The Idea of Monotheism
The Evolution of a Foundational Concept
- ISBN: 9780761870432
- Published By: Hamilton Books
- Published: July 2018
In The Idea of Monotheism: The Evolution of a Fundamental Concept, Jack Shechter examines the development of the belief in the oneness of God and how that belief shaped the formation of the Jewish religion. Shechter traces the concept of monotheism across the historical epochs of the Israelite religion, thereby providing a solid work in the history of ideas. The developmental process used in framing this book provides a clear and systematic approach to understanding how different people viewed and expanded on the belief in the oneness of God. As Shechter notes, “The tracing begins with the era of the Patriarchs, continues through the Mosaic and prophetic periods, into the classical rabbinic/early Christian era, and then to the realm of the mystics up to the early modern age” (1).
Shechter begins his analysis of monotheism within the patriarchal era. While the idea of monotheism did not originate in the patriarchal period, Shechter contends that “the seeds of the idea were planted in the era of the Patriarchs” (9). The seeds of the idea to which Shechter refers are the rudimentary ideas about the deity. First, the deity was no longer localized but the God of a people for whom the deity cared and protected. The deity required ethical or righteous conduct. Additionally, the deity became a supreme god, and god of heaven and earth. According to Shechter, these ideas emerged from and fused with the religious traditions of the ancient Near East, especially the Canaanite religion. However, these rudimentary ideas did not distinguish the patriarchs as monotheists, nor their religious practice as monotheistic. In Shechter’s view, the patriarchs’ belief was somewhere between monotheism and polytheism. Unfortunately, Shechter does not clarify the nature of this intermediate state.
In continuing with the periodization of monotheism’s development, Shechter turns to the time of Moses. The seeds of the idea planted during the patriarchal period grew during the Mosaic period. The Mosaic period brought the Israelite religion closer to monotheism by dealing with the lingering Canaanite and syncretistic practices (incorporating practices from several religious systems). The Mosaic period did not dispel the idea that other gods existed. However, the view that the Israelite god was the only one worthy of worship was an essential step in defining a normative monotheistic idea.
Schechter argues that the exodus experience and the revealing of YHWH’s name brought the people into a collective consciousness. A part of this collective consciousness was the recognition of the deity’s nature and power. Less convincingly, Shechter suggests that the worldwide worship of the Egyptian sun god Aten might have influenced the Mosaic notion of monotheism. Strictly speaking, Egyptian religion was not monotheistic, despite the centrality of a supreme being. Here it might be best to talk about some graduation of monotheism, such as diffused monotheism. Perhaps the challenge, as noted by Shechter, is that “On the other hand, if we avoid the term ‘Monotheism’ as such, it would be difficult to find a more satisfactory one to define the God of Moses” (35).
An important aspect of Shechter’s analysis is the link between societal change and monotheism. In discussing the prophets’ contribution to absolute monotheism, Shechter notes, “The centralization of national worship during the period of the monarchy encouraged the notion of a single deity and devalued local manifestations of the Godhead” (38). The transition from nomadism to urbanization, the emergence of a writing system, and the formation of a political nation in competition with surrounding nations required the universalization and singularity of the God of Israel. The prophets projected the overarching sovereignty of the Lord—a being with power over both Israelites and non-Israelites. The emergence of this full-fledged monotheism meant that moral responsibilities became absolute and universal. Although Shechter does not discuss this point until chapter 4, the moral responsibilities seem bidirectional: YHWH too would be ultimately responsible for what happened in the world and to YHWH’s people.
By the classical rabbinic period, monotheism became the cornerstone of Judaism. The rabbis saw themselves as the heirs to the prophets and, through their ritualistic practices and polemics, showed a continuous engagement with the concept of monotheism. Christianity inherited the concept of monotheism from the rabbis. However, as Shechter discusses, Christians’ view of the Godhead represents a significant disjuncture between them and Judaism. But does the Christian view of the Godhead—three individual beings as one deity—undermine the wholeness of God? Shechter concedes that engagement with such a question is not the task of the book. However, an examination of Christianity’s nuanced view of the oneness of God is essential to understanding the concept of normative or absolute monotheism. Here it is apt to discuss the transcendence and immanence of God in relation to humanity. The normative Jewish view is that “God is both wholly separate from, yet fully accessible to, [hu]man” (108).
Finally, Shechter turns to why belief in the oneness of God is so important. Shechter proposes that the oneness of God means one humanity, morality, and design. The emphasis on monotheism creates solidarity and prompts collective moral responsibility. Shechter contends that, in contrast to paganism, the idea of monotheism fosters peace. He explains, “Conversely, when everyone recognizes the one and only God, there must not be, as a matter of principle, more wars—this is a logical notion if wars are wars between different gods” (139). This view of monotheism does not fully consider religious competition among and within monotheistic traditions.
Overall, The Idea of Monotheism is an organized and well-researched book on the development of monotheism within Judaism. Commendably, Shechter simplifies masterfully a complicated subject. Although the work draws on biblical studies, it provides useful insights that can be applied to the study of monotheism in belief systems such as Africana religions.
Randy Goldson is an adjunct faculty member at Maryland Institute College of Arts (MICA).Randy GoldsonDate Of Review:November 29, 2021