Monotheism, Polytheism, Monolatry, or Henotheism? -- By: Michael S. Heiser

Journal: Bulletin for Biblical Research
Volume: BBR 18:1 (NA 2008)
Article: Monotheism, Polytheism, Monolatry, or Henotheism?
Author: Michael S. Heiser

Monotheism, Polytheism, Monolatry, or Henotheism?

Toward an Assessment of Divine Plurality
in the Hebrew Bible

Michael S. Heiser

Academic Editor, Logos Bible Software

Israel’s view of God and his relationship to other divine beings in the Hebrew Bible has long been the subject of scholarly debate. The dominant critical consensus since the late nineteenth century holds that Israel’s faith evolved from polytheism or henotheism to monotheism. Passages in the Hebrew Bible that assume the existence of other gods are compared to other passages that put forth the declaration that “there are no other gods besides” the God of Israel as proof of this view. Other scholars who reject this evolutionary paradigm tend to assume passages evincing divine plurality actually speak of human beings, or that the other gods are merely idols. This view insists that “monotheism” must mean that the existence of other gods is denied. Both views are problematic and fall short of doing justice to the full description of Israel’s view of God and the heavenly host in the Hebrew Bible. This article overviews the difficulties of each view and offers a coherent alternative.

Key Words: monotheism, polytheism, henotheism, monolatry, divine council, God, gods, angels, host of heaven, idols, Israelite religion, Psalm 82, Deuteronomy 32


Most scholars whose work focuses on Israelite religion recognize that the Hebrew Bible contains a number of references assuming and even affirming the existence of other gods. As a corollary to this observation, scholars also frequently assert that no explicit denial of the existence of other gods occurs until the time of Deutero-Isaiah and thereafter (6th century b.c.e.) in a presumed campaign by zealous scribes to expunge such references from the sacred text. Even the Shema and the first commandment do not consign the other gods to fantasy, since the demand is made that no other gods should be worshipped. The data apparently in

forms us that Israelite religion evolved from polytheism to henotheistic monolatry to monotheism.

While this viewpoint dominates scholarly discussion of Israelite religion, the question ought to be asked whether it is lucid. Does the viewpoint derive from the known data from earliest times into the Common Era, or is the reasoning offered in its support circular? Are terms like “polytheism” and “henotheism” truly adequate to describe what the writers of the biblical canon believed?


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