Monotheism and Henotheism

Moses and the Ten Commandments

"Moses was as much a monotheist as was Hillel." 
William F. Albright, Biblical Archaeologist

In ancient times the choice was between one God and many Gods, not between a God and no God. James Frazer in 1912 suggested that religions evolved from animism through polytheism to henotheism and finally to monotheism. Some suggest it is an invention of the Enlightenment as well. I reject this since the notion of evolving monotheism likely emerges from a Darwinian worldview.

The Scriptures suggest differently as well as preliterate tribes and artifacts such as the Ebla Tablets. The Archives of Ebla, Pettinato (pg. 259) says, "Lord of heaven and earth, the earth was not, you created it, the light of day was not, you created it, the morning light you had not made exist." See the works of John Mbiti.

Henotheism is the devotion to one God (or god) in a polytheistic setting. The difference between it and monotheism is that it does not deny the other gods. Hinduism is an excellent example of how henotheism works out today since Hindus will choose a particular god to worship but not to the exclusion or denial of others.

Concerning Israel there was only one God, and sole devotion to this one God was essential. Following or serving ‘other gods’ was a cardinal offense, emphasized early in the OT. Particularly in Gen, Deut, Job and in Isaiah. It is interesting to note also that the book of Job is the only other biblical book that is set in an ancient pre-Mosaic period and clearly has a monotheistic view of God (e.g. Job 1:1, 6, 21). While it is true that some Israelites may have backslidden or went into polytheism or henotheism I think this was the exception and not the rule since often there was polemic against polytheism within the Israelites as well. Israel always exhibited hostility to polytheistic groups especially when they were not in a backslidden state.

El Amarna tablet
The El Amarna Letters (EA), written on tablets by Akhnaton of Egypt the son of Amenhotep III, are sometimes referred to as an example of early monotheism. Conversely, some have suggested that since he did not explicitly refute or deny other gods then it may be henotheistic. I am not sure we can just draw such conclusions based off of silence either though. These letters are "manifestations of the “cuneiform culture” that was shared in the fourteenth century b.c. throughout the ancient Near East."(1) Some have suggested that these letters partially speak of the Israelites, leaving Egypt, and entering the land of Canaan. The problem is however that evidence for the Israelite Exodus is around the fifteenth century which is not in agreement with the date of the Egyptian Pharoah found in the Biblical story. The Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (BECA) states this:

it may be that the conventional wisdom for Bronze Age dating, and certainly the chronology of Egyptian rulers may need to be drastically changed. More research and excavations will be needed to learn what theories come closest to describing the flow of events in Egypt and Canaan, but it appears that Bible dating is more accurate than had been suspected, even more accurate than the knowledge collected in the field of study.(2)

In The Exodus Problem and Its Ramifications D.A. Courville has noted that the lists of Egyptian rulers are not to be understood in a consecutive sequence either. BECA goes on to suggest we move the date to the time of the Kings and Chronicles. If so, "then all of the names, places, and events can be located...even to the names of the generals armies." Using Israelite history a consistent picture of events emerge. W.L. Moran, a translator of the EA, reminds us that "In some sense this history [of the Amarna Letters] begins at least a thousand years before the Amarna period."(3) The language of the letters are also a fusion of old and new words or symbols that were evolving in cuneiform culture.

In EA 19 we read,

"In my brother’s country, gold is as plentiful as dirt. May the gods grant that, just as now gold is plentiful in my brother’s country, he make it even ten times more plentiful than now." (59-70) (4)

In EA 189 we read,

"I went, and with your gods and your Sun leading me," (9-18) (5)

It may not be so obvious at first but the word or symbol for god and whether it be in a singular or plural use is sometimes debatable. Moran quotes Hans-Peter Adler as suggesting the subject (he) in EA 19 is surprisingly in the singular and probably an error. One expects a plural referring to 'the gods'". Concerning EA 189 Moran notes that "Perhaps 'your god' singular is more likely.

Since The Fall man went his own way. Once outside the security blanket and provision of the Garden of Eden man had to protect and provide for himself. The book of Genesis records the evil of mankind that was eventually punished by a universal flood. It also records men who attempted to reach the heavens. Genesis 11:4 records that man wanted to "make a name" for themselves and to avoid going into all the earth as God had commanded. They refused to be scattered. Biblical anthropology indicates that man rejects God and therefore rejecting Him as One is directly associated with their rejection of His One Way to live which as the prophet Micah would declare "to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6:8 NRSV)

The monotheism that characterizes Judaism began in ancient Israel with the adoption of Yahweh as the single object of worship. Gen. 1:1 in the beginning God created is also a testimony of early monotheism since He created our physical universe alone. The explicit statements against other Gods do come later but the devotion and object of one God is clear. Again, in all the ancient world the primary choice was not that between a God and no God, but that between one God and many gods. Syncretism and the idea of God as a unity is also devolution, a degenerate form. Deuteronomy 6:4 says, "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD." AV This passage says that God is one. 6:4 essentially means God is one and given the context of the chapter it also means that there is one way to worship God. One quickly gets the notion of one referring to "one" as in a sequence, e.g. 1, 2, 3 rather than a compound unity. God is absolutely one and He expects each of us to worship Him in singleness of heart, mind and strength to the exclusion of all others who "would be" gods in our lives.

The NT brings us more clarity as well concerning the Shema and Deuteronomy 6:4 (See also Romans 1:19-25).

Mark 12:28, "And one of the scribes came, and having heard them reasoning together, and perceiving that he had answered them well, asked him, Which is the first commandment of all? 29And Jesus answered him, The first of all the commandments is, Hear, O Israel; The Lord our God is one Lord:" AV

Galatians 3:20, "Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one." AV

In both the Mark and Galatians verses the Greek word for "one" here is εἷς which is used over 370 times in the NT. Balz and Schneider say that it is "theologically significant for ancient religion, philosophy, and politics is the influence of the distinction between the one and the many. Early Christianity shares fully in the common ancient preference of oneness and the negative evaluation of multiplicity in its various manifestations."(6) It also refers to the cardinal number one. God has been revealed to us in the Old and New Testaments as absolutely, indivisibly One. One in being, and one in person.

JN Anderson


1. Moran, W. L. (1992). The Amarna letters [EA]. Translation of: Tell el-Amarna tablets. (English-language ed.) (EA 1). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

2. Geisler, N. L. (1999). Baker encyclopedia of Christian apologetics. Baker reference library (591). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books.

3. ibid. pg. 591

4. EA,

5. EA, 19:59

6. Balz, H. R., & Schneider, G. (1990-c1993). Exegetical dictionary of the New Testament. Translation of: Exegetisches Wr̲terbuch zum Neuen Testament. (1:399). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.

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Adversus Trinitas

"...unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins." (John 8:24 ESV)