Holman Bible Dictionary
/POLYTHEISM The competing systems of religious belief that only one god exists or that many gods exist. Bible students often argue on the basis of biblical evidence that Israel in the first centuries of her life as a people did not have a monotheistic system of belief: indeed, that Moses' tradition does not appear in that kind of category. To support the accuracy of this statement, they examine the central text in the Old Testament for defining Israel's belief about God: the Ten Commandments. The first commandment stipulates a fundamental tenet in Israel's belief system: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3 ). That requirement for participation in Israel's community of faith does not assert that serving other gods before one serves the Lord would be foolish since no other gods exist. It assumes quite to the contrary that other gods do exist. It asserts that, even though the other gods exist, the people who follow the Mosaic
Commandments shall not embrace any of those other gods as gods who compete for the loyalty of the people. The Lord who brought Israel out of the land of Egypt will allow no compromise in the loyalty of the people. That assertion assumes the existence of other false gods who could call for loyalty and commitment from the Lord's people. That kind of belief system is commonly called henotheism.
In contrast to the call for strict commitment to the Lord alone, to a kind of divine jealousy that would tolerate no commitments from the people to gods other than the Lord, even though other gods might tempt the Lord's people with offers of power, the people among whom Israel lived in the early years of occupation in Canaan believed in numerous gods whose activities influenced their lives. Principal among the gods of the Canaanite pantheon were the great father figure, El; the younger hero, Baal; the adversary against order in the created land, Yam; the consort for Baal, Anat; and the ruler of Sheol, the place of the dead, Mot. In the Canaanite story about the various events involving these gods, Baal and his consort were primarily responsible for the success or failure of the agriculture in the social structure of Canaan. The fertility of the land depended on the fertility of Baal and his consort. The cult for the Canaanite farmers sought to stimulate the fertility of the divine couple, and thus the fertility of the land, by participating in fertility rituals at central sanctuaries called high places. The sexual activities of these rituals would stimulate Baal and his consort to similar activities and thus secure the fertility of the land.
One particular phase of that cult developed its drama from a belief that in the fall of the year, the time when vegetation on the earth dies, Baal died and descended into Sheol. On hearing the news of this tragedy, Anat began a long search for Baal. She found him in Sheol and effected his resurrection from the dead by coaxing him back to activity in the world of the living. This scene of resurrection occurred in the spring when the world springs back to life. Such mythology undergirds a belief system that depended on the activities, indeed, the interrelationship, of many gods. That system can be called polytheism.
A move away from henotheism and polytheism appears first in the Old Testament among the prophets. The prophetic movement appears as early as the prophet Elijah. Competition between the people of Israel and the people of Phoenicia was highlighted by a competition for loyalty of the people between the Lord and Baal. That competition came to its sharpest focus in the story about the contest between Elijah, the prophet for the Lord, and the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:1 ). The issue for the contests is still competition for the loyalty of the people. That issue focused on the question of genuine claim to status as God. “If the Lord be God, follow him: but if Baal, then follow him” (1 Kings 18:21 ). The issue of claim to genuine status as God is then focused on power. “The God that answereth by fire, let him be God” (1 Kings 18:24 ).
The pressure of the Exile challenged Yahweh's claim as the only God. If the Lord is really God and if that claim can be substantiated by acts of power, then how could the people of the Lord lose their independence and their land to a foreign people? Would the success of the Babylonians against Judah not undergird the claim that Marduk, the god of the Babylonians, is really God? Would it not suggest that the Lord, the God of the Judeans, had been defeated by Marduk, the god of the Babylonians? The prophets' response to this crisis was: the tragedy of the Exile was not the result of the power of Marduk against the power of the Lord, a result that would establish Marduk as God. To the contrary, the tragedy of the Exile was the result of Israel's own God using the Babylonians as an instrument of punishment against the Lord's own people since they had violated the terms of the covenant that bound them together. That theological justification for the Exile (see Amos 2:4-8 ) opened the door for a theological, philosophical position that asserted the existence of only one God who is Lord not only of Israel but also of all the rest of the world. That position can be called monotheism.
The beautiful poetry of Isaiah 40-66 represents the height of Israel's monotheism. For the first time in the Old Testament literature, a prophet explicitly argued that no other gods exist. The Lord alone is God. “I am the Lord, and there is none else, there is no God beside me: I girded thee, though thou hast not known me: That they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none beside me, I am the Lord, and there is none else ( Isaiah 45:5-7 ).” With that poetry, Israel reached a fully developed monotheism. Moreover, such monotheism asserts that the only God is Creator of the world: “I am the Lord that maketh all things; that stretcheth forth the heavens alone” (Isaiah 44:24 ) and its Savior and Redeemer: “I, even I, am the Lord, and beside me there is no savior.” (Isaiah 43:11 ).
George W. Coats
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