Public Lectures

The Development of Monolatry Reflected in the Hebrew Bible

Date: 2018/03/10 13:00-15:00
Place: Divinity Hall Chapel, Imadegawa Campus
Lecture: Dr. Shuichi Hasegawa (Associate Professor, Rikkyo University)

In this lecture Prof. Hasegawa focused on the various names of God and the nature of His existence by analyzing the Hebrew Bible (The Old Testament).

The Hebrew Bible was compiled by organizing multiple texts that were handed down and edited through the centuries. In Genesis, for example, God is referred to both as Elohim and Yahweh. In 19th century studies, scholars pointed out that multiple names that described God were added during the editing process. In the sections in which Elohim and Yahweh appeared, theological differences can be confirmed, but in the later stages of compilation, these two names were united into one. In the Semitic language to which Hebrew belongs to, El was often used to refer to God in the sense of the father of all gods or the creator or judge of the world. It is likely that around 2000 BC, El had been the supreme deity in the region. Thus, over time El merged with Yahweh until the two figures were seen as the same being according to transmitted accounts.

In Western Asia during ancient times, there was a custom of adopting the name of various deities. In Israel, stone inscriptions have been discovered which list the name of individuals calling themselves Yahweh and El. From the context, one can surmise that Yahweh was the supreme deity of Israel. According to Joshua 24:14-15, when the Jewish people arrived in the land of Canaan, Yahweh was introduced as an outside deity. In other sections of the text, Yahweh seems to have been separated from other deities. There seems to have been various accounts that argue along these lines.

According to Exodus 3:6, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob became identified as the founding fathers of Israel and enjoyed a special relationship with God. It is believed that three separate tribal narratives were merged into one. Furthermore, according to Deuteronomy 33:2, Yahweh was associated with Sinai and Seir which were located in the southern Jerusalem. Thus, the southern origin of Yahweh is reasonable to a certain group of followers and intellectuals. In Deuteronomy 6:4 it is stated that Yahweh is one. This makes some scholars speculate that there may have been several temples dedicated to Yahweh which were consolidated after the collapse of Northern Israel. As is well known, the people of the region migrated to Judah at this time. This may have formed the background for a series of tolerant religious reforms that were promulgated by Joshua. His policies eventually unified the various deities under the authority of one God.

It is generally perceived that in ancient Israel, people held beliefs that closely resembled monolatry. They repudiated the legitimacy of other deities. Various passages such as Micah 4:5 indicate that until the collapse of the monarchy, the Jewish people maintained the superiority of Yahweh while recognizing the legitimacy of other deities. The transformation into a monotheistic society seems to have occurred during the Babylonian exile. Disputes between the various kingdoms in essence took on theological dimensions. Thus, the defeat and the enslavement of the Jewish people in Babylonia signified Yahweh’s subjugations by the Babylonian deity Marduk. This created a serious identity crisis within the Jewish diaspora and led to the compilation of the Hebrew Bible. To be more specific, the adoption monotheistic principles can be seen in the Book of Isaiah 40-55 in which the worship of Babylonian deities is condemned as idolatrous. The monotheistic tendencies that emerged in the Hebrew bible were developed in response to the identity crisis that the Jewish people suffered in their land of exile. There are clear indications that people of the southern Jewish kingdom were stimulated and coopted various ideas which solidified their own beliefs during this process.

In conclusion Prof. Hasegawa emphasized the multi-dimensional nature of the Hebrew Bible. As we have seen, the Hebrew Bible was not a fixed text but was constantly updated as new texts and layers were added.

Translated by
Jonathan Augustine (Ryukoku University)
*Admission Free, No Reservation Necessary.
*Lecture in Japanese