7/8/09 - from polytheism to monotheism

In today's excerpt - Israel like many other nations had gone from polytheism to monolatry—the worship of one god in preference to others—primarily because kings could enhance their perceived power if they were closely identified with the primary god and then all other gods were subordinated. But what then brought about the next decisive and epoch-making step: Israel's transition from monolatry to true monotheism—the disappearance of other gods? Monotheism was the innovation that then became the basis for the three great and interrelated Abrahamic religions—Judaism, Christianity and Islam—that are embraced by half the world's population today. Some scholars suggest that monotheism was born out of the terrifying hideous trauma of the Babylonian exile of the Israelites in 586 BCE:

"When King Zedekiah of Judah rebelled against the Babylonians, they captured him, killed his sons before his eyes, plucked out those eyes, then burned Yahweh's (Jehovah's) temple to the ground. And they completed a process they'd started years earlier, the transfer of Israel's upper classes to Babylon. Now, as of 586 BCE, the Babylonian exile—the most famous trauma in the story of ancient Israel—was in full swing. No doubt the Babylonians following theological conventions of the day took all this to signify Yahweh's humiliation at the hands of their national god Marduk. ...

"The retributive impulse is universally human, almost certainly grounded in the genes of our species. And it is deeply, often hotly, felt. But, however laden with emotion, it has an intrinsic logic, and in terms of this logic Israel's monotheism makes sense. The core of the logic is, as the Bible puts it, an eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth; punishment is proportional to the original transgression. And what was the magnitude of the transgression that Israel's exiles had suffered? The Babylonians hadn't just conquered their land and belittled their god. They had removed them from their land and, ostensibly, killed their god. Whereas [previously] Assyria had stripped Jerusalem's temple of its treasures, the Babylonians had destroyed the temple itself. And a god's temple was, in the ancient Middle East, literally the god's home.

"The ultimate transgression calls for the ultimate punishment. An apt response when a people kills your god is to kill theirs—to define it out of existence. And if other nations' gods no longer exist, and if you've already decided ... that Yahweh is the only god in your nation, then you've just segued from monolatry to monotheism.

"This isn't to say that monotheism followed from retributive logic as rigorously as four follows from two plus two. ... [Yet] there is a sense of humiliation so massive that counterbalancing it would require Yahweh's elevation to unprecedented heights—which meant the demotion of the world's other gods to unprecedented depths, perilously near the subsistence level. Monotheism was, among other things, the ultimate revenge."


Robert Wright


The Evolution of God


Little Brown and Company


Copyright 2009 by Robert Wright


165, 177-178
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