Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The move from Polytheism to Monotheism

In all my studies of religion I had never thought to ask the question, “What motivated humans to move from polytheism to monotheism.” The question and the answer came to me while reading Robert Wright’s book, The Evolution of God, (Little, Brown and Company, 2009). Five hundred sixty seven pages crammed full of interesting information, much of which I have read in other sources, but the section regarding the move from ‘poly’ to ‘mono’ was so new and informative, I thought I would share it with you. So, here it is in short, capsule form…

When King Hammurabi came to power in Babylon, near the beginning of the second millennium BCE, all of Mesopotamia was polytheistic. There were dozens of gods worshiped throughout the country. Hammurabi’s base was Babylon and the god of Babylon was Marduk.

Hammurabi had aspirations of ruling all of Mesopotamia, but he died before that could happen. In the ensuing centuries, however, Babylon did rule all of Mesopotamia and Marduk eventually became the head of the Mesopotamian pantheon.

In a move of major theological development, the champions of Marduk began to demote the other gods of the pantheon from being Murduk’s subordinates to being mere aspects of him. i.e. Adad, once known as the god of rain was now, “Murduk of rain.” Nabu, the god of accounting became, “Marduk of accounting.”

Among other things, there was a very practical political reason for this move. Each of the gods of the pantheon wielded a certain amount of political power. Each had priests, temples and followers. By consolidating the powers of these lesser gods into Marduk’s realm, the political power of would be opposition was nullified. Wright states it like this; “For Babylonians who wanted to suffuse all of Mesopotamia in multicultural amity and understanding, what better social cement than a single god that encompasses all gods?”

Later, in the fourteenth century BCE an eccentric pharaoh known as Amenhotep IV came to power in Egypt. This new young pharaoh was quite ambitious and eager to seize control. He elevated his favorite god, Aten, from being a garden-variety deity to “he who decrees life”; he who “created the earth”; he who “built himself by himself.”

But Amenhotep IV was not interested in the slow absorption of other gods into his god Aten, as had taken place with Marduk. Instead he had the names and the temples of all other gods erased from the face of the earth and their priesthoods dissolved. Aten stood alone at the top of the heap in a monotheistic fashion. But Aten eventually fell from grace and was replaced by other gods and other pharaohs.

Some claim that Aten nonetheless changed the world forever. Sigmund Freud, in his book Moses and Monotheism, suggests that Moses was in Egypt during Aten’s reign and then carried this idea of monotheism to Canaan, where it would launch Judeo-Christian civilization.

While most Jews and Christians think of the Torah and the Bible as referring to a single God, close study shows that the early Israelites worshipped many gods. The Israelites were polytheistic, just as most of the rest of the world at that time. There are many references to this fact in the Bible. Wright does a masterful job of explaining this and how the Kings of the day used the movement from ‘poly’ to ‘mono’ in much the same way as Amenhotep IV did, to attempt to expand their power.

...Toward the end of the seventh dentury BCE, this opportunity was seized by the most important king in the theological history of Israel… His name was Josiah and he assumed the throne around 640 BCE. … Josiah wasn’t adverse to a little thuggery... For starters, Josiah had priests take from Yahweh’s temple and burn “all the vessels made for Baal, for Asherah” and for “all the hosts of heaven” (which in this case means defied celestial bodies). He removed horses used is sun worship form the entrance to the temple and “burned the chariots of the sun with fire.” He wiped out the shrines built for “Astarte the abomination of the Sidonians, for Chemosh the abonination of the Moab, and for Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites” – and, as a kind of exclamation point, covered these sites with human bones. Josiah also banned mediums, sorcerers, household gods, idols, and miscellaneous other “abominations that were seen in the land of Judah and in Jerusalem.”(2 Kings 23:5,20)
He tore down all the “high places” or alters across Judah where other gods were worshiped. But the alters were not his only target. He “deposed” the priests associated with these gods, including those who “made offerings to Baal, to the sun, the moon, and the constellations.” In the former northern kingdom he “slaughtered on the alters all the priests of the high places who were there, and burned human bones on them. Then he returned to Jerusalem.” This presumably made for a more powerful Jerusalem, for all sources of divine authority and political power were now gone. Josiah had ‘centralized the cult,” as scholars but it.

This move from ‘poly’ to ‘mono’ seemed to have stuck for what would later become the three Abrahamic religions. Josiah seems to be the person in history who was most instrumental in making that happen (brutal but effective). Was his motive religious or politics? Hum!


barry e