The verse "I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god" (Isaiah 44:6) catches my attention because it is such a succinct statement of monotheism which is a prominent theme of Isaiah 40-55 (hereinafter referred to as Deutero-Isaiah). Monotheism ultimately becomes a defining characteristic of post-Exilic Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the Baha’i Faith.
Because the concept of monotheism is traced back to the stories of Abraham (Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, no. 25.3), I used to think that a strong theme and culture of monotheism ran throughout all of the post-Abrahamic stories in the Hebrew Bible (representing the years of around 2000 BC to 300 BC). However, upon researching the topic some time ago I was surprised to find that many scholars believe that the monotheistic tradition began in the late eight and early 7th century BC (see Finkelstein, Houston, Halpern, Coggins), with the strongest monotheistic rhetoric reached in Deutero-Isaiah (about mid 6th century BC). When rereading the Torah and the books of History with an eye for an underlying culture of polytheism, I see a good bit of evidence of this theory. Even the commandment to “have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2), although making the Hebrew God #1, presumes the existence of other gods.
I was surprised to find that archaeological evidence in Israel indicates that there was a natural and “widespread mixing of the worship of YHWH with that of other gods” in the countryside as well as in the Jerusalem Temple” (Finkelstein 246-7); that the ‘YHWY-alone movement’ appears to have been a small minority battling the more traditional, and what many consider “genuinely Judahite” religious customs that were consistent with surrounding polytheistic Canaanite culture (Finkelstein 249). This becomes even more interesting because it is the view of this (theoretically) small monotheistic-minded minority that dominates the surviving biblical historiography: throughout the biblical Books of History the people and almost all of the leaders are criticized for participating in polytheistic culture (to everyone’s detriment) even though it was the normal culture of the time. Why? Many theories take into consideration the interaction of economics and politics in the evolution of monotheistic theology. Some interesting theories include:
• When it was most important to consolidate the community—such as after the fall of the northern Kingdom (Israel) to Assyria, during the threat of Assyrian expansion, after the fall of the southern Kingdom (Judah) to Babylon, during the Exile in Babylon, and upon the return to Jerusalem—a centralized authority was deemed politically and economically necessary. Religion, politics, and economics were not separate entities, and the establishment of a culture of one god was deemed desirable for political consolidation under hostile conditions (Finkelstein 248; also see Halpern, Coggins).
• Also, it is proposed that the standard of monotheism was written into the pre-7th century biblical histories by later writers with certain political motivations to rewrite history for the purpose of establishing a new culture of one authority and one Temple that would be the economic heart of the community (no more offering sacrifices wherever one wanted; everything had to go through the Temple; the resources were centrally controlled). “And in what can only be called an extraordinary outpouring of retrospective theology, the new, centralized kingdom of Judah and the Jerusalem-centered worship of YHWY was read back into Israelite history as the way things should always have been” (Finkelstein 249).
* And perhaps most intriguing to me as a possible factor in the evolution of monotheism in the late 8th-6th centuries BC: The Torah and the Books of History suggest that the ancient Hebrews lived a holy war theology in which tribal or national gods had control over military victories. Like their surrounding neighbors who attributed victory to their gods, stories of the ancient Israelites feature war victories attributed to YHWH (see battle stories in the books of History; also see McConville, p. 159). For both the northern and southern Kingdoms to be conquered by Assyria and Babylonia respectively was problematic—the losses suggested that the god of Israel was weaker than the Assyrian and Babylonian national gods, or that the god of Israel had abandoned the people. How was this solved? By proclaiming, as we see in Isaiah, that the god of Israel controlled these nations and used them to punish the Hebrew tribes for not following the Covenant. Isaiah and other prophets (see Hosea and Amos) explain that the devastation was all under YHWY’s control for Israel’s ultimate best interest (for example, see Isaiah 42:21-25). The god of Israel was in no way conquered, nor did he abandon the people. In the same way, it is explained that the god of Israel controlled the Persian Empire, causing Cyrus to command a return to Jerusalem (Isaiah 41:2-4). According to Isaiah, the god of Israel was always in complete control, caused the devastation of Judah and the destruction of the House for the name of Lord in Jerusalem in order to punish the people, and will also be the cause of their salvation through Cyrus. The god of Israel wins by being the One controlling agent for everything.
In short, if monotheism did evolve from the 8th to 6th centuries BC, I find it fascinating to consider the possibilities of how theological, economic, and political energies may have interacted in that process.
Israel Finkelstein, The Bible Unearthed
Walter Houston, “Exodus” in The Oxford Bible Commentary
Baruch Halpern, The First Historians
R. Coggins, “Isaiah” in The Oxford Bible Commentary
Gordon McConville, "Joshua" in The Oxford Bible Commentary
View of the Land of Canaan from Haifa University Research Library