From Polytheism to Monolatry
You don’t meet many women named Jezebel. The name fell out of fashion millennia ago and never recovered. In fact, it got so loaded with bad connotations that it is now a generic pejorative. A jezebel, according to one dictionary, is “a wicked, shameless woman.” It all goes back to the biblical Jezebel. She was married to Ahab, king of Israel during the ninth century BCE. She was a vigorous champion of the Canaanite god Baal, and talked King Ahab into backing Baal. This dimmed her chances of being favorably depicted in the Bible.
Jezebel was a key behind-the-scenes player in the biblical story that framed the previous chapter: Yahweh beats Baal in the showdown arranged by Elijah, and then later “appears” to Elijah—invisibly, ineffably—on Mount Sinai. It was because Jezebel had so whipped up enthusiasm for Baal that Elijah scheduled this decisive face-off between the two gods in the first place. And the rest is history: with Yahweh’s biggest rival subdued, and Yahweh’s identity now moving toward transcendence, Israelite religion was on the path to modern monotheism.
Or so we’re told. Whether Yahweh actually did best Baal, and for that matter whether any such mountaintop showdown was even organized by Elijah, are not exactly subjects of universal agreement. The Elijah story may not have been written down until centuries after its (alleged) occurrence, and it was eventually edited by people who championed exclusive devotion to Yahweh and presumably spun the tale in that direction. Still, the underlying conflict—Elijah’s opposition to the pro-Baal policies of Jezebel and Ahab—is something many biblical scholars think is rooted in fact. And this rebellion against royally sanctioned polytheism is commonly viewed as a milestone in the fitful evolution of monotheism, an evolution that would take centuries more for its culmination.
More narrowly, the incident is taken as a milestone in the evolution of monolatry, a way station on the road to full-fledged monotheism. Elijah wasn’t necessarily claiming Baal didn’t exist (the monotheistic position), just that he didn’t deserve the respect of Israelites. Some two centuries after the time of Elijah, monolatry would be the official policy of the king of the Israelites, and the worship of gods other than Yahweh would be discouraged with zealous brutality. This chapter will address the question of how monolatry moved from the radical fringe to the center of Israelite politics—how the stage for full-fledged monotheism was set.
It would be nice to know for sure if the Elijah story is true. If it is, at least in its political essentials, then we start our search for monolatry’s origins by asking what inspired Elijah to oppose Yahweh’s rival Baal. If it is false, we start our search by asking what inspired later biblical writers to create the story—why they themselves had come to oppose the worship of all gods other than Yahweh, after which they read their theology back into history.
But, as it happens, those two paths lead to roughly the same place, yielding similar conclusions about what forces made Yahweh the only god of the Israelites. The best way to see this is to just pick a path and follow it. We’ll begin by assuming, if only as a kind of thought experiment, that this early Bible story is true, and then move forward in the biblical narrative of Israel’s unfolding theology, until we get to some episodes that are more firmly grounded in fact. Our path will eventually double back on itself, as these later episodes shed light on the authorship of the Elijah story. We’ll then be in a position to explain the evolution of Israelite monolatry with some confidence.
But first let’s make it clear—in case it isn’t already—what philosophical bias will inform the enterprise. Attempts to explain changes in religious doctrine come in two basic varieties: the kind that stress the power of ideas and the kind that stress the power of material circumstance. Was Israel pushed toward monolatry, and ultimately toward monotheism, more by theological inspiration and reflection, or more by politics, economics, and other concrete social factors? To take the example at hand: What drove Elijah and his followers to heap disdain on Jezebel and on Baal? Was Jezebel loathed because of her association with Baal (and hence with polytheism), or was Baal loathed because of his association with Jezebel (and hence with whatever economic and political interests she represented)?
The Bible, of course, favors the first interpretation: Elijah and his followers, in the grip of divine truth, opposed the worship of Baal, and so became the enemy of anyone who favored such worship. Then again, the Bible has a natural bias in favor of the power of religious belief, the ability of ideas to shape facts on the ground. The book you’re reading, in contrast, emphasizes the power of facts on the ground; it seeks to explain how the conception of God has changed in response to events on earth. So it takes seriously the possibility that, for all Elijah’s religious fervor, his fight against Baal may have had mundane motivations. The theological conflict with Jezebel and her husband, Ahab, may have had as much to do with Jezebel and Ahab as with theology.
Certainly we’ve seen examples of mundane motivations shaping theological principles. We’ve seen Eskimo shamans tell sinful women that divine forgiveness depended on their having sex with an Eskimo shaman. We’ve seen Polynesian chiefs say that people who irritated them had to be sacrificed to the gods. We’ve seen Sargon of Akkadia fuse Ishtar and Inanna into a single god that served his imperial ambitions. We’ve seen Akhenaten, the engineer of Egyptian monotheism, kill off gods whose priests he found politically threatening. Again and again we’ve seen the divine, or at least ideas about the divine, reshaped by the mundane. Facts on the ground—facts about power and money and other crass things—have often been the leading edge of change, with religious belief following along.
Of course, sometimes the influence moves in the opposite direction. Religious beliefs, especially in the short run, can shape the political and economic landscape. It’s entirely possible that Elijah had deep faith in Yahweh, and this faith inspired a political movement against Ahab and Jezebel. For that matter, the influence can move in both directions at once: maybe Elijah’s motivation was wholly faith-based but some of his supporters had political or economic grievances against Jezebel and King Ahab.
In short, the whole thing is messy, and focusing exclusively on any one “prime mover” is too simple. Still, I’ll argue that on balance the best way to explain the centuries-long evolution from polytheism to monolatry to monotheism is via concrete social forces. At the risk of oversimplifying: politics and economics gave us the one true god of the Abrahamic faiths.
Religious people often find this claim dispiriting, as it seems to reduce belief in a higher purpose to a mirage, an illusory reflection of the mundane. By the end of this book I’ll argue that the opposite is in a sense true: that seeing facts on the ground as prime movers winds up presenting a new kind of evidence for higher purpose. In any event, for now what I’m claiming is that to fathom why monotheism evolved in ancient Israel, we have to fathom the underlying politics and economics of ancient Israel. Only then can we see in what sense, if any, intolerance and belligerence are “built into” Abrahamic monotheism, and how firm a part of the Abrahamic god’s character they are or aren’t.…