The Development of Monotheism in Judaism

The idea that there is only one god, monotheism, is shared by over half of the world’s population today. Whether you are Christian, Muslim, or Jewish you believe in monotheism. Where does this idea originate from though? Many scholars believe that the origin of this idea dates back to the Babylonian exile of the Jews from Jerusalem around 600 BCE.

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During this time the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the first temple built by Solomon. This is significant as at the time the Jews believed that God, or Yahweh, physically lived in the temple. So when the temple was destroyed, and subsequently the Jewish exile, the Jews were faced with questions surrounding Yahweh. The argument I will be making in this paper is how and why slowly over time, in answering those questions, the Jewish community created the idea of monotheism. The idea that the Jews created monotheism following the subsequent Babylonian exile overtime signifies that at one time Jewish religion was polytheistic. Proof of this can be found from the Old Testament Bible or the Torah. One such example found in the Bible is in Exodus chapter 15 verse 11 which states: Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods? In the events leading up to this part of scripture, we find that, according to the Bible, Moses and the children of Israel have just successfully crossed the red sea and fled from Pharoah’s army with the Lord, or Yahweh, being responsible for freeing them from Egyptian bondage.

After those events, Moses and the children of Israel start praising Yahweh, and the passage of scripture shared is one of the statements they make while praising him. This is one example of an instance in the Bible where we see the ancient Jews acknowledge the existence of other gods. Along with this are other verses in the Book of Psalm. Psalm 135 verse 5 states, For I know that the Lord is great and that our Lord is above all gods. This again shows that while they believed Yahweh to be above all other gods, they still acknowledged the existence of other gods. Even one of the ten commandments within the Bible implies the existence of other gods when it says in Exodus chapter 20 verse 3, Thou shalt have no other gods before me. This implies that there are other gods in which they could worship. All of these verses were written before the Babylonian exile, and they show that Jews were indeed at one time polytheistic. Once we have established that the Jews were at one time polytheistic, the question now is when Judaism developed into a Monotheist religion, and whether they developed it themselves or adopted the idea from somewhere else.

To start with, let’s look at a verse written after the Babylonian exile. Isaiah chapter 44 verse 6 states: I am the first, and I am the last, and beside me, there is no God. This shows the change in belief over time in the Bible from the acknowledgment of other gods to now stating that there are no other gods but Yahweh himself. Why is this though? When looking at the time periods of these verses written we can see that the change from polytheism to monotheism within the Bible occurs following the Babylonian exile. Although it’s not until after the exile that you see Isaiah stating that Yahweh is the only god, the groundworks for the change to monotheism evolved slowly over time according to the book, No Other Gods: Emergent Monotheism in Israel, written by Robert Karl Gnuse. In his book, he states that the idea of Monotheism developed over time through certain events, and the culmination of these events following the Babylonian exile resulted in the change to Monotheism. Such events leading off to the change to Monotheism include when King David made Yahweh the national high god above Baal (page 101). Another development leading to monotheism was the prophets overtime pushing for the worship of only Yahweh and the claims of Yahweh having power over the other gods.

An example of this is can be found in 1 Kings chapter 18 when the prophet Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to see which god will be able to provide fire for them first. Elijah does this to prove that Yahweh should be followed instead of Baal. This is shown in biblical scripture when he says to the people, How long halt ye between two opinions? If the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him. Following this is when he challenges the prophets of Baal. Elijah wins the challenge, proving to the people that Yahweh is the superior god. Following this, the people slaughtered the prophets of Baal and worshiped Yahweh above Baal. Others followed in solidifying Yahweh as the god to be worshipped in Israel, and all of this helped develop the idea of monotheism following the Babylonian exile. Why then did it take the exile for Judaism to officially become monotheistic? The growing belief that Yahweh was more powerful than the other gods and subsequently deserved to be worshipped above other gods led to political and social conflicts. Due to this, the state hindered the growth of Yahwism into becoming monotheistic in order to relieve those conflicts according to Gnuse’s book (page 104). Gnuse’s book also states that The full development of monotheism also was connected to a fight against the emergence of social classes. Hence, true monotheism could arise only in the exile after the collapse of society with all the attendant social structures and the political-national religion of Judah (page 105). Thus the Babylonian exile was necessary for Judaism or Yahwism to fully convert to monotheism, being free of the state and societal issues from hindering this growth.

After concluding all of this it may be wondered what necessitated the complete change to monotheism. Following the exile the Jews were faced with being surrounded by foreign cultures, and to avoid being assimilated into those other cultures, and to keep other gods from being worshipped in their culture, they needed to develop their own distinctly Israelite culture. The result of this was the cultural change to Yahweh being the only true deity, which meant the denial of all gods of other groups of people around them. Another factor that could have played a role in the complete change to monotheism would be the desire to keep different sub-groups of Jews from developing. Gnuse talks in his book about the fact that there were Jews who only believed in and worshipped Yahwey prior to the exile, while there were others that worshipped Yahweh along with other gods. Jews having different theological beliefs could have led to splits into sub-groups following the exile, which would have weakened them and their culture as a whole, and eventually could have led to the assimilation into other cultures around them. All of this was avoided by the change to monotheism, which is why I believe that these problems could have been a contributing factor to the change to monotheism. Along with that, the questions that arose from the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem led to a change in thinking from believing that Yahweh physically lived in the temple, to that he could be anywhere at any time.

Also with the destruction of the temple, under their prior belief of other gods, the logical conclusion to be made was that either Yahweh had lied to the Jews, or that he was weaker than the Babylonian gods. Neither of those answers gave any hope to Yahwism or the Jews, and neither answer was a satisfying conclusion to their questions. That is when the idea of monotheism came to fruition as the only satisfying answer to the questions brought up due to the destruction of the Temple were that he is the only God and that he doesn’t physically live only in one place, and these ideas brought about the full transition to the idea of monotheism. In conclusion, we can see through biblical text that predates the Babylonian exile that Jews in ancient Israel were originally polytheistic and that the idea of monotheism developed over time, resulting in the change to monotheism following the Babylonian exile. We can also see that the reasons for the development of monotheism within Judaism resulted from the questions following the destruction of the temple, and the new surroundings they were presented with due to the exile. Whether you are Christian, Muslim, or Jewish, you believe in monotheism. And the Babylonian exile is the reason why you do.

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