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I.  Between polytheism & montheism? 
( in chap.1 - Traditional religion in Melanesia )

By:  Theo Aerts
UPNG Press 1996

Introduction | Melanesian Gods | Between polytheism and monotheismWorld of idols |

I. Between polytheism and monotheism

1.  Mosaic monotheism ?

The Bible's history starts with the persons of Abraham and Moses. The patriarch was called to leave his home country (Gen 12, 1) and the lawgiver brought the Israelites to the border of the promised land. The socalled Priestly tradition (P) says that God revealed himself as Jahweh only to Moses, while before that time the Israelites knew him as El Shaddai (Gen 17, 1; Ex 6, 3).1 This "theory" does not accommodate all the early passages in the Bible (some of which, as Gen 2, 4 - 3, 23; 4, 1-26, use the names "Jahweh", or "Jahweh Elohim").

According to some authors the various names for God reveal a mixture of cultures between the people from the East (Mesopotamia), who had Abram as their ancestor and were religiously bound to El, and tribes of the West (Midian), who followed the leadership of Moses, and venerated Jahweh. Both groups, then, eventually combined to form the one people of God, Israel.

Other exegetes are even more specific and separate in Israel the so-called Leah tribes from the Rachel tribes - thus called after the two wives of Jacob or Israel (cf M. Noth). They believe that the second group settled earlier in the holy land, but that the cult of Jahweh was introduced by the descendants of Joseph, Rachel's first-born. Whatever opinion one holds, it is sure that the Israelites knew that, racially, they were not a uniform people (cf Ex 12, 38; Num 11, 4; Ez 16, 3). Such a duality of origin might be of assistance here.

The monotheism of the earliest periods was far from ideal: even when we disregard the fact that Abram's parents were worshippers of idols (Jos 24, 2; Jdg 5, 6-9), we still have Jacob asking his household to put away all their strange gods (Gen 35, 2; also 31, 19. 30. 35). Moses, some centuries later, was brought up at the pagan court of Egypt (Ex 2, 10) and married the daughter of a Midianite priest (2, 21), while Joshua, again, at the assembly of Sechem had to warn the people not to invoke the Canaanite gods or swear by them or serve them or worship them (Jos 23, 7b; also 24, 2. 14-16). No wonder that pagan elements were constantly mixed with true Jahwism, and that it took centuries and all the efforts of the prophets, from Elijah (cf I Kg 17) to the so-called Deuteronomistic school (Dt 6, 14) - before one eventually reaches the lofty ideas of Deutero-Isaiah.'

Deutero- Isaiah's pure and explicit monotheism and his belief in an almighty and transcendent creator-god is not a starting point but an end product.' In addition, it took further centuries before Jesus and Paul and John gave us their understanding of God, and it took, once more, several centuries before the Church had sorted out some basic christological and trinitarian problems. Even today experiments are being made to update the Western understanding of the Christian God.

Facing the facts squarely, one must admit that there were various stages in the biblical understanding of monotheism, ranging from the friendly family god of the patriarchs to the fierce warrior in the time of the Judges, from the great king in the time of the monarchy to the creator of the universe after the exile, and eventually - in the New Testament era to the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ.  Elements of all these successive stages of revelation make up the multi-faceted picture of the Biblical God.

We cannot always keep this historical differentiation before us, so that consequently - it must be sufficient to settle for a simple name definition of "God".  At this most basic level it would seem that God is just a being (common element) which is completely independent (differentiating element), and who may or may not be worshipped. With such a minimum description the many avenues which we want to consider remain open, well beyond a pure and simple, biblical monotheism.

By:  Theo Alerts
Port Moresby, University of Papua New Guinea press, 1996

... to be continued ...

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