Monolatry in the Old Testament

Moses, by Jusepe de Ribera source:

Monolatry is all over the text of the Old Testament. This has to do with the idea of God in the Old Testament, an idea that there are many gods in the world of the Ancient Near East, but only one god is worth your time to worship! The Old Testament is by and large not monotheistic (the idea that there is only one god), but rather the theme of the OT is that many gods exist, but there is only one god worth worshipping.

If we see how monolatry is woven into the text of the Old Testament, it will help us to analyze the nature of the Bible and what it means to really read it well. We should know what the authors of the text are saying, and as we do, it helps us understand what these texts are really all about. For example, we can examine Psalm 95:

1 O come, let us sing unto the Lord: let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation.
2 Let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and make a joyful noise unto him with psalms.
3 For the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods.

Right here in this Psalm we see that Yahweh is a great king above all gods. How does this passage work? It works because the people in the time of the Ancient Near East (ANE) were monolatrous, they believed that multiple gods existed. It seems clear from Psalm 95 that from the perspective of this biblical author, the Israelites were monolatrous as well. This is to be expected. This was the culture of their day. The texts of the bible will show that Israelites believed that other gods existed, but that only Yahweh was worthy of their adoration and worship. Now of course, over their long history, there were times when the Israelites would slip into worshipping other gods, but they would be called back to worshipping strictly only Jehovah, or Yahweh time and again by the prophets. 1

Notice that Yahweh is the creator god in Psalm 95:
5 The sea is his, and he made it: and his hands formed the dry land.
6 O come, let us worship and bow down: let us kneel before the Lord our maker.
7 For he is our God; and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.

In the ANE, your god was great if he could create! So we have Yahweh as the creator here. The whole theology of Psalm 95 doesn’t make sense unless there is a comparison of Yahweh to other gods! It is in the comparison that makes him the greatest of the gods in this text.

Exodus 12 – A Showdown of the Gods

Here we have the ten plagues narrative, where we read about the tenth and final plague:

12 For I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and against all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgment: I am the Lord. (emphasis added)

This is basically Yahweh saying that he is going to throw down on all of the gods of the Egyptians with this plague. We see this in the entire narrative of the ten plagues. Pretty much in every one of these plagues we see a war of the gods– where Yahweh is the supreme god of the universe as he shows that he has powers over all of the gods of the Egyptian pantheon.

The plagues narrative only makes sense if we see it in light of monolatry in the ANE!

Exodus 20 – What the first commandment does and does not say

Exodus 20:3 Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

Notice God does not say, “You shall only worship me… there are no other gods!”

The text is assuming that the Israelites have options. The Canaanites have Baal. The people of Moab have Chemosh, the Ammonites had Molech. During the monarchy of Israel, Yahweh, Baal, Astarte, and the sun, moon, and stars were considered deities in Israel. 2 Of course Israel had options! We continue with the narrative of Exodus 20:

5 Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me (emphasis added)

What does God have of being jealous towards if there are no other gods? This text only makes sense to us when we realize that the authors of these texts understood that other nations have other gods, and that these gods were real.

1 Kings 11

What was the downfall of Israel? We have a king who brings in the worship of other gods into his household! 1 Kings 11 reads

4 For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father.
5 For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Zidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites.
6 And Solomon did evil in the sight of the Lord, and went not fully after the Lord, as did David his father.
7 Then did Solomon build an high place for Chemosh, the abomination of Moab, in the hill that is before Jerusalem, and for Molech, the abomination of the children of Ammon.
8 And likewise did he for all his strange wives, which burnt incense and sacrificed unto their gods.
9 And the Lord was angry with Solomon, because his heart was turned from the Lord God of Israel, which had appeared unto him twice,
10 And had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods: but he kept not that which the Lord commanded.

What can we compare this to in our world? Imagine a restaurant, for example Chik-fil-A, saying that we had to only eat food at their establishment. Now imagine this restaurant saying, “we are the only place where chicken even exists – not only that, we are the only source of food – you must eat here!”

How would we respond? Now while I would gladly comply with Chik-fil-A’s request (they ARE the best chicken in the universe after all!) naturally most of us would say, “Of course you are not the only place to eat in town! We have options!”

This is how these early biblical texts read to us. These people acknowledged other gods.

Job 1

6 Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them.

This “Satan” or court accuser, comes to God and tells God that Job is upright only because his life is charmed. Here we have The Divine Council, and this accuser is part of the divine council of the ancient world. The author of this text acknowledge or assumed the existence of other divine beings in the heavenly realm.

Psalm 82

1 God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.

The NIV reads, “God presides in the great assembly he renders judgment among the gods”

This text is assuming that there are a multiplicity of divine beings. This “great assembly” or “congregation” is “divine council” in the English Standard Version. This is a text that shows us that there was a divine council of heavenly beings. 3

As we read further, it says:
2 How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked? Selah.
3 Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy.
4 Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked.
5 They know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in darkness: all the foundations of the earth are out of course.
6 I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.
7 But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.

Here in this text these divine beings are told that they are not doing their job. They are not honoring justice. They will therefore “die like men”…

Without getting too into some of the intricacies of this text, suffice it to say that this text is assuming that there are a multiplicity of diving beings or gods in the Old Testament. The authors of these sacred texts believed in a multiplicity of divine beings and many gods, in other words, they were monolatrous.

This sacred book is a product of its culture. The revelations in this book were not produced in a vacuum! They came out of a context, a culture. In other words, God meets you where you are. He speaks unto you after the manner of your language, after the manner of your understanding. We know this to be true because God himself says that this is how he communicates to man. In the Doctrine and Covenants section 1 he said:

24 Behold, I am God and have spoken it; these commandments are of me, and were given unto my servants in their weakness, after the manner of their language, that they might come to understanding.
25 And inasmuch as they erred it might be made known;
26 And inasmuch as they sought wisdom they might be instructed (emphasis added)

In other words, God will meet you where you are, in your cultural and linguistic context. He has to have somewhere to put his revelations, and he puts them into a context that we can understand. From an Old Testament perspective, in a world with limited technology and understanding about God, he did the best with what he could work with!

Clearly Israel’s notions of God developed over time. By the time we get to the period of the gospel writers in the days of Jesus Christ, Israel is a monotheistic religious movement. But in the times of the book of Exodus and Psalms, the Israelites believed that many gods existed. Their faith in god made sense to them culturally. They were ancient culture beings living in an ancient world where every people and every tribe believed in many gods. The Israelites believed something that isn’t necessarily true or real, (that many Gods exist and each locality had its very own high god) but this is how they viewed their god in that context. The Lord allowed Israel to tell their story from their point of view. This can make scripture messy, but how else could Israel have told their story? They certainly could not have told the story from a modern point of view! The Lord had ancient cultural peoples to work with to help them understand him, and so he worked with the materials at his disposal to teach us about him and his mighty love for us. Is the story somewhat messy, with gaps and problems? Yes! It is human – but it is also divine. So was Jesus. So are you! You are a child of God, and your story is both human, and yet it is divine, for there is a spark of divinity within you.

The gospels were written by peoples that lived in 1st century Roman world, and so that is what we read in the New Testament. We read an account of Jesus through the lens of the culture of the writers of these texts. So what is the Bible? The Bible is a part of its culture. To see it otherwise is to miss the beauty and puzzle that is the Bible.

So what do we do with this information? This is the task of really feasting on the scriptures. This gives us something to ponder. It also gives us permission to view these texts as both human and divine. If we read these texts as part of a greater work of God working with people in a specific time and place, we can then use what is taught and look for principles to see how we can apply them in our lives. We can relax and try to not view these texts through our own cultural lenses, and see them as something else, something old, yet something beautiful.

How do we apply this understanding that monolatry existed in the Old Testament? We can see that even as the Israelites believed in multiple gods, only Jehovah was worthy of their devotion and trust. This applies to us in so many ways. We live in a secular society where so many things are demanding our worship or our time. We truly live in a day where many worship that which they focus on, every one walking in “their own way”. In the words of Doctrine and Covenants section 1, “For they have strayed from mine ordinances, and have broken mine everlasting covenant; They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall. (D&C 1:15-16, emphasis added)

Jesus Christ is the only being worth our complete and total devotion and trust. As we come to really know this, the idols of our day will fade into insignificance. In the words of Spencer W. Kimball, “What are we to fear when the Lord is with us? Can we not take the Lord at his word and exercise a particle of faith in him? Our assignment is affirmative: to forsake the things of the world as ends in themselves; to leave off idolatry and press forward in faith; to carry the gospel to our enemies, that they might no longer be our enemies.” 4


1. John Tvedtnes, Elijah: Champion of Israel’s God, Ensign, 1990.
2. For minor deities in Iron Age Israel, see Jeffrey H. Tigay, You Shall Have No Other Gods: Israelite Religion in the Light of Hebrew Inscriptions (Harvard Semitic Studies), Scholars Press, 1987. See also Mark Smith, The Early History of God: Yahweh and Other Deities in Ancient Israel, Eerdmans, 2002, p. 182.
4. Spencer W. Kimball, The False Gods We Worship, Ensign, June 1976.



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4 Responses to Monolatry in the Old Testament

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