Henotheism in the Bible

I have recently decided to make comments on some weekly lectionary readings in my blog posts, though I will continue to post on other matters as well. Today’s responsorial Psalm is Psalm 135, which gives a good illustration of the presence of henotheism in the Bible. Henotheism is a big word, but it basically means that if a group of people worships one God while not denying the existence of other deities.

Many people operate under the mistaken assumption that Israel was always monotheistic in Biblical times; however, Psalm 135 as well as other texts demonstrates that this was not always the case.  For a substantial span of their history they were actually henotheists.  The strongest statements on monotheism do not come until Second Isaiah, e.g. “I am the Lord and there is no other” (Is. 45.6).  Yet in Psalm 135.5 one reads, “For I know that the Lord is great, and our Lord is greater than all gods.”  The fact of the matter is that it took some time for montheism to develop in Israel.  And, even some of the statements that have traditionally been taken as montheistic (i.e. the first of the ten commandments) are likely not statements of monotheism at all, but rather fit better into the context of henotheism.

If you are interested in learning more about this topic, I know for a fact that Christine Hayes covers this topic in a significant amount of detail in her Introduction to the Old Testament (perhaps almost an entire lecture).  A link can be found on the courses page of this site.

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