Ancient Jews believed in the existence of many gods

 

                                                                           By Israel Drazin

 

Ancient Jews[1] believed that many gods exist but felt that they should only worship y-h-v-h[2] and maintained this notion for hundreds of years, and this fact is found in hundreds of verses in the Hebrew Bible. This is not monotheism, but monolatry. Monotheism is the belief that only a single god exists. Monolatry, from the Greek mono = one and latreia = service, is the belief that many gods exist but only one should be served.

 

Today, Judaism is strictly monotheistic, but scholars have recognized the many examples in the Hebrew Bible of the ancient Israelites being monolatric (although there are also statements in the Hebrew Bible that are clearly monotheistic). The following are some examples of monolatry.

 

The Decalogue, meaning ten statements, commonly called Ten Commandments even though the ten statements contain more than ten commands, begins with y-h-v-h telling the Israelites that while there are other gods, he is the one who helped them in the past, and he alone should be worshipped by them. “I am y-h-v-h your God.” This phrase “your God” reappears frequently in Scripture. God does not say, I am God, meaning the only one, but I am your god, meaning that other nations have a different god. This is similar to saying “I am your father,” meaning that there are other fathers but I belong to you and you to me.

 

Y-h-v-h continues by telling the Israelites why they should serve him, because he, not the other gods, “brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.”

 

Then he says that although there are other gods “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” meaning, don’t serve them.  The Israelites are told that if they serve any of the other gods, he, y-h-v-h, will be angry “for I, y-h-v-h, your god, am a jealous god.”

 

The famous statement called shema in Deuteronomy 6:4 reflects monolatry: “Hear[3] Israel, y-h-v-h is our God; y-h-v-h is one.”[4] Psalm 82:1 is clearly monolatric: “God (elohim) stands in the Assembly of God (el): in the midst of the judges, he judges.”

 

Many other psalms express monolatry, for example those recited in the Jewish Friday night service. Psalm 95: “For y-h-v-h is a great god and a greater king than all (other) gods…. He is our god.” This psalm lists things that y-h-v-h did for the Israelites. Psalm 96: “Y-h-v-h is great and very praiseworthy. He is more awesome than other gods. For (while) the gods of the nations are gods,[5] y-h-v-h made the heaven.”  Psalm 97: “All gods bow to him…. You are exalted above all gods.”[6]  Psalm 98 has words that are similar to 96. Psalm 99 repeats four times y-h-v-h is “our god.”

 

Psalm 29 and many other sources speak of the Israelites being “God’s people.” This concept that Jews are the “chosen people,” as in the prayer “you have chosen us from all other people,” is misunderstood because people don’t realize that it is a monolatric statement. It is not saying that Jews are special. It is saying that the Israelites understood that y-h-v-h decided to be the god of the Israelites who in turn agreed to serve him rather than the other gods.

 

The repeated references to y-h-v-h being the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, rather than saying that Jews accept him because he is the only god, means that Jews are faithful to the tradition and belief of their ancestors; the ancestors accepted y-h-v-h as god, and so will we. We see this, for example, in Exodus 15: “This is my god, and I will beautify him, my father’s god, and I will exalt him.”

 

The oft repeated phrase y-h-v-h elohim, usually translated “Lord God,” should be understood as “the God y-h-v-h” differentiating him from other gods.

 

The scholar Arnold Ehrlich (1848-1919), author of Mikra Ki-pheshuto, “The Bible Literally,” offered two other interesting examples. When y-h-v-h first spoke with Abraham in Genesis 12, he asked Abraham to make a covenant with him: Abraham should serve him and he, in turn, would reward Abraham for his service. Ehrlich suggests that if Abraham believed that only one god exists there would have been no need for a covenant. God would have simply said, “I am God, serve me.” There would have been no need to bargain, establish a covenant, and promise payment for the service. Ehrlich gives an example: when Adam joined with (married) Eve, he didn’t make a covenant with her, binding her to remain faithful only to him, because there was no need for it; there were no other men for Eve to be unfaithful with.

 

Similarly, in Genesis 14:18, Abraham gives ten percent of the loot he acquired during his battle against the four kings to Melchizedek the priest of el elyon. Ehrlich explains that Melchizedek was not a priest to y-h-v-h, for if he was, he would have been closer to y-h-v-h than Abraham. Abraham gave ten percent of his booty because he had battled in the land where el elyon was god, and he thought that this was the proper thing to do. However, immediately afterwards, in verse 22, Abraham made an oath to his own God, y-h-v-h.

 

This are just some of hundred of biblical verses that could be cited showing monolatry.



[1] The ancient Jews were called B’nei Yisrael, Israelites, in most of the Hebrew Bible. It was only after 536 BCE when many Israelites returned from the Babylonian exile to the small area that once belonged to the tribe of Judah that the people were called Judeans, after their land, or Jews in short.

[2] The Jewish God is named y-h-v-h in the Hebrew Bible. We no longer know how to pronounce these consonants. They are frequently written as Jehovah. Since early time, Jews felt that they should respectfully not mention God’s name. Thus in the first translation of the Bible in about 250 BCE, the Septuagint, the Jewish Greek translators substituted the Greek word curios, which means Lord, and this practice of substituting Lord for y-h-v-h has continued in most Bible translations today.

[3] The term “hear” in the Bible is often used as a metaphor, as it is in English, meaning “accept.”

[4] The word “one” here is obscure. Many understand it to mean “unique,” better than other gods or indicating that he is very powerful.

[5] Ignoring the monolatry, the rabbis interpreted elilim as “idols.”

[6] The rabbis interpret elohim here as “heavenly powers.”

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