Is Judaism monotheistic or henotheistic?

YHWH is referred to as elohay elohim (the god over all gods) and there are additions references to other gods (some of which just seem to jewelry).

See: Deut 32 and Psalm 82

No cite except what I remember from books and classes: “the other gods” were not considered to be gods, but rather false idols or false gods of other faiths around at the time. Basically, “your gods are imaginary, but ours is real.”

Why would God call a council of imaginary gods?

I vaguely recall it said that some of the words translated as “god” in KJV could also mean (human) “king”. So the “judgeth among the gods” phrase from Psalm 82 could mean divine judgment/control of human rulers. Although why the translators used “gods”, under this theory, is beyond me.

The Old Testament does not directly accuse the pagan deities of being real evil spirits (the way NT does), it just directs the Jews to stay away from them under threat of severe punishment. By the time of the Maccabean revolt the punishment for idolatry was already understood to be not just physical (as in, you will be cursed in all you do and your descendants if any will suffer) but also spiritual, denying the apostates the resurrection of the righteous. Nevertheless, this doesn’t quite shed light on whether Jews believed in some sort of spiritual reality behind the pagan religions.

Meanwhile, you could easily argue that many schools of thought in Christianity are essentially henotheistic. That is, unlike your typical atheist, they would quite readily accept that some of the non-Christian deities are indeed “real” - real in the sense of being fallen angels able to do their own thing, within God’s overall plan. Voodoo is the case in point - while Christians don’t think that it will get you to heaven, many of them would agree with statements like “loa possessions are real, not theater or psychosis” and “loa are capable of exercising power over their devotees, helping and hurting them”. While voodoo is sort of an extreme case, similar Christian arguments could be made about other religions and even heretical Christian sects. “It’s real because it has the real devil behind it” sort of thing.

He’s crazy?

< pictures bearded Old Testament God with a crazed expression, talking to a broken statue, a puzzled dog, and a tree with a happy face drawn on it >

“Now my fellow deities, here’s the plan…”

Mono, heno… what difference could it possibly make?

Was or is?

Was tribal henotheism evolving into state enforced henotheism and after the Babylonian exile the concept of monotheism becoming dominant. (Imported from Zoroastrianism.)

Now monotheism although individual beliefs may vary.

That always happens when He goes off His meds.

“El” simply means “one who has power”, and “Elohei Ha-Elohim” means that G-d is the ultimate power over all other powers in the world. All power - and that doesn’t necessarily mean divine power (i.e., recognition of other dieties) but natural power (e.g., the sun) and human power (e.g., kings or judges) ultimately derives from G-d, and is subservient to G-d. That’s still monotheism.

What? They worship chickens?! :eek:

“I’m sure you’re all wondering why I called you here today. . .”

Some ear;u strands of Hebrew poetry suggest strongly that the early Hebrew conception of God was henotheistic, but even pre-Exilic texts suggest strongly that they (YHWH believers) had settled firmly into monotheism even before the Exile – though what to make of ‘the gods of the nations’ was not settled. The Bible itself, of course, testifies fairly strongly to YHWH as the only true God, save for those poetic references. To what extent this was the result of later redacting is debatable.

(For those confused by terminology, monotheists believe there is only one God – the one they believe in, of course. Henotheists believe in a multiplicity of gods, but put their trust in their own god, who is variously conceived of as ruling over, stronger than, or with a fated or moral right to rule over, any other gods whom others may believe in. A YHWHist monotheist would believe YHWH exists, but Zeus is either a made up story or a deception by a fallen angel or some such. A YHWHist henotheist would believe that both YHWH and Zeus exist, but that YHWH;s power would leave Zeus, uh, thunderstruck. ;))

I thought that consensus was that the ancient Jews started off believing that YHWH was one god among many, albeit Our Guy, which later developed into Our Guy Is Number One, followed by “there is only one God - accept no substitutes, which are demons”.

There are several references to other gods in the Old Testament. There is the story of David fleeing one of the many assassination attempts against him by Saul, where David’s wife Michal hides a household idol in David’s bed to make it look like he is sleeping, while David himself beats feet out of town.

One of the stories that talks about how other gods exist, but are not nearly as good as YHWH, is also connected with David. It is in 1 Samuel 5. The Ark of the Covenant has been stolen by the Philistines, who bring it to the temple of Dagon, who was a god of agriculture even though his name apparently means something like “little fishie”. But of course, when the Philistines come back in the morning, Dagon is lying on his face in front of the Covenant with his head and hands broken off.

So they send the Ark off to Gath, where it gives people “tumors”. I have heard it said that this really means “hemorrhoids”, which, if true, means that the whole scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark will have to be extensively re-written. :smiley:


No, I think current consensus is that he was one among many, full stop. Canaanites were polytheistic before they were henotheistic. Even in the henotheistic period, the One God still had a consort who was worshiped, so even then, not strictly just Our Guy. More Our Guy and Our Girl.

Yes, but there is some distinction here between Cannaanites, Israelites (who arose from Canaanites, as El/Yahweh was derived from the Canaanite pantheon, and “Jews” in the distinct religious and cultural form that we recognize in the Bible.

Maybe it’s a nitpicking distinction, but I think the Persian influenced, more clearly montheistic, post-exilic iteration of Israel (as a people) is really when they became religiously “Jewish” as it is expressed in the Hebrew Bible.

I think it’s debatable whether pre-exilic Israelite were strictly “Jewish” yet, in the religious sense, but it’s fair to say the people as a whole did move, over the course of several centuries, from polytheistic, to henotheistic to monotheistic.

I think, however, tht pedantically speaking, monotheism is part of the religious definition of “Jewish,” so the answer to the OP would have to be that Judaism is montheistic, by definition, but that the Israelite people weren’t always Jewish.

True, but then I wouldn’t call them “the ancient Jews”, which I would personally read as “pre-historic People living in Judea&Israel/Canaan” or definitely “pre-exilic ‘Jews’”. Not disputing the monotheism of post-Exile Jews at all

Then there is no full stop. Jewish belief developed as I described - pollytheistic, henotheistic, monotheistic.


This is where I disagree - I wouldn’t characterise the early Canaanite polytheism as any sort of “Our Guy” thing. Well, not with Yahweh as the guy, at any rate.

Polytheism and henotheism are different. We aren’t talking solely about early Canaanite religion - we are talking about the history of Judaism. See the title of the thread.


I’ve already explained that AFAIK “ancient Jews” are identical to “Canaanites”, so when you say something about what “ancient Jews started off believing”, you are, in fact, talking about the Canaanite religion only. This was the only point I addressed, and I have no beef with the stuff about what it turned into.

ETA - and yes, I’m aware that polytheism and henotheism are different, that’s why I used both terms in the same sentence with a clear contextual difference in their meaning.