“The Origins of Jewish Monotheism” from A Provocative People, (2012)
With the Assyrian conquest of Israel, the Jews came into their own. The demise of the northern Hebrew kingdom left its southern counterpart as the only independent Hebrew state. Although the people of Israel had survived, it was not the same. Its leaders were deported. Its cities were devastated. A foreign army remained in occupation. A foreign population was transported from other Assyrian conquests and took up residence in the land, diluting the Hebrew and Canaanite character of the Israelite kingdom. Having lost its native rulers, Israel was reduced to a province of the Assyrian empire. An Assyrian governor, responsible to the Assyrian king, dominated public life.
Judah had survived because it had refused to join the rebellion against the Assyrians. The Jews had, in fact, endured an Israelite invasion because of their loyalty to the Assyrian king. As long as they paid their tribute, they were temporarily safe from direct control by an Assyrian governor.
The Assyrian conquest of Israel had been brutal and traumatic. While some Israelites remained where they lived, many were forcibly exiled and many more fled. The nearest refuge for those in flight was Judah. Hundreds of them crossed the border into Jewish territory. Among the refugees were the Levites of Shiloh and the leaders of the Protest Movement. They settled near Jerusalem, the capital of the Jewish state.
The cult of Yahweh was important to the Jews. Yahweh was the chief god of the Jewish pantheon. As in Israel, his worship had been deeply influenced by Canaanite ritual. But its chief priests were Zadokites, rivals of the Mushites (House of Moses), who were now refugees in Judah.
The tragedy of Israel pushed the Mushites into the camp of the Protest Movement. The suffering of the Israelites seemed to confirm the dire predictions of the movement leaders. Continuous pronouncements of doom were part of their Yahwistic propaganda. When doom arrived, it seemed to testify to the anger and power of Yahweh. Only a return to the shepherd traditions of their Hebrew ancestors could avert further catastrophe. Out of this conversion would come the first tracts of the Bible. It was in Judah that the ideology of the Protest Movement was refined into a coherent and powerful doctrine. If attachment to the ideals of the nomadic past was merged with passion for Yahweh, then Yahweh had to be powerful enough to control the Assyrians. Being a national god was not enough. Only a world god would have the might to use the Assyrians to punish the Israelites and the Jews. Out of this necessity was born what today is called monotheism.
The elevation of Yahweh to world domination was ironic. It was not the victory of the Israelites that proved the power of Yahweh. It was their defeat. The prophets of the Protest Movement denied what the Assyrians affirmed—that the victory of the Assyrians demonstrated the superiority of the Assyrian gods. They claimed that Assyria was only the instrument of Yahweh’s desire to punish the Israelites for their abandonment of Yahweh and the ways of their ancestors.
Thus the god of a small nation was rescued from humiliation and elevated to world supremacy. Defeat enhanced the reputation of Yahweh. The genius of the Protest Movement was its ability to extract victory from the jaws of disaster.
Israelite and Jewish monotheism emerged from political and religious despair, not from philosophic speculation. It always retained a parochial edge. The one god of the world had the name Yahweh, the national god of the Jews. Yahweh responded only to that name. He was chiefly obsessed with the behavior of the Jews, who became his chosen people. All world events derived their significance from their connection to the events of Jewish history. The cult of Yahweh was still the cult of Yahweh, with Yahweh promoted to greater power. Although he was now presumed to be the chief manager of the universe, he found time to provide legislation for only two small nations.
Certain events in the history of every nation are turning points. They produce changes out of proportion to the size of their stimulus. Just as in organic evolution, long periods of no change are followed by short explosions of major transformation, so, in human history, quantum leaps of change succeed quiet times of stability. The trigger of transformation is usually catastrophe. In the one case, meteors strike the earth. In the other, powerful invaders overwhelm the nation. The Assyrian conquest was the meteor of Jewish history.