Monotheism is not merely the cult of a single god, which would be called henotheism, but also implies the active rejection of all other gods. The recipient of monotheistic worship is not Heis Theos, “one god”, but Ho Monos Theos, “the only god”. Thus, Hindus worshipping an ishta devata, “chosen deity”, selected from among many, are henotheists but not monotheists. A Hindu who never worships any god except Shiva, but doesn’t object to his neighbour’s worshipping Krishna or Durga, fails the test of monotheism.
1.1. Akhenaten’s solar monotheism
At the present state of knowledge, the first recorded monotheist was Pharaoh Akhenaten or Ekhnaton (r. 1351-1334 BC). He not only worshipped a single god, the solar disc Aten, but also tried to terminate the worship of other gods, starting with the removal of Amon from his own original name Amenhotep ("Amon is satisfied"), which he replaced with Akhen-Aten ("Living spirit of Aten"). Later, his son would make the reverse movement, changing his own name from Tut-ankh-Aten ("Living image of Aten") to Tut-ankh-Amon. Akhenaten's monotheism didn't survive him for long because it went against the grain of Egyptian culture and sensibilities.
Perhaps he could have made people accept his religion sincerely if he had at least combined it with political successes and prosperity. In his own new capital Akhet-Aten ("Horizon of the Aten", Amarna) he concentrated a community of followers that enjoyed privileges provided for from the state treasury, which means the rest of the people had to subsidize his socio-religious experiment. His foreign policy was a disaster, he neglected diplomacy and military fortifications and thus greatly weakened his empire. After his death, the Egyptians tried to quickly forget him.
Akhenaten’s present popularity, attested by his enormous overrepresentation in textbooks on ancient Egypt, is a consequence of the plentiful and innovative artworks depicting him, his chief wife Nefertiti and his Aten cult; and mostly of his monotheism, deemed uniquely meritorious. Since Moses, the founder of Israelite monotheism, lived in Egypt about a generation after Akhenaten, it is widely assumed the Pharaoh influenced the Prophet.
1.2. Moses’ monotheism
Moses found his One God when he was living in the desert as a guest of Jethro, the priest of the Beduins of Midian (Exodus 2:15 ff.), a region in the northwestern corner of Arabia where he had fled to as a fugitive from Egyptian criminal justice, wanted for manslaughter. He experienced an audio-visual sensation while looking into a burning bush, a desert plant from which an ethereal oil evaporates that catches fire in the noontime heat. A voice told him to take off his shoes as he was standing on hallowed ground, i.e. in the presence of a divine being. The god, when asked by Moses for his name, introduced himself as "I am that I am" (eheyeh asher eheyeh). Biblically, this is understood as a hint at the name Yahweh, interpreted through approximative folk etymology as "the Being One", "the One Who Is"; or by later exegetes with airs of profundity, as "the One Whose Essence is Being".
In fact, as the great Orientalist Julius Wellhausen has shown, the name Yahweh is Arabic (its root is attested in the Quran) and means "the Blower", apparently the Beduin god of wind and storm. Egypt's Nile Valley has an extremely stable climate with endless sunshine, but the desert is subjected to sand storms, hence the logic of Moses' replacing the Pharaoh's sun god with a storm god.
After having fallen from grace in Egypt, Moses fashioned himself a new career as the national leader of the Semitic immigrant population in Egypt, which he led away to Palestine. Along the way, in the wilderness of Sinai, he staged a show with smoke and trumpets and had the gullible people believe that he had seen God on the mountain and received the Ten Commandments from Him. These consist of two unrelated parts. The second part is age-old general morality of the “thou shalt not kill” and “thou shalt not commit adultery” type. Of course people don’t need a divine revelation to know that societies couldn’t function for long without such a set of basic rules. Other nations didn’t bring God in and called these rules the mos maiorum, “the ancestral customs”, tried and tested by ages of practice. In this case, however, they were tagged on as a second half to the first set of commandments, which by contrast went completely against the tradition. Rendered more acceptable by the coupling with indisputable rules of morality, this first part was quite revolutionary, viz. Moses’ new theology. This included a prohibition on using God’s name lightly (a taboo also found in other religions), on making images of God, and most of all, on offering worship to any god beside Yahweh.
The first thing Moses did when he came down from the Sinai mountain with his rock-hewn Ten Commandments was to slaughter 3000 religious dissenters. These were enthusiasts of Ba’al, “Lord”, originally a generic term of address for kings and gods, later used specifically for the Northwest-Semitic fertility god Hadad. He is known from Semitic royal names like Jeze-bel, Bel-shazzar, Hanni-bal and Bal-thazar. This traditional fertility god was typically depicted as a bull. For the purposes of worship, the devotees in the Sinai had fashioned a statue (what Hindus call a mûrti) of the bull god from their own jewelry: the “Golden Calf”.
Nowadays this term is used as shorthand for crass materialism and greed, as if this moral vice were needed to justify the devotees’ mass slaughter by Moses. In fact, they were anything but greedy, they donated their wealth in exchange for the joy of having a focus for their religious exercise of worshipping Ba’al. It was not because of a moral vice that they were put to death, but only because they worshipped another god than Yahweh. The latter could not tolerate this since he was, in his own words (as reported from Mount Sinai by Moses), “a jealous god”.
Moses did not live to see the conquest of the Promised Land, of which he only caught a glimpse from afar. His successor Joshua devised a clever strategy of keeping the non-combatants concentrated outside the war zone and attacking the cities one by one. Citing orders from God, he eliminated the native fellow-Semitic population, the Canaanites. This he justified with a promise which he claimed Yahweh had made long before (scholars’ estimate: 4 to 5 centuries) to the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Note that the natives were not asked for their theological opinions. They were not killed because of their polytheism, and it seems unlikely that they could have saved themselves by quickly converting. At that time, Yahweh was still the god of a nation, not of a community of like-minded believers.
1.3. Henotheistic origins
It is widely assumed among scholars that the Yahweh cult was initially henotheistic rather than monotheistic. Yahweh insisted that his followers worship only him and no other gods, but this did not immediately imply that other gods were deemed non-existent and illusory. “Thou shalt have no other gods before me”, the first of the Ten Commandments, can be read as a husband’s claim on the absolute loyalty of his wife. By no means does such a husband deny the existence of other men, he merely demands that his wife disregard all other men and devote herself exclusively to him. In the initial phase, Yahweh’s religion makes no truth claim about the non-existence of other gods, rather it sees them as dangerous seducers who have to be kept at bay. From the 13th to the 7th century BC, Israelite monotheism was in a formative stage of a henotheism increasingly hyperfocused on the chosen One God, leading to the ultimate black-out of the other gods. From seductive rivals to Yahweh, they shrivel to become illusory projections of the human mind.
This evolution is summarily acted out in the evolution of the Biblical god’s other name, Elohim. In Northwest-Semitic (Canaanite, Ugaritic, Phoenician, Hebrew), this is a masculine plural form, meaning “gods”. The Semites had a god El, whose name lives on in personal names like Gabr-i-el, “my strength is God”, Mi-cha-el, “who is like God?”. In cuneiform, this name was rendered with the sumerogram Dingir, showing a star. That indeed is the original West-Asian concept of the gods: they were stars, collectively “the heavenly host”. One of the oldest epithets of Yahweh is “Lord of Hosts”, i.e. the supergod presiding over the army of gods in their daily march across the sky (which again presupposes that the other gods were real, though lesser in stature). The contrast between polytheism and the first monotheism was quite literally that between the numerous stars in the night sky and the lone star of the day sky.
A noun derived from El is the feminine abstractive noun Eloha, “a god”, “deity”, better known in its Arabic form Ilâha. This countable noun referred to any of the numerous gods worshipped by the Pagan Arabs. With the South-Semitic definite article al-, this becomes Al-Ilâha, “the god”, better known in its contracted form Allâh. Both in Hebrew Elohim and in Arabic Allâh, we see how the conception of the One and Only God, to judge from his name, is rooted in the polytheistic conception of “god” as a countable noun, “one of the gods”. As if a single star was selected, looked at ever more closely until it outshone and rendered invisible all other stars, and was then reinterpreted as the only star in existence.
This rootedness in polytheism is found in most languages where the concept of a single God was introduced. To the pre-existing Greek and Latin generic terms theos and deus, “a god”, the emerging Christian Church assigned the new monotheistic meaning “God”. In Germanic, the word god seems to have been a uncountable noun since pre-Christian times, but of neutral (rather than of masculine) gender, i.e. impersonal: “the numinous”, “the divine”. Its Sanskrit etymological equivalent is hutam, “(that which is) honoured with libations/sacrifices”, “(that which is) worshipped”. Here too, the Christian monotheistic term is borrowed from a pre-Christian non-monotheistic conception, viz. of the divine as a numinous essence present in an undefined number of gods and perfectly thinkable apart from a single personal God. In Chinese, Protestant missionaries have chosen the old term Shangdi as their translation of the Biblical names for “God”. They may not have realized that in Chinese, which doesn’t morphologically distinguish plural from singular, this ancient term had been conceived as plural: “the powers on high”, “the gods above”.
In the 19th century, the idea of an Urmonotheismus, a primeval monotheism, gained ground. It meant that the historically attested polytheistic religions had come into being as aberrations from an older monotheistic religion. Islam had pioneered this idea with its claim that Adam had been the first Muslim and that the Kaaba, built by Adam, had later been usurped by the Pagans for the polytheistic worship which Mohammed found (and destroyed) there. But in the actual history of early monotheism, we find its cradle was polytheistic, with no trace of a reference to an earlier, primeval monotheism.
1.4. The jealous God
In polytheistic pantheons, gods with a specific character are typically counterbalanced by gods with the opposite character, e.g. war-like Ares or Mars with harmony-seeking Aphrodite or Venus. No doubt the Arab Beduin storm-god Yahweh had brothers and sisters in the pantheon who represented less stormy traits to keep the whole in balance. If the idea of a single god had been thought up in the abstract, one could have expected him to be neutral, elevated far above all those pairs of opposition. Later thinkers working within a monotheistic framework will indeed try to understand their god in this manner: as a coincidentia oppositorum, “unity of opposites” (thus German philosopher Nicolaus Cusanus, 15th cent.). Instead of a war-god held in check by a peace goddess, you would logically get a single god transcending the war/peace opposition.
However, that is not how monotheism originally came about. When all other gods were outlawed, Yahweh nonetheless retained his character of tribal storm god, but no longer counterbalanced by more pleasant fellow-deities. Though not as sexually playful as the Indo-European storm-gods Indra, Zeus, Jupiter, Perkunas, Perun or Donar (unless you include his begetting Jesus upon the Virgin Mary, and even that fling on the side he outsourced to the Holy Ghost), Yahweh resembles and outdoes them in choleric flare-ups and violent discharges of anger. Thus, his initiative to destroy mankind by means of the Flood was motivated by anger at the disappointing performance of his own human creatures.
Let Yahweh’s short temper be his privilege and that of his followers, the one thing truly objectionable about him from the viewpoint of the non-believers is only his effort to destroy alternative gods and their religions. Pre-Christian Israelite history is punctuated by episodes of slaughter against non-Yahwists. Thus, the prophet Elijah challenged a group of Ba’al priests to have their god produce a miracle and set fire to a sacrificial animal. Of course miracles don’t exist, so nothing happened; and when Elijah had Yahweh set alight his own sacrifice after he had sprinkled “water” on it, the gullible were taken in, but he had obviously used a trick (petrol?). At any rate, the next thing we know is that he had the 450 Ba’al priests put to death. His own disciple Elisha organized a coup against the Ba’al-worshipping queen Jezebel and killed her and 70 of her relatives.
However, until the expansion of Christianity, this campaign of destruction was limited to the Israelites or such foreigners as lived among the Israelites and had an influence on them. It did not interfere with the religion of "the nations". To be sure, there was plenty of slaughter of non-Israelites during the conquest of the Promised Land. But this was simply to make way for the Chosen People, to create living space, not to make them change their religion. On the contrary, it was taken for granted that “the nations” (ha-goyim) had other religions than that of Yahweh: “And when you look up to the sky and see the sun, the moon and the stars -- all the heavenly array -- do not be enticed into bowing down to them and worshiping things the Lord your God has apportioned to all the nations under heaven.” (Deuteronomy 4:19)
You’ve read that right: the heavenly hosts as the gods forbidden to the Israelites, have been “apportioned to all the nations” by Yahweh, who consequently didn’t want them to worship him instead of the gods given to them. This again testifies to the fact that Yahweh was originally conceived as a tribal god, entitled to the loyalty of his own tribe but without universal pretentions (just as a husband is entitled to his wife’s loyalty but not to that of all women).
The first dim apparition of Yahweh’s universal ambition is perhaps Prophet Isaiah’s fantasy of an end-time in which all nations come to pay tribute to the Israelites and their god in Jerusalem. But it is only later, in the multicultural and universalizing climate of the Hellenistic states (4th-1st cent. BC) and the Roman Empire, that some Israelites start conceiving of their God as universally valid. This didn’t make them embark on massive missionary campaigns, but on a small scale they did start to attract converts or “proselytes”. Jewish thinkers like Philo of Alexandria briefly tried to incorporate notions from Greek philosophy, such as Plato’s “idea of the Good” or Aristotle’s “unmoved mover”, into their conception of God.
It fell to Christianity to complete this job of incorporating the universalist Greek concepts of the Absolute into the monotheistic construction of God. Because Christianity had universal rather than national ambitions, it made the destruction of everyone else’s "false gods" its chief mission. This same mission was later interiorized and amplified by Mohammed. To the surviving non-monotheistic traditions, monotheism became an all-devouring predator and a self-declared enemy.
[to be continued]