From Monolatry to Monotheism
King Josiah of Judah may have been the most perversely successful man in the history of the world.
On the one hand, it’s hard to argue with this verdict from the scholar Marvin Sweeney: “Josiah’s reform was an absolute failure.” Josiah had wanted to unify southern and northern Israel, to restore the storied greatness of the Davidic empire and do it in the name of Yahweh, covering Israel’s god in greater glory. But things went awry. Josiah was killed by the Egyptians. The circumstances of his death are hazy, but it ushered in two decades of abject Israelite submission—first to Egypt and then to Babylon—followed by catastrophe. When King Zedekiah of Judah rebelled against the Babylonians, they captured him, killed his sons before his eyes, plucked out those eyes, then burned Yahweh’s temple to the ground. And they completed a process they’d started years earlier, the transfer of Israel’s upper classes to Babylon. Now, as of 586 BCE, the Babylonian exile—the most famous trauma in the story of ancient Israel—was in full swing. No doubt the Babylonians, following theological conventions of the day, took all this to signify Yahweh’s humiliation at the hands of their national god, Marduk. When, decades earlier, Josiah set out to exalt Yahweh, this is not the outcome he had in mind.
And yet, this would turn out to be the best thing that ever happened to Yahweh. Josiah’s theology—worship Yahweh and Yahweh alone—would not only survive and prevail, but prevail in grander, intensified form. Jews—and then Christians and then Muslims—would come to believe that the Abrahamic god was not just the only god worth worshipping, but the only god in existence; monolatry would evolve into monotheism. As the theologian Ralph W. Klein has observed, “Israel’s exilic theologians made the most of their disaster.”
Orchestrating a seismic theological revolution isn’t the kind of thing you do overnight. But if there’s one thing the exile gave Israelite intellectuals, it was time to mull the situation. They spent about a half century in Babylon before the Persians, having conquered the Babylonians and thus having inherited the Israelites, started sending exiles back to Jerusalem, where many Israelites had remained all along. In Jerusalem ideas shaped in the refiner’s fire of exile would eventually carry the day.
Making Sense of Disaster
It is sometimes said that the monotheistic thesis arose as a way to “make sense of” the catastrophe that had befallen Jerusalem. This is accurate but inadequate. Yes, religions have always addressed the question of why bad things happen, and yes, that is a question Israel’s exilic intellectuals had plenty of cause to ponder, and yes, this pondering led eventually to monotheism. So, there is a sense in which, as some have said, exilic theology was a solution to the “problem of evil” or the “problem of suffering.” But this sense is pretty misleading. After all, the “problem of evil” doesn’t arise in acute form unless you believe in a single all-powerful and good God. Only if God is omnipotent does all human suffering become something he is choosing to tolerate, and only if he is wholly benevolent does this choice become something of a puzzle. And this kind of god, infinite in power and goodness, is exactly the kind of god that, so far as we can tell, didn’t exist before the exile; this is the kind of god whose emergence during the exile we’re trying to explain. Monotheism can’t be the premise of the theological reflection that created it.
Besides, describing Israel’s theological revolution this way—“making sense of” suffering, “pondering” the problem of evil—makes the exercise sound more abstract and philosophical, and less urgent, than such exercises were in those days. Almost certainly, the “theological discourse” that produced monotheism began as an orgy of political recriminations: different factions, with their different theologies, blaming each other for what had gone wrong.
The Bible recounts one exilic episode of finger pointing. A group of Israelites, including the prophet Jeremiah, have gone to Egypt rather than Babylon after the Babylonian conquest. There is disagreement over why things have fallen apart. Jeremiah says Yahweh has punished Israelites because so many of them were worshipping other gods. And if they keep it up, if they continue to “make offerings to the queen of heaven,” then Yahweh will kill them all, either by sword or by famine. The queen of heaven’s devotees have a different perspective. They seem to think that the root of Israel’s problems is the Jeremiahs of the world—the Yahweh-alonists. They say in unison, “We used to have plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no misfortune. From the time we stopped making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her, we have lacked everything and have perished by the sword and by famine.”
And they had a point! If Jeremiah was right, and worshipping Yahweh alone was the ticket to national greatness, how come the nation started falling apart not long after Josiah’s monolatrous reforms? And note that the opening act in this national downfall was the death of Josiah himself, the nation’s Yahweh-alonist-in-chief. Kind of makes you wonder about the whole premise of Yahweh-alonism—that Yahweh was a god who could and would take care of you so long as you confined your devotion to him.…