The Monotheistic Revolution: Introduction

This marks the beginning of a new series I have long been considering, entitled The Monotheistic Revolution. The purpose is to provide a comparative religious study of the Old Testament and Israelite religion in the context of other ancient Near Eastern religions. For this reason, I am including it as part of the “Ancient Parallels” feature on this site.

The title of the series (and the use of the word “revolution”) has to do with the fact that ancient Israelite religion stands virtually alone among the religions of the Near East in its monotheistic orientation. This emphasis on a single deity, more or less to the exclusion of all others, marks a radical departure from the surrounding cultures, whose religion is thoroughly polytheistic. The term “revelation” could just as well be used, since Israelite religion, at least as it is presented in the Old Testament Scriptures, is based upon a unique revelation of the one true God to his people. In Old Testament historical tradition, this revelation goes back to the time of Abraham, from whom all three of the major monotheistic religions today—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—can be said to trace their origins. Certainly, the monotheistic conception of God found among Jews, Christians, and Muslims has much in common.

A study of this sort may seem of little relevance for Christians today, mainly because polytheism, in anything like a meaningful sense, is quite foreign to modern thinking, especially in the Western nations. The Western world has been dominated for centuries by monotheistic tendencies, not only due to the influence of Christianity and Judaism, but also certain (mono)theistic aspects of Greco-Roman philosophy and scientific thought. Even for atheists and other non-religious persons today, to the extent that they have a conception of God, it likely corresponds to a general monotheistic pattern. The worldwide spread of Christianity and Islam, whether by conquest, missionary work, or other means, has served to introduce monotheism to many traditional societies which had previously been polytheistic to some degree. This is also true, of course, in the Near East, where only the faintest vestiges of the ancient polytheism survives at all. One must look a bit further east, to India, to find an example of a complex, developed polytheism that has survived from ancient times, and which continues to thrive today.

I would argue that it is, in fact, our familiarity with monotheistic patterns of thought which makes a study of this kind so valuable. How can we properly understand the Old Testament without a clear sense of what made the religion of Israel so distinct from that of the surrounding nations? For most students of Scripture today, the ancient polytheistic way of thinking is completely foreign, and it can be most difficult to gain an accurate sense of what the polytheistic religions of the ancient Near East were attempting to express (about the nature of deity and the universe), and how this relates to what the Old Testament expresses. For this reason, I maintain that, when approached in a sound and objective manner, a careful study of the polytheism of the ancient Near East can be rich and rewarding, opening a new window on the Old Testament Scriptures.

That, indeed, is the purpose of this series. However, it is an immense area of study, and, in order for these articles to be of optimal value for many readers, it is necessary to narrow the scope and sharpen the focus. This I will do by using the Genesis Creation account as a starting point (and as a guiding point of reference). Beginning with a verse or segment of this famous text, we will bring in certain relevant aspects of the (polytheistic) religious thought of the surrounding peoples of the ancient Near East. Special attention will be given to the religion of Egypt, since it represents by far the most comprehensive and detailed polytheism known to us. This is so for two reasons: (1) it is the area of the ancient Near East for which we have the most information available (in terms of texts, inscriptions, and works of art, over a long period of time), and (2) there are certain aspects of Egyptian thought and practice which genuinely seem to be more complex and sophisticated than those of other neighboring societies.

Indeed, much of the strangeness of ancient polytheism lies in its complexity—especially in terms of the sheer number of deities, the multitude of names, titles, forms, and images. This can be explained to a great degree if we keep in mind that the polytheistic religious structures that developed in ancient cultures were rooted in an attempt to understand the powers that seemed to be at work in the universe. Since the world is made up of many different components, it stood to reason that there must be as many different powers, or deities. The complex dynamics evident in the natural world indicated to the ancient peoples that there must be similar dynamics at work among the deities. Mythologies arose as a result of attempts to explain the universe in terms of the relationship between these deities. This point will be discussed further as we proceed through this series.

Before concluding this introduction, I feel it important to distinguish between what we might call an absolute and a relative monotheism. An absolute monotheism can be summarized by the propositional belief that only one deity exists at all. A relative, or qualified, monotheism would fundamentally focus on worship of a single deity—i.e., a high Creator God—but would affirm, or allow for, the existence of other divine beings. Many commentators and historians of religion would maintain that, through much of Israel’s early history, it was a relative (rather than absolute) monotheism that was in view. By comparison, later Israelite (and Jewish) religion—not to say that of Islam—came to hold to an absolute monotheistic outlook. The extent to which the Old Testament expresses a relative monotheism may be debated; it is a sensitive subject, and an objective treatment requires that the matter be considered on a passage-by-passage basis, rather than by relying upon dogmatic presuppositions.

Related to this sort of qualified monotheism is a religious phenomenon known as henotheism, whereby, through the worship and veneration of a specific (single) deity, that deity comes to be regarded as supreme over all others. This may at times be expressed through language suggesting other deities have only contingent existence, or are simply manifestations of the supreme deity. Other sorts of monotheistic tendencies may be cited, occurring within the wider framework of ancient polytheistic thought. Such instances can be quite confusing, as we are accustomed to a simple distinction of monotheism vs. polytheism. The situation in ancient Egypt is especially complex, due to its highly syncretistic character, a point that will discussed (and illustrated) in more detail as we proceed in this series. The whole issue of religious syncretism will be addressed in a separate article.

So, I invite you to join me in this exciting new series—a journey to the domain of comparative religion—which I hope (and trust) will bring new insights into the text of Scripture and expand the horizons for a study of biblical theology. We will begin with the opening statement of the Creation account, in Genesis 1:1.