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The transition from polytheism to monotheism in ancient Israel and Judah

Trotter, J. (2006) The transition from polytheism to monotheism in ancient Israel and Judah. In: International Society of Biblical Literature Annual Conference 2006, 2 - 6 July 2006, Edinburgh, Scotland


It is widely accepted that ancient Israelites were predominantly polytheistic during most or all of the monarchic period. Yahwistic monotheism appears to develop only in the neo-Babylonian period and does not become the dominant religious expression until the Persian period. While there is substantial agreement among scholars about the dominance of polytheism in the earlier periods and monotheism in the later periods, there is little agreement about the processes that led to this radical religious transformation. This paper proposes to explain the transition from polytheism to monotheism as a multifaceted process that occurred from the 9th to 6th centuries BCE. The first impetus in the process was the struggle for supremacy over the Israelite pantheon between the supporters of Baal and Yahweh in Omride Israel. The significance of this struggle is transformed at the end of the 8th century, when Yahweh’s anger over the issue becomes the theological explanation for the fall of Samaria. This theological interpretation of the fall of Samaria then becomes the source of a Yahweh-only movement in Judah during the following century. The cult reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah are expressions of this new Yahweh-only perspective, but the failure of these reforms is also indicative of the resilience of the traditional polytheistic beliefs. Only with the fall of Jerusalem and the explanation of the event in terms of Yahweh’s anger over the worship of other deities does the monolatrous Yahweh-only theology develop into Yahwistic monotheism.

Publication Type: Conference Paper
Murdoch Affiliation: School of Social Sciences and Humanities
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