> Some would say that images or pictures of YHVH et al in ancient Israel
> are evidence of the sort of idolatry and backsliding that the biblical
> prophets railed against.
This has been the "natural" assumption. However - depending on who
you ask, naturally - there is much evidence which clearly points in
the direction of the so-called monotheism of the OT is a very late
The only evidence we have "for" a monotheism in "ancient Israel" in
the Iron-age is ... the OT, and this is problematic for at least two
reasons: one is, that much indicates that the bulk (if not all) of
these books were not written until well into the Persian or
Hellenistic age. (For anyone interested in the arguments here, read
just about anything of John van Seters, Thomas L. Thompson, or Philip
R. Davies and follow the leads they throw).
The other is, that the OT is not as monotheistic as we tend to think.
As I quoted in my former post, Deut. 32 is but one of many OT
passages, which knows of more than one god, passages - note well
-which presupposes, as a natural phenomenon, a multiple god/dess
pantheon (another beauty is Psalm 82, or the prologue to the book
of Job, where the sons of the gods (not necessarily singular here),
among them the Satan, approach the/ir sovereign, Yahweh).
These passages - and many others - show a living pantheon, and do not
at all moralize or defame this. They presuppose it as a natural
thing, as does the meagre inscriptional evidence we have.
So, we have contemporary (ie. Iron-age), un-edited iconographic and
inscriptional evidence, which tells us of a polytheistic society, and
we have a Persian/Hellenistic period set of books (the OT), which we
claim is monotheist, but which is not, or only partly monotheist.
An interesting piece of information is found in the existence of a
temple of the Yahwist colony in Elefantine (Egypt).
The Yahwists of Elephantine writes both the high-priest and
the Persian governor in both Jerusalem and Samaria (in 410 BCE, well
after the so-called Babylonian exile) in order to get permission to
re-build their Yahweh-temple. The permission is granted, as is the
permission to conduct sacrificial services in this said temple. (And
this at a time, where the OT wants us to believe that there is only
one Yahweh-temple, namely that of Jerusalem)
What is frightfully interesting here is the fact, that we not only
have the letters pertaining to this issue, we also have the
collection-lists of the community, and one of the entries are "To the
altar of Anat-Yahu" (Anat being a very well known goddess in the
bronze-age of Syria-Palestine). (re. Elephantine: see Tom Bolin's
article in Edelman (ed.) "The Triumph of Elohim", and proceed from
his list of litterature).
Another Yahwist temple is the one at Beer-Shewa, which - according
to the excavators, and the very bad excavation-report - is a
polytheist Yahweh-temple up until the middle of the second century
BCE where someone - presumeably John Hyrcan - razed it to the ground.
So, the monotheist (or monolatric) Yahwism of our fond beliefs is not
as clear-cut a case as we think.
So, I guess the answer to your question is:
No, there was no montheism before 586 BCE (the date of the so-called
There is in all probability not anything resembling monotheism in
"ancient Israel" until (at the very earliest) the 2 c. BCE.
Yes, the claims in favour of monotheism, made particularly in Kings
and Chronicles, is late, and IMHO you are absolutely right when you
call them retrospective interpretations.
P.S. the "depending on who you ask", in the initial paragraph refers
to the fact, that the historical part of biblical studies seem to
have split into what one could call a predominantly European school
and a predominantly Americal school.
The American "maximalist" school being the more conservative,
assuming the OT to be a reliable historical source (i.e. correct)
until proven faulty; the European "minimalist" school, assuming the
OT to be a historically reliable source only when the information
therein can be corraborated from other sources. These designations
are not absolute, there are European "maximalists" and American
"minimalists", just as every postion in between is defended by
someone (-: Asians, South Americans, non-US-North-Americans, and
Australians are sprinkled between the two "schools" :-).
University of Copenhagen
Dptm.of Biblical Studies
DK-1150 Copenhagen K
Phone +45 35 32 36 58
Fax +45 35 32 36 52
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Diotima's address: http://www.uky.edu/ArtsSciences/Classics/gender.html