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.
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 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.
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!
Ed Vasicek was raised as a Roman Catholic but, during high school, Cicero (IL) Bible Church reached out to him, and he received Jesus Christ as his Savior by faith alone. Ed earned his BA at Moody Bible Institute and served as pastor for many years at Highland Park Church, where he is now pastor emeritus. Ed and his wife, Marylu, have two adult children. Ed has published over 1,000 columns for the opinion page of the Kokomo Tribune, published articles in Pulpit Helps magazine, and posted many papers which are available at edvasicek.com. Ed has also published the The Midrash Key and The Amazing Doctrines of Paul As Midrash: The Jewish Roots and Old Testament Sources for Paul's Teachings.