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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
The belief in one God. The French writer Ernest Renan has propounded the theory that the monotheistic instinct was a Semitic trait, and that therefore the universal belief that it was characteristic of the Hebrews alone must be modified. But later research into Semitic origins has demonstrated the untenability of Renan's contention. Robertson Smith has summed up the matter with the statement that "what is often described as a natural tendency of Semitic religion toward ethical monotheism is in the main nothing more than a consequence of the alliance of religion with monarchy" ("Rel. of Sem." p. 74; Montefiore, "Hibbert Lectures," p. 24; Schreiner, "Die Jüngsten Urtheile über das Judenthum," p. 7). The Hebrews alone of all the Semitic peoples reached the stage of pure monotheism, through the teachings of their prophets; however, it required centuries of development before every trace of idolatry disappeared even from among them, and before they stood forth as a "unique people on earth," worshipers of the one God and of Him alone.
Rise of the Belief.
In Hebrew tradition the origin of the belief in the one God is connected with the religious awakening of the patriarch Abraham. Later legends describe circumstantially how Abraham reached this belief (Beer, "Leben Abrahams nach Auffassung der Jüdischen Sage"; see See ABRAHAM). Though the tradition contains without doubt the kernel of the truth, modern criticism holds that the Hebrew tribes were brought to a clear realization of the difference between their God and the gods of the surrounding nations through the work and teachings of Moses. The acceptance of the pure monotheistic belief by the whole people was a slow process at best; how slow, many statements in the historical and prophetical books of the Bible prove amply. Throughout the period of the first commonwealth there was constant reversion to idolatry on the part of the people (comp. Judges 2:11-13,17,19; 3:7; 8:33; 10:6,10,13; 1 Samuel 8:8, 12:10; 1 Kings 9:9, 14:9, 16:31; 2 Kings 17:7, 22:17; Isaiah 2:8, 10:11, 31:7; Jeremiah 1:16; 7:9,18; 9:13; 11:10,13,17; 12:16; 13:10; 16:11; 19:4-5,23; 22:9; 32:29,35; 44:3,5,15; Hosea 2:7, 3:1, 4:17, 8:4, 11:2; Psalms 106:36; 2 Chronicles 7:22; 24:18; 28:2,25; 33:7; 34:25). Forgetful of their obligation to worship Yhwh and Him alone, the people followed after the "ba'alim"; the "bamot" and the "asherot" dotted the land; frequently, too, the Israelites confounded the worship of Yhwh with the worship of Baal.
In the development of religious belief in Israel there are indications of a growth through various stages before the conception of absolute uncompromising monotheism was reached. Down to the eighth-century prophets, the religionof the people was monolatrous rather than monotheistic; they considered Yhwh to be the one God and their God, but not the one and only God. He was the national God of Israel as Chemosh was the god of Moab and Milkom the god of Ammon (Numbers 21:29; Judges 11:24; 1 Kings 11:33). He was not yet the God of all the nations and of the universe. The existence of other gods was not definitively denied; even the second commandment does not disclaim the existence of other gods; it merely forbids Israel to bow down to them or serve them (comp. Deuteronomy 4:19). There was, in truth there could be, no other God in Israel; but this, it is held, did not affect the reality of the gods of other nations; though, in comparison with the might and glory of Yhwh, they were weak and powerless. A very early poem has the words, "Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods?" (Exodus 15:11)—a sufficient indication that the idea that there were other gods was in the writer's mind. In a later psalm there is a reminiscence of this early state of thought—"there is none like unto thee among the gods" (Psalms 86:8, R. V.).
God, Land, and People.
As among other Semitic peoples (Smith, c. p. 91), so, too, in early Israel the closest relationship was supposed to subsist between the Deity, the land, and the people. Yhwh was the God not only of Israel the people (2 Samuel 7:23; 1 Kings 8:59), but of the land of Israel; He could be approached nowhere else (comp. the story of Naaman, 2 Kings 5:15); the great conception of His omnipresence as held by the author of the 139th Psalm was not yet reached. Thus when David was compelled by his enemies to flee he complained bitterly: "They have driven me out this day that I should not cleave unto the inheritance of the Lord, saying, Go, serve other gods" (1 Samuel 26:19, R. V.); and the prophet Hosea speaks of the domain of the Israelites as" God's land" (9:7). The triple relationship of God, people, and land is forcibly expressed in as late a passage as the prayer of the Deuteronomist, "Look down from thy holy habitation, from heaven, and bless thy people Israel, and the land which thou hast given us" (Deuteronomy 26:15).
In Israel, then, and in Israel's land Yhwh was sole God. Even this preparatory stage to universal monotheism was not reached until centuries after the occupation of the land; there was a syncretism of religious cults; the people were tolerant of the local ba'alim; Jeroboam was able to set up the calf-gods at Dan and Bethel without arousing a great outcry.
Yhwh alone in the land, the land Yhwh's alone, the worship of no other god to be tolerated in the land—this was the program of the zealous prophet Elijah, and in his activity there was a decided step forward to the recognition of Yhwh alone as the God of Israel. For Elijah it was Yhwh only or nothing; "How long halt ye between two opinions? if the Lord be God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him" (1 Kings 18:21). Monolatry reaches its supreme expression in Elijah: "Yhwh is God" is the watchword of his activity; there is room for none other in Israel.
From this attitude of Elijah it was but a step to pure monotheism; the belief is found in full flower in the speeches of the great eighth-century prophets; the genius of Amos and his successors carried the conception of the "oneness" of Yhwh to its uttermost limit, although even in their time the people did not reach this height of thought; it was only after the return from the Babylonian exile that the monotheistic belief was a positive possession of the people as well as of the great spirits to whom the truth was first vouchsafed.
The modern view of the development of religious thought in Israel is that the conception of pure monotheism was reached through three channels—through the recognition of God in nature and in history, and through the belief in the ethical character or holiness of God. When Yhwh was recognized as the Creator of heaven and earth and all that in them is (comp. Amos 5:8, 9:6), when the appellation "the Lord of the heavenly hosts" was given Him (Amos 4:13, 5:27, Hebr.), when the whole earth was spoken of as being full of His glory (Isaiah 6:3), then there was room for no other god; for the conception of God as the Lord and Creator of nature carried with it, as a necessary corollary, the belief that there was no god beside Him (Jeremiah 10:11). The great conceptions of the Prophets that Yhwh punishes wrong-doing not only in Israel but in other nations (Amos 1-), that He is the arbiter of the destinies of such other nations (ib. 9:7), that He uses heathen kings as instruments of punishment or salvation, as when Isaiah speaks of the Assyrian monarch as "the rod of God's anger," when Jeremiah points to the Babylonian king as the instrument whereby God will punish Jerusalem, and when deutero-Isaiah refers to Cyrus as God's anointed—all this involves the conclusion that there was no god but Yhwh, for His dominion extended not only over Israel, but over the nations of the earth also, and His guiding hand directed the course of kings and peoples in the working out of their history.
But the conception of the holiness of Yhwh (Isaiah 5:16, 6:3; Habakkuk 2:3), the recognition of His ethical character, led more than anything else to monotheism, as Kuenen has pointed out ("Hibbert Lectures,"1882, p. 127). As long as Yhwh was looked upon as only the national God, it was a question of the supremacy of the strongest as between Him and the national gods of other peoples. But when God was presented primarily in His ethical character and worshiped as the God of holiness, there was no longer any measure of comparison. If Yhwh was the holy God, then the other gods were not. Here was an entirely new element; Yhwh as the moral governor of men and nations was absolutely unique; the gods of the nations were "elilim" (= "nothings"; Isaiah 2:8,18,20; 10:10-11; 19:1,3; 31:7; Habakkuk 2:18; Ezekiel 30:13), "vanity" (Jeremiah 2:5, 8:19, 10:15, 16:19, 18:15; Isaiah 44:9, 59:4), "lies" (Amos 2:4; Habakkuk 2:18; Jeremiah 29:31), "abomination" (Hosea 9:10; Jeremiah 4:1, 7:30, 13:27, 32:34; Ezekiel 5:11; 7:20; 20:7-8,30; Isaiah 44:19).
Culmination in Isaiah.
The doctrine of absolute monotheism is preached in the most emphatic manner by Jeremiah (10:10; 14:22; 23:36; 32:18,27) and the Deuteronomist(4:35,39), but the Biblical teaching on the subject may be said to have culminated in Isaiah of Babylon. Yhwh, though in a peculiar sense the God of Israel, is still the God of all the world. This prophet's standpoint is uncompromising: "I, even I, am the Lord; and beside me there is no savior" (43:11); "I am the first, and I am the last; and besides me there is no God" (44:6, 48:12); "that they may know from the rising of the sun to the setting thereof that there is none besides me; I am God and there is none else" (45:6, Hebr.). In the post-exilic psalms and such other portions of the Bible as were produced during the second commonwealth—Proverbs, Job, Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Daniel—the belief in the one God and in Him alone is positively assured. Not only in Palestine was monotheism now the sure possession of the Jewish people, but it may be said that the Judaism of the Diaspora is conscious of itself as the bearer of the monotheistic doctrine and as being therein distinguished from all its surroundings (comp. Friedländer, "Gesch. der Jüdischen Apologetik," p. 217). In proof of this latter statement many passages can be cited from the apocryphal and the pseudepigraphical writings. "Let them [the nations] know thee, as we also have known thee, that there is no God but only thou, O God" (Ecclus. 36:5; comp. also 43:28); "neither is there any God besides thee, that careth for all" (Wisdom of Solomon 12:13); "O Lord, Lord God, the Creator of all things, . . . who alone art King and gracious, who alone suppliest every need, who alone art righteous and almighty and eternal" (II Macc. 1:24-25; comp. Ep. Jer. 5, in Kautzsch, "Apokryphen," 1:226; Aristeas Letter, 134: ib. 2:16; Sibyllines, Proem, 7, 15, 54; 3:584 et seq., 5:76 et seq.: ib. 1:184,196,207; comp. also Josephus, "Ant." 4:8, § 5).
The spread of Christianity with its doctrine of the divinity of its founder called forth a number of expressions from the Jewish sages touching the subject of the absolute unity of God; thus a commentary on the first commandment reads, "A king of flesh and blood has a father and a brother; but God says, 'With Me it is not so; "I am the first" because I have no father, and "I am the last" because I have no brother; and "besides me there is no God," because I have no son'" (Ex. R. 29:5). A similar expression is used in explanation of Ecclus. 4:8 ("There is one alone, and there is not a second"): "he hath neither child nor brother; but hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One" (Deut. R. 2:33). There can be little doubt that such a saying as "Whoever draws out the pronunciation of the word 'one' [in the Shema'], his days and years will be lengthened" is of similar import (Ber. 13b); the emphasizing of the unity was the particular characteristic of the faithful in a world of dualistic and trinitarian propaganda. As long as a man refused allegiance to other gods he was looked upon as a Jew; "whoever denies the existence of other gods is called a Jew" (Meg. 13a).
The unity of God was a revealed truth for the Jew; there was no need of proofs to establish it; it was the leading tenet of the faith; nor is any attempt at such proof found until the time of the medieval Jewish philosophers, who, in building up their systems of religious philosophy, devoted considerable space to the consideration of the attributes of God, especially of His unity. Proofs for the unity are given at length by Saadia ("Emunot we-De'ot," 1:7), Maimonides ("Moreh," 2:1), Gersonides ("Milḥamot Adonai," 3:3), and Ḥasdai Crescas ("Or Adonai," 3:4).
The belief in the unity was formulated by Maimonides as the second of the thirteen articles of the faith known as the Maimonidean Creed: "I believe that the Creator, Blessed be His name, is One, and that no unity is like His in any form, and that He alone is our God, who was, is, and ever will be." Solomon ibn Gabirol expressed the idea in another manner in his great liturgical poem "Keter Malkut": "Thou art One, the first great Cause of all; Thou art One, and none can penetrate—not even the wise in heart—the mystery of Thy unfathomable unity; Thou art One, the Infinitely Great." This statement of belief found constant expression in the liturgy, as in the Minḥah service for Sabbath afternoon ("Thou art One and Thy name is One"), and in such liturgical poems as the "Adon 'Olam" ("He is One and there is no second, to compare to Him or associate with Him") and the "Yigdal" ("He is One and there is no unity like His unity. . . . His unity is unending").
The profession of the unity is the climax of the devotion of the greatest of the holy days, the Day of Atonement. At death it is the last word to fall from the Jew's lips and from the lips of the bystanders. This has been Judaism's great contribution to the religious thought of mankind, and still constitutes the burden of its Messianic ideal, the coming of the day when all over the world "God shall be One and His name One" (comp. Zechariah 14:9). Shema'.
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Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Monotheism'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tje/m/monotheism.html. 1901.