Monolatry, the worship of one god, is a form of polytheism and is the earliest known form of Israelite worship. The Hebrews adopted it from Babylonian worship of many gods with Marduk being supreme.
We know for a fact that our early ancestors worshipped many gods and idols instead of worshipping YHWH (the name of Israel’s One God). The Bible is clear evidence of it. Otherwise, we would not find the first of the ten commandments telling us “thou shalt have no other gods before Me”. God Himself recognized the existence of other deities but He demanded the Hebrews to worship Him and Him alone.
Sigmund Freud, in his classic text “Moses and Monotheism,” supports the concept of monolatry.
Later God demands that the Israelites destroy all the idols of false gods when they settle in the land of Canaan.
In the fourteenth century BCE, an Egyptian pharaoh, Amenhotep IV, also more widely known as Akhenaten, abolished idolatry in Egypt and proclaimed Aten, the sun god, as the one and only god. During his reign, Akhenaten introduced monotheism for the first time in the world. Aten was to be the only one god for the Egyptian people.
After his death, the priests of Egypt returned to the earlier years of idol worship and recognition of many gods. When we do good deeds or sinful deeds does God see? Has He eyes? When we pray to Him does God hear us? Has He ears? When God spoke to Moses and the prophets, in which language did He speak? Or was He revealed only in dreams and in visions?
Attributing human functions to God is called anthropomorphism and therefore our Bible speaks of God in anthropomorphic terms.
In the very beginning of Israelite history, monotheism did not exist. The early Hebrews were not monotheists but rather monolatrists or henothists. Monotheism developed centuries later.
Henotheism comes from the Greek words henos and theos, meaning one god. Henotheists, such as many in Assyrian, Sumerian and Babylonian history were henotheists. That is to say, they recognized the existence of many gods but chose one god to be supreme above all the others.
For Jews, it is of great historic importance. We know that Moses was born, raised and educated in Egypt and was called a prince of Egypt. Growing up in pharaoh’s palace, he was exposed to all aspects of Egyptian worship, including the monotheism of pharaoh Akhenaten.
So it was that when God revealed Himself to Moses in Egypt, He commanded him to teach the Hebrews in slavery of His Divine existence as their one and only God.
Moses at first followed the belief of Akhenaten which he knew from his youth in Egypt but later embraced the practice of worship as God had commanded him. “Unto your fathers I was known as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob, but unto you I will be known by My Name.. YHWH.
Why does our Bible state “God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob” rather than the more simple “God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob”?
It is because each of the three patriarchs embellished worship in different ways. Hebrew prayer did not exist until the destruction of the Jerusalem Holy temple in 586 BCE. It was developed in Babylonian exile by the prophet Jeremiah and later by Ezekiel. Prior to that, Hebrew (Israelite) worship consisted of animal sacrifice.
Ultimately, Israelite worship became unique in the ancient Near East. It was the Hebrew people who borrowed from Akhenaten and from Hammurabi, sixth king of the First Babylonian dynasty from 1792 BCE to 1750 BCE.
But it was under the teachings of Moses that law codes and a religion based solely upon the belief, loyalty and obedience to One anthropomorphic God ultimately became the foundation of the Jewish religion.
Even in Moses’ lifetime, the Israelites vacillated in their belief in one God and idols. The Golden Calf is an excellent example of it. And following the death of Moses, many Israelites returned to the practice of idol worship.
We need to refer to the classic story of Elijah’s contest with the prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel. He challenged them to a “duel” of tests to determine which god was God. He cried out to the assembled crowd on the mount “how long will you go hopping from one leg to another? Choose this day which God you will serve.. whether the Phoenician god Baal or YHWH, the One God of Israel”. YHWH won the contest.
It was only after the return from Babylonian exile under the wise leadership of the prophets Ezra and Nehemiah that the religion known as Judaism, as still practiced today, was born.