The Politics of Monolatrism

Part Of: History sequence
Content Summary: 3000 words, 30 min read

The Pan-Israelite Identity

Until 700 BCE Judah is a much smaller political force than it makes itself to be. One demonstration of the small scale of this society is the request in one of the letters sent by the Abdi-Heba, king of Jerusalem, to the pharaoh that he supply fifty men “to protect the land.” Another letter asks the pharaoh for one hundred soldiers to guard Megiddo from an attack by his aggressive neighbor, the king of Shechem. These Amarna letters date to the 14th century BCE. But the population in the intervening time period does not change much. Until 700 BCE, Judah’s population totaled no more than twenty settlements with a population of roughly 40,000, with a handful of fortified cities (not including Jerusalem).1

Judah wasn’t always beholden to the Assyrian empire. But when the Assyrian god-king Tiglath-Pileser III switched from a policy from remote domination to direct military control, the states of Canaan began looking for a way out. Israel and Aram-Damascus went to Jerusalem to pressure Judah to join the independence movement. But the Judahite King Ahaz instead appealed for military assistance from Assyria, at the price of becoming a vassal to the superpower. Tiglath-Pileser III accepted the proposition, and utterly destroyed Aram-Damascus in short order (2 Kings 16:5-18). He also conquered Megiddo and Hazor in 732 BCE, crippling the Northern economy. Assyria “cancelled” the Israelite Kingdom entirely in 722 BCE. 

These Iron Age nations lived on the edge of a knife. One political miscalculation, and atrocities ensue. 

The Assyrians were feared for their war crimes, and their practice of exile: forcibly relocating thousands of people into a new region, until their national heritage was subsumed by Assyrian monoculture. Little wonder that archaeologists find evidence for a mass migration of southern Samaria Israelites into Judah, plausibly as a mean to escape exile. Conservative estimates place the Judah population doubling from 40,000 to 80,000 people. The immigration was particularly pronounced in Jerusalem, which gained 15x more people in less than a generation (Brochi, 1974).

Not only did Judah experience a population boom. Sites in Stephalah that show signs of a new olive oil industry. Beyond tribute, Ahaz also integrated Judah into the Assyrian world economy. This economic boom complemented the population boom. Together, they led Judah towards full statehood; this time period contains the first evidence of an advanced bureaucracy, complete with public works projects, and scribal activity.

The population of Judah doubled. Imagine 400 million Canadians emigrated to the United States. It’s hard to fathom the myriad ways life would have to change to accommodate such an influx. Social stability would only be possible with heavy ideological emphasis on unity.

The South remembered a King David; the North remembered a King Saul. While these historical figures may have interacted one another, the tales of their relationship – and how David ultimately earned the right to the unified throne – are surely relevant to the interests of Judahite scribes. These scribes compiled texts in an effort to reconcile the two peoples, to motivate a sense of Pan-Israelite identity. This era is where clearly-Northern (Judges, E, Saul) and clearly-Southern (J, David) traditions were first brought together in a unified series of texts.

Preparations For Revolt

2 Kings 18:14 reports that Sennacherib levied tribute of 30 talents of gold for Judah. Assyrian records reveal that this is in fact an extremely steep sum: only two other vassals received greater demands per Rothlin & Roux (2013). This suggests that Judah around this time was quite wealthy, a fact attested in 2 Chronicles 32:27-29. How did Judah manage to acquire so much wealth? 

Judah’s role in the international market was limited by her lack of a major sea port and natural resources. But Rothlin & Roux (2013) point out that Judah should have been able to extract taxes against traffic following two international trade routes, the King’s Highway and the Via Maris. The other two cities adjacent to international trade routes, Tyre and Damascus, were subject to comparably steep tribute demands and frequent military action; testifying to their tremendous wealth-generating potential.

Given his immense wealth, King Hezekiah did not find vassal-hood acceptable. So, in a move that would ultimately doom his nation, he began preparing a revolt. His administration built the Siloam Tunnel, bringing freshwater to Jerusalem as a defense against siege. 

Archaeologists have also discovered vast numbers of storage jars produced during Hezekiah’s reign, decorated with “LMLK”, which roughly translates to “property of the King”. Many scholars think they were used for the distribution of supplies in preparation for the revolt.

Tithes as Taxes

Genesis is rife with stories of the patriarchs building altars to worship their god. The practice is codified by the Covenant Code: Exodus 20:24 endorses the construction of local altars, where all the people of Israel can participate in the Yahweh cult. 

Contrast this with Deut 12:5-6,11-14, which insists on cult centralization. Here Moses insists that there is only one legitimate place of worship – Jerusalem. This motif is a central fixture of the book of Deuteronomy. 

From a comparative perspective, centralization is an unusual policy. Recall, these reforms occurred centuries before the concept of prayer, synagogue, and scripture even existed – there was only cultic ritual.  By necessity, they deprives the worshiper of that direct and spontaneous religious experience to which he was accustomed in the local altars spread throughout the country. 

So, why? Why was centralization such a vital issue to the Hebrew Bible? 

Many ex-Israelites presumably still worshiped in the Bethel temple, situated in the midst of their ancestral villages. Located just a few miles north of Jerusalem, this must have posed a serious religious challenge to Judahite authority. It seems that the solution was a ban on all sanctuaries – countryside shrines in Judah and the Bethel temple alike. 

Social reasons may not have been the only factor. Theocracies like ancient Israel feature strong interactions between politics, economics, and religion. Consider the taxation system of ancient Judah. As described in Oden (1984), there were several ways a king could generate revenue:

Recall Hezekiah’s predicament. Judah was starting to mature beyond its provincial chiefdom legacy. The state is actively strengthening its power, especially in the capital city of Jerusalem. Meanwhile, he has hatched the desperate plan to revolt against the Assyrian superpower. This act will require massive funding: standing armies and city fortifications aren’t exactly cheap.

Claburn (1973) put forward the fiscal hypothesis:

How does an ambitious king most efficiently get his hands on the largest possible proportion of the peasantry’s agricultural surplus? If he is smart, he does it not by raising the assessed level of taxes, but by reforming his fiscal system so that he brings into the capital a larger proportion of the taxes already being assessed. He does this by substituting for the semi-independent local dignitaries to whom the peasant had been paying the taxes (but who had been pocketing most of the proceeds locally) a hierarchically organized central internal revenue bureau of paid officials under his direct control. 

2 Chr 31:11-12 describes the construction of elaborate storehouses to store the new influx of wealth. Deut 14:24-26 provides helpful advice on how peasants can more efficiently transport their money to the Jerusalem coffers. Deut 16:16 offers another plain assertion (emphasis added): “three times a year all your males must appear before the Yahweh in the place he chooses for the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Shelters; and they must not appear before Yahweh empty-handed.”

Hezekiah also guaranteed financial protection to the now-impoverished Levites (2 Chr 31:19), which may have gone some way in quelling a potential source of civil unrest. By granting supplies to the local priests, Hezekiah assured them that his reforms did not intend to deprive them of their livelihood.

The Pious Lie

Since Martin Noth, scholars have recognized that the books of Deuteronomy, Judges, Joshua, 1-2 Samuel, and 1-2 Kings share the same author (the Deuteronomist Dtr), or at least the same cadre of authors. Together, these books form the Deuteronomistic History (DtrH)

We have already seen how centralization pervades Deuteronomy. But critically, centralization also plays a pivotal role in the books 1 and 2 Kings. In the DtrH, all kings of Judah and Israel (!) are evaluated, in large part, on their failure to enforce Jerusalem-only worship. All northern kings are given a bad evaluation, even Jehu, who destroyed the cult of Baal. Even the good kings of Judah after Solomon and prior to Hezekiah are given only qualified good evaluations, because they permitted sanctuaries on the high places.

Next, we turn to 2 Kings 22:8-13

Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the temple of the Lord.” He gave it to Shaphan, who informed the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes. He gave these orders: “Go and inquire of the Lord about what is written in this book that has been found. Great is the Lord’s anger that burns against us because those who have gone before us have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us.”

What was this “book of the law” that Hilkiah found? Since the early eighteenth century, scholars have known it to be Deuteronomy. It is the only book in the Pentateuch to advocate centralization, and the details of Deuteronomy’s proscriptions are reported to be specifically implemented by Josiah. 

Let us put all of this together. 

  1. Deuteronomy contradicts Exodus’ endorsement of decentralized Yahweh worship (the ancestral form) with the (much later) idea of centralization.
  2. Centralization served to funnel wealth away from the local Levites, and channel those funds directly into royal coffers.
  3. In Kings, monarchs are judged good/bad on two criteria: exclusive worship of Yahweh, but also conformance to centralization.
  4. In Kings, Josiah is said to “discover” the book of Deuteronomy, and use it as the basis of his centralization reforms. 
  5. Per the DtrH hypothesis, the author of Kings most likely also authored Deuteronomy. 
  6. In Kings, the most textual space and full-throated praise is given to King Josiah and Hezekiah – who revolted against Assyria.
  7. In Kings, the most vitriolic condemnations are reserved for Ahaz and Manasseh – who were deferent to Assyria. 

These data suggest three natural conclusions:

  1. Dtr is a scribe in Josiah’s court. In Kings, he combines history with an ideological argument against decentralization and idolatry. 
  2. Dtr also penned the book of Deuteronomy. Moses never advocated centralization; these ideas were instead placed on Moses’ lips. 
  3. Dtr was not only pro-centralization and pro-intolerance. He was also orchestrating a political independence movement.

In short, Dtr was a member of a Hardliner group in Jerusalem. They were violently opposed to another faction, whom we’ll call the Internationalists:

The Hardliners needed centralization to fund their war efforts. It is less clear why they affiliated with Yahweh-only monolatrist prophets like Elijah. Couldn’t the Yahwists have just as easily chosen the Internationalists’ approach to geopolitics? Or is there some structural connection between religious fundamentalism and nationalistic ferver? I don’t have an answer, but Akenaten’s eerily similar theopolitical reforms may suggest the latter. 

Sennacherib’s Revenge

Hezekiah represented the Hardliner faction within Jerusalem. At first, he continued the posture pioneered by Ahaz: subservience to Assyria. This was appropriate given that Hezekiah was crowned during the reign of Sargon II of Assyria, who single-handedly transformed the neo-Assyrian state into a multinational empire. 

But Hezekiah planned his rebellion, using centralization as a new source of funding. And when Sargon II was killed in battle, and his untested son Sennacherib assumed the throne, Hezekiah took a gamble and declared independence.

The revolt did not go well. The Neo-Assyrian war machine in this era was absolutely devastating, and Sennacherib proved able to wield it. He laid siege to every significant Judean town, captured, and ransacked them. Hezekiah was subjugated as a vassal, and conceded an enormous tribute.

The Hebrew Bible spends just one sentence on this state-crippling result. But the archaeological record has revealed the extent of the damage. Sennacherib commissioned artwork depicting his victory over Lachish, the second most important city in Judah. The inscription of the Lachish Relief reads “Sennacherib, the mighty king of Assyria, sitting on the throne of judgment, at the entrance of the city of Lachish. I gave permission for its slaughter”.

Sennacherib laid siege to Jerusalem, but failed to capture it. The Hardliners make much of this fact, attributing the non-capture to a miracle. Yet despite their failure to destroy the monarchy of Judah (as they had Israel and Arab-Damascus), the Assyrians did cripple the state, and negotiated a very unfavorable peace treaty. 

The Hardliners took the survival of Jerusalem as evidence of their own invulnerability. But the Internationalists looked to another outcome: the slaughter of their people. Little surprise the Internationalists took control of government. The next Judean king, Manasseh, reversed the unpopular doctrine of centralization, allowing Yahweh worship to continue on countryside altars.

The 55 year reign of Manasseh, with a conciliatory policy towards Assyria, surely facilitated the nation’s economic recovery. Internationalist scribes likely authored the Great Solomonic Empire tradition (archaeology suggests the historical Solomon was little more than a warlord1). From Finkelstein & Silberman (2006):

The stories of Solomon in the Bible are uniquely cosmopolitan. Foreign leaders are not enemies to be conquered or tyrants to be suffered; they are equals with whom to deal politely, if cleverly, to achieve commercial successs. The Solomonic narratives were used to legitimize for all of Judah’s people the aristocratic culture and commercial concerns of the court of Manasseh that promoted Judah’s participation in the Assyrian world economy.

Return of the Hardliners

After Manasseh died, Amon inherited the throne… and was then murdered. The Hardliners emerged from the coup in control of the reigns of government, with an 8 year old boy named Josiah ultimately crowned King. During Josiah’s childhood, Dtr authored Deuteronomy, and this text was later used by the King as an ideological justification for his renewed efforts at taxation-centralization. Deuteronomy is also framed as a suzerain covenant treaty of submission of Israel to Yahweh, in the same template as was used by Assyria to assert dominance over its vassals (Romer, 2007). By declaring fealty to Yahweh, a political statement was made: Judah was no longer a vassal of Assyria. 

The Hardliners were more skeptical of the Assyrian global economy. To the glories of Internationalist Solomon were added Hardliner allegation of moral depravity, stemming from corruption by his foreign wives.

In the middle of Josiah’s reign, and for external reasons, the Assyrian Empire was beginning to disintegrate, and the Neo-Babylonian Empire had not yet risen to replace it. It is possible that Egypt and Assyria reached some sort of an understanding, according to which Egypt inherited the Assyrian provinces to the west of the Euphrates in exchange for a commitment to provide Assyria with military support (Finkelstein, 2002). Yet in these uncertain times, many nations formerly under the yoke of Assyria were able to govern themselves independently. One imagines a waft of optimism during this time, hope tinged with zealous patriotism.

A Fateful Miscalculation

So when the Egyptians journeyed north to support Assyria against the “new kid on the block” (Babylon), the precocious Judah decided not to let them pass. The thought of their hated nemesis receiving military support was perhaps too much. 

Of course, this geopolitical read turned out to be mistaken. Babylon, not Assyria, turned out to be the empire to worry about. And more to-the-point, Egypt defeated Judah on the battlefield of Megiddo. Josiah was killed. His army was slaughtered.

Just as Israel had done, a dramatically weakened Judah went on to stubbornly rebel against Babylon, despite the suicidal imbalance of power. And they paid the price. Nebucchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem, and exiled the Jerusalem elite. All told, 5-15% of the Judahite population – the intelligenstia – were exiled into Babylon provinces. This is called the beginning of diaspora. But, note that most of the Judahite population remained on the land as rural subsistence farmers: their daily lives weren’t affected much by the change of power in the capital.

The Politics of Monolatrism

Had the Bible been written in a modern context, you might see it bristling with geopolitical intrigue, moving appeals for independence, and the like. But since it was written in a vastly different cultural milieu, these very same sentiments manifest themselves as zealous ardor for centralization.

After exile, Dtr naturally didn’t throw away the exuberant texts of Kings and Deuteronomy. Instead, he reworked them to explain why the state of Judah had been destroyed. Unwilling to attribute blame to the Hardliner acts of rebellion, he instead attributed the collapse of the state to two factors:

  • Past Internationalist administrations blamed for the bad political outcomes of the Hardliners. 
  • The sins of the peasants, who consistently failed to renounce their polytheism and worship Yahweh.

In this second edition of DtrH, the conditional Mosaic covenant (“you will keep the land if…”) was emphasized, as a way of reconciling history and the unconditional Davidic covenant (“David’s dynasty will never end”). 

Perhaps exile would have been the end of the story, if the processes of cultural assimilation had not been interrupted by Cyrus and the Achaemenid Empire. But they did intervene. And within this timeframe, as we will see, a rival faction to the Deuteronomists are responsible for one of the most important ideological innovations of our modern world. Called the Priestly source in DH parlance, these temple-less priests sitting in exile invented monotheism

Until next time.


1. This particular section relies on low chronology. Alternative chronologies exist; see Thomas (2016). Note that most of the conclusions reached in this article do not depend on low chronology, and are also held by “high chronology” scholars.


  • Borowski (1995). Hezekiah’s Reforms and the Revolt against Assyria 
  • Brochi (1974). The Expansion of Jerusalem in the Reigns of Hezekiah and Manasseh
  • Claburn (1973). The Fiscal Basis of Josiah’s Reforms
  • Finkelstein & Silberman (2002). The Bible Unearthed
  • Finkelstein & Silberman (2006). David and Solomon
  • Oden (1984). Taxation in Biblical Israel
  • Rothlin & Roux (2013). Hezekiah and the Assyrian tribute
  • Romer (2007). The So-Called Deuteronomistic History
  • Thomas (2016). Debating the United Monarchy: Let’s See How Far We’ve Come 

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