Monotheists. The first thing to stress in considering the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is that even though the orthodox view (that is, the one that got declared “right”; “Orthodoxy” literally means “right opinion”) claimed there were three persons in the godhead, there was only one God. That is, Christians insisted they were monotheists. No doubt they did so because they quite consciously came out of the Jewish tradition and wanted to retain its monotheistic emphasis. But that in itself needs to be thought about for a minute.
Were Ancient Israelites Actually Monotheists? This is Debatable
Just about everyone thinks that Jews are and always have been strictly monotheistic. As it turns out, the matter is hotly debated and not all that simple. There are indeed passages in the Hebrew Bible that stress there is only one God. Most importantly in some parts of Isaiah, especially the parts called “Second Isaiah” (chapters 40-55) they are called this because this part of the book was not written by “Isaiah of Jerusalem” the prophet of the 8th c. BCE, but by a later author with many of the same concerns and interests but living later, in the 6th c. BCE, (after the Babylonians had wiped out Judea and taken its leaders and many of its people into exile). Read ch. 40, and you’ll see that the author is addressing a group of Judeans who are desperate to return to their homeland.
One of the emphases of 2 Isaiah is that the God of Israel is in fact the only God. And so God declares through the prophet: “I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me, there is no god” (Isa 45:5). In this verse, the term LORD (all caps) is how English translators render the personal name of the God of Israel, Yahweh (represented in Hebrew by the “four letters,” i.e., the tetragrammaton: YHWH). He is the only God there is. Monotheism. Or as he says a few verses later, “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God and there is no other” (45:22).
For later Christians, this becomes an important passage, because …
It’s the thing that comes next that’s a bit odd, possibly unexpected, and certainly hard to explain. Wanna see what it is? If you’re a blog member, you can. If you’re not a blog member, why not join?
…the next thing he says is that “To me” (that is, to YHWH, the only God), “To me, every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear” (Isa 45:23). Why does that matter for early Christians? Because in the New Testament the apostle Paul says that because of Christ’s resurrection and exaltation to heaven, in the end, it is at “the name of Jesus” that “every knee shall bow” and “every tongue confess” (Phil. 2:6-11). Whoa. If it is only to Yahweh this will happen, the God of Israel, but Paul says it will happen to Jesus, uh, what does that mean? Welcome to Christology! We’ll get to that later.
Most of the Hebrew Bible isn’t Written from a Monotheistic View
But here’s another thing. Even though 2 Isaiah affirms the monotheists view, MOST of the Hebrew Bible does not. In fact, most of the Bible assumes there are indeed other gods in the world. According to various authors of the Bible, the big problem the people of Israel have, over and over again, is that they sometimes worship these *other* gods instead of or alongside Yahweh.
He doesn’t like that. So he punishes them. Most (in)famously Israelites are constantly tempted to worship the god Baal – a Canaanite deity; but there are others, including “Molech” (see 2 Kings 23:10) who apparently (or allegedly) was worshiped by child sacrifice in the “valley of the Son of Hinnom,” that is, “Gehenna.” Yikes. God especially didn’t like that one….
Now you might be tempted to think that just because Israelites would worship other gods, it doesn’t mean these gods really existed. Well, right. I myself do not think Molech or Baal exists or ever did exist. But my point is that many Israelites thought so. So they weren’t monotheists.
Were Hebrews Monotheistic? There’s Evidence They Weren’t
There’s very solid evidence, in fact, that ancient Israel for many centuries did not even claim to be a monotheist. Israelites regularly acknowledged there were indeed other gods in the world. Their religion did not deny the existence of these other superhuman beings. It claimed Israelites were not supposed to worship them. Yahweh was the ONLY God to be worshiped. But that didn’t mean he was the only God. He was the only God FOR THE ISRAELITES.
There’s lots of evidence for that, but probably the favorite passage for most people wanting to argue the point is a rather important one for other reasons as well, the Ten Commandments (Exod. 20:2-17). Different religious bodies/denominations today enumerate the Ten Commandments differently: Jews, Catholics, and Protestants all have ten of them, but they are numbered differently.
The 10 Commandments
They are technically called “the Decalogue,” which means “the Ten Words” (rather than the Ten Commandments); in Jewish reckoning, the first of those words is not a commandment but a statement of fact meant to ground and justify the commands that follow: “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”
The second commandment in Jewish reckoning is the first in most of the Protestant churches and in the Orthodox tradition (the two are put together with the Protestant second commandment in the Catholic and Lutheran traditions) (just to keep all of us confused): “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exod. 20:3).
Notice how it is worded. The commandment is NOT “You shall not believe or even think for a second that there is another god besides me.” It is that YHWH, the God who saved his people from their slavery in Egypt (a few chapters earlier), under Moses, at the parting of the sea, is the TOP god in the pantheon. No other should have any precedent. That later came to be interpreted as meaning that no other god was to be worshiped *at all*, besides YAHWEH. Later, then, it became that there *is* no other God but Yahweh. But you don’t get much of that kind of strict monotheism until late in the biblical tradition, as in Second Isaiah.
Thus the view found most widely throughout the OT tradition is that there are other gods, but they are not to be worshiped, either instead of or even alongside Yahweh. That is not monotheism. It is known as henotheism. It is not polytheism because it does not worship other gods or even value them; it just acknowledges that other people have, value, and worship them.
Were Hebrews Monotheistic?
BUT. Here’s a big but. Even Jews who later became monotheists recognized other divine beings. Sometimes they called them gods. Sometimes they were good beings. Sometimes they were worshiped. And sometimes good divine beings were humans who had become divine. Even in Judaism. This is weird and unexpected, but I’ll show how it works in posts to come.