The arab has a way to express monotheism. La ilah la Ilalah

In english, it means no god but the god. Or no god but Allah.

Here, the word ilah in arabic language and the word god in english means the same thing. It speaks about a class of object.

Here, the muslims claim that there is only one ilah, namely the god.

In hebrew, the word ilah is cognate with eloah or elohim.

There is one problem with that.

YHWH is definitely not the only eloah around. Many people, judges, angels, etc are called eloah or elohim too.

In fact, YHWH is often called god of gods.

So if we want to say there is no god but YHWH in hebrew, how would we do that?

We could say there is no elohim but YHWH. Again as I point out, the bible says there are many.

So how to express monotheism in the bible then? Does bible actually contain unambiguously monotheistic claim?

Shema Yisrael YHWH Eloheinu seems to imply that Israel has only one eloah, namely, YHWH. So they are at least monolatrist. Yet again, many other things are called elohim/eloah like judges/angels legitimately by Israel. So what's happening?

Let me rephrase the question.

Other languages have words for deity that can be worshipped.

In english it's god. In india and indonesia, it's dewa or deva or diva In arab, it's ilah.

Those words means something specific. It means a class of objects greater than humans and very powerful worthy of being worshiped.

Do we have similar words in hebrew, what? Eloah? Elohim?

We can say eloah or elohim but bible translators repeatedly translate those words into judges and angels. So eloah and elohim is not like "god" or dewa in other languages. Do we have words that are like "gods" in hebrew? Words that mean gods and ONLY gods.

  • 1
    I'm surprised there is not, as yet (so far as I can find!), a question on the translation of Deuteronomy 6:4 on BH.SE. This question, as asked, is really a question in search of a text. It would be good to have a focussed question on Deuteronomy 6:4 in its own right, and Isaiah 45:21-22 and its interpretation likewise. That could be productive for the BH.SE format.
    – Dɑvïd
    Jan 10 '15 at 13:23
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    I think I see the problem you're posing/having. (Sometimes it takes a while.) So, it would help to grasp that even if 'el, 'eloah, 'elohim have a wider semantic range than, say, English "god", still "divine being" belongs to that semantic range. The answer below shows how a monotheistic claim for YHWH can be stated, even with the semantic breadth of the 'el, 'eloah, 'elohim words. I hope that helps.
    – Dɑvïd
    Jan 11 '15 at 15:49

Although I have my qualms about the particular way that OP has formulated the question, it is an interesting one and could be sharply focused on two texts -- or textual clusters -- in the Hebrew Bible.

Terms must be distinguished; I would do it this way:

  • polytheism is the belief that there are many gods who require devotion;
  • henotheism is the belief that there is one particular god to whom alone devotion is given, although there are other gods;
  • monotheism is the belief that there is only one god (and no others), and devotion is accorded to this god;
  • atheism is the belief that there are no gods, and consequently no devotion to be rendered.

Using these terms consistently helps in looking at how the Hebrew Bible formulates its reference to divinity. We are mostly dealing with the question of which of the first three definitions most accurately represent the texts under discussion.

1. The Shema

The "Shema" (pronounced "shma") is the confession of Deuteronomy 6:4, already discussed in an answer provided. I will only add here, then, that translation of this confession is a vexed issue. A helpful discussion of the issues -- and one suggested solution -- is found in R.W.L. Moberly, "'Yahweh is One': The Translation of the Shema", in Studies in the Pentateuch ed. by J.A. Emerton (Brill, 1990), pp. 209-215 (unfortunately, not wholly available in Google Books "preview").

It should be noted, though, that the formulation of this confession is not a technically a "monotheistic" confession: that is, its grammar/syntax leave open the question of precise "monotheism". It could, for example, be a confession that this God only is the God of Israel -- thus leaving open the question of whether there are "other" gods. Note, for example, how Rashi's comment inclines to exclusivity of this God to Israel, rather than to considerations of the existence of one or many gods.

That is, although the Shema may admit of a monotheistic understanding and is at home in a monotheistic framework, strictly linguistically speaking, it is a henotheistic confession. To see monotheism (as defined above) in the Hebrew Bible, we need to look elsewhere.1

2. The Book of Isaiah

If monotheism as defined above is to be found anywhere in the Hebrew Bible, the most likely place is in certain formulations found in the book of Isaiah, coming to clearest expression in Isaiah 45:21-22 [NRSV]:2

21 Declare and present your case;
   let them take counsel together!
Who told this long ago?
   Who declared it of old?
Was it not I, the Lord?
   There is no other god besides me,
   וְאֵין־עוֹד אֱלֹהִים מִבַּלְעָדַי
   wəʾên ʿôd ʾĕlōhîm mibbalʿāday
a righteous God and a Savior;
   there is no one besides me.
   אַיִן זוּלָתִי
   ʾayin zûlātî
22 Turn to me and be saved,
   all the ends of the earth!
   For I am God, and there is no other.
   כִּי אֲנִי־אֵל וְאֵין עוֹד
   kî ʾănî ʾēl wəʾên ʿôd

Similar language is found also in Deut. 4:35, 39; 1 Ki. 8:60; Isa. 45:5, 6, 14, 18, 21, 22 (as noted); and 46:9. Labuschagne (see note 2) discusses some other texts that resonate with this language as well.

Even these formulations admit of other interpretations, and some scholars resist seeing the Isaiah texts as expressions of "full blown" monotheism, or see them rather as only incipient monotheism. For others, however, this language which excludes the possibility of any other god than YHWH is as clear an expression of monotheism as the Hebrew Bible provides.


  1. For a recent and careful consideration of this issue, see N. MacDonald, Deuteronomy and the Meaning of "Monotheism" (Mohr Siebeck, 2012).
  2. One major study of this language is found in the monograph by C. J. Labuschagne, The Incomparability of Yahweh in the Old Testament (Brill, 1966).
  • That's precisely the problem I am asking. In one hand, there is no elohim besides me. On the other, "You created men slightly below the elohim" So there are indeed many other elohim. They're just not gods but angels. But there are many other elohim.
    – user4951
    Jan 10 '15 at 14:00
  • There are no gods but Yahweh. In hebrew, it would be what? There is no elohim but Yahweh. But then again, elohim doesn't really mean gods. It can mean many things and there are indeed many elohim. See the problem is? How can you express monotheism then?
    – user4951
    Jan 10 '15 at 14:01
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    @JimThio - This Q&A is not about the meaning of 'elohim which we have chased often enough in previous Q&A's. You show a strange resistance to understanding them. Here, the exclusion of any other god besides YHWH is expressed in Isa 45:21 in terms of "no other 'elohim", and in Isa 45:22 in terms of "no other 'el", both formulations using "'en 'od" = "no other". I don't know what more you could want.
    – Dɑvïd
    Jan 10 '15 at 14:37

The Shema (שמע) in Deu. 6:4 is the classic expression of Israel's monotheistic faith.

English Translation:

Listen, Israel! Yahveh is our God, Yahveh is the only one!


Listen, Israel! Yahveh is our God, Yahveh alone!

English Transliteration:

Shema Yisra’el! Yahveh eloheinu, Yahveh echad!

Hebrew Text:

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יַהְוֶה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יַהְוֶה אֶחָד

Yahveh is the only one who is אֱלֹהִים ("God") according to nature. Others who are called אֱלֹהִים are only אֱלֹהִים according to their office, whether it be angels (Psa. 8:5) or human judges (Exo. 22:9).


Block, Daniel I. How Many is God? An Investigation into the Meaning of Deuteronomy 6:4-5. Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. JETS 47/2 (June 2004) 193–212. [link]

  • It doesn't say that YHWH is the only eloah. In fact, as I said many other beings, like angels and judges and rulers are called eloah too. It simply says that Israel has only one eloah (which is not even true). And that YHWH is one.
    – user4951
    Jan 10 '15 at 8:12
  • Well, at least the bible translators agree to disagree. They translate Psalm 8:5 differently.
    – user4951
    Jan 10 '15 at 8:13
  • I take it you're questioning my translation? Have a peek at the article I hyperlinked.
    – user862
    Jan 10 '15 at 8:17
  • Technically it's henotheistic. It claims that Yahweh is Israel's only God. It doesn't say that the other nations do not legitimately have their own gods.
    – user4951
    Jan 12 '15 at 7:42
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    @Jim Thio: Actually, technically it's monotheistic. It doesn't say there are other gods, which would be henotheism. It simply says Yahveh is Israel's god. Taken at face value, it only speaks of one god: Yahveh. Nothing more. In fact, the Bible never actually says other gods exist, unless you consider demons to be gods. Some do. But, if we take god = creator, there is only one, and can be only one. There must be a first mover, someone/thing which existed and created everything else. And that first mover must be inherently eternal. Creation has to begin somewhere, at some point.
    – user862
    Jan 12 '15 at 8:36

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