Monotheism “depends on the circumstances in which it finds itself”: Robert Wright on King Josiah and the Evolution of God Belief

At today, Robert Wright offers his take on King Josiah, the severe monotheist and zealously iconoclastic (that is, idol destroying) king in the biblical Book of Kings, as well as the evolution of Hebrew monotheism to a kinder, gentler form during the Persian Empire:

He was an authoritarian. By the standards of the day, maybe not an unusually harsh one. Politics were pretty rough and tumble in those days. He was a nationalist, populist authoritarian — maybe a little bit like Hugo Chavez. It was a rejection of cosmopolitanism and internationalism. By our standards, King Josiah was a bad guy. He kills a bunch of priests who had the misfortune of not focusing their devotion exclusively on Yahweh. He cleans out the temple. For people who claim that Israel was monotheistic from the get-go and its flirtations with polytheism were rare aberrations, it’s interesting that the Jerusalem temple, according to the Bible’s account, had all these other gods being worshiped in it. Asherah was in the temple. She seemed to be a consort or wife of Yahweh. And there were vessels devoted to Baal, the reviled Canaanite god. So Israel was fundamentally polytheistic at this point. Then King Josiah goes on a rampage as he tries to consolidate his own power by wiping out the other gods. However, after the exile, monotheism evolves into something much more laudable and inclusive. Now the exiles have returned to Jerusalem and Israel is in a secure neighborhood. It’s part of the Persian empire and so are its neighbors. So you see a much sunnier side of God, with expressions of tolerance and compassion toward other nations. This shows that monotheism isn’t intrinsically good or bad. It depends on the circumstances in which it finds itself.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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