Monotheism as a Category

As of late, I’v been interested in the development of “monotheism” within ancient Israel. Several recent articles, and even older articles, consistently use the term “monotheism.” While I understand that we may see Judaism as a monotheistic religion in the 21st century, the category of monotheism is not without problems. Just as with the category of “religion,” monotheism as a category is fraught with a long history. This history of monotheism as a category, though, is not fully acknowledged in literature about ancient Israel.

Perhaps, though, we should use a better category. Personally, I prefer the term monolatrism over monotheism. Monolatry recognizes and acknowledges the historical reality of other gods. While speaking with a professor today, I realized an important fact about books like Kings and Chronicles. When we read about how this or that king worshiped Baal or Asherah, we tend to assume it was wrong. In reality, though, it was only natural. If you were a king Levant during the 8th century, a famine occurred, and it didn’t go away after praying to Yahweh, you would surely pray to another god. Not to do so is to allow your kingdom to perish. Additionally, allowing other deities within religious practice, whilst still making it centralized around Yahweh, would permit strong socio-political ties between regions and kingdoms. Thus, monolatry is a better term than monotheism.

It recognizes the historical realities of polytheism. Additionally, while it maintains the fact of the centrality of Yahweh, it recognizes the reality that other deities were worshiped. And that worship was, often times, not morally wrong.

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