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Monotheism: Surely Not God's Idea

Sometimes I amuse myself with the possibility that Moses invented or embraced monotheism for a simple, almost technical reason: It’s a lot easier to tramp through the desert with one ark of one God than to carry around in that blazing heat a whole passel of gods, supplying each one with a tent, cold drinks, and sacrifices. But the truth is, the Bible does not present a consistent and comprehensive notion of monotheism.

Throughout Abraham’s entire discourse with God, the singularity of God is never mentioned. Neither did Isaac or Jacob deal with the idea of monotheism, except for the Lord being their God and the God of the nation that would spring from their loins.

Even at the burning bush, in his first revelation to Moses, God did not speak about his uniqueness, but instead said he was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And when Moses confronted Pharaoh, he did so in the name of “the God of Israel,” a statement that leaves room for the possible existence of other gods of other nations.

Indeed, the Bible is filled to overflowing with hints and evidence of the existence of other gods. Even in the Song of the Sea, after the parting of the Red Sea, there appears a line that is manifestly non-monotheistic: “Who is like you, O Lord, among the gods?” As if to say, there are plenty of gods, but not one of them matches up to the God of Israel….

The Hebrew language itself suffers from a lack of clarity regarding the oneness of the Almighty. The word Elohim, one of the synonyms for “God,” is in plural form, although the verbs attached to it are generally in the singular. In the very first verse of the Bible it says, “In the beginning Elohim created,” using bara for “created” and not bar’u, the plural form. Yet, later in the same chapter, God talks about himself in the plural: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” and afterward he goes back to the singular. Perhaps this was the first use of the “royal we….”

Even in the first commandment, “I am the Lord your God….You shall have no other gods beside me…,” allows that other gods may exist. In other words, it is not the singularity of God that is established in the Ten Commandments, but that he is the one and only God of the Children of Israel.

Now consider the most important, moving, and fundamental verse in all of Judaism: “Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord.” This, the famous Shema Yisrael, would seem to be the highest expression of the principle of monotheism, yet it is not necessarily so. Here the words “the Lord our God” suggest the possible existence of gods that are not “ours,” but those of others. And “one” may be understood as our one God, but not the only one in the world….

What if we examined monotheism from standpoint of God? From his point of view, it would seem, making the lord our God one God is a serious problem, maybe the cruelest blow dealt him by his believers.

It is not good to be a solitary God. Whereas the gods of Greece, Rome, Egypt, and Babylon had a rich and stimulating social life, begat children, quarreled and took revenge, fell in love and cheated on each other, made war and had fun, the Lord our God lives alone. And so, beyond our mutual complaints, his and ours, which often resemble the spats of a long-married couple, lurks a deep and ancient rupture: God banished us from the Garden of Eden and sentenced us to lives of toil and pain, and we invented monotheism and sentenced him to a life of barren loneliness.

In the Book of Genesis there are hints of better times in the social life of God. As noted earlier, his first words about himself, in Genesis 1, are spoken in the plural: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,” which could have been said to a whole group of gods. Indeed, at the beginning of Genesis 6 we are told of intriguing characters known as “the sons of Elohim.” Did God have children and a wife? Or maybe two? Sixteen? Seventy? And the sons of Elohim—were they also gods? The Bible offers us no answer, but the rest of the story attests to a very good relationship between the sons of Elohim and the human race: “The sons of Elohim saw how beautiful the daughters of men were and took wives from among those that pleased them.” The daughters of men bore children of the sons of Elohim, and these were “the heroes of old, the men of renown.” 

This story, a vestige of an ancient and mysterious layer of Israelite religion, points to a playful polytheistic phase that seems surely to God’s liking. And it’s not the only such story. In the first chapter of the Book of Job, it is written: “Now there was a day when the sons of Elohim came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them.” Here too we find a lively family group, with God receiving guests, making bets, hearing and telling stories….

But in the greater bulk of the Bible, God exists and acts alone, with decidedly gloomy consequences. The creator of heaven and earth, splitter of the Red Sea, Lord of Hosts is depicted as petty and annoying, jealous, insulted, complaining. He threatens, he promises, he regrets. He wants praise and craves glory. He makes accusations, stalks and catches red-handed, keeps score of the gifts he gave us and threatens to return the ones we gave him. On the verge of tears in the Book of Jeremiah, he remembers the good days of young marriage, when we followed him into the desert, an unsown wilderness.

Gods like Baal and Zeus did not come to their believers with such complaints. Their authors made sure to supply them with consorts Astarte and Hera, bands of nymphs and concubines, children legitimate and otherwise, relatives, friends, rivals, neighbors, and colleagues. But the Lord our God is one; we have no other beside him and he has no others except us.

This seems the true reason for the invention of monotheism. We created a lonely God so he would attend to us alone.

Meir Shalev is an Israeli columnist for the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth and the author of several novels, including The Blue Mountain, A Pigeon and a Boy, and The Loves of Judith. Adapted from Beginnings: Reflections on the Bible's Intriguing FirstsCopyright © 2011 by Meir Shalev. Published by Harmony Books, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc.