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Breakthrough or Tyranny: Monotheism's Contested Implications

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 March 2013

Robert Gnuse
Loyola University of New Orleans


Modern scholars often have pointed out that the emergence of monotheism has occasioned repressive behavior in history, including the suppression of women. The author seeks to distinguish between what monotheistic faith should inherently do, create egalitarianism, as opposed to how monotheistic faith has been used by political powers to create oppression. To this end, the author refers to metaphors previously introduced into the discussion by other scholars, which speak of “monotheism from above” as opposed to “monotheism from below.” The author also believes that monotheism, especially the Judeo-Christian tradition, is on an evolutionary trajectory, ever unfolding the egalitarian implications of its own message, and ultimately it may evolve and transform society so as to preclude its use as a tool of oppression. Thus, the author seeks to respond to some of the issues raised by critical scholars concerning the inherent repression of monotheistic faiths.

Copyright © The College Theology Society 2007

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1 Among the many scholars who have contributed to this new paradigm, the following are significant: Keel, Othmar, ed., Monotheismus im Alten Israel und seiner Umwelt, Biblische Beiträge 14 (Fribourg: Schweizerisches Katholisches Bibelwerk, 1980)Google Scholar; Lang, Bernhard, Monotheism and the Prophetic Minority, SWBAS 1 (Sheffield: Almond, 1983)Google Scholar; Smith, Mark, The Early History of God (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1990)Google Scholar; idem, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001); Albertz, Rainer, A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period, 2 vols., trans. Bowden, John, OTL (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1994)Google Scholar; Dietrich, Walter and Klopfenstein, Martin, eds., Ein Gott allein?, OBO 139 (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck und Ruprecht, 1994)Google Scholar; Edelman, Diana, ed., The Triumph of Elohim (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996).Google Scholar

2 This transformation was summarized by Gnuse, Robert, No Other Gods: Emergent Monotheism in Israel, JSOTSup 241 (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 62128.Google Scholar

3 Garbini, Giovanni, History and Ideology in Ancient Israel, trans. Bowden, John (New York: Crossroad, 1988), 52132Google Scholar; Niehr, Herbert, Der höchste Gott, BZAW 190 (Berlin: Walterde Gruyter, 1990)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Davies, Philip R., In Search of ‘Ancient Israel,’ JSOTSup 148 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1992).Google Scholar

4 Hayes, John, Introduction to the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1971), 136Google Scholar; Porter, J. R., “Old Testament Historiography,” in Tradition and Interpretation, ed. Anderson, George (Oxford: Clarendon, 1979), 131Google Scholar; Brueggemann, Walter, “A Shape for Old Testament Theology,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 47 (1985): 2846Google Scholar; Miller, Patrick, “Israelite Religion,” in The Hebrew Bible and Its Modern Interpreters, ed. Knight, Douglas and Tucker, Gene (Chico, CA: Scholars Press, 1985), 207Google Scholar; Frick, Frank, The Formation of the State in Ancient Israel, SWBA 4 (Sheffield: Almond, 1985), 193–94.Google Scholar Most recently Dever, William, “How Was Ancient Israel Different?,” in The Breakout: The Origins of Civilization, ed. Lamberg-Karlovsky, Martha (Cambridge, MA: Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, Harvard University, 2000), 67Google Scholar, has cleverly characterized this Israelite intellectual achievement as a “mix” or “configuration” of the “traits” of those predecessor cultures.

5 Gnuse, , No Other Gods, 210–18.Google Scholar

6 Jaspers, Karl, The Origin and Goal of History, trans. Bullock, Michael (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953), 126, 44–60Google Scholar (Ger. orig., 1949]).

7 Cobb, John, The Structure of Christian Existence (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1967), 52106Google Scholar; various articles in Eisenstadt, Shmuel, ed., The Origins and Diversity of Axial Age Civilizations (Albany: SUNY, 1986)Google Scholar; and Tremmel, William, Religion, What Is It?, 2nd ed. (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1984), 125–45.Google Scholar

8 Schwartz, Regina, The Curse of Cain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).Google Scholar

9 Ibid., 33.

10 Ibid., 31.

11 Goldenberg, Robert, The Nations That Know Thee Not (New York: New York University, 1998), 1108.Google Scholar

12 Moor, Johannes de, The Rise of Yahwism, BETL 91 (Leuven: Leuven University/Peeters, 1990) 44Google Scholar; Bickermann, Elias, Four Strange Books of the Bible (New York: Schocken, 1967), 91.Google Scholar

13 Moltmann, Jürgen, “The Inviting Unity of the Triune God,” trans. Nowell, Robert, in Monotheism, ed. Geffré, Claude, Jossua, Jean Pierre, and Lefébure, Marcus, Concilium 177 (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1985), 51.Google Scholar

14 Assmann, Jan, Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 153.Google Scholar Assmann observes that in the famous Aton Hymn “the rays of the sun embrace all lands and bind them to the submission of the king, a change which obviously translates an imperialistic concept of universal rule into cosmic imagery” (178).

15 Fowden, Garth, Empire to Commonwealth (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993)Google Scholar; Harris, Roberta, The World of the Bible (London: Thames and Hudson, 1995), 164.Google Scholar

16 Kirsch, Jonathan, God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism (New York: Viking Compass, 2004).Google Scholar

17 Petersen, David, “Israel and Monotheism: The Unfinished Agenda,” in Canon, Theology, and Old Testament Interpretation, eds. Tucker, Gene, Petersen, David, and Wilson, Robert (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1988), 92107Google Scholar; various essays in Monotheism, eds. Geffré et al.; Michaels, Axel, “Monotheismus und Fundamentalismus. Eine These und ihre Gegenthese,” in Ein Gott allein, 5157Google Scholar; Gross, Rita, “Religious Diversity: Some Implications for Monotheism,” Cross Currents 49 (1999): 349–55Google Scholar et passim.

18 Assmann, , Moses the Egyptian, esp. 122.Google Scholar

19 This is best expressed in the writings of Benoist, Alain de, Vu de droite (Paris: n.p., 1977)Google Scholar and Comment peut-on être païen? (Paris: n.p., 1981), whose ideas are critiqued by Dumas, André, “The New Attraction of Neo-Paganism,” trans. Smith, David, Monotheism, 8190.Google Scholar

20 Ciholas, Paul, “Monothéisme et violence,” Recherches de science religieuse 69 (1981): 325–54.Google Scholar

21 Marquard, Odo, “Lob des Polytheismus: Über Monomythie und Polymythie,” in Philosophie und Mythos, ed. Poser, Hans (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1979), 4058Google Scholar; Veyne, Paul, “The Roman Empire,” in A History of the Private Life, I: From Pagan Rome to Byzantium, ed. Veyne, Paul, trans. Goldhammer, Arthur (Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1987), 216Google Scholar; Fowden, , Empire to Commonwealth, 3760.Google Scholar

22 Comblin, Joseph, “Monotheism and Popular Religion,” trans. Livingstone, Dinah, in Monotheism, 9199.Google Scholar

23 Duquoc, Christian, “Monotheism and Unitary Ideology,” trans. Nowell, Robert, in Monotheism, 61.Google Scholar

24 Dever, , “How Was Ancient Israel Different?,” 6466.Google Scholar

25 Alter, Robert, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), 129Google Scholar et passim.

26 Moltmann, , “The Inviting Unity of the Triune God,” 51.Google Scholar

27 Stark, Rodney, One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001), 31259.Google Scholar

28 Lang, , Monotheism, 55Google Scholar; Theissen, Gerd, Biblical Faith: An Evolutionary Approach, trans. Bowden, John (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1985), 71Google Scholar; Albertz, , Israelite Religion, 2:425Google Scholar; Dietrich, Walter, “Uber Werden und Wesen des biblischen Monotheismus,” Ein Gott allein, 2527.Google Scholar

29 Theissen, , Biblical Faith, 71.Google Scholar

30 Frymer-Kensky, Tikva, In the Wake of the Goddesses (New York: Free Press, 1992).Google Scholar

31 Gimbutas, Marija, The Gods and Goddesses of Old Europe (London: Thames & Hudson, 1974).Google Scholar

32 Gerstenberger, Erhard, Yahweh the Patriarch, trans. Gaiser, Frederick (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1996), 93.Google Scholar

33 Lerner, Gerda, The Creation of Patriarchy (New York: Oxford University, 1986), 36160Google Scholar; Gerstenberger, , Yahweh, 8891.Google Scholar

34 Gerstenberger, , Yahweh, 94, 110.Google Scholar

35 Lerner, , Patriarchy, 198.Google Scholar

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