Discuss the phenomenon of Israelite monotheism: origin(s), characteristics, and history, with reference to two major proposals from modern scholars about it. Where do you stand on the issue?


There are two main proposals about the phenomenon of Israelite Monotheism:

1) Israelite monotheism is original. 

2) Israelite monotheism emerged gradually over time.

In From the Stone Age to Christianity, W. F. Albright advocates original Israelite monotheism and defines Israelite religion over against (his reconstruction) of Canaanite religion.  According to Albright, Yahweh is:

Creator: The name Yahweh means ‘the one who creates’.  He created the cosmos without interacting with other superhuman entities.  More specifically, he does not create the cosmos after subduing a superhuman opponent or through sexual union with a consort. 

Yahweh could also mean ‘the one who causes [rain] to fall’ (see transcendent below).              

Reflexes of Yahweh’s cosmogonic struggle with various aqueous foes appear in the psalms (e.g., Ps 74). 

In Proverbs 8:22-31, Wisdom plays the role of Yahweh’s consort in the creation of the world.  She is “the first of his acts long ago” who was “rejoicing (mĕśaḥeqet) before him always.”  The root ŚḤQ can have sexual connotations.   

Solitary: he has no family connections and exists independent of a pantheon.

The Kuntillet ‘Ajrud inscriptions and the Khirbet el-Qôm inscription invoke “Yahweh and his Asherah,” most likely his consort.           

 LXX and 4Q Deutj 32:8-9 refers to Yahweh as just one of many divine beings (huiōn theou / bĕnê ˀĕlôhîm) assigned by ˤelyôn to oversee the nations of the world.

 Genesis 49:24-25 may refer to several deities besides Yahweh, who is mentioned in verse 18:  ˀēl, šadday, ˀăbîr yaˤăqōb, and perhaps šādayīm wā-rāḥam.   

Transcendent: he lacks a fixed abode and is not associated with any particular force or aspect of nature

The earliest Hebrew poetry associates Yahweh with the Arabian Peninsula near             Edom/Seir.

Many biblical texts depict Yahweh as a militant storm god.  In the archaic poetry, he is the ‘rider on the clouds’ (rōkēb bā-ˤărābôt cf. Ugaritic rkb ˤrpt) (Ps 68:5) and his theophany is accompanied by thunder, rain, and lightning (Jud 5:4-5; Ps 68:7-9).

Anthropomorphic: he is represented in human terms. 

Yahweh is represented in theriomorphic terms in the bible as well (and probably in glyptic art as well; see, for example, the upper register of the intact tanaach cult stand).  In Jeremiah 49:19 and 50:44, for example, he is depicted as a ravening lion.    

Ancionsitic: he cannot be represented visually.

As David Freedberg points out, aniconsim is a slippery concept.  furthermore, several images have plausibly been indentified with Yahweh, most notably the 9th enthroned deity found at Hazor. 

Apodictic: His will is law.

Parts of the covenant code appear to predate the cult of Yahweh and refer instead to ˀĕlôhîm, which in some cases must designate multiple deities.  Exodus 22:8, for example, reads: “Concerning the case of loss—whether ox or donkey or sheep or garment or any other lost item, of which one says ‘This is mine’the case of both parties will come before the gods.  Whoever the gods condemn (yaršîˤūn pl.!) will pay back double to his companion.” 

According to Albright, deviations from this norm represent Canaanite syncretism. 

Monotheism was original to Moses, but he did not invent it; there were precursors, such as Atenism in Egypt. 

In The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, by contrast, Mark Smith suggests that monotheism developed gradually in ancient Israel.  He favors a mixed evolutionary model with changes occurring at different times in different places.   

He observes that Iron Age pantheons across the Ancient Near East are generally smaller than Bronze Age pantheons.      

As Canaanites, the early Israelites had a small pantheon consisting of inherited Northwest Semitic gods, like Asherah and El, and a new deity, Yahweh. 

Israel’s original patron deity was El.  The name Israel contains the theophoric element El, not Yahweh and certain texts indicate that Yahweh was originally subordinate to El (e.g., LXX and 4QDeutj 32:8-9). 

Yahweh started his career as storm god from the Northern Arabian Peninsula and was adopted into the Israelite pantheon in the late bronze age/early iron age.  As a storm god, his functions overlapped with those of Baal, which led to the anti-Baal polemics during the monarchy.     

Early on, Yahweh was indentified with El (he bears some of El’s characteristic traits already in Exod 15, such as his eternal dominion in verse 18) and absorbed many of El’s traits through what Smith calls “convergence.”  

Later, certain biblical writers rejected the Canaanite origin of these traits and polemicized against them in a process of “differentiation.”             

Monotheistic rhetoric (denying the existence of other gods as part of a community building discourse; see for example, Jer 10) developed in response to Neo-Assyrian and especially Neo-Babylonian imperial rhetoric.  According to the traditional way of thinking, the Babylonians were able to conquer Judah because their patron deity, Marduk, was stronger than Yahweh.  According to this monotheistic discourse, Marduk and other gods do not exist.  Yahweh alone is master of the cosmos and controls all of history; he orchestrated the Babylonian conquest to punish Judah.          

Smith overstates the case for the distinction between Yahweh and El in certain texts.  Psalm 82 refers only to god (ˀĕlôhîm) and the sons of god; Yahweh goes unmentioned and may in fact lurk behind the generic term ‘god’.  Furthermore, the different divine names used in Gen 49:24-25 could be titles of Yahweh.   

More information on the topics in this outline can be found under questions (2) Origins of Yahwism, (9) Israelite Aniconism, and (10) Myth in the Hebrew Bible. 


Albright, W. F.  From the Stone Age to Christianity: Monotheism and the Historical Process.  Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1957.

Smith, Mark S.  The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts.  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

See further:

Kaufman, Yehezkel E. The Religion of Israel from its Beginning to the Babylonian Exile.   Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Wellhausen, Julius. Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel.   

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