Eighth Sunday after Pentecost

Exclusive worship of the one true God has worth, in part, because of its cost

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July 23, 2023

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 44:6-8

“You are the only one. There is no one else.”

Whispered from one lover to another, these words are likely to sound comforting and meaningful. In this context they do not mean that there are no other potential partners in existence (or that the speaker has not had other companions in the past). Rather, they are words of commitment. What gives them their significance is that there are in fact other people out there, but the speaker has chosen only one. Arguably, the meaning does not change much (though the tone certainly does) when we set the same message in a slightly different context: This time the words are pleaded in denial as the speaker’s partner discovers secret text messages to someone else on their lover’s phone. In both cases, a presupposed exclusive relationship is what is being described and is what is at stake.

There are several places in the Bible where similar statements connect God and God’s people. Isaiah 44 is frequently elevated as one of the parade examples:

Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel,
and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
I am the first, and I am the last;
besides me there is no god.

Who is like me? Let them proclaim it;
let them declare and set it forth before me.
Who has announced from of old the things to come?
Let them tell us what is yet to be.

Do not fear or be afraid;
have I not told you from of old and declared it?
You are my witnesses!
Is there any god besides me?
There is no other rock; I know not one. (Isaiah 44:6–8)

For generations, biblical scholars have taken passages like this as evidence of “monotheism” in ancient Israel and early Judaism and contrasted it to the evident “polytheism” of other societies around the ancient Mediterranean. It is more likely, however, that Isaiah 44:6–8 and other related passages in the Bible represent rhetorical situations similar to what I have described above. That is, other deities were assumed to exist and, perhaps, to have their own limited realms of influence. As far as Israel was concerned though, their relationship to their God was to be an exclusive one, not only because of their shared covenant, but also because Israel’s God, unlike those of the other nations, was unique. Israel’s God was the creator deity with no equal in heaven and no real limitations other than those that were self-imposed.1

For centuries, this idea of God as “one above all others” (rather than as “one alone”) was a common conviction among many Jews, Christians, and Muslims who continued to recognize the existence of other, lesser divine beings including spirits, angels, and demons of varying kinds. Beginning in earnest in seventeenth-century Europe (with some important precursors), the idea of “monotheism” came to take on new meanings as theorists thought critically and comparatively about other religious beliefs and practices.

In the hands of some Western theorists, “monotheism” came to signify not just a descriptor but a virtue. It was argued (without convincing evidence) that belief in the existence of only one divine being was not only more ethical but also more rational. Some theorists even suggested that, given enough time, every culture would evolve and achieve something akin to enlightened, European “monotheism.” Not surprising, such ideas were especially useful in providing theological and ideological justification for Western domination of inferior “polytheistic” societies around the world and within their own borders.

In our pulpits today, preachers are less likely to emphasize the colonial baggage that comparative terms like “monotheism” can sometimes carry. We are still liable, however, to reiterate the more general assumption that the one-divine-being-only model of monotheism is superior to other forms of theism based on its supposed moral or intellectual superiority (not on its truth). Moreover, because the comparative religious understanding of monotheism is so often reified as the supposed shared foundation for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, preachers can assume that one-God-only monotheism is well-established and more-or-less universal (and thus no longer in need of examination).

Ironically, this naïve self-assurance places Christian theologians in a similar position to what texts like Isaiah 44 sought to correct. Sole trust and worship of the one true God in the Hebrew Bible is never presented as settled or inevitable, but instead as a drama. God’s supremacy is never in peril, but human ability to appreciate and sustain that recognition is very much in question.

Today, a host of rival gods contend for our affection and adoration. Arguably, because we trust so fully in the infallibility of our monotheistic faith, we have permitted these other deities to migrate into our worship (since we assume incorrectly that all gods are the One God anyway). Among these rival deities are the Christian Nationalist god, the spirits of Profit and Growth, and demons like Patriarchy and White Supremacy. Each of these deities has found ways to demand of us sacrifices, oaths of loyalty, and (perhaps most ruinous) our awestruck fear.

In the Bible, exclusive worship of the one true God has worth, in part, because of its cost. There are other powers in the world that Israel forsakes, though these too could offer a measure of material blessings, status, and security. Under the banner of a certain kind of universalizing monotheism, however, many individual Christians as well as Christian states and ecclesial bodies have attempted to claim allegiance to the one true God, while also reaping the benefits of worshiping others. That kind of monotheism seems to cost us nothing. But God expects sole loyalty—“Beside me there is no god”—and that claim demands a costly exclusivity. But it also comes with a promise of blessing:

Sing, O heavens, for the LORD has done it;
shout, O depths of the earth;
break forth into singing, O mountains,
O forest and every tree in it!
For the Lord has redeemed Jacob
and will be glorified in Israel.


  1. Benjamin Sommer, “Monotheism in the Hebrew Bible,” Bible Odyssey, https://bibleodyssey.org/people/related-articles/monotheism-in-the-hebrew-bible/.