The Tanakh, Jewish scriptures, predominately call the deity king and lord and use the masculine pronoun. These images evoke a certain level of power. Just how powerful the deity is in then multiplied when “he” is addressed as “G-d of Gods,” “Lord of Lords,” judge, almighty, all-powerful, and warrior-like with vengeance, fury and flaring nostrils. Events like war, army invasion, disease, drought, and famine are often described as divine punishments for wrongs done throughout the Tanakh.
All of these images bring forth a certain mindset regarding who the divine is and what “he” does. Indeed, such images may well have been crucial in those ancient days when famine, drought, war, and disease were ever present and, day-to-day survival was often extremely difficult. People sought understanding as to why they were suffering, and the workings of divine beings offered such explanations.
Ancient Canaanite deities related to the facts of life. It was easy to understand how the lack of rain might be because humans hadn’t done enough to appease a god or how a bountiful harvest meant that the goddess had found favor with them. Ancient Canaan had a pantheon of gods and goddesses just for these purposes. Not surprisingly, these gods and goddesses often behaved in very human-like ways with human-like emotions. They held grudges. They had favorites. They fought. They even married and had offspring.
The Tanakh borrows much from this ancient polytheistic Canaanite world. For example, the first commandment forbids the worship of other gods. Clearly there had to be others if only one could be worshiped! Further, G-d is addressed by many of the names used for Canaanite deities, like the supreme god, El. G-d is called Elohim which literally means gods. Even YHWH may have started as a god of metallurgy in Canaan.
Likewise, actual deities are present. Ba’al, a warrior god associated with bringing much needed rains in the land of Canaan, is represented by his prophets on Mount Carmel. The goddess Asherah has sacred poles erected in her honor and for her worship at most of the same places as G-d. Archaeological evidence also points to Asherah in figurine form. There is also a divine council. A good example of the divine council is in the book of Job when Ha-Satan, a member of the council, asks for permission to test Job.
The Tanakh is not then a work of monotheism or even perhaps a very good argument for it. In fact, even in ancient times, the elite of ancient Israelite society had to convince, threaten and cajole the masses to become monotheists. This took decades and probably centuries. In truth, much of Deuteronomy and 1 and 2 Kings contains the plea that there is only one god, the attempt to root out the worship of other gods and the move to centralize worship in Jerusalem. 2 Kings describes Temple objects meant for the worship of Ba’al and Asherah, and a book (probably Duetoromy) “found” in the temple that instructs the high priest to purge these objects. Deuteronomy, contains the Shema, which declares the oneness and exclusive worship of one deity.
Why then did the Israelites become monotheists? One argument suggests that the elite of ancient Israel enforced such radical monotheism on their brothers and sisters in order to gain power and control over them, specifically their money and the goods they brought as offerings. On the other hand, the move to monotheism may have been an attempt put distance between the Isrealites and their Canaanite neighbors. As John J. Collins explains, there were attempts at monotheism in ancient Egypt of which the Isrealites would have had knowledge, but their image of the divine doesn’t match those Egyptian attempts (Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, 3rd edition, 48). A better motive for monotheism, for him, was forbidding goddess worship as it put the ultimate distance between Canaan and Israel , especially since the Israelite deity was also a Canaanite god (An Introduction to the Hebrew Bible 3rd Edition, 130).
Why Israel changed to monotheism isn’t definitively known. As we have seen, the Tanakh itself isn’t montheistic, so Judaism relies on non-scriptural stories like Midrash for its explanation. Since Abraham destroyed his father’s household idols, Abraham already knew that truth (there’s only ever been one deity). Nonetheless, the move to monotheism had certain effects.
In the ancient world, male gods were often attended to by men and goddesses by women. So, with allegiance sworn to a god, men became the only acceptable priests, offering sacrifices and communicating with the divine. When the temple fell, men took over learning, teaching, interpreting, and decreeing all things religious, in times when daily life revolved around religiosity.
Long before the temple fell, women lost their voice. With only a god, women’s opportunities and responsibility not just in religion, but in daily life and public discourse, were denied. Israelite religion lost its appreciation, awe and respect of goddesses and sacred femaleness. Adding insult to injury, on a few occasions “he” is called a god of suckling breasts or described as possessing motherly wings. Only recently have many Jewish women been able to reassert their worth and claim their inherent religiosity as rabbis and priestesses.
Relying on a single god for everything also created a dearth of religious explanation in the face of suffering and evil (also called theodicy). We can no longer blame the wrath of the goddess of war or the tumultuous temper of the god of the underworld, nor can we thank the god of rain or honor the goddess of the fields for bountiful harvests. Of course, science provides many answers now leading religion’s unanswered and unanswerable questions seem even more foolish and behind the times.
The evolution to monotheism may have seemed like progress in ancient Israel, and, in modern days, to suggest a return to a polytheistic past would question what many people hold to be true: there is only one deity. Yet, there is no denying that in mandating monotheism, ancient Israel diminished its ability to account for evil and suffering and, in its preference for a god, denied most roles and opportunities for women. The modern world lives with the consequences, and Judaism, and other monotheistic religions, even moreso.
Ivy Helman, Ph.D.: A feminist scholar and faculty member at Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic where she teaches a variety of Jewish Studies, Feminist and Ecofeminist courses.