The evolution of monotheism

Copyright 2006 by Zeeshan Hasan. First published in on September 22nd, 2006.

The Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition seems to have monotheistic faith as a common thread. However, modern literary criticism of the Hebrew Bible and archaeological research in ancient Israelite religion questions the monotheism of early figures such as Abraham and even Moses. Exploring the development of monotheism in the Abrahamic traditions allows us to put monotheism in a larger historical framework which can be extended to include other religions such as Hinduism.

To begin with, we need to take a closer look at the traditional biblical (as well as Islamic) picture of Abraham and other Israelite figures as monotheist worshippers of theIsraelite deity. Essentially this is the view that conservative Jews, Christians and Muslims have held to based upon their reading of either the Biblical book of Genesis and in the Qur'an. It posits the original monotheism of humanity all the way down from Adam, shared by Noah, and continued in Abraham and his Israelite descendants.

In a nutshell, Genesis presents a history of the Israelites beginning with their ancestor Abraham (whose Hebrew name, ab-raham literally means "the father of the womb", which is an idiomatic way of saying "the ancestor of the many descendants" or "the ancestor of the tribe"). Abraham is portrayed as being an immigrant from the Babylonian city of Ur (in current-day Iraq) who has settled in the land of Canaan (later known as Israel). Abraham is followed by his sons Ishmael and Isaac, as well as his grandson Jacob, to whom is given the divinely-appointed name of "Israel". Jacob's given name subsequently becomes the name of the tribe of his descendants. All the above figures are traditionally viewed as monotheist immigrants, as compared to the indigenous Canaanite polytheists who inhabit the land. Finally, Abraham's great-grandson Joseph is sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, where he gains influence and later invites the other Israelites during a period of drought in Canaan. The line of Abraham's descendants is then lost, but the story of the Israelites is continued in the Biblical book of Exodus many years later. In Exodus, Moses leads his now enslaved tribe out of Egypt and back towards the land of Canaan. Moses is viewed not only as a monotheist, but the first to learn God's personal name, Yahweh (or Jehovah in English) and as the recipient of the Commandments or the Law (Hebrew torah, and Arabic tawrat). Moses' successor Joshua leads the Israelites to conquer the cities of Canaan, and the land is subsequently known by the name of the newly-ruling tribe of Israel. Finally, the Biblical books of Kings recount the rule of David and Solomon as divinely-appointed monotheist monarchs of Israel.

The above picture of Biblical history is almost entirely retained in the Qur'an, with a few minor changes such as Abraham being relocated to Mecca rather than Ur (in order that he be able to build the Ka'ba). Thus Jews, Christians and Muslims all take for granted that Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph and Moses were monotheists. However, the monotheism of the early Israelites has been questioned by many modern historians of religion. A very brief introduction to this debate is given in the first chapter of Karen Armstrong's book, A History Of God.

One point to bear in mind is that the tribe of Israel incorporates in its own name an evocation of its ancient deity: namely El. In Hebrew, El is usually translated simply as "god" or "God"; but is also the name of one of the chief gods of the polytheist Canaanites. Another point to bear in mind is that Hebrew and Canaanite are essentially different dialects of the same language. Thus we should not be surprised if there is overlap of religious language. Hebrew words isra-el thus means either "El strives" or "one who strives with El". The latter meaning is used in the Biblical story of how Jacob gains this name through literally wrestling with God.

Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob's hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, 'Let me go, for the day is breaking.' But Jacob said, 'I will not let you go, unless you bless me.' So he said to him, 'What is your name?' And he said, 'Jacob.' Then the man said, 'You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.' Then Jacob asked him, 'Please tell me your name.' But he said, 'Why is it that you ask my name?' And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peni-El (Hebrew for "face of God"), saying, 'For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.' (Genesis 32:24-30)

The above passage is quite bizarre in terms of our modern concepts of monotheism. God (whose name of El is confirmed in the place name Peni-El) is depicted as a mysterious spirit of the night who must escape before sunrise. This Jacob story shows that the Israelites acknowledged that their original deity was El from a very early point in their history, or they would not use this particular divine name to identify the name of their tribe. As a side note, the word translated simply as "God" above is the Hebrew word Elohim; it is actually a plural form. This word will become significant later in our discussion.

The early Israelite worship of El is further supported by various other Biblical passages. Abraham and his descendants are recorded as worshipping El under the name of El-Shaddai (Hebrew for 'El of the mountain', but traditionally translated 'God Almighty') numerous times:

When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the Lord appeared to Abram, and said to him, 'I am El-Shaddai; walk before me, and be blameless. (Genesis 17:1)

Then Isaac called Jacob and blessed him, and charged him, '...May El-Shaddai bless you and make you fruitful and numerous.. (Genesis 28:1-3)

God appeared to Jacob again... and he blessed him. God said to him, 'Your name is Jacob; no longer shall you be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.' So he was called Israel. God said to him, 'I am El Shaddai; be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall spring from you. (Genesis 35:9-11)

Then their father Israel (previously known as Jacob) said to them,...'may El Shaddai grant you mercy... (Genesis 43:11-14)

And Jacob said to Joseph, 'El Shaddai appeared to me... and he blessed me..." (Genesis 48:3-4)

In addition to the repeated naming of El-Shaddai above, Abraham also worships his deity with various other names, including El-Olam (Hebrew for "eternal El") and El-Elyon ("El the most high").

Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of the Lord, El-Olam. (Genesis 16:33)

But Abram said to the king of Sodom, 'I have sworn to the Lord, El-Elyon, maker of heaven and earth...' (Genesis 14:22)

The above makes apparent that the early Israelites worshipped a deity whom they called El. But who exactly was El? Modern historians of religion identify this name with one of the deities of the early Canaanites, the polytheists among whom the early Israelite monotheist immigrants were depicted as residing. While the Bible provides little insight into the beliefs of the Canaanites, archaeological excavations of the ancient Canaanite city of Ugarit (at Ras Shamra, in modern-day Syria) has provided us with a great deal of knowledge of Canaanite myths. These feature a Canaanite pantheon which includes the gods El (meaning "deity") and Baal (meaning "lord").

But a later step in the development of Israelite monotheism came with an altogether new name for the deity which ultimately supplanted the older El-based ones. Several centuries after the time of Abraham, the Bible depicts Moses as meeting a deity named Yahweh at the burning bush. Yahweh affirms having been the deity previously known as El-Shaddai, in spite of the unfamiliar name now used:

God also spoke to Moses and said to him: 'I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El-Shaddai, but by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them. (Exodus 6:2-4)
But even with the advent of Yahweh, traces of Canaanite religion persist. El is the elder deity of the Canaanite pantheon; he is pictured as being the king of the gods, and presiding over a divine council. Yahweh is portrayed similarly in the Biblical text below:

Let the heavens praise your wonders, O Yahweh, your faithfulness in the assembly of the holy ones. For who in the skies can be compared to Yahweh? Who among the heavenly beings is like Yahweh, a God feared in the council of the holy ones, great and awesome above all that are around him? (Psalms 89:5-7)
Furthermore, the Canaanite god El was given the title "Bull El" due to his strength and fertility. It's no coincidence that the the Bible denounces Moses' followers for slipping into polytheism by worshipping a golden calf; they were obviously worshipping Canaanite El. But remarkably, the Biblical book of Genesis refers to Yahweh as the "Bull of Jacob", presumably a title which has been inherited from El:

'Joseph is a fruitful bough... The archers fiercely attacked him; Yet his bow remained taut... by the hands of the Bull of Jacob... (Genesis 49:22-24)
Nor is the remnant of the Canaanite pantheon only to be seen in the association of Yahweh with El, the ancient king of the gods. There are also Biblical traces of Baal, the youthful Canaanite warrior-god of storm and sky. Baal's epithet was "rider of the clouds", which is also applied to Yahweh in the Biblical passage below:

Sing to God, sing praises to his name; lift up a song to him who rides upon the clouds— his name is Yahweh— be exultant before him. (Psalms 68:4)
The depiction of Yahweh as a sky and warrior god is very clear in the following Biblical text celebrating the escape from the Pharaoh of Egypt and sometimes called the "Song of Moses":

Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to Yahweh: I will sing to Yahweh, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea... Yahweh is a warrior; Yahweh is his name. 'Pharaoh's chariots and his army he cast into the sea; his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea. The floods covered them... your right hand, O Yahweh, shattered the enemy... you sent out your fury, it consumed them like stubble. At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up, the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea... You blew with your wind, the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters. (Exodus 15:1-11)
The obvious attribution of storm, wind and flood to Yahweh above seems very reminiscent of Canaanite Baal. The following verses make the sky god aspect of Yahweh even clearer, by glorifying lightning over the trees and thunder over the water with his voice:

The voice of Yahweh is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, Yahweh, over mighty waters. The voice of Yahweh breaks the cedars; Yahweh breaks the cedars of Lebanon. The voice of Yahweh flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of Yahweh shakes the wilderness; The voice of Yahweh causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, 'Glory!' (Psalm 29:1-9)
How did early Israelite religion come to incorporate so much of the above Canaanite polytheist imagery? This question only arises because our preconception is of a monotheist Israelite religion with no space to accommodate Canaanite deities. This preconception is not always borne out by the textual evidence of the Bible. For example, let us look at the following commandment to Moses:

I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods besides me. You shall not make for yourself an idol... You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I Yahweh your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me, (Exodus 20:2-5)
Read carefully, the above does not actually say that no other gods besides Yahweh exist. Rather, it says that the Israelites must worship Yahweh alone, and not give any mind to other gods. Whether or not they exist is a different matter, and not dealt with here. This is not strict monotheism as modern Jews, Christians or Muslims think of it. It is more akin to henotheism, the belief that although many gods may exist, only one is to be worshipped. Henotheism seems like a strange concept in the Biblical context, but again that is only because of our preconception that the Bible is purely monotheist. In more explicitly polytheist contexts, it is commonplace; for example, although Hinduism has a pantheon of many gods and goddesses, individual worshippers often worship only one of them in practice (for example, Shaivites focus on Shiva, Vaishnavites on Vishnu, etc). A very interesting Biblical verse, given below, smacks of henotheism:

When Elyon apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods; Yahweh's own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share. (Deuteronomy 32:8-9)
Elyon above is usually just translated as "God", and assumed to refer to the same monotheist deity as Yahweh. However, we have seen that Abraham seems to have worshipped the Canaanite god El with the name El-Elyon, while Yahweh only appeared much later to Moses. In that case, the above might actually preserve a tradition by which Yahweh and El are two separate deities, and the elder god El is ceding authority over the Israelites to the newcomer Yahweh. Again, this possibility fits perfectly with henotheism, but not monotheism.

From a historical point of view, the assertion that Israelite religion was originally monotheist is quite difficult to maintain. The Bible itself tells us that Abraham and his sons, the founding ancestors of the Israelites, lived in a Canaanite, polytheist environment. But we have only the Biblical tradition that Abraham was an immigrant from Babylonia to distinguish him from his Canaanite neighbors. The archaeological impossibility of ever verifying the immigration or even existence of a single individual into Canaan thousands of years ago means that we will never be able to verify this critical Biblical claim. On the other hand, we can see from traces of El and Baal in the Bible that the early Israelites who lived in Canaan actually worshipped something similar to Canaanite gods: so how do we know that the first Israelites were not originally Canaanites? If Abraham really came from Ur, why would he and his tribe speak Hebrew, a dialect of the Canaanite language? Why would his tribe name themselves "Isra-El" after a Canaanite deity?

To historians it seems much more likely that Abraham himself was Canaanite, and that the accounts of him migrating from Ur are mythological. From the perspective of modern historians, this is a much easier claim to make, as one does not have to prove that Abraham's family migrated from Ur. The Babylonian origin of Abraham probably served a dual purpose; firstly, it associated him with the ancient Babylonian civilization, which was older and more renowned than that the politically insignificant province of Canaan. Secondly, asserting Abraham's non-Canaanite origins enabled later monotheist Biblical writers to claim that he was not a polytheist Canaanite. This is where modern historians part company with the Biblical account.

It is at this stage of the investigation that we have to change track. So far, we have looked at the melding of Canaanite and Israelite deities from the purely textual perspective of the Bible. While this is both enlightening and a necessary starting point, it is far from the whole story. The greater portion of the modern evidence for the evolution of Israelite culture and religion lies in modern archaeology, not in isolated textual study. This evidence has been elegantly presented by the archaeologist William G. Dever in his book, Who were the early Israelites, and where did they come from?

The first Biblical episode that we have any hope of investigating archeologically is the exodus from Egypt led by Moses, which culminated in the conquest of Canaan by his successor Joshua. This story of large-scale conquest should be apparent in the archaeological record as the point where Canaanite culture, dominant since Abraham, was replaced by the Israelite culture of Moses' followers. This is convenient, because another mystery of the Bible is intricately tied up with Moses: this is the divine name, "Yahweh", which he was the first to learn. Etymologically, it is a mystery, with no grammatically obvious meaning in Hebrew. Even the early Israelites seem to have regarded it as something of a mystery, as is apparent from the first encounter between Moses and his newly discovered deity:

But Moses said to God, 'If I come to the Israelites and say to them, "The God of your ancestors has sent me to you", and they ask me, "What is his name?" what shall I say to them?' God said to Moses, 'I am who I am.' (Exodus 3:13)
As many Biblical translators have pointed out, "I am who I am" is simply an idiomatic way of saying, "Do not concern yourself with who I am." This verse seems to reflect a genuine confusion among the Israelites as to the identity of their deity named Yahweh. This would make perfect sense if the Israelites were indeed originally Canaanites, since Yahweh was not one the gods of Canaan. In that case, we are left with the conclusion that Yahweh was a new god, perhaps a foreign god. So how did Yahweh become the main name of the Israelite God? Dever has interesting answers to both these questions.

Investigating the archaeological record of Palestine at the time which should correspond to Moses, Dever surveys all the major excavations and finds no evidence for any invasion of Canaan by conquering Israelites. He does, however, locate a point in history at which existing Canaanite settlements are disbanded or depopulated, and new ones Israelite ones created in their place. However, it turns out that there is no evidence at all for this change being caused by an armed invasion of Israelites. Rather, it seems to be the result of indigenous social disruption which accompanied the transition from late Bronze Age to early Iron Age, around 1300-1200 BC. Possibly over-taxed and oppressed by the despotic rulers of Bronze Age Canaan, the peasantry seem to have voted with their feet by abandoning both the rulers and their large settlements. These were replaced by new, smaller Iron Age Israelite settlements. But there is no indication of large-scale invasion causing this change. Dever recounts that archaeological evidence, in particular the continuity of pottery style evolution, indicates that there was no new ethnic group taking over Canaan during this transition. Rather, the indication is that Canaanite culture evolved into Israelite culture during this period:

Although potting techniques... may change from Late Bronze II to Iron I, virtually all of the individual forms that we do have exhibit a strong, and I would say direct, continuity. Thus our early Israelites look just like Canaanites. (Dever p. 121)
This fits in very well with the continuity that we have seen between Canaanite imagery of El and Baal and Biblical imagery of Yahweh. Dever also notes evidence for the non-Israelite origin of Yahweh. Moses is depicted as having first encountered Yahweh while he journeyed in Median, or the desert areas from the Sinai peninsula (between Egypt and Palestine) and northern Arabia. Egyptologists have found several ancient texts indicating a possible origin of Yahweh in this region. The dates of the Egyptian texts (roughly 1500 – 1200 BC) also correspond roughly in date to when Moses would have to have lived in order for his follower to migrate to Canaan at the end of the Bronze Age:

According to Redford, the early Israelites were simply a contingent of the Shasu Bedouin of southern Canaan, well known to us from the 18th-19th Dynasty Egyptian records. There are several rather detailed descriptions of the Shasu, placing them principally on the semi-arid borders of Egyptian lands... Several fascinating texts make reference to a deity "Yhw (in) the land of the Shasu", recalling the Biblical tradition that also derives Moses' knowledge of Yahweh from the Land of Midian. Indeed, such texts are our earliest known reference to the Israelite Yahweh, and among the few anywhere outside the Bible. (Dever p. 150)
It makes perfect sense that Yahweh is a mysterious word in Hebrew if it was in fact an imported, non-Hebrew word. It seems that migration of small groups was a continuous process between Israel, Egypt and the surrounding lands; people probably went wherever there was a better crop and more food. According to Dever, it is likely that some of these groups moved into Israel from both Egypt and Median during the period of Canaanite collapse, bringing with them religious traditions of Moses and Yahweh.

The political vacuum created at the end of Bronze Age Canaan seemingly resulted in a religious vacuum as well. It was in this vacuum that new traditions of emigrating from Egypt under Moses (which is in fact an Egyptian name, meaning "born of"; similar to Tut-mose, "born of Tut"), of worshipping a desert deity named Yahweh, and finally the images of the Canaanite gods El and Baal could all be combined. The result was a new Israelite religion which grew with the new Iron Age settlements, and gradually became monotheist as the old gods El and Baal were absorbed into the new figure of Yahweh.

Thus the story of the evolution of Israelite monotheism is much more complex than we might have thought. Interestingly, the story does not end there but continues with the advent of Islam centuries later in Arabia. The Qur'anic use of the Arabic Allahumma is apparently derived from the Hebrew Elohim, the common biblical word for "God". The Arabic word Allah, on the other hand, seems to be a contraction of "al ilah" ("the deity" or "God" in Arabic). Allah seems to have been an indigenous deity of the pre-Islamic Arabs, as evidenced by the name of Muhammad's father, Abdullah ("worshipper of Allah"). Thus the Qur'an unifies the Hebrew term for God (as represented by Allahumma) with an indigenous Arab one (Allah).

So we are left with a very interesting view of the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition; one which may greatly change its interactions with other religious traditions in the current day. If monotheist worship of Yahweh in Israel started after Moses, it would seem that previous Biblical and Qur'anic figures such as Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, Jacob and Joseph were all polytheist. Since these figures are all revered as primordial Muslims in the Qur'an, the surprising conclusion is that the definition of "Muslim" has changed over the millennia, along with the definition of God itself. In spite of apparently believing in a polytheist religion that Muslims today would not even recognize, the Qur'an has no reservations of the high status of Abraham.

Say: No, but follow the religion of Abraham, the upright (Qur'an 2:135)
The unwavering Qur'anic support of Abraham is very significant for modern day Muslims. If we accept the historical evidence that Abraham was polytheist, then we have found grounds for a more pluralistic view of Islam in the many verses praising him. This is very relevant in the context of South Asia, for example, where fundamentalist Muslim leaders routinely criticize Hinduism for being polytheist.

More generally, given the historical evidence that even Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheism has evolved from very different religious ideas, it becomes harder to criticize any other religion for not being monotheist. This enables us to develop a Qur'anic theology based on genuine respect and appreciation for other religions as divinely-inspired, regardless of how different they may seem. The following verses are relevant:

And for every nation there is a messenger (Qur'an 10:47)

To every nation We appointed sacred rites which they are to perform. (Qur'an 22:67)

And unto thee have We revealed the Scripture with the truth, confirming whatever Scripture was before it... For each We have appointed a divine law and a traced-out way. Had Allah willed He could have made you one community. But that He may try you by that which He hath given you (He hath made you as ye are). So vie one with another in good works. Unto Allah ye will all return, and He will then inform you of that wherein ye differ. (Qur'an 5:48)

The above seems to imply that the variety of religious faiths that we see in the world may all be part of a larger divine scheme of things. How do we know that all of these are not simply the "sacred rites" appointed to different nations, each corresponding to various divinely-approved "traced-out ways" (shir'at in Arabic, with a similar etymology as shari'ah)? They may seem different and strange to us, but so would Abraham's Canaanite polytheism. And the Qur'an is very positive about Abraham; so it becomes impossible for us to criticize any religion based on doctrine. As the above makes clear, the only way left to criticize any religion is based on the "good works" of its followers. From this viewpoint, Islam does not become merely tolerant of other religions, but actually appreciative of them.

An interesting consequence of this discussion is that over their disparate histories, the Judeo-Christian Muslim tradition winds up looking a lot like Hinduism. Both started out thousands of years ago with polytheism and moved towards monotheism. In Israel that happened millennia ago, with the absorption of El and Baal into the figure of Yahweh. In India it happened about a century ago with the Brahmo Samaj (as a result of which, the poems and songs of the Bengali Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore are sufficiently monotheist to be used as hymns in Christian churches in Bangladesh).