I just came across this Wikipedia article on monolatrism that says some people believe ancient Israel practiced monolatry.

The highest claim to be made for Moses is that he was, rather than a monotheist, a monolatrist. ... The attribution of fully developed monotheism to Moses is certainly going beyond the evidence.

Is this a well accepted theory? If so, when did monotheism take over?

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    +1 because this is a valid question to ask on this site. However, if you are asking if this is a well accepted theory within traditional Judaism, the answer is clearly no. Just a glance at the footnotes of the wikipedia article you linked makes that pretty clear. On the other hand, if you are asking if this is an accepted theory among secular Bible scholars, that is not an appropriate question for this site and I will rescind my upvote. – jake Nov 7 '11 at 4:16
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    Justin, I respect your question, but the sources and interpretations in the wiki article regarding ancient Israel are weak. Most of his quotes are merely saying that there is no evidence that there was more than monolatry. It also quotes what might be the only Jewish source- the medieval scholar Rashi. Rashi's statement merely says that the One Whom we (the Hebrews) worship will be worshiped by all in the future. There is nothing in the statement that shows favor to one theory over the other. Other biblical passages quoted, as well, are accounting for foreign beliefs, not accepted ones. – YDK Nov 7 '11 at 5:08
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    Although, there are many accounts of Israelites worshiping other gods. Perhaps a better question is if this theory (among others) existed within ancient Israel. – YDK Nov 7 '11 at 5:14

There is no sufficient evidence to prove this concept in one direction or another, and there never will be. I will try explain why.

I am not sure where to begin, so I will just do an info dump of points which hopefully will be sufficient, because this is a complicated topic.

  • Monolatrism is a made up word used to try to discredit Judaism and Christianity. It is not applied to Hindus or the Japanese in which the word might actually make sense. (Everyone has their own ancestors, but I only worship my own)

  • If I talk about the Greek's acceptance of the Greek pantheon, there is no way to know if I also believe in the pantheon, or if I'm only talking about what I assume other people used to believe. This is because you can never know what my true beliefs are.

  • Since Abraham and the Jewish people in general (until the spread of Christianity and Islam) where the only Monotheistic religion in the area, there is no way to know if when speaking about the gods of other cultures if they were accepted as real, or used as general concepts regarding the people who believed in them.

  • Wellhausen and other scholars who demand an evolution of ideas rather than a revelation of ideas can interpret statements to prove their claim, while religious people can also read statements and archaeological evidence to prove their claim. This is because you are talking about the beliefs of the people rather than their actions, and there is no way to know what they thought inside of their heads.

  • I already said this, but I'll try saying it another way... Let us assume that the Jewish people (since before moses even) thought all other gods were fiction, the same way we believe all TV charachters to be fiction. If someone writes a book, say The Tao of Pooh... is that evidence that the author believes Winnie the pooh to be a real person? The author certainly treats Winnie the Pooh as if he is real, and a super wise monk at that. How are we to know if when the Jews write about foreign powers or other gods that they believe in their existence rather then just using the ideas behind those fictional characters as a jumping point to explain Jewish concepts? In the same way Winnie the Pooh, is used and treated as if he is a real person to help explain concepts of Taoism to Americans.

  • Lastly, the modern way in which we describe things as truly existing, or being abosultly true, or being completely false are really modern ideas, and this is hard to wrap one's mind around sometimes. The concept of Monolatrism is a new idea (relatively) which tries to pigeon hole ancient minds into modern categories.

  • The fact that the bible talks about the Jewish people worshiping other deities proves to us that at least some Jews did believe in the other deities existence and even worshiped them... but that makes them Polytheists not Monolatrists.

  • How does one refute an idea or concept without, at least on the surface, give credence or an appearance of belief about that concept? This is often a criticism of Atheists and the criticism has been turned into a method of argumentation. What I mean by this is that one will argue that atheists do not get emotional about the existence of leprechauns, but they do about the existence of Gd, proving that they do believe in Gd on some level, but don't believe in leprechauns. This has created the bizarre and intellectually indefensible statement that Gd and Leprechauns are the same thing. Wellhausen and his creation of the term Mololatrism has forced the same argument onto ancient Jewish thought.

  • In my mind, the entire concept is about as useful as the proposition that we are all living in the Matrix.

Monotheism is argued to have started with Abraham, although we know that there was also an individual named Malchei-Tzedek who believed in and worshiped a single deity as well. Jewish tradition teaches that this was Shem, one of Noah's sons.

For those who argue that Monolatrism is real, they argue that Monotheism did not become popular until sometime after Ezra, or during the time of the Talmud. This is part of their general argument that Rabbinic Judaism is a completely different religion than the Biblical religion(s).

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  • thedivinecouncil.com/DT32BibSac.pdf talks about how modern Judaism simply change important bible passages to deliberately hide polytheists root. – user4951 Nov 23 '11 at 5:41
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    @JimThio Zoroaster is not monotheist. They believe in two deities, but worship only one. The Talmud, which was written only 1500 years ago also supports stoning and total war when it's needed. As for the divine council document... it's a rubbish suggestion since there are plenty of polytheistic statements in the Torah still today! – avi Nov 23 '11 at 6:45
  • +1 to Avi for a good answer. But as for zoroaster, this is what wikipedia said – user4951 Nov 25 '11 at 11:23
  • Zoroastrians believe that there is one universal and transcendent God, Ahura Mazda. He is said to be the one uncreated Creator to whom all worship is ultimately directed.[6] Ahura Mazda's creation—evident as asha, truth and order—is the antithesis of chaos, which is evident as druj, falsehood and disorder. The resulting conflict involves the entire universe, including humanity, which has an active role to play in the conflict.[6] -en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Angra_Mainyu perhaps we all borrow other's God? – user4951 Nov 25 '11 at 11:23
  • Looks like Angra_Mainyu, which is zoroaster's satan, is still just one of Ahura Mazda's creation. In judaism, satan is still on God's payroll right (in good terms). – user4951 Nov 25 '11 at 11:31

From the standpoint of Jewish tradition, which accepts that the Pentateuch was transmitted to Moses in its entirety around 3,300 years ago, it is clear that the Jewish religion was always monotheistic rather than monolatristic. See Deuteronomy (4:35):

Unto thee it was shown, that thou mightest know that the LORD, He is God; there is none else beside Him.

Ibid., 4:39:

Know this day, and lay it to thy heart, that the LORD, He is God in heaven above and upon the earth beneath; there is none else.

Also note Isaiah (44:6):

I am the First and I am the Last, and besides me there are no gods.

Similar examples include II Samuel (7:22), Isaiah (45:5, 45:21-22, 46:9), Psalms (86:10), and I Chronicles (17:20).

In the context of the above verses, it is evident that passages referring to other deities do not imply that the Bible recognizes that they exist in the same sense that devotees of those religions believe, but rather that they exist within the beliefs and mythologies of those religions.

There were periods when many Jews abandoned Judaism to worship other deities (sometimes without totally rejecting traditional Jewish worship, see for example Kings I, 18:21), and there were probably other individuals who exhibited monolatristic beliefs, but this was a departure from the normative Judaism of the Bible.

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  • Couldn't the passages you cite also be interpreted the opposite way? For example, I believe the root word "מלבדוֹ", which you have interpreted as meaning "beside," could also mean "above." Using that definition, the passages could be interpreted to mean that there are no other gods above Hashem, perhaps implying the existence of others. – ESultanik Jan 5 '14 at 2:24
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    @Esultanik when does the root לבד mean 'above'? – avi Jan 5 '14 at 6:44
  • @ESultanik the main point however is that you can not know intention and internal beliefs of people that you can not question. How can you tell the difference between a polytheist and a monolartist? – avi Jan 5 '14 at 6:47
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    @ESultanik As far as I know, מלבד cannot be translated as "above". It specifically means "aside from", and is related to the words לבד and בד which basically mean "alone". In any case, that word does not appear in Deut. 4:39, quoted above. – Fred Jan 6 '14 at 17:48
  • @Fred - There are also plenty of passages that lend themselves to a monolatrist interpretation - I quoted a number of them in my (now closed) question judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/62578/… – Wad Cheber stands with Monica Sep 1 '15 at 23:17

There are two ways to look at "powers other than Hashem" (everything from Idols to Sun and Moon etc.)

  • They exist - well yes, Baal (as an idol) exists. The golden calf existed. However, they are a bunch of stones/wood/gold that are totally powerless and foolish.

  • They exist, and they actually give, but they do it without free will - The sun gives heat but it has no choice. It to do so like a carriage in the hand of a rider - most people don't thank their car after driving it.

    Even in this way, if one were to think that these forces had freedom of choice (and therefore, power), he would be guilty of idol-worship.

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It is clear from Nevi'im (as well as modern archaeology) that the ancient Israelites practiced not only monolatry, but full fledged polytheistic idolatry until the exile / 2nd temple era. The only question is whether there are parts of the bible itself that support monolatry I.E. the notion that other Gods exist but that they are not to be worshiped. According to traditional rabbinic Judaism & Christianity, the answer is obviously no; according to modern academic biblical scholars, the answer is yes.

Polytheism from Moses to the Babylonian exile / 2nd temple period

Right from the start, according to the narrative in Exodus & Deuteronomy, 40 days after the Israelites received the 10 commandments, they already made a golden calf to worship. Moses got them back on track, but not for long. Right after Joshua (who lead Israel following Moses) died we find the following:

...Joshua son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died at the age of one hundred and ten years... And all that generation were likewise gathered to their fathers. Another generation arose after them, which did not know YHWH or the deeds that He had done for Israel... They forsook the LORD and worshiped Baal and the Ashtaroth...

This continues constantly throughout Neveim. Even during times that there seems to be improvement, like after Solomon built the first temple, we find that in 1Kings chapter 11, Solomon's hundreds of wives, "הטו את־לבבו אחרי אלהים אחרים ולא־היה לבבו שלם עם־יהוה אלהיו" - "turned his heart after other gods, and he was not as wholeheartedly devoted to the LORD his God" and he built places of worship for them. That this is said about one of the greatest leaders at what should have been the peak period in Israelite history, gives an indication of how rampant this was.

Throughout the 1st temple period, kings promoted worship of other Gods, while Prophets rallied against it. There were kings like Hezekiah & Josiah that tried to institute reform, but they were followed by kings who served other Gods. Ultimately, according to the Talmude (Yoma 9b), Avodah Zarah was one of three causes for the destruction of the 1st temple (587 BCE).

It was following the exile that polytheism declined and was replaced by monotheism. For more on this, see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Origins_of_Judaism#Second_Temple_Judaism

Monolatry in the Torah

The only question is whether there are parts of the bible itself that support monolatry I.E. the notion that other Gods exist but that they are not to be worshiped. According to traditional rabbinic Judaism & Christianity, the answer is obviously no; according to modern academic biblical scholars, the answer is yes:

"Most scholars whose work focuses on Israelite religion recognize that the Hebrew Bible contains a number of references assuming and even affirming the existence of other gods. As a corollary to this observation, scholars also frequently assert that no explicit denial of the existence of other gods occurs until the time of Deutero-Isaiah and thereafter (6th century b.c.e.) in a presumed campaign by zealous scribes to expunge such references from the sacred text. Even the Shema and the first commandment do not consign the other gods to fantasy, since the demand is made that no other gods should be worshipped. The data apparently informs us that Israelite religion evolved from polytheism to henotheistic monolatry to monotheism." [emphasis added]

Here I will list some verses that would seem to reflect this notion of there being other Gods. Rabbinic Judaism & Christianity find various ways of explaining/interpreting these verses in a way that is compatible with monotheism, most commonly by understanding the word "Elohim", which usually means "God" or "Gods", to mean either false gods, angles, or judges.

First are some verses where God seems to be consulting other divine beings and using the word "us". Traditional rabbinic Judaism explains that God was just showing humility:

ויאמר אלהים נעשה אדם בצלמנו כדמותנו - בראשית א׳

And God [Elohim] said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness..." - Genesis 1:26

ויאמר יהוה אלהים הן האדם היה כאחד ממנו לדעת טוב ורע ועתה פן־ישלח ידו ולקח גם מעץ החיים ואכל וחי לעלם - בראשית ג׳

And the LORD [YHWH] God [Elohim] said, “Now that the man has become like one of us, knowing good and bad, what if he should stretch out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever!” - Genesis 3:22

[In these and the following group of verses we also see what seems to be similar to the ancient near eastern notion of a sort of God-human continuum where men & Gods can becomes more/less Godly/human. An example of this in the ANE would be, Gilgamesh who was two-thirds god and one-third man]

Next, we have some references to בני אל(ה)ים - sons of El(oh)im:

Before getting to the verses, I want to mention a bit about how the term was used in the Ancient Near Est:

The term sons of God was a common term in the mythologies of the ancient Near East for the divine offspring of a certain god or goddess. Thus, in the Ugaritic texts, el and his consort Asherah are clearly designated as the parents of the gods who are collectively designated as the "seventy children of Asherah" (II Anchor Bible VI 46), "the generation [circle, family] of El," (III K III 17–19), or the "circle of the sons of El," (2:17, 34; 107:2). Similarly, in Babylonia, Apsu and Tiamat are the begetters of the gods, Anu is Anshar's first-born, etc. (see J. B. Pritchard, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 61).

The term is likewise used of demigods, whether these are represented as the offspring of god and man (Gilgamesh being depicted as two-thirds god and one-third man), or as a kind of god incarnate, as were the kings of Egypt, or the Phoenician Keret, a mortal hero or king who addresses El as his Father (I K 41, 59, 76, 169) and is called "the son of El" and "the offspring of the Beneficent and Holy One" (II K I–II 10–11, 20, 21).

With that in mind, let us examine the verse:

ויראו בני־האלהים את־בנות האדם כי טבת הנה ויקחו להם נשים מכל אשר בחרו... הנפלים היו בארץ בימים ההם וגם אחרי־כן אשר יבאו בני האלהים אל־בנות האדם וילדו להם המה הגברים אשר מעולם אנשי השם

the divine beings [Sons of Elohim] saw how beautiful the daughters of men were and took wives from among those that pleased them... It was then, and later too, that the Nephilim appeared on earth—when the divine beings cohabited with the daughters of men, who bore them offspring. They were the heroes of old, the men of renown. - Genesis 6:2,4

Altho בני־האלהים could be understood as sons of judges (or other authorities), the contrast with context of the verse makes this difficult, particularly the contrast with בנות האדם - daughters of man, fit much better with sons of deities. Likely for this reason Rashi gives an alternate explanation that it refers to angles.

בני אלים הבו ליהוה כבוד ועז...

...Ascribe to YHWH, O divine beings [Sons of Els (plural of El)], ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. - Psalms 29:1

א‍ני־אמרתי אלהים אתם ובני עליון כלכם. אכן כאדם תמותון וכאחד השרים תפלו - תהילים פ״ב

I had taken you for divine beings [Elohim], sons of the Most High, all of you; but you shall die as men do, fall like any prince. - Psalms 82:6-7

כי מי בשחק יערך ליהוה ידמה ליהוה בבני אלים - תהילים פ״ט:ז

For who in the skies can equal YHWH, can compare with YHWH among the divine beings [Sons of Els]. - Psalms 89:7

Finally, we have verses that seem to reference other Gods more directly:

ועברתי בארץ־מצרים בלילה הזה והכיתי כל־בכור בארץ מצרים מאדם ועד־בהמה ובכל־אלהי מצרים אעשה שפטים אני יהוה

For I will go through the land of Egypt in that night, and will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am YHWH. - Exodus 12:12

[Some commentaries explain smiting the Gods of Egypt to be referring to the physical idols of Egypt &/ the guardian angels of Egypt.]

מי־כמכה באלם יהוה... - שמות ט״ו:יא

Who is like you among the Gods, YHWH?... - Exodus 15:11

ופן־תשא עיניך השמימה וראית את־השמש ואת־הירח ואת־הכוכבים כל צבא השמים ונדחת והשתחוית להם ועבדתם אשר חלק יהוה אלהיך אתם לכל העמים תחת כל־השמים.

And when you look up to the sky and behold the sun and the moon and the stars, the whole heavenly host, you must not be lured into bowing down to them or serving them. These YHWH your God allotted to other peoples everywhere under heaven - Deuteronomy 4:19

[Note: The simple straightforward meaning [pashut pshat] would seem to be that YHWH allotted these heavenly hosts as Gods for other nations, but Israel is to worship only YHWH. Some traditional commentaries say that it really means he allotted them to people as a source of light. The obvious issue with this is that it doesn't really seem to fit the context so well.]

יהוה אלהיכם הוא אלהי האלהים ואדני האדנים...

...YHWH your God is the God of divine beings [Elohim], and the master of masters. - Deuteronomy 10:17

א‍להים נצב בעדת־אל בקרב אלהים ישפט - תהילים פ״ב...

...God [Elohim] stands in the divine assembly [assembly of El]; among the divine beings [Elohim] He pronounces judgment. - Psalms 82:1

אין־כמוך באלהים אדני ואין כמעשיך

There is none like You among the gods [Elohim], O Lord, and there are no deeds like Yours. - Psalms 86:8

כי אל גדול יהוה ומלך גדול על־כל־אלהים - תהילים צ״ה:ג

For the LORD [YHWH] is a great God [El], the great king of all divine beings [Elohim]. Psalms 95:3

כי־אתה יהוה עליון על־כל־הארץ מאד נעלית על־כל־אלהים

For You, LORD [YHWH], are supreme over all the earth; You are exalted high above all divine beings [Elohim]. - Psalms 97:9

גדול יהוה ואדנינו מכל־אלהים...

...YHWH is great, and our Lord is greater than all Gods [Elohim]. - Psalms 135:5

Virtually all modern academic scholars agree that at least some verses reflect a period in which YHWH was the greatest of a pantheon of Gods. However, some scholars go even further arguing that we can even see a transition from a period in which YHWH wasn't even the top God:

“The author of Psalm 82 deposes the older theology, as Israel's deity is called to assume a new role as judge of all the world. Yet at the same time, Psalm 82, like Deut 32:8-9, preserves the outlines of the older theology it is rejecting. From the perspective of this older theology, Yahweh did not belong to the top tier of the pantheon. Instead, in early Israel the god of Israel apparently belonged to the second tier of the pantheon; he was not the presider god, but one of his sons. This older picture, assumed in Deuteronomy and criticized in Psalm 82, presupposes the model of roughly equal national gods for all of the seventy nations of the world, a notion reflected also in the Ugaritic motif of the seventy sons of El and Athirat (CAT 1.4 VI 46). It is true that these expressions of older national theology survive only because they could be conformed to the later monotheistic paradigm: the figure of "the Most High" ('elyön) in Psalm 82 could be read as a reference to Yahweh, and the Masoretic change in Deuteronomy marks a shift to a monotheistic reading. However, analyzed not in terms of the later monotheism but in terms of the earlier national situation, these two passages offer an important witness to the old monarchic period theology of the national god. In these two cases the Bible preserves only a limited number of "snapshots" of pre-exilic religion, not a complete "tape." Accordingly, given the later textual editing "out" (and "down") of Israelite polytheism, the minimal evidence the Bible does provide should be viewed probably as only the tip of the iceberg...”

- Mark S. Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 157

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