Struggling With Monotheism

Jacob and his family's evolving relationship with God illustrates the complex struggle with faith and monotheism.

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Who and what are the “other gods” that Jacob asked his family to remove? Why is it that, when the children of Israel built the golden calf, this was considered a great sin, while here, when the “strange gods” that Jacob’s family buries under the oak tree are alluded to, there’s no mention made of sin or punishment? What does the name Bet El (“the house of God”) hint at? Is God found in certain places more than in others?

These questions very much pertain to our lives today. According to our beliefs, is God found in all places? Do we have one “God,” as well as certain “strange gods” that we must remove prior to building an altar? Is the synagogue considered the “house of God” more than one’s own private home or workplace? Is God to be found in the Land of Israel more than in New York? And if the answer to all of these questions is in the negative, what is the meaning, if any, of a “holy place?” Does it have any meaning?

God and Place

When I was a child in an Israeli public school, I was taught that the Bible is the book of monotheistic faith, of how the people of Israel became a nation that believes in one, abstract God Who controls nature and history. I learned that a culture based on monotheism is more moral and that mankind, because it’s created in God’s image, has a special place in the world.

Today, when I read a narrative like that of Jacob in Bet El, I discover that biblical stories express a much greater complexity. In the ancient world, God belongs to a specific place. The god of Egypt rules in Egypt; that of Moav rules in Moav. According to this approach, “our” God is just another divinity who rules over a specific land (Canaan).

Thus, Jacob’s astonishment upon waking from his dream is warranted. While he had thought that the God of Israel belongs only to one specific place, he discovers to his surprise that God is also found “outside of the Land.” He learns that God is not a local god, but a transcendent God Who controls the world and dwells everywhere.

Still, among Jacob and his family, God continues to exist alongside the “strange gods” that they carry with them in their baggage throughout their wanderings. Perhaps Jacob asks them to separate from their “strange gods” because of the belief that, upon entering the Land of Israel, they’re once again entering into God’s “territory” (viewing Him as the god of Canaan). It would be undesirable to continue worshipping the gods of other lands that they brought with them from Padan Aram.

Theological Divisions in the Bible

Jacob, described here as a man to whom God has been revealed, begins to understand the essence of faith in one, omnipotent God. But he still finds it difficult to reject his previous belief in a local god. Jacob’s family, of course, which was not a partner to his dream and God’s revelation to him, worships foreign gods and statues of different types. Indeed, in Vayetze, the previous Torah portion, we are told that “our mother” Rachel stole the idols of Laban (Genesis 31:19).

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Osnat Elnatan

Osnat Elnatan is the director of the non-profit organization Kehilla, a UJA-Federation of New York beneficiary agency that promotes Jewish pluralism and community development in the Israeli city of Bet Shemesh. A member of the urban kibbutz Tammuz, she also teaches in the Bet Shemesh Community Bet Midrash (house of Jewish study).