I have been writing about sporting equipment lately. Too often athletes using a piece of equipment and liking it offer opinions that are unfounded. They say “My whatzit is the best” and “This is the best whozewhatsit on the market.” These enthusiastic and uniformed opinions are apparently human nature. Various forms are used to create such “endorsements.” Some say that their thingie is as good as the “best thingie available.,” as in “It is as good as a Mercedes but much cheaper.” Others start with how good their piece of gear is and then switch to deriding the comparable items: “Oh, they’re good but way overpriced.” or “Those are overrated.”
That got me thinking about the progression of the Hebrews in the Bible from being a polytheistic bunch to being monotheistic. Even using the chronology of the Bible, much of the Bible wasn’t written down until very late in their history and that which was was kept away from the hoi polloi (many of whom couldn’t read in any case). But you can see the progression in the Bible itself, what with the Hebrews starting to drift away from Yahweh worship the minute Moses takes a walk up a mountain. Even well later Temple leaders struggled to get the people to accept that there was only one god worth their worship, to the point of enforcing it with regulation and Temple soldiers. Even through that period, there were still comments about people building little shrines to other gods up in the hills and it took quite a long time to root them out.
So, what we see, in the scriptures of all three “major” monotheistic religions is a people who were quite comfortable worshiping a multitude of gods. Then there are religious authorities working over time to get them to only worship one god. (This didn’t happen in Greece and Rome. In those traditions the religious leaders simply decided to “go along to get along.”)
So, if you were a religious leader and trying everything you could to convince people to worship just one god, what would you say? You would say things about how good our god was and how many good things were given to us, god’s chosen people. Here scripture has a very mixed record because Yahweh doesn’t treat His chosen people well at all. Any time the Hebrews got their asses kicked by an opponent, the religious leaders claimed that their god, Yahweh, made it happen to punish them for their transgressions against Yahweh. When King David incurs Yahweh’s wrath, He punishes the King by killing several tens of thousands of David’s subjects. (David, being part of the 1% gets special treatment.) If I were one of the “chosen people” so treated I would not look on that as being especially worthy of worship.
“(Your gods) are weak and puny and can’t do squats until they pass out …”
Usually you blame bad stuff on the other guy’s god, but that would introduce the question “How come their god kicked our god’s ass?” and that just wouldn’t do. So, you say wonderful stuff about your god (he loves you, he gave you the entire Earth to do with as you will, he gives you slaves to work and virgins to bed as you like, he is a really cool god), then at the same time, you denigrate the other gods. They are weak and puny and can’t do squats until they pass out … (Sorry, I slipped into Arnold Swartzenegger there.). They are false gods, they are evil, they vote Roman, whatever they could come up with. And there is only a small next step between those “other gods” being “false gods” to being “nonexistent gods” … “There is no god but Allah.”
It is not at all strange that the big push for monotheism came when Jews were allowed back into Palestine from Babylon and allowed to rebuild the temple that was destroyed. They could convince themselves that they had been “punished” because they hadn’t done Yahweh right and that they were now back in His good graces, so they better not eff up again. There was more than a little pressure to toe the party line. (And they did create this story line, pretty much out of whole cloth, that too, can be found in scripture.)
This very human tendency to ratchet up the criticism of “others,” and exaggerate the praise of what is ours can be seen in our current campaigns for political office, in fan behaviors at sporting contests, and in general discourse, even with regard to selecting what sporting equipment to buy.
So, monotheism, in my mind, most probably evolved from polytheism due to overzealous religious officials trying to tout their god and denigrate the gods of others. You can see how it happened by reading scripture.