Nathan MacDonald. Deuteronomy and the Meaning of “Monotheism.” 2d ed. Forschungen zum Alten Testament 2. Reihe 1. Edited by Bernd Janowski, Mark S. Smith, and Hermann Spieckermann. Mohr Siebeck: Tübingen, 2012.
This volume is close to home for me as it is the second edition of the published version of a 2001 dissertation completed under the supervision of my own supervisor Walter Moberly.
The fact that this volume has seen a second edition so soon after the first publication in 2002 is not only an uncommon occurrence for a book of this kind but is a testimony to its overall favorable acceptance by readers. Indeed, this book is not only theologically engaging and biblically attentive, it is also eminently readable.
The book itself is comprised of two prefaces, an introduction, six chapter, and finally a conclusion. The subject of the volume is that of “monotheism,” especially as it relates to key texts in Deuteronomy. MacDonald’s conclusion is that in the book of Deuteronomy, God’s election of Israel over and against other nations finds its counterpart in Israel’s election of YHWH as their one God over and against other gods.
Working toward this conclusion MacDonald discusses several texts within Deuteronomy, but none more than Deut 6:4, which he translates, “Hear O Israel, YHWH our God, YHWH is one.” Arguably there is no verse in the Bible that is used more often to support monotheism. However, before this verse is ever addressed, MacDonald begins with a discussion in chapter 1 on the use and definition of “monotheism.” In this chapter MacDonald demonstrates clearly that the word “monotheism” has a long and colored history, one that is rooted in rationalism. The word “monotheism” was and still is most often used in the negative. In other words, “monotheism” rather than “paganism/polytheism,” or “monotheism” rather than “atheism.” In other words, the word “monotheism” often reflects a rationalistic understanding of religion that pits Christianity’s one God against paganism’s multiple gods and atheism’s rejection of a god.
None of this is to say that these are unhelpful or unimportant distinctions. What MacDonald aims to do, rather, is to test the waters of Deuteronomy to determine whether the biblical text itself reflects this self-same understanding of “monotheism.”
In the end, MacDonald’s evaluation of the relevant biblical texts concludes that Moses in the book of Deuteronomy is more concerned with exhorting Israel to choose to follow YHWH rather than the gods of the other nations. In other words, Deuteronomy is not a text which argues for “monotheism” in the rationalistic sense of the word (i.e., one god vs. many or no gods). Instead, MacDonald posits that Deuteronomy is a text which encourages Israel to love the One God who led them out of bondage and who is now calling them to live faithfully. In other words, as far as Israel is concerned they are to live life as if there are no other gods. In the same way that a husband might tell his wife that she is his “one and only,” Israel is to say to YHWH, “you are my one and only.”
This understanding of “monotheism” understands that there are many other objects (false gods) that are vying for our affection and can draw us away from our devotion to YHWH. This view of “monotheism” also creates a fascinating parallel with the doctrine of election. In the same way that Israel is God’s elect nation, YHWH is Israel’s elect God. In fact, the election of Israel over and against the other nations is a fundamental theme in the book of Deuteronomy (esp. ch. 7). It should not surprise us then that Moses would encourage Israel to elect YHWH as their one true love over and against all other gods.
In the end, this is a fascinating work that represents an important step forward in theology. This book argues convincingly that Deuteronomy is not a book for arguing for the existence of one god rather than many gods but is instead a book which encourages Israel to choose YHWH as its one true God and to live obediently toward this God. These statements must be tempered however by the recognition that this does not in any way undermine the Christian conviction in the singularity of YHWH as the one true and living God; in fact, in most cases, the rationalistic use of the term “monotheism” is still useful today. MacDonald’s work, however, reminds us that there are many false gods that seek to draw us away from our devotion to YHWH, and we must be “monotheistic” in the added sense that we are to be devoted to One God.