Were the Jews the Only Ancient Monotheists?

menorah

The typical party line about religion is that religion began as animism, the worship of spirits and perhaps ancestors, and was polytheistic (many gods) or pantheistic (everything is God). Eventually mankind became enlightened and some people began to realize there is only one God.

Some would argue that now mankind is becoming even more enlightened by recognizing that belief in any god is a myth, while others are returning to pagan beliefs and embracing the idea of many gods. Still others prefer to view God as a force, or the sum-total of all creation.

The biblical perspective is that mankind originally understood that there was one God. From early on, men began to call upon the name of Yahweh, as noted in Genesis 4:26 (Exodus 6:3 is best understood as a rhetorical question, “and by my Name ‘Yahweh’ did they not know me?”).

Fast forward to the Flood. All mankind, except for Noah’s family, had been annihilated. In Genesis 9:1-17, God makes a covenant (of which the rainbow is a sign) that He will not destroy the entire world with a flood again. He institutes government and capital punishment. Noah worships the one God without an image and recognizes Him as ruler of heaven and earth.

This original monotheistic belief is the original faith of the Flood survivors. Their descendants, however, resented God’s constraints. Instead of spreading out and filling the earth, they huddled together and created a plan to defy the God of Heaven who could destroy with a flood. They began construction on the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11). The tower was to reach to the sky and was sealed with pitch (tar). In my opinion, the purpose of the tower was a watertight container to which the people could flee in the event that God sent another flood.

It is obvious that the people did not trust God’s promise, despite the presence of the rainbow. They clearly had no intention of spreading out and filling the earth.

If I am correct about the tower’s purpose, then it all suggests that they had already reduced their view of God to that of god of the flood—not an all-powerful God who could do as He pleased, but one whose power only extended to the waters. Whether many of the people had already deserted monotheism for a pantheon of deities is hard to tell, but certainly lessening the power of the one true God is a step in that direction. Their failure to spread out and fill the earth suggests that they thought they could escape His wrath.

In Genesis 11:6-7, the persons of the Godhead are seen as discussing matters. The time was not right for mankind to be united against God (as it will be during the Tribulation), so God acted to disunite the world. First, He clearly confused their languages. The Jewish belief is that He divided mankind into 70 language groups. Secondly the Lord may have divided the earth physically. In Genesis 10:25—a genealogical list that extends to and beyond Babel—we read, “To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided.” Some understand this to mean that the earth was divided (sociologically) by the confusion of languages. Others suggest that the continents were forced apart at this time. The second interpretation would add impetus to the idea that Babel’s social monopoly had been dealt a death blow. Babel later became known as Babylon, and understanding its history is key to understanding its metaphorical use later in the Word.

Abraham

Most of us are familiar with the account of how God called Abraham from Ur of the Chaldeans (modern day Iraq, in which the city of Babylon—now named Hillah—is located). The world hails Abraham as the ultimate monotheist (one who believes in only one God) who stood alone in a society of polytheists (those who believe in more than one God). That claim may be exaggerated.

Just because Abraham was specially called by God does not imply there were no other believers in the one true God or some other singular god. The Bible itself suggests such people existed.

Job

Job lived about the time of Abraham in a region we know as Jordan. Anyone who has read the book of Job can see that Job trusted Yahweh as the one true God. Job even uttered one of the most comprehensive Messianic prophecies: “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God” (Job 19:25-26). Job not only knew of Yahweh, but he knew a Messiah would come to redeem him, that the Messiah would resurrect the dead (bodily) in the end times, and that Job himself would see God. Few if any of the world’s religions believed in a bodily, physical resurrection. But Job knew better. Most of the important doctrines Christians believe today were uttered by Job about 2,000 BC. And Job was not even a descendant of Abraham.

Also note that Job’s friends seem to have had a basic knowledge of the one true God, although they do not mention Yahweh (LORD) by name.

When Abraham rescued Lot and others from their captors, he paid a tithe to Melchizedek, the King of Salem (later known as Jerusalem) who was also a priest of God Most High. Melchizedek refers to God as “possessor of heaven and earth,” and Abraham was obviously comfortable with Melchizedek’s belief system.

Mechizedek

Melchizedek was a real man who was the real king of Salem (peace). The tradition of king-priest Melchizedek lived on, although it was corrupted. Five hundred years later, the pagan king of Salem (now known as Jerusalem, city of peace), Adoni-zedek, opposed Joshua and tried to thwart his conquest of the promised land (see Joshua 10). Melchizedek means something like “the king of righteousness” and Adoni-zedek means something like, “the Lord is righteous,” and it is even possible that the pagan, Adoni-zedek, was a descendent of the godly Melchizedek. Five hundred years is a long time. A city with an altar to the God Most High was now noted for its Canaanite pagan beliefs.

Scripture introduces us to others who knew of one true God, men like Jethro, the priest of Yahweh at Midian (now known as Saudi Arabia), Moses’ Father-in-law (Exodus 3;1). The prophet Balaam knew of the true God, although Balaam was a charlatan. Balaam was perhaps Zoroastrian, a monotheistic religion that still lives on in parts of Iran. Some think he was the founder of the “Magi.”

Where did these individuals learn of the true God? We could point to a number of potential sources: tradition passed down from Noah, contact with others who believed in the one true God, written documents lost to us, and natural revelation (it is possible to conclude there is one true God from observation).

Paul describes how mankind began with a monotheistic belief system. He also teaches how that belief system was corrupted. Our text is Romans 1:21-25:

For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.

Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen.

There are evidences in pagan religions and the annuls of history that information about the one God was known to ancient man. But that will have to wait for another article!

[node:bio/ed-vasicek body]

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There are 14 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I'm intrigued by the idea that the tower was supposed to be a water tight refuge against another flood. Seems a lot to suppose from what's there.... or what isn't: no reference to the Flood in the narrative at all.
The sequence of events there is compelling enough as man's first organized expression of the delusion that the race can solve it's problems through the mysterious power of "community" and bring in its own utopia. A great text for our times.

Jim's picture

Re:

Quote:
The tower was to reach to the sky and was sealed with pitch (tar). In my opinion, the purpose of the tower was a watertight container to which the people could flee in the event that God sent another flood.

Cheaper and more efficient to build boats.

drwayman's picture

Ed - Thanks for writing this. It certainly gives me a lot of food for thought. Doesn't the Bible make it clear that Adam and Eve were the first monotheists? God (not gods) walked with them in the garden.

I don't believe that they were Jewish but I suppose one could make that claim considering that their story was written in the Torah...

Pedid por la paz de Jerusalén.

Ed Vasicek's picture

drwayman wrote:
Ed - Thanks for writing this. It certainly gives me a lot of food for thought. Doesn't the Bible make it clear that Adam and Eve were the first monotheists? God (not gods) walked with them in the garden.

I don't believe that they were Jewish but I suppose one could make that claim considering that their story was written in the Torah...

Yes, Adam and Eve were the first monotheists. We do not know when men first moved away from that belief; Noah and his sons restarted the race after the Flood, and they were monotheists too. My point was that this monotheism lived on all along -- at least in certain instances and perhaps locales.

Regarding Aaron's comments:

The tower reaching TO the sky and sealed with pitch (used in Genesis only for waterproofing) suggest the strategy of defiance I am suggesting.

I came up with this idea from my own study, and later found out that others had concluded the same. David Guzik, (one of my favorites) has commented:

Quote:
Using baked bricks and asphalt for mortar, men built a tower which would not only be strong, but waterproof, even as Noah used the same material in waterproofing the ark (Genesis 6:14). Later Moses' mother would use the same material in waterproofing Moses' basket (Exodus 2:3).

"Archaeology has revealed that this type of kiln-fired brick and asphalt construction was common in ancient Babylon." (Morris)

This shows the heart behind the tower of Babel was not only disobedient to God's command to fill the earth (Genesis 9:1), but it also shows man did not believe God's promise to never again flood the earth. A waterproof tower was made to "protect" man against a future deluge.

"The Midrash Detective"

drwayman's picture

Ed - thanks for replying to me. Your first sentence, to me, started out saying that monotheism was a development from animism. I see that later in that paragraph, you do affirm that biblically, the assumption is monotheism from the very onset. My apologies for not reading better.

I wanted to keep my comments separate as I had always been taught that the tower of Babel was actually an observatory, the telescope reached into the heavens. Hence, that is why astrology is condemned in Christianity. It would also follow then, with your understanding the Magi followed the star, that maybe Zoroastrianism resulted from the tower, rather than Balaam.

Pure conjecture, I know...

Pedid por la paz de Jerusalén.

Ed Vasicek's picture

drwayman wrote:
... I had always been taught that the tower of Babel was actually an observatory, the telescope reached into the heavens. Hence, that is why astrology is condemned in Christianity. It would also follow then, with your understanding the Magi followed the star, that maybe Zoroastrianism resulted from the tower, rather than Balaam.

Pure conjecture, I know...

No, the tower had something to do with defying God. They huddled together instead of spreading out, as God commanded. IMO, the tower was an attempt to avert whatever wrath they thought God would exercise upon them for their failure to comply (thus reduced God to the God of the Flood). Astronomy is not forbidden in Scripture -- indeed, Genesis tells us that God gave mankind stars to tell times, seasons, etc. (Genesis 1:14). Astrology --fortune telling -- is what is condemned.

I subscribe to the Gospel in the stars theory, and believe that Revelation 12:1-7, in John's vision, were constellations that came to life (Virgo, Drago, and Leo the Lion). In Job 38:31-32, God even mentions some constellations in a good way.

This in itself is quite a fascinating subject.

Regarding Balaam, Henry Morris (in his booklet, "When They Saw the Star") wrote:

Quote:
There is even an ancient tradition that Balaam, the notorious prophet from Mesopotamia, was an early member of the Magi, perhaps even their founder. If so, this fact would at least partially explain why the Magi at the time of Christ were aware that a special star would be used by God to announce the Savior's birth to this world. It was Balaam's prophecy, of course, as recorded in the Bible, that spoke of this future star. Here is his prophecy, actually constrained by God to be uttered against the prophet's own will.

"The Midrash Detective"

drwayman's picture

Ed - Thanks for distinguishing between astrology and astronomy. Of course, astronomy is not condemned in Christianity and I see how my writing appeared to conflate the two. Believe me that was unintentional. I appreciate your ability to be clear, one to which I aspire.

Astronomy, possibly in this instance, was not approved by God because their common language lead to amazing advances in understanding the cosmos. One could postulate that this was the beginning of great technological advances that would multiply exponentially given one language. Again, pure conjecture but as you put it, "a fascinating subject."

That seems apparent nowadays. Until the late 1800's, the common person walked or used horses to get about. The research is contradictory, but many believe it took 40000 years for information/technology to double the first time. There was not as much technological advance as we see nowadays with information/technology doubling about every 15 years or less. Bring with that the ability to translate languages, you can see that we MAY be getting back to Babel....

Again, thanks. You have given me much to think about Smile

Pedid por la paz de Jerusalén.

removed_jh's picture

Ed,

Thanks for the thought provoking article. One obvious truth that the earth dwellers would have had to ignore, bury or suppress was the multi-colored promise in the sky ~ the bow. Why would they build a waterproof tower when they had the promise? Unless, of course, their defiance also meant a rejection of the already given revelation available to all the earthdwellers of the time.

Ed Vasicek's picture

jhowell wrote:
Ed,

Thanks for the thought provoking article. One obvious truth that the earth dwellers would have had to ignore, bury or suppress was the multi-colored promise in the sky ~ the bow. Why would they build a waterproof tower when they had the promise? Unless, of course, their defiance also meant a rejection of the already given revelation available to all the earthdwellers of the time.

Their failure to spread out and fill the earth and their building the tower I think both demonstrate their high-handed defiance. Had they directed their efforts toward obeying and pleasing God, he would not have confused their languages and he would not have divided the earth (either by language or geography, interpreter's choice). If they trusted God's rainbow sign, they would have trusted God. The basis of unbelief is that God is either not trustworthy or isn't there.

"The Midrash Detective"

christian cerna's picture

We must also remember that in those times, people lived for hundreds of years, and that people passed on their beliefs and traditions orally, from one generation to to the next. Therefore it is pretty safe to assume that Adam spent many years teaching his children about his knowledge of God, and about the history of the Garden of Eden. And his children in turn, did the same to their children, and so on. There was probably no written record back then, but people probably had a better understanding of the world back then, than many do now, if only because they were 'listeners'. They were a people who revered the elders. They would spend much time listening to history from their lips, and wisdom gained through many hundreds of years. Also, I imagine that the men in those days were very skilled in every art, since they lived hundreds of years, and were able to perfect their skills and acquire much knowledge from those who came before them.

Can you imagine if we all lived hundreds of years, how much of the Bible we could memorize, and how much theological knowledge we could acquire in that time, and how highly skilled we would be in the art of speaking and teaching, if we practiced all those years?

Ed Vasicek's picture

Christian, your points are well taken. Memorizing was certainly an important process in ancient life.

Christian said:

Quote:
There was probably no written record back then

This is an assumption that may not be quite right. It is possible that even Adam and Eve were created with the ability to write, and that writing became lost and the resurfaced. Then again, this might not be the case.

Either way, I think ancient man should be given more credit in these areas.

"The Midrash Detective"

drwayman's picture

Ed said, "Either way, I think ancient man should be given more credit in these areas."

I tend to agree Ed. Remember, Adam and Eve were created as adults by God. Hence, I believe that by today's standards, they would most likely be superhuman. There was no genetic drift and their bodies and minds as created were not tarnished by the effects of sin. My understanding is that Hebrew tradition taught that Eve had close to 60 children. This is definitely a feat that could only be performed by a woman who was a perfect creation. The ability to name all the plants and animals takes tons of intelligence. These two were definitely geniuses. Just because they didn't have technology doesn't mean that they were dolts.

If anything has happened, we have devolved from that original perfect creation. Again, pure speculation, I know...

Pedid por la paz de Jerusalén.

christian cerna's picture

Ed Vasicek wrote:
Christian, your points are well taken. Memorizing was certainly an important process in ancient life.

Christian said:

Quote:
There was probably no written record back then

This is an assumption that may not be quite right. It is possible that even Adam and Eve were created with the ability to write, and that writing became lost and the resurfaced. Then again, this might not be the case.

Either way, I think ancient man should be given more credit in these areas.

I don't deny that they had writing. I was merely pointing out that we have no extant record of it, so we cannot prove it.

christian cerna's picture

drwayman wrote:
Ed said, "Either way, I think ancient man should be given more credit in these areas."

I tend to agree Ed. Remember, Adam and Eve were created as adults by God. Hence, I believe that by today's standards, they would most likely be superhuman. There was no genetic drift and their bodies and minds as created were not tarnished by the effects of sin. My understanding is that Hebrew tradition taught that Eve had close to 60 children. This is definitely a feat that could only be performed by a woman who was a perfect creation. The ability to name all the plants and animals takes tons of intelligence. These two were definitely geniuses. Just because they didn't have technology doesn't mean that they were dolts.

If anything has happened, we have devolved from that original perfect creation. Again, pure speculation, I know...

This is so true. Unfortunately, because of Darwin's lies, we have this false idea in our heads, that ancient men were nothing but cavemen that looked like hairy, hunched-over apes. But the truth is the exact opposite. Early man was the pinnacle of perfection. That is why they were able to live such long lives. They probably looked like Supermen, compared to modern man. They were probably taller than we are, stronger and faster, and far more intelligent(since they lived for hundreds of years and acquired great knowledge). And there are many who believe that dinosaurs were alive during this time. So the men in those days would have had to have been stronger and fiercer to be able to fight them.

Why is it that when we see an exceptionally beautiful person, we appreciate them. Because that is how men were supposed to all be- beautiful, strong, healthy, vibrant, youthful. It was only because of sin entering the world that men began to experience aging, and imperfections, and diseases, etc.

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