn’t enjoy this type of introspection as much as we do? My New Year’s resolution is to take these types of collegiate ramblings and make them accessible to anyone.