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).

  • 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.

  • 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 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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