What’s the Source of Jewish Monotheism?

by Rich Robinson | June 03 2005

Most Jewish people, whether observant or not, know the clarion call: Shema Yisrael, Adonai Elohenu, Adonai Echad: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Whatever else may be in question, we all agree that in the Jewish religion there is only one God.

Yet there is disagreement as to the origin of Jewish monotheism. Some believe the Tanakh is a tangle of barely related but cleverly edited documents. When that tangle is unraveled, the evolution of ancient Israel’s religion is uncovered. According to this theory, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were polytheists, and monotheism did not emerge until later.

Another viewpoint suggests a type of “quantum leap” in Israel’s religion. Adherents believe Moses was a brilliant innovator who gave birth to the monotheistic faith.

The Evolution of Monotheism: Hard Fact or High Fashion?

The evolutionary approach to understanding religion is rooted in the 18th century. It wasn’t until the 19th century however, that Julius Wellhausen developed and popularized the theory. Two schools of thought were particularly influential in this development.

First, Wellhausen applied the “dialectical” system which he borrowed from the German philosopher Hegel. In Hegel’s system, one factor–the thesis–interacts with another–the antithesis–to produce something newer and higher–the synthesis. According to Wellhausen, the “pre-prophetic” faith of Israel (i.e. that of the patriarchal and Mosaic periods) was the thesis, and the later “prophetic” faith was the antithesis. The “priestly” faith (which Wellhausen considered normative Judaism) was the synthesis. According to this approach, monotheism did not appear until the days of the prophets in the 8th century B.C.E.

Second, Wellhausen applied certain aspects of Darwinism to the area of religion. He believed that Israel evolved through primitive phases of religion in much the same way as the species evolved through biological phases of organic growth and development.1

This is a thumbnail sketch of Wellhausen’s reconstruction, which has survived (with modifications) to the present day: Israel’s religion evolved first through animism, defined by Webster as “the attribution of conscious life to nature or the natural object.” (An animist would believe there is life and personality residing in running water or swaying tree boughs.) After animism came polytheism, the belief in many gods. Polytheism was then followed by totemism, “the belief that the members of a clan or tribe are related to some group of plants or animals”2 as descendants. Ancestor worship followed totemism, and developed into belief in a local tribal deity…which finally evolved into monotheism.

Wellhausen influenced most critical thinking about the Bible from his day until modern times. Unfortunately, his influence was based on assumptions and philosophies which had little to do with historical evidence. The recent upsurge in modern archaeology has shown Wellhausen’s viewpoint to be arbitrary and outdated. Popular Jewish writer, Herman Wouk, rightly remarks, “The main thing, probably, was that in 1875 evolution was in the air…. A theory that imposed evolution on Old Testament religion radiated chic and excitement, even though it stood the Bible on its head.”3

Genesis 12:6 provides an example of how Wellhausen’s thinking colored the text. The verse reads, “And Abram traveled through the land as far as the site of Shechem, to the oak of Moreh.” If Wellhausen was correct, this clearly demonstrates animism. How? “Moreh” would signify “teacher,” from “horah,” (to teach), because the devout could hear the oak tree speak through the rustling of its leaves–as with the oaks of Zeus at Dodona.4 Yet the text says nothing about trees speaking to Abram; nor does it imply that he ever expected to receive messages from that, or any other tree.

The Changing of the Guard

All support for Wellhausen’s theory of reconstruction crumbled with advances in modern archaeology and comparative ancient history. Old Testament scholar Roland Harrison comments, “…it is now evident from the comparative study of ancient Near Eastern literature and from archaeological sources that animism disappeared from the oriental world centuries before the Hebrew patriarchs appeared upon the historical scene.”5

If animism is discounted from the life of the patriarchs, totemism must follow. Totemism involves people regarding themselves as descendants of their “totem animal.” Neither Egypt nor Mesopotamia, the two civilizations where Abraham and Moses were nurtured, show any evidence of totemmistic belief. Furthermore, “in view of the absence from the Old Testament writings of the two most important elements in any totemistic system, namely, the claim of descent from the totem and its ceremonial sacrifice among certain tribes,”6 there is no reason to assume totemism was ever part of Israel’s religion.

But what of the idea that Abraham worshipped a tribal deity and that monotheism came much later? Judges 11:24 is offer cited to support this theory. Jephthah is pictured negotiating with the Ammonites: “Do you not possess what Chemosh your god gives you to possess? So whatever the YHVH our God has driven out before us, we will possess it.” Wellhausen’s followers see this as evidence that Jephthah believed in the existence of the Ammonite god. Others see the text in a different light: “Jephthah is not speaking as a theologian but as a foreign diplomat, negotiating with them in terms which they could understand as he appealed to their sense of fair play.”7

Kenneth Kitchen, Egyptologist at the University of Liverpool in England, offers these remarks: “Unilinear evolution is a fallacy. It is valid only within a small field of reference for a limited segment of time, and not for whole cultures over long periods of time. Intertwined with the multi-coloured fabric of change are lines of continuity…that show remarkable consistency from early epochs.”8

The scenario of evolutionary development in the Jewish faith is absolutely unsubstantiated. But even more interesting than the apparent weaknesses in that theory is the indication that there has been a universal devolution from a faith in one God to the various primitive forms of religion mentioned above. Recent findings in comparative history and anthropology indicate that:

Most, if not all, pre-literary people have a belief in a Supreme Being which most scholars call a High God to distinguish him from the lesser divinities….It is interesting to note that among some of the most backward peoples of the world clear and high ideas of God are to be found. W. Schmidt of Vienna built up a whole theory on it: that the original religious concept of man in his primeval state was monotheism which later became corrupted into polytheism.9

Among the “primitive” peoples who believe in a supreme High God, we find such examples as “the Bushmen of the Kalahari, the Pygmy tribes of the Congo and the tribes of Tierra del Fuego.”10

Elohim versus YHVH?

In a second theory, Moses is seen as the originator or discoverer of the concept of one God.

Exodus 6:3 is cited as evidence for this: “and I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, as God Almighty, but by My name, YHVH, I did not make Myself known to them.” Eminent scholar William Foxwell Albright referred to YHVH as “the name given his God by Moses” (though not in specific reference to Exodus 6:3).11 Albright spoke of “the identification of Yahweh with the God of the Fathers.”12 He believed Moses invented the worship of YHVH, or as he put it, “Yahwism.” The patriarchs worshipped their gods under various rubrics such as El Shaddai. Later, these gods were considered one and the same God.

Closer inspection of material from other ancient cultures removes the legs from this table as well. People, places, things and single deities were often referred to by more than one name. For instance, there are five alternate names for the Egyptian god Osiris: Osiris, Wennofer, Khent-amentiu, Lord of Abydos and nuter (god). “The same phenomenon,” writes Kenneth Kitchen, “may be observed in Canaan, Old South Arabia, and among Hurrians and Hittites.” The list goes on and on to include multiple names for places and objects.13 In more recent literature, the Koran parallels the Bible’s alternating of names. Allahu (the same as Elohim) is used interchangeably with Rabbu (the same as Adonay, which is the traditional Jewish substitution for the name YHVH).14

In the ancient world, a name expressed character. The various names of God are important keys to understanding some of his attributes. Elohim refers to God in his character of Creator and Lord of mankind, whereas YHVH generally is used where God’s covenant relationship is implied. The famed 12th century Jewish poet and philosopher Judah Halevi recognized this when he defined Elohim as the divine name in general, whereas Adonay specified the God of revelation and covenant.”15 The patriarchs knew both names, but the full implication of God’s character implicit in the name YHVH had not yet been revealed to them.

There is no evidence from the ancient world to support the idea that Moses invented “Yahwism,” but could it be that Moses borrowed the idea of monotheism?

Was the Sun the “One”?

Some say Israel borrowed monotheism from another culture’s deity, e.g. “the Egyptian Sun God” or from Zoroastrianism. There is no evidence to substantiate such a theory.

The examples above were suggested in a letter to the editor of ISSUES, and they demonstrate the lack of evidence for the “borrowing” theory. Zoroaster’s dates are somewhere between 660 and 541 B.C.E.–well over half a millennium after Moses. No scholar dates the rise of Israel’s monotheism that late. Zoroastrianism is therefore disqualified as an influence. Even without the conclusive discrepancy in dating, Zoroastrianism’s tendency towards dualism (belief in two independent powers standing in opposition) is a far cry from the monotheism of biblical faith. The other example was the Egyptian sun god. No doubt this refers to the “solar monotheism” of King Akhenaton. Akhenaton’s dates are anywhere from 1387-1366 or 1367-1350 B.C.E.–roughly the time of Moses.16 The history of Akhenaton’s “monotheism” is as follows:

When Akhenaton came into power, he banned the worship of all gods other than the sun god, Aton. As Alan Richard Schulman points out, “…this was not monotheism. Although Aton, a manifestation of the sun, was a universal god, he was worshipped only by Akhenaton and his wife Nefertiti. Everyone else in the land worshipped Akhenaton himself as a god, and there is no indication that he ever denied his own divinity.”17 Despite Akhenaton’s mandate, Egyptians continued to worship numerous manifestations of the sun.


Akhenaton’s brief religious rebellion failed. Polytheistic tendencies continued during his reign and returned to prominence after his death. It is unlikely that Akhenaton’s unsuccessful attempt became the source of Israel’s monotheism. Yet, similarities between the ancient “Hymn to Aton” and Psalm 104 still raise questions. Egyptologist Barbara Mertz explains, “These similarities do not mean that there is a direct connection between Atonism and Hebrew monotheism, or that Moses learned about God at the court of Amarna. Rather, the Aton hymns and the psalm represent two examples of a literary tradition which flourished throughout the Near East over a vast span of time.”18

A Final Explanation

Fragments of a similar story in numerous cultures corroborate rather than undermine universal truths. The “monotheism” of Akhenaton was the result of a human instinct to believe in one God. As was mentioned, monotheistic underpinnings seem to exist even among modern primitive peoples.

The very clues used to imply borrowing seem to serve as evidence that monotheism was a universal impulse. The notion that monotheism evolved is a product of 19th century philosophy. It is insupportable in light of evidence provided by linguistics, archaeology, comparative ancient history and anthropology. The potpourri of primitive or sophisticated polytheism, pantheism and pick-your-own-theism appears to be a devolution from primal monotheism.

History shows ancient Israel as a unique example of a monotheistic nation. Monotheistic tendencies could be found everywhere, but Israel alone made the transition from tendency to theocracy. Such uniqueness demands an explanation. The monotheism of ancient Israel, a nation not only surrounded, but frequently ensnared by polytheistic neighbors, is a mystery. The answer is not a “genius for religion” (as is often suggested). Scripture is a witness to the Hebrew tendency toward apostasy–a fact which led Jewish prophets of old to express anger and anguish over the spiritual condition of Israel.

This author has found no reasonable explanation other than that given by the Tanakh; Israel’s monotheism was received as a direct revelation from God. We see no evidence to indicate that Israel invented, discovered or borrowed monotheism. As to faith in the God of the Shema, Moses was not a brilliant innovator, nor was he a bold adventurer. He was not a pragmatic plagiarizer either. He was the humble worshipper of the God who is no invention or discovery, but who is real and who created us…the God who not only expects certain things of us, but who also invites us into a relationship with himself.


1. Roland Kenneth Harrison, Introduction to the Old Testament, (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 1969), 352.

2. Ibid, 354.

3. Herman Wouk, This Is My God, (Doubleday & Co.: Garden City, 1961), 316.

4. Gleason L. Archer, Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction. (Moody Press Chicago, rev. ed. 1974; orig. ed. 1964), 145.

5. Harnson, 383.

6. Ibid, 388.

7. Ibid, 389-90.

8. Kenneth A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament, (InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove, 1966), 113-14.

9. Edward G. Newing, “Religions of Pre-literary Societies,” pp. 11-48 in Sir Norman Anderson, ed., The World’s Religions, (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids, 4th rev. ed. 1975; orig. ed. 1950), 38.

10. Ibid, 38, see note 8.

11. William Foxwell Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity: Monotheism and the Historical Process, (Doubleday & Co.: Garden City, 2nd. ed. 1957; orig. ed. 1940), 258-59.

12. Ibid, 271.

13. Kitchen, 121.

14. Archer, 120.

15. Ibid, 121-22.

16. Archer, 144. See also Alan Richard Schulman, “Akhenaton,”> in the Encyclopedia Judaica Vol. 2:487-88.

17. Schulman, 487-88.

18. Barbara Mertz, Temples, Tombs and Hieroglyphics: A Popular History of Ancient Egypt, (Dodd, Mead & Co.: New York, rev. ed. 1978; orig. ed. 1964), 224 ff.