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[The earliest prophetic text to unambiguously profess monotheism is the part of the book of Isaiah known to scholars as “second Isaiah.” It is thought to have been written during the Babylonian exile of the 6th century BCE. Second Isaiah envisions Israel becoming “a light unto the nations”—and so is sometimes cited as evidence that during the exile Israel’s God was universally compassionate. But, as the following excerpt from The Evolution of God shows, a complete reading of the text reveals a belligerent and retributive God—a reflection of the brutal zero-sum games that Israel had been playing with its neighbors in the period that culminated in the exile.]
It’s true that various exilic writings envision a day when all nations will, through Israel, come into contact with Israel’s god. Then again, Middle Eastern history was full of nations that wanted to bring other nations into contact with their gods, and often the form of contact they had in mind was abject submission. To acknowledge the greatness of your national god was to acknowledge the greatness—the superiority—of your nation. And so it is in Second Isaiah: God is promising that the various peoples who have tormented and enslaved Israel over the centuries will eventually get their just deserts; they’ll be forced to acknowledge Israel’s superiority on both a political and a theological plane.
Here, for example, is what the God of Second Isaiah tells the Israelites about Egyptians, Ethiopians, and Sabeans: They “shall come over to you and be yours, they shall follow you; they shall come over in chains and bow down to you. They will make supplication to you, saying, ‘God is with you alone, and there is no other; there is no god besides him.’”
A few chapters later Yahweh tells the Israelites that “I will soon lift up my hand to the nations, and raise my signal to the peoples.” A morally promising start, but it turns out the signal is going to instruct these peoples to serve the Israelites. And as for the rulers of these nations: “With their faces to the ground they shall bow down to you, and lick the dust of your feet. Then you will know that I am the LORD.” And for good measure: “I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh, and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with wine. Then all flesh shall know that I am the LORD your Savior, and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.”
In this light, the monotheism of exilic theology appears less like a radical departure from the zero-sum thinking that helped energize monolatry, and more like its apotheosis. Second Isaiah’s visions of Israel’s coming dominance are in the tradition of the “oracles against the nations” that appear in pre-exilic prophetic texts of a monolatrous bent. And the zero-sum pedigree of these visions may go back further than that. The biblical scholar Rainer Albertz, in his book Israel in Exile, argued that this whole genre descended from prophetic oracles centuries earlier that were preludes to actual war.
Yet Albertz, like many other interpreters of exilic theology, tries to put the nicest face possible on all this. After appraising a series of vengeful judgments in the apparently exilic text of Ezekiel, he says they “end on a surprisingly conciliatory note: the judgment of Yahweh will bring all Israel’s neighbors—except Edom—to the knowledge of Yahweh.”
Well, “knowledge of Yahweh” is one way of putting it; it’s true that the verb “know” appears. For example, it shows up at the end of this proclamation from Ezekiel, directed by God toward the Ammonites:
Because you have clapped your hands and stamped your feet and rejoiced with all the malice within you against the land of Israel, therefore I have stretched out my hand against you, and will hand you over as plunder to the nations. I will cut you off from the peoples and will make you perish out of the countries; I will destroy you. Then you shall know that I am the LORD.
In other words: you shall “know” who’s boss. And so it is with the other “surprisingly conciliatory” notes in Ezekiel. Moab shall “know that I am the LORD” after he arranges for it to be conquered by a neighbor—its punishment for thinking that Israel isn’t special, that “the house of Judah is like all the other nations.” And as for the Philistines and Cherethites: “I will execute great vengeance on them with wrathful punishments. Then they shall know that I am the Lord, when I lay my vengeance on them.”
And, Ezekiel says, Sidon (Jezebel territory) will be granted knowledge, too:
They shall know that I am the LORD
The “holiness” that Yahweh here promises to “manifest” brings to mind Rudolf Otto’s 1917 treatise The Idea of the Holy. As Otto showed, in ancient times the concept of the “holy” didn’t have its modern implication of moral goodness. (Often in the Bible the Hebrew word translated as “holy” refers to a merely ritual purity.) Indeed, Otto argued, in its primordial form, the “holy” represented what he called the “numinous”—a sublime force that inspired terror and dread; an “aweful majesty.”