Avraham Avinu and a Henotheist Walk into a Bar: Judaism’s Ignoble Beginnings?

If you read any Introduction to World Religions textbook, you will discover that the Hebrew’s religion started off as henotheistic (to be explained). I had not known that from my extensive Day School education. In fact, the first time I encountered the term ‘henotheism,’ was while I was guest teaching a college religion course on the topic of ‘Avraham Avinu and the centrality of monotheism in the Hebrew religion.’ During my monologue, the teacher abruptly interrupted me to caution her class about my speech’s veracity. She, with an accidental hint of condescension in her voice, said: “that is what Orthodox Jews think, but really Abraham was a henotheist who believed in localized gods.” At that point, the only prefix I’ve ever affixed to the base word ‘theism’ was the much celebrated “mono” one we’ve heard so much about. But the teacher was espousing that there was another prefix, that was equally if not more accepted by the scholarly community, of which I was unaware of. Apparently, a non-Jewish professor was going to be the one to set me straight regarding my Abrahamic faith.

Before I was confident of the term’s definition, feeling confused and consternated, I mustered the strength to stutter out the following advanced inquiry: “How do you know that? Are you sure?! I’m sure that you got that from the Torah somehow… but me… I’ve read the Torah, many, many times, and I’ve never noticed that!” Without missing a beat, she calmly responded to my prattle by noting that everyone knows that the Jewish Patriarchs were henotheists, and all scholars explain it that way.

Before I continued arguing on the topic, or further question her perception in front of an impressionable class, I figured that my best course of action would be to actually look up ‘henotheism’; for all I know, it might have just been an innocuous way to refer to monotheism. Unfortunately, after I researched a bit, I was not much happier. I certainly was not a henotheist, and did not believe that my forefathers were either. So how should we account for the discrepancy between my understanding and her teachings? Should we just chalk this up to another example of the Apikorsim trying to stick it to the Jews? Sure scholars and religious Jews rarely agree on much of the history of Ancient Israel, but this time, we were using identical material for crying out loud. They didn’t use extra-Biblical information about the Patriarchs to buttress their argument. We both had the same Pentateuch with (roughly) the same words, yet we came out with such dissimilar conclusions.

So, I proceeded by investigating and analyzing the best scholarly arguments in favor of the fact that my forefathers were henotheists to see if they hold water. I delved into the topic as objectively as I could for I truly just wanted the truth.

The famous philologist and sociologist Max Muller, the accidental father of Aryanism, coined the term ‘henotheist.’ He explained it means “monotheism in principle and a polytheism in fact.”1 In other words, it is the belief or devotion to one God, while still accepting that other gods might, and most probably do exist.2 So in the context of the Hebrew religion, it means that the Patriarchs believed in a localized God of the Levant. This god can be referred to a ‘Shadai’ or the Cnaanite ‘El’. According to this theory, the Patriarchs may even have acknowledged the existence of other gods, while refraining from worshiping them.

There are many examples that proponents of the theory that the Patriarchs (or parts of the Bible) were henotheists can cite. For example, even the Ten Commandments have hints of this phenomena. The Torah says that you should not worship any other gods besides me. A cursory read of the verse could lead one to conclude that the Torah accepts the existence of other gods, but forbids the practitioner from worshiping them. Furthermore, many other phrases in the Torah like: Exodus 12:12, 20:2, 23:13, Numbers 33:4 and Deuteronomy 6:14 are arguably best explained this way. Furthermore, on another front, the Torah refers to God, not as the Creator of everything, not as the one true God, but as the subjective, personal, localized God of the Patriarchs: the “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” as we see in Genesis 15:7, 28:13 and 35:11.3 All these aforementioned verses, arguably, give the impression that the Torah accepts that other gods exist beside the God of our forefathers, and that the only reason we cannot also worship those gods is because God, the jealous and vengeful God of the Israelites forbids it.4

But do all these proofs lead to the conclusion that the Patriarchs were truly henotheists as my scholarly co-teacher taught her class to believe? Is this the conclusion that emerges from a neutral reading of the Biblical narratives? Should a Jew just accept these verses as proof-text and admit henotheism as the ignoble beginnings of his/her religion?

I do not think so. Just because the Torah states that Avraham Avinu enjoyed a personal relationship with God, or that our forefathers did as well, or that God considers one land more religiously valuable than another, or that God speaks of other nations’ false deities in ‘the language of man,’ or ‘lashon hoveh’ (the Torah employs practical idioms) should not lead the whole scholarly world to the conclusion that the Ancient Hebrews were henotheistic. As I could think of several alternative – and equally sound – ways to explain these instances, I assume so could the scholarly community. In fact, there must be more to the story!

It turns out that much of the scholarly community do present supplemental arguments in addition to their exegetical points in defense of the henotheism hypothesis. But the foremost piece of evidence comes, not from the Bible, but from sociology. In the days that German criticism was found ubiquitously worthwhile, in a world dominated by JEDP, enlightened scholars tried to show that just as critical readers could discover the authors behind the Torah, so too one could see the historical development and evolution of religions as a whole. Taking Judaism as the prototypical religion5 that has come to fruition in the German Enlightenment, it was assumed that all religions start with animism, then advance to polytheism, then mutate to henotheism, until finally the highest form of religion is achieved in monotheism (and for the modern world, the scholar would add that then monotheism dissipates into atheism, secular humanism or some form of a scientific religion).

Ironically, the post-modern scholarly world, on the other hand, no longer accepts this assessment. It is no longer chic to maintain that monotheism is the zenith of religious expression. Today, all religions are equal (from what I’m told). The African and aborigines religions originally studied by anthropologists to learn about the roots of the major world religions, are now viewed as spiritual equals to their monotheistic counterparts. Today, any assertion that the monotheistic religions are better than other religious traditions, even if but for their rational or philosophic merit, is viewed as bias, unscientific and even discriminatory by the scholarly world. But if this is true; if this is the accepted status quo about religious truth, then no longer do we need the “Enlightened” assessment of religions’ evolution towards an ideal religion. Accordingly, it is no longer necessary – nor reasonable to assume – that a henotheistic Hebrew religion evolved into a monotheistic Israelite religion based on sociology alone. Notwithstanding, scholars have forgotten that you can’t throw away the junk without its German accessories. It is no longer politically correct to believe that there are higher forms of religion or a true religion. Accordingly, it should no longer be accepted, asserted or even whispered, that Moshe Rabbeinu’s monotheism evolved from the Patriarch’s henotheism.6

Don’t worry, I’ll call the teacher myself and set her straight.

1The term ‘henotheism’ comes from the Koine Greek εἷς θεός – heis theos which means ‘one god.’ Of course ‘monotheism’ (μόνος θεός – monos theos), also means ‘one god,’ but a more literal translation would be ‘singular god,’ and to the exclusion of any other gods. See Yeshayahu Leibowitz’s Faith of Maimonides where he explains the difference between the two notions.

2Basing his theories on the commonality between Hinduism-Sanskrit and the European religions-European languages, Muller believed the key to understanding the development of pagan European religions lies in the early Rig-Vedas.

3Ironially, probably the most famous example of henotheism in the Bible is the case of Yonah fleeing Israel-Judea in the hope of ignoring God’s command to rebuke Nineveh. Scholars point to this example as it seems from the text that Yonah believes that he can flee the Jewish God. I believe this example is wrong for several reasons: 1. most scholars date Yonah to a post-exilic writer when monotheism would have been more accepted, even by these scholars 2. God strikes him at sea: a place the localized Cnaan/Israel god would not be able to attack. 3. Even if Yonah was henotheistic, the story itself shows that Judaism is not in that Yonah is attacked at sea and told to travel to Nineveh, outside of that god’s jurisdiction.

4Likewise, according to the henotheistic hypothesis, it is not coincidental that throughout the book of Genesis, never do we find God ordering his followers to make war with the infidels. Avraham converts others, not by the sword, but by persuasion, and never takes arms against those who refuse. Possibly, one can surmise that their gods were just as valid to Avraham from the perspective of the book of Genesis. On the other hand, in the time of Moshe Rabbeinu, the Cnaanite nations living in their land are given the straightforward choice to leave the land, accept monotheism or die. One has to wonder why was the command to wipe out idolatry only materialized at a later date. Not only did the Patriarchs not have any obligation to wipe out the heathens, they actually enjoyed quite hospitable relationships with idolaters. Avraham Avinu acted very friendly to the, presumably less than righteous, king of Sodom, and to the morally dissolute, Avimelech, king of Gerar. Ya’akov Avinu lives with the idolater Lavan for twenty years, and, shockingly, refrained from slaughtering him all those years. The Torah even testifies that Lavan chased after Ya’akov searching for his idol. Obviously, this was not the first time that Ya’akov ever heard about his father-in-law’s idolatrous practices. Based on these facts, one could make a strong argument that in the time of the Patriarchs, henotheism was a religiously legitimate belief system, but in the time of Moshe Rabbeinu, the Jewish henotheism evolved into monotheism and rejected all semblances of localized gods.

5Muller mostly focused on Hinduism, but the argument is based upon his work.

6Of course, this is not meant to be an argument against the fact that the Patriarchs were henotheists, but rather, if the scholarly world wants to still believe such a theory, additional and more substantive proofs must be first put forth.


1 Comment

Filed under Philosophy, Rationalism

One response to “Avraham Avinu and a Henotheist Walk into a Bar: Judaism’s Ignoble Beginnings?

  1. Sorry this is so long but…

    From what I can tell you reject the Bible scholars’ proofs with this one sentence:

    “….or that God speaks of other nations’ false deities in ‘the language of man,’ or ‘lashon hoveh’ (the Torah employs practical idioms) should not lead the whole scholarly world to the conclusion that the Ancient Hebrews were henotheistic. As I could think of several alternative – and equally sound – ways to explain these instances, I assume so could the scholarly community.”

    So, if I understand correctly, it’s not that their proofs are bad it’s just that you think another interpretation is possible. This is valid enough, except that in the field of interpretation there are thousands of *possible* interpretations. So, how do we decide which is right?

    This has to do with my post last week: https://thinkjudaism.wordpress.com/2012/06/19/academic-reading-vs-traditional-reading/

    The academic approach would dictate reading the words (and verses you bring) as simply as possible.It chooses among the various POSSIBLE interpretations the SIMPLEST one. The SIMPLEST reading “gives the impression that the Torah accepts that other gods exist beside the God of our forefathers…” Furthermore the academic approach would ask the question: “Do we have any reason, FROM THE BIBLE ITSELF (as opposed to Rabbinic literature) to assume that the Hebrews were not henotheists?” I think that the answer to that is no. If there was POSITIVE evidence that the Hebrews were pure Monotheists that would be a different story…

    The Orthodox approach on the other hand will dig deeper than the SIMPLE reading and try to find other interpretations. The Orthodox approach is that we know from tradition and post-Biblical sources that our forefathers were pure monotheists, therefore we need to offer alternative explanations for things that would seem, at first glance, as implying Henotheism.

    My point is that you in this post as opposed to the academics are using COMPLETELY different approaches. The academic is aware that he can interpret the verses implying henotheism differently. But he chooses not to and picks the simplest reading on purpose.

    I’m not here to decide who is right but in my humble opinion I believe that you are not disproving or refuting or even offering an alternative to the ACADEMIC reading of henotheism. Rather you are offering an alternative to academic reading in GENERAL. The crux of your argument is not DATA but or even INTERPRETATION of that data but rather overall METHODOLOGY OF INTERPRETATION.

    If this was your intent all along then forgive me for the redundancy.

    All the Best,
    Avi K.

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