No Other Gods: Emergent Monotheism in Israel

  • Robert Karl Gnuse
  • Jan 1, 1998
  • Series: Volume 1 - 1998

Gnuse, Robert Karl 1997 No Other Gods. Emergent Monotheism in Israel. JSOT Supplement 241. Sheffield: JSOT Press. 392 pp. Hardback, £47.50/$78.00.

Gnuse seeks to survey the recent views of the question of Israel's origins and especially the place of religion in the history of Israel from c. 1200 B.C. until the postexilic period. The book begins with a review of theories regarding the emergence of Israel in Canaan. He dismisses the views of conquest, peaceful infiltration, and peasant revolt. Instead, Gnuse considers recent views that he categorizes as peaceful withdrawal from urban centers, internal nomadism, transition/transformation, and synthesis. Israel was created from indigenous inhabitants of Canaan, not from groups that moved in from outside the land.

Gnuse then turns to his examination of views regarding Israelite religion. He argues that the dominant view is one of an evolutionary development with intermittent revolutionary changes. Monotheism is to be understood as a development from a polytheism which remained committed to the existence of other deities right into the exilic period. It was only with the writings of Deutero-Isaiah in the postexilic period that monotheism emerged as a clear belief among the Israelite peoples. As in his discussion of early Israel's history, here as well Gnuse dismisses "minority opinions" that would view a monotheism of some sort as present in Israel from the time of Moses.

Having looked at the theories, the author turns to consider the role and influence of the surrounding cultures in the ancient Near East. A great part of his argument appears to rest on the assumption that sometime in the mid-first millennium B.C. there was a revolution across the known world, from India to Greece, that brought about the emergence of monotheism in Israel. This understanding carries forward the "Axial Age" theory in which this period of time was crucial for the emergence of modern concepts and theories. It was an age that had profound effects on human thought throughout the known world. This, plus the crucible of the exile, led Israel to a higher and better understanding of its faith, an ethical monotheism. Gnuse then discusses the way in which the understanding of monotheism continued to evolve and develop, and indeed is still doing so to the present day. He also applies his understanding of evolutionary/revolutionary monotheism to process theology as a philosophical context for biblical theology. Gnuse turns to an examination of the biological evolutionary model of "punctuated equilibrium" as one that best describes his own understanding of the development of biblical faith.

This book contains some valuable and helpful aspects for the reader. First, the survey of opinions on Israel's emergence and Israelite religion are up to date and compare favorably with any survey available elsewhere in the English language. Second, there is his concern to view ancient Israel and the Bible in light of the greater geographical context of, not only the Middle East, but also the Mediterraean world, Asia, and points further afield. This allows for a more nuanced appreciation of what is original in Israel and what is borrowed. Third, Gnuse also appreciates the larger chronological context in which Israel's faith is seen as part of a much larger historical development over thousands of years. Finally, Gnuse cleary identifies and discusses models from philosophy and biology as a means to explain his whole picture. This is a wonderful example of creative and cross-disciplinary work.

There are, however, some reservations, particularly in terms of his methodology. First, there seems to be a readiness to dismiss other interpretations because they are not the most popular ones. Again and again, the reader is confronted by statements such as (p. 109), "The voices of dissent which argue for early monotheism will not carry the day in the current discussion. Increasingly scholars view the emergence of monotheism as a later phenomenon..." Thus the other views are dismissed, not because there is evidence to refute them, but because they are not the majority view. If Gnuse is correct, he has not demonstrated that what he calls the minority views are wrong. For example, he never considers the strong archaeological and textual evidence for the presence of northerners in Palestine during the time that Israel first appears on the scene. If this evidence is correctly interpreted (see, e.g., the summary in my commentary on Joshua, IVP, 1996), then there every reason to believe that non-indigenous peoples were in the Palestinian hill country and no reason to exclude a migrating group such as Israel from this picture. However, Gnuse never mentions or addresses this matter.

Second, there is inconsistency in his attempt to discredit an early monotheism. While he attempts to create a variety of ties with first millennium beliefs and ideas, he too readily dismisses those of the second millennium. By his own admission, Akhnaten's fourteenth century B.C. cult of the Aten was one of the earliest moves toward monotheism. Yet he discredits association between that cult and early Israel. Of course, this assists his attribution of monotheism as a late development in Israel's history. However, this is insufficient reason for preferring first millennium influence while discounting second millennium influence.

Third, the evidence for monotheism (or at least the worship of only one god) is found in the personal names of Israelites in the Old Testament period, both in the Bible and in inscriptions outside of the Bible. Gnuse is correct to identify this as a problem with his theory but his attempt to devalue its significance by using the arguments of Albertz is not convincing (p. 107). Albertz argues that the names only reflect family piety and not the religion of society. Yet it is a false dichotomy to assume that these two elements of religion are separate and isolated. It is one thing to talk about the emphasis on national deities in surrounding cultures (Ammonites, Moabites, etc.) but something else to demonstrate that this is virtually the only deity named in their personal names, as is the case in Judah and Israel. The latter is unique to Israel and it is incorrect to ignore or downplay this significant distinction in order to force the evidence into a particular interpretation.

For these reasons, this reader takes a cautious approach toward this book.

Richard S. Hess
Professor of Old Testament
Denver Seminary