Deut. 6:4 says,

שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָ֥ה ׀ אֶחָֽד ׃(Westminster Leningrad Codex)

"Hear O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord (is) one:"

I know there are a few people who say that Ancient Israel subscribed only to monolatry, and not monotheism; they accepted the existence of other Gods, but thought that only one was worthy of worship. However, this seems to contradict the Shema, which says that God is one (יהוה אחד). How do people hold to this interpret the Shema, and what is its significance, given that?


3 Answers 3


In the article Hebrew Henotheism: Challenging the notion of Biblical Monotheism, the case is made that the Shema was to be understood relationally with Israel.

The 1985 edition of the Jewish Publication Society translation of the TaNaKH portrays this when they translate the verse as “Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” This reading displays that Yahweh is the only god that Israel is to have, echoing the first command to not have any gods before Yahweh.

The argument is made from a few other passages that the emphasis is not on YHWH being the only true God, but the only God for Israel. The implication is that it does not say other gods do not exist, but only that YHWH is supreme and is to be the only God of Israel.

The article Monotheism, Polytheism, Monolatry, or Henotheism? Toward an Assessment of Divine Plurality in the Hebrew Bible briefly comments on the Shema and seems to agree:

Even the Shema and the first commandment do not consign the other gods to fantasy, since the demand is made that no other gods should be worshipped.

This would not be particularly unacceptable as an opinion built on a framework, but the prior article explicitly claims to be only interpreting it from a literary perspective, absent a theological frame. However, it earlier references the Deutero-Isaiah writer theory and goes on to examine Deut 6:4 alongside Isaiah 44 as though they were contemporary. Some form of documentary hypothesis, a priori, does seem to be at work here.


I would be uncomfortable not adding that several of these arguments are made purely from a literary interpretation that is so literal that it would make a young earth creation Southern Baptist blush. Quoting the 20th century JPS translation while ignoring evidence such as the 3rd century Carnuntum Shema fragment, which translates the echad in a Greek 1 showing a clear numerical declaration (one, not alone), seems irresponsible, as if it is a better representation of the pre-exilic understanding. It may be, but it fails to wrestle with any opposing evidence or translations.

The article also fails to communicate whether it is making the argument that the Shema is intended to be henotheistic or whether the Israelites simply practiced henotheism, a claim the biblical record would largely agree with and then condemn through the prophets. The article seems to blend what the Shema does not explicitly deny (that there are other gods) with what the Israelites practiced (worshipping other gods alongside or instead of YHWH) and come to the conclusion that this suggests a henotheistic meaning for the Shema.

The article also makes several other inconsistent arguments that seem to pick and choose evidence and how and where to interpret and translate passages that best support it. This is beyond the scope of this question of course, but I felt a warning to those reading the article was warranted.

This critic would argue that asking "does the text explicitly deny this?" rather than "what does the text intend to mean? is a poor hermetical approach, regardless of the topic or my feelings on it.


That said, this particular take on a henotheistic Shema is simply choosing to take the position that since it doesn't literally, explicitly demand a monotheistic meaning, it must not be monotheistic. It does not allow for mentions of other gods in Deuteronomy to be abstract references to nonexistent gods that the Gentiles believed in, but rather as references to literal gods that are assumed to exist.

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    I anticipate this answer will be labeled as biased and my criticisms as improper. However, I encourage potential down voters to first read the article with a critical mind. It so often borders on dishonesty that I simply could not in good conscience give it a backlink without offering a warning. There are perhaps better arguments made, or ones that are honest about their presuppositions (which are as welcome to their opinion as I am) but that article is not one of them. I object to it's quality, not it's conclusion.
    – Joshua
    Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 18:06

Most scholars who believe that Ancient Israel was henotheistic also accept some for of the Documentary Hypothesis and therefore assume that Deuteronomy, including the Shema, was written at a later date, after the Israelites had switched from henotheism to monotheism. (The DH does not assume that the theology is consistent across different parts of the Hebrew Bible.)

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    The question is: "How do people hold to this interpret the Shema, and what is its significance, given that?" Even if written a later date (an hypotheseis BTW), how is it interpreted and understood? The NT (Mark 12:28-29) indicates this was considered a significant aspect of Scripture. Also even if the hypothesis is correct it addresses the written word and it would difficult to accept that this particular element was developed later. IOW - it would have existed in written or oral form before it was written in its final (and current) form. Commented Apr 18, 2016 at 16:59
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    @RevelationLad, see my edits. It does no good to ask about contradictions in theology when discussing the opinions of those who believe such discrepancies exist. Commented Apr 19, 2016 at 23:35
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    This answer does not show its work, which is a requirement on this site. I'd love to see it edited so that work is included, but in its current state it is not an answer by site standards.
    – Dan
    Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 0:09
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    It could be fixed very easily by replacing "Most scholars" with names of actual scholars and references to their works. I myself subscribe to DH to some extent, but answers here need to show work.
    – Dan
    Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 0:11
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    The problem is simply that your answer is not applying anything directly to the Shema. You may be, and probably are, correct in your assertions, but the OP is specifically about the Shema and it's wording.
    – Joshua
    Commented Apr 20, 2016 at 0:57

There is no question that Deut 6:4 is not a monotheistic statement.

First of all, as already noted, אֶחָד means "one," not "alone." While it could be argued that it means "unique," as in Yahweh is exceptional among the gods (which is expressed elsewhere in the Bible), it seems more likely that the ultimate purpose of the statement יְהוָה אֶחָד is to focus the worship of Yahweh in one place—the Temple in Jerusalem. Indeed, this was the primary aim of Josiah's religious reform, which the Book of Deuteronomy was used to promote. It may also be noted that the LXX (Greek) version reads: Ἄκουε, Ἰσραήλ, Κύριος ὁ θεὸς ἡμῶν Κύριος εἷς ἐστιν, "Hear, O Israel! Yahweh, our god, is one Yahweh."

Deut 6 was likely composed in the seventh century BCE, before which time multiple Yahwehs were recognized, such as Yahweh of Samaria and Yahweh of Teman (see the Kuntillet 'Ajrud insciptions). This meant that there were many local shrines where Yahweh could be worshipped, so there was no need to go to the Temple in Jerusalem. However, this de-centralized system was not beneficial to the priesthood and royalty. The Deuteronomistic reform involved the destruction of all other sites of Yahweh-worship, along with the worship of all other gods (Deut 12). In this time period, there were certainly believed to be other gods in existence.

In Third Isaiah (chaps. 40-55), there is a clear attempt to limit the use of the term elohim (אלהים) to Yahweh alone. But this does not change the fact that other gods were believed to exist. Powerful entities like the stars (Isa 40:25-26; 45:12) and Leviathan (Isa 51:9-11; cf. Isa 27:1) were given agency and importance, and are clearly not humans or animals, but something supreme (=gods). The gods of other peoples are mentioned as well, though they were not recognized in Israel (Isa 41:24).

In other words, with regards to the meaning of יְהוָה אֶחָד in Deut 6:4, "there is one Yahweh" fits the context perfectly, whereas "Yahweh is the only god" does not.

For further reading: Saul Olyan, "Is Isaiah 40-55 Really Monotheistic?" Journal of Ancient Near Eastern Religions 12 (2012): 190-201.

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    Welcome to the site - thanks for this excellent response.
    – Steve can help
    Commented Nov 5, 2021 at 15:52

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