The attempt by theological scholars to try to define what Israel believes as far as whether they were polytheistic or monotheistic has been a difficult issue to clearly identify and explain. There is both archaeological evidence and biblical evidence that point to some form of polytheism in early Israelite theology. There are some who contend that Israel was monotheistic throughout its entire history and that the Bible itself is also truly and fully monotheistic. These ideas generally are peppered with expanding the definition of monotheism to include other beings that are deities or divinities but attempt to maintain the word monotheism by broadening its definition to a more liberal definition that for all intents and purposes is contrary to the very meaning of the word monotheism. Benjamin D. Sommer struggled to find a good definition for what Israel believed and this is how he tried to solve the issue.
‘One might be surprised at a definition of monotheism that allows for the
existence of many gods, but on further reflection one comes to understand that
this definition is no less sensible than the narrow one. On the contrary, it is much more sensible. Let us imagine a theology in which there is one supreme being as well as many other beings who have some degree of freewill and self-consciousness. These other beings may be mortal or immortal, or they may be both; that is, they may be able to achieve immortality after they die. In such a theology, it is clear that the supreme being is not alone in the universe and is not the only being who can have some effect on the universe. The fact that these other beings have free will constitutes a limitation, though a voluntary one, on the omnipotence of the supreme being. Now, according to the narrow definition outlined above, such a theology is to be classified as monotheism if these beings live on earth and are called “human,” but it is to be classified as polytheism if these beings live in heaven and are called “angels” or “gods.” The broad definition is more consistent and more usable: The theology I just described is monotheism, regardless of where these beings live. There is no reason that we should find the existence of subservient beings in heaven
any more surprising in monotheism than the existence of subservient beings on
earth. Consequently, it is this second and broader definition of monotheism I
adopt in this book.’
The first sentence that Sommer includes something telling about his expansion of the word monotheism. He says that one might be surprised at the definition of monotheism allowing for another Elohim even many Elohim. This statement is a glaring admission that the new definition the idea that many Elohim can exist under a theory of the only being one Elohim is surprising to those being explained such an idea. The reason why it is so surprising is because the idea and the title are a contradiction in terms and ideals. Although some scholars may try to pretend as though the definition of monotheism can be expanded to include many Elohim is logically incongruous.
What we must do given that scholars are trying to redefine what the word monotheism is to admit its inadequacy considering biblical evidence contrary to its definition and further seek out a better term for what the Bible describes the theology of Israel to be. Generally, this paradox of using the term monotheism to describe the biblical narrative and the evidence of the Israelite theology has come to an impasse, generally when there is an accepted notion the consensus follows the notion until an anomaly presents itself. The paradigm shift begins to occur when the anomaly consistently begins to present itself in each situation that forces the anomaly to be ignored initially but then must be addressed as the issue becomes more and more critical and no longer ignorable. And that is what I believe is happening with the term monotheism given the biblical evidence of the complexity of Israel’s theology and the way in which the Bible presents the story of Elohim and the people of Elohim there comes now an approaching time to use a more complex term for what Israel believed.
Change is never easy it is sometimes uncomfortable but as truth and love of the truth marches on advancement will slow until all truth is accepted and the new paradigm installed. Although this may be a difficult issue for the church it is a very important one for the advancement of theology and the seeking of truth. There are few options to accept as more adequate terms for what the Israelites and what the Bible maintained as its theology. The available terms are polytheism which is the belief in many Elohim all equal and worthy of worship collectively, Henotheism which is the belief in many Elohim who are all worthy of worship but the believer only worships one of those Elohim. And then there is Monolatry which is the belief in many Elohim but only one is worthy of worship as the Almighty Elohim. Monolatry is my preferred term because biblically we can see that there are various places where other beings besides the Almighty are called Elohim or Elohim. The Bible itself is using this term, inferring that it is proper to apply this term to them. Unless the Bible itself shows that it is a false or an improper application.
One of the biggest problems with monotheism is that if the nation of Israel was monotheistic and believed that there was only one being who was Elohim, then the question arises as to why the nation of Israel would so frequently fall into worshiping other Elohim when they themselves know that there is only one real Elohim in existence and everything else is just a figment of someone’s imagination. If Israel had such a strict theology it seems nearly impossible for them to accept the existence of a proper or real deity in existence besides their one and only. But as we continue to see how often Israel falls into worshiping of other Elohim is an indicator that their theology was more complex than just monotheistic, to begin with Israel had to believe that there were other Elohim in existence for them to begin following them because no one would start following Elohim’s for whom they already believed did not exist. What Israel is struggling with the complexity of dealing with the Almighty Elohim who is invisible to them, this worshipped Elohim is using divine beings, “Elohim” to reveal himself and they in turn identify these as Elohim themselves because of the role they play in their revelations of who the Almighty is.
What we must realize is that the word Elohim means “mighty ones” and if we take the word to mean “mighty ones” and not necessarily Elohim as though it were the exclusive title of a person or being. Then when we see the Almighty being called a “mighty one” that’s understandable because it’s talking about him being a powerful being which is an understatement. And if we see that the Angels are being called also powerful ones or Elohim we must understand that the meaning is talking about them having power not their rank. Also in the context of when the word Elohim is used for Moses it’s talking about Elohim making Moses a powerful being to Aaron and Pharaoh so the problem is that we are seeing the word Elohim as a title and forget its meaning and losing sight of its function, calling each of the things that are called Elohim, powerful ones but not necessarily an exclusive term for the Almighty. Nor is it inferring equal stature among all the things called Elohim. So, Elohim must remain a term used to describe powerful beings but not a term that carries with it any assumption of rank or equality with any other being called Elohim.
In addition to the complexity of having to see Elohim through these messengers, there is the additional complexity of the other nations Elohim that surround the people of Elohim YHWH. Israel itself has within its own belief system the idea of only one supreme worship worthy Almighty being and yet there are servant Elohim or subservient subordinate divinities of this Almighty Elohim, who are they themselves mighty and are biblically called Elohim also which embodies the definition of Monolatry, regarding the Elohim of the other nations Israel wrestled with the idea of whether it is acceptable to include those Elohim under YHWH Elohim. The idea of there being only one Elohim does not exist as a limitation for them because they are not monotheistic, the possibility is open for there to be other Elohim and therefore it is a slippery slope available in the mind of the Israelite. This seems like a very difficult task deciding which beings or so-called Elohim can coexist with their Almighty Elohim in some subservient way. This would answer the question as to why Israel would eventually fall into following the Elohim of the gentile nations because they were monolatrous one Almighty and only worshiped Elohim who has other mighty beings who are in their eyes Elohim “powerful ones” also representing him to them. At various times Israel would misjudge which mighty beings were acceptable and include improper ones such as Baal and Asherah and find themselves facing the jealous Elohim burning with anger.
The guiding principle for the Israelites to decide who could be included and who could not be included as far as Elohim are concerned is in the 10 Commandments. In Exodus 20:3–6 the bible says
3 “You shall have no other Elohim before Me.
4 “You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth.
5 “You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your Elohim, am a jealous Elohim, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me,
6 but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments
“You shall have no other Elohim before Me” From the perspective of Monolatry, the Israelite is given instructions about where Almighty Elohim be placed regarding anything else. This commandment is essentially saying that Israel is not to have any mighty beings (Elohim) that would place itself before or contrary to Elohim Almighty and his commands and desires for Israel. If God were intending to give a strict monotheistic commandment excluding the possibility of there being other Elohim it would be more like “you shall have no other gods because I am the only one” but because it says not before me God is saying I need to be in the highest place in your heart and nothing no matter what any being says should be accepted if it contradicts God’s instruction. The instruction goes on further to say that Israel is to not create for themselves a material idol to worship in any way shape or form. “You shall not worship them or serve them” this command is the very heart of what makes this Monolatry, the word “Monolatry” is formed from combination of two words “μόνος (monos), only; alone. Cognate words: καταμόνας, μονογενής, μονόφθαλμος, μονόω. Heb. equiv. fr. LXX: הוּא (13×), אֲנִי (6×), אַתָּה (5×); + 3 more” and “λατρεία (latreia), service; worship. Cognate words: εἰδωλολάτρης, εἰδωλολατρία, λατρεύω. Heb. equiv. fr. LXX: עֲבֹדָה (4×)” the meaning of which is “only one worshiped”, The Encyclopedia Britannica says of Monolatry “Monolatry—which is the worship of one Elohim, whether or not the existence of other deities is posited—to the term henotheism. Both terms mean that one Elohim has a central and dominating position in such a way that it is possible to address this Elohim as if he were the one and only Elohim without, however, abandoning the principle of polytheism by denying or in any other way belittling the real existence of the other Elohim, “ so given that the term is focused on how many are worshiped and not on how many Elohim there are shows that it is a more relevant term to describe what the Bible is instructing Israel to do and what it itself reflects. So, this command to “not worship them” can include not only the material idols, and the Elohim of the nation’s surrounding Israel but it can be also taken as though it is saying that even those things that are called Elohim that are under or subservient to the Almighty Elohim must also not be worshiped. This is where Elohim is demanding and exclusive worship and homage as the Almighty being central to anything and everything in Israel’s life. So, the question is not whether there are other beings that can be called Elohim and are called Elohim in the Bible it’s who is worshiped as the Almighty that is of greatest importance to Elohim Almighty. As we read the Bible and we will delve deeper into these concepts we must understand that the term Elohim is used very loosely in the Bible and this indicates to us that Elohim is not worried about who is called Elohim but more than who is the one who’s worshiped as the supreme being is what Elohim is jealous of.
If the Israelites under a monolatrous theology grew weary of understanding and obeying the commands of Elohim Almighty they might lose sight of the reasons why these other Elohim are not acceptable and therefore willfully ignorantly they go into idolatry. But if we are under the impression that monotheism was the actual belief system of Israel than the possibility of them following the Elohim of the gentile nations becomes extremely unlikely because in their own minds there are no other Elohim that could possibly exist. The only answer is that they somehow could balance the understanding of one Almighty maker of all and divine beings who represent the Almighty but only one of these divine beings which would be the Almighty is worthy of worship and the other divine beings are not allowed to be worshiped. Therefore, the Angels and messengers of Elohim are not they themselves able to be worshiped as the Almighty they are not equal with the Almighty they are servants of the Almighty. But it is obvious in a monotheistic mind that the mere idea of there being more than one Elohim for any reason is extremely impossible for one to entertain who holds a monotheistic mindset. Even for readers of this paper who come from a monotheistic mindset must admit that even the ideas that I am proposing are coming into conflict with your perception of monotheism and how Israel could have a monotheistic idea or perspective and yet have this propensity to follow strange Elohim who if they were monotheistic are not even real. The answer is that they were not monotheistic although the concept of monotheism is a part of their theology. The exclusivity of worship to the Almighty is consistent with the heart of the concept of monotheism that only one is exclusively identified as the supreme Almighty being and no other being regardless of any title that they may hold or that the Bible may ascribe to them whether they are like that of the Almighty or not only the Almighty exclusively is worthy of the religious worship. So, this satisfies the heart of the concept of monotheism which is to exclude the highest supreme being and sanctify the worship and the religious zeal to only one being. The main reason why we must accept Israelite theology to be monolatrous is because the Bible in various places uses the word Elohim in such a way that makes the word “Elohim” not exclusive to the Almighty only. The very heart of what monotheism is being reflected in its construction the word monotheism comes from two words one that means “alone” Monos that we saw before and the other is the Greek word for Elohim “Theos.” When we take the meanings of the words that construct the word monotheism we get “one Theos” which we get that there is a claim to how many there are with a title namely “Elohim” or how many there are. So, when we consider monotheism without fail the propensity is that of their only being one that is with the term Elohim or only one Elohim at all. In other words, there is only one who can properly be called Elohim or there is only one Elohim, unfortunately for those who prefer the term monotheism biblically the term for God in Hebrew and Greek is not exclusively used for only one being and because it is not exclusive the entire premise of the terminologies that make up the word monotheism is contradictory to the biblical narrative.
This is where the conflict comes with scholars who would like to maintain the notion of monotheism but would like to broaden its meaning into areas in which other terms already lay claim. Given that the trajectory is towards expanding the meaning of the word monotheism to include other things that are called “Elohim” but had to further explain how it is not contradictory yet still monotheistic is evidence that the term is not good enough especially when there is a better term that exactly identifies the new broad term that is being adopted for monotheism. The term Monolatry is superior because it is not making a claim on how many can carry a term that is used broadly in the Bible but rather how many can be worshiped as the supreme being and therefore paralleling with the Bible the exclusivity of worship that is demanded by Elohim the term is also following suit by only identifying who is exclusively worshiped regardless of how terms may fall in the Bible.
1Co 8:5 - For even if there are so-called Elohim, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many Elohim and many lords), 1Co 8:6 - yet for us there is one Elohim, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live. (1 Corinthians 8:5b, in the NKJV and several versions)
 Sommer, Benjamin D. The Bodies of Elohim and the World of Ancient Israel. Cambridge University Press, 2009.
 The Lexham Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament 2011 : n. pag. Print.
 The Lexham Analytical Lexicon to the Greek New Testament 2011 : n. pag. Print.
 Theodorus P. van Baaren. “Monotheism.” Encyclopedia Britannica, Encyclopedia Britannica, inc., 24 Aug. 2016, www.britannica.com/topic/monotheism#ref420837. Accessed 25 Aug. 2017.