Chapter 3 of God Is...
Judaism. Christianity. Islam. These three great faiths all look to Abraham as their father. Abraham differed from others of his day in one vital respect: He worshiped only one God – the true God. Abraham worshiped the one true God. Monotheism, the belief that only one God exists, marks the starting point of true religion.
Abraham was not born in a monotheistic society. Centuries later, God reminded ancient Israel: “Long ago your forefathers, including Terah the father of Abraham and Nahor, lived beyond the River and worshiped other gods. But I took your father Abraham from the land beyond the River and led him throughout Canaan and gave him many descendants” (Joshua 24:2-3).
Before God called him, Abraham lived in Ur, though his relatives may have lived in Haran. The people of both places worshiped many gods. Ur, for instance, was the site of a great temple tower dedicated to the Sumerian moon-god, Nanna. Other temples at Ur honored An, Enlil, Enki and Nin-gal. God called Abraham out of this polytheistic setting: “Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you. I will make you into a great nation” (Genesis 12:1-2).
Abraham obeyed God and moved (verse 4). In a sense, God’s relationship with Israel began when he revealed himself to Abraham, their ancestor. God made a covenant with Abraham. God renewed that agreement with Abraham’s son Isaac and, later, with Isaac’s son Jacob. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob worshiped the one true God. This set them apart even from their close relatives. Laban, a grandson of Abraham’s brother Nahor, embraced numerous household gods or idols (Genesis 31:30-35).
God rescues Israel from Egyptian idolatry
Decades later, Jacob (whose name God changed to Israel) and his children settled in Egypt. The children of Israel remained in Egypt for nearly three centuries. The Egyptians also worshiped many gods. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia points out: “The first observation of a person coming to the study of Egyptian religion is the large number of deities, many of them in animal form, or human form with animal heads.... It is possible to list at least thirty-nine gods and goddesses” (vol. 4, page 101).
The children of Israel grew in number in Egypt but became enslaved by their Egyptian hosts. God revealed himself as the one true God through a series of miracles that led to Israel’s liberation from Egypt. God then made a covenant between himself and the nation of Israel. God’s revelation of himself to humanity, as these events show, has always centered on monotheism.
He revealed himself to Moses as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The name God called himself, “I am” (Exodus 3:14), implies that other gods do not exist in the same way God does. God is. They are not!
Because Pharaoh refused to release Israel, God humbled Egypt with 10 miraculous plagues. Many of these plagues showed that Egypt’s gods had no power. For example, one of the Egyptian gods had a head in the shape of a frog. God’s plague of frogs upon Egypt ridiculed the worship of that god.
Even after witnessing the devastating effects the plagues had on his nation, Pharaoh still tried to prevent the Israelites from leaving. God finally swept the Egyptians “into the sea” (Exodus 14:27). This action demonstrated the impotence of Egypt’s sea god. The children of Israel sang triumphantly (Exodus 15:1-21), exalting the omnipotent God of Israel.
The true God found – and lost
God led the Israelites out of Egypt and to the foot of Mt. Sinai, where they ratified a covenant. God stressed in the first of his Ten Commandments that he alone was to be worshiped: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). The Second Commandment forbade the making or worshiping of idols (verses 4-5).
Time and again, Moses pleaded with the Israelites not to worship idols (Deuteronomy 4:23-26; 7:5; 12:2-3; 29:14-18). He knew Israel would be tempted to follow the Canaanite gods when they arrived in the Promised Land.
A saying known as the Shema’ (after the Hebrew word for “hear,” which begins the saying) captured Israel’s duty to God. The Shema’ starts: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5).
However, Israel again and again lapsed into worshiping the Canaanite gods, among them El (a standard term for deity that is also applied to the true God), Baal, Dagon and Ashtoreth (also known as Astarte or Ishtar).
Baal worship particularly troubled the Israelites. As they colonized the land of Canaan, they became dependent on crop production. Baal, the storm god, was worshiped in fertility rites. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia states, “The fertility cult, by virtue of its focus on the fertility of land and beasts, must always have had an attraction in a society such as ancient Israel where economy was based primarily on agriculture” (vol. 4, page 101).
God’s prophets warned the Israelites to turn from their waywardness. Elijah asked the people: “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him” (1 Kings 18:21). God answered Elijah’s prayer to prove that he alone was God. The people acknowledged: “The Lord – he is God! The Lord – he is God!” (verse 39).
God revealed himself not merely as the greatest of all gods, but as the only true God: “I am the Lord, and there is no other; apart from me there is no God” (Isaiah 45:5). And: “Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me. I, even I, am the Lord, and apart from me there is no savior” (Isaiah 43:10-11).
Judaism – strictly monotheistic
The Jewish religion of Jesus’ day was not merely henotheistic (holding that God is the greatest of many gods) nor monolatrous (permitting the worship of God alone but acknowledging that other gods might exist). It was strictly monotheistic, meaning there is only one God.
According to the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, on no other point were the Jews more united than on the confession “God is one” (vol. 3, page 98). Reciting the Shema’ remains part of Jewish worship today. Rabbi Akiba, who was killed in Palestine during the second century A.D., is said to have been brought to his execution at the time of the reading of the Shema’ and to have repeated Deuteronomy 6:4 throughout his tortures, breathing his last on the word one.
What Jesus said about monotheism
When a scribe asked Jesus which command was greatest, Jesus replied by quoting the Shema’: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength” (Mark 12:29-30). The scribe agreed: “Well said, teacher.... You are right in saying that God is one and there is no other but him” (verse 32).
In the next chapter, we will look at how Jesus’ coming gave the New Testament church a deeper and broadened concept of God. (Jesus claimed to be the Son of God and to be one with the Father.)
Jesus reaffirmed monotheism. As the writers of the Theological Dictionary of the New Testament point out: “Early Christian monotheism is confirmed rather than shattered by the Christology of the [New Testament].... According to the Gospels Jesus himself sharpens the monotheistic confession” (vol. 3, page 102).
Mark 10:17-18 records one of Jesus’ clearest affirmations of monotheism. When a man addressed him as “Good Teacher,” Jesus answered: “Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God” (New King James Version).
What the early church preached
Jesus commissioned his church to preach the gospel and to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:18-20). This soon involved preaching to Gentiles who were still immersed in polytheism.
When Paul and Barnabas preached and performed miracles at Lystra, the reaction of the people showed how steeped they were in polytheism: “When the crowd saw what Paul had done, they shouted in the Lycaonian language, ‘The gods have come down to us in human form!’ Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul they called Hermes because he was the chief speaker” (Acts 14:11-12). Hermes and Zeus were two gods in the Greek pantheon. The Greek and Roman pantheons were well known in the New Testament world, and worship of the Greek and Roman gods was widespread.
Paul and Barnabas responded vigorously with the message of monotheism: “We too are only men, human like you. We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made heaven and earth and sea and everything in them” (verse 15). Even then, Paul and Barnabas could scarcely restrain the people from sacrificing to them.
In Athens, Paul found many altars set up to honor different gods – even one with the inscription: “TO AN UNKNOWN GOD” (Acts 17:23). He used that altar as a starting point from which to explain monotheism to the Athenians.
At Ephesus, brisk sales of idols accompanied the worship of the Greek goddess Artemis. After Paul preached about the one true God, the idol trade slackened. The silversmith Demetrius was adversely affected economically. He told his fellow artisans, “Paul has convinced and led astray large numbers of people.... He says that man-made gods are no gods at all” (Acts 19:26).
Here is another case of one of God’s servants preaching that gods made by hand are not gods at all. Just as the Old Testament does, the New Testament proclaims but one true God. The other gods aren’t.
No other God
To the Christians at Corinth, Paul stated explicitly, “We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and that there is no God but one” (1 Corinthians 8:4).
Monotheism underpins both the Old and New Testaments. God called Abraham, the father of the faithful, out from a polytheistic society. God revealed himself to Moses and Israel, and founded the old covenant on the worship of himself alone. God sent prophets to reiterate the message of monotheism. Finally, Jesus Christ himself reaffirmed monotheism. The New Testament church that Jesus founded fought against worship that fell short of true monotheism.
The church, from the days of the New Testament forward, has consistently preached what God long ago had revealed: “The Lord our God, the Lord is one.”