15 March 2013

Israelite polytheism

Scholars have little doubt that the religion of the Hebrews developed out of the surrounding Canaanite religion, as did their culture and themselves.  To deny this is absurd and impossible if one is to be honest given the staggering amount of archaeological and literary evidence. 

Though the people of highland Canaan may have first been exposed to monotheism during the reign over Egypt of Pharoah Akenaten (1353-1336 BCE) when the New Kingdom dominated the southern Levant during the latter’s Late Bronze Age, the evidence in both cases suggests that the actual turn toward monotheism began after the conquest by Iran, home of the monotheistic religion of Zarathustra.

Scholarly consensus holds that the Hebrews went from polytheism (“thou shalt have other gods including me”) to henotheism (“thou shalt have no other gods before/above me”) to monolatry (“thou shalt worship no god but me”) to monotheism (“there are no other gods but me.”).

Since it was among the inhabitants of Yehud (or Judah/Judea) that the claims for everlasting exclusive monotheism have been strongest and loudest while in Samerina (Samaria) the religion was widely known to be ecletic, inclusive, and syncretic, most of our attention will be focused on evidence from the southern of the two Hebrew lands.

Literary evidence

A great deal of literary evidence for the polytheism of the Hebrews comes from the Tanakh/Old Testament itself.  Much of what those scriptures demonstrate involves the struggle of the clerical hierarchy of the cult of the Hebrews’ national god, Yahweh, for preeminence among Canaanite deities, then for dominance, then for singularity, and, ultimately, for universality.  Which made sense, because their own fortunes followed that of Yahweh.

The following quotes are all from the King James Version not because I prefer it, I do not, but because there is no copyright upon it.  Both the translators of the Septuagint and the Masoretes attempted to airbrush out surviving remnants of polytheism from the Hebrew scriptures they found embarrassing, but they usually targeted different passages.  This list of quotes is not all-inclusive; there are numerous examples strewn throughout the myriad texts which make up the Tanakh/Old Testament.

Deuteronomy 32:8

Woven into the farewell speech of the mythological Moses to the children of Israel is this bit:

When the Most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel.

That’s the English translation of the corrupted Masoretic text.

The older text before its airbrushing by the Masoretes read (according to the Septuagint version, the Samaritan Torah, and fragments of Deuteronomy found as Qumran):

When Elyon divided the nations, he separated the sons of Adam according to the number of the sons of El.

Elyon was an epithet of El, the chief god of the Canaanite pantheon before he abdicated in favor of Ba’al Hadad, who then bore the epithet.  Here, the father of the gods is dividing humanity into its seventy nations (which there were, according to Canaanite as well as “Hebrew” legend) and giving each one to one of the seventy “sons of El”.  Israel, or the Hebrews, was given to Yam (aka Yaw/Yahu/Yahuweh/Yahweh) just as Edom was given to Qaws, Moab to Chemosh, Ammon to Milcom, Tyre to Melqart, Sidon to Eshmun, Byblos to El, Shechem to Resheph, Jerusalem to Shalim, Philistia to Dagon, Carthage to Hammon, and the fifty-nine other pairs, and later the Nabateans to Dushara.

The theme of seventy nations survives today in the post-agricultural mythology surrounding the Jewish festival of weeks, or Shavuot (Pentecost), which now commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai/Horeb/Paran in the languages of the seventy nations.  Similarly, in the rebooted Christian version of Pentecost the preaching of the apostles to those gathered was said to be heard in seventy languages.

Genesis 1:26

Toward the very beginning of the Bible, in its first related version of Creation, we find this: 

And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.”

Here the word God is Elohim, plural for El, and is one of the many occasions in which the verbs are for a plural subject rather than singular and therefore the subject nouns also.  In modern English this might read: And the Elohim (gods) said [to each other], “Let us make humanity in our image, to look like us.  Give them have dominion of the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over cattle, over all the Earth and every animals that lives upon it.”

Genesis 6:1-4

An interesting passage that both the Masoretes and the Septuagint translators either failed to airbrush or didn’t know how is found at:

And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, That the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose. And the Lord said, My spirit shall not always strive with man, for that he also is flesh: yet his days shall be an hundred and twenty years. There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.

Giants of myth and legend were often said to be the result of unions between divine beings and human females.  As I mentioned, the “sons of El” is unchanged from the original, leaving only the question of whether it was all seventy or just some of them.

Genesis 49:25-26

Here is a direct reference to Asherah, not by name but by the symbols which were universal assigned to her throughout the Levant:

Even by the God of thy father, who shall help thee; and by the Almighty, who shall bless thee with blessings of heaven above, blessings of the deep that lieth under, blessings of the breasts, and of the womb: The blessings of thy father have prevailed above the blessings of my progenitors unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills: they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of him that was separate from his brethren.

Her symbols are the breasts and the womb mentioned above, Asherah being mother not only of the gods but of the human race.

Exodus 20:3

Thou shalt have no other gods before me.

If there were no other gods, why would Yahweh worry about being displaced?

Exodus 22:28

 Thou shalt not revile the gods, nor curse the ruler of thy people.

Clearly the Hebrew word here is Elohim, which the KJV and other translators render as “gods” rather than “God”.  Others, as you might expect, follow the examples of the Masoretes and corrupt this to the singular and capital, but others, unable to get themselves past what is to them an obviously plural noun, mistranslate the words as “judges”.  This is clearly an acceptance that there are more gods than Yahweh and that all of them should be respected.

Exodus 23:32

Thou shalt make no covenant with them [the people of Canaan], nor with their gods.

There we have another explicit recognition of the existence of other Gods.

Judges 11:24

Wilt not thou possess that which Chemosh thy god giveth thee to possess? So whomsoever the Lord our God shall drive out from before us, them will we possess.

Here is yet another recognition of other gods, and not only that but that other gods had assigned peoples and lands.  Only in this case, the writer got gods and peoples mixed up, because Chemosh is the god of Moab while the god of Ammon, to whom Jephthah is speaking is Milcom.

Psalm 82

This psalm is an adaptation of a story in the Canaanite Baal Cycle:

God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.  How long will ye judge unjustly, and accept the persons of the wicked? Selah.  Defend the poor and fatherless: do justice to the afflicted and needy.  Deliver the poor and needy: rid them out of the hand of the wicked.  They know not, neither will they understand; they walk on in darkness: all the foundations of the earth are out of course.  I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.  But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes.  Arise, O God, judge the earth: for thou shalt inherit all nations.

In the Baal story, Baal (whose proper name is Hadad) comes before the court of El, surnamed Elyon (the Most High), in the presence of all the other gods to accuse them of injustice.  In the Psalm, Yahweh plays the role formerly played by Hadad, son of Dagon; El appears in the psalm as “the mighty”. 

The question in the story where Hadad plays the central role was whether he was qualified to replace his father El as Elyon, or king of the gods.  Hadad’s challenger in the earlier Canaanite story was Yam, or Yaw, an early form of Yahweh.  Like Yahweh in Psalm 82, Hadad played the role of both prosecutor and judge, an arrangement I’m quite sure a lot of district attorneys in America would salivate over.  Being both prosecutor and judge, Baal Hadad quite naturally won and became the supreme deity.

Yaw, who was one of the sons of El, still had his day, however.  Hadad later battled Mot and lost, dying in the process.  El was finally able to put his son on the throne, where he gained the title and additional name Judge Nahar.

Job 1:6

Here we find a bit different view of the heavenly court:

Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them.

Here is another explicit mention of the “sons of El” along with perhaps the earliest mention of the character known as Satan.  In the opening scenes of Job, Satan plays the first half of the role played originally by Hadad and in the later adaptation by Yahweh, that of prosecutor.  Clearly he is a member of the heavenly court, and an important one.  Indeed, the Talmud teaches that he (Satan) is God’s right hand and most loyal servant.

The following three passages expand Satan’s role further:

Zech. 3:1

And he shewed me Joshua the high priest standing before the angel of the Lord, and Satan standing at his right hand to resist him.

Psalm 109:6-7

Set thou a wicked man over him: and let Satan stand at his right hand.  When he shall be judged, let him be condemned: and let his prayer become sin.

Revelations 12:7-10

And there was war in heaven: Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels, And prevailed not; neither was their place found any more in heaven. And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him. And I heard a loud voice saying in heaven, Now is come salvation, and strength, and the kingdom of our God, and the power of his Christ: for the accuser of our brethren is cast down, which accused them before our God day and night.

In these three passages, Satan again plays half the role formerly played by Hadad and later by Yahweh, but with that role now seen as oppressive at worst, a necessary evil at best.  A bit of a detour from the main topic, but sometimes one should explore a side road that may lend an additional insight into the overall road trip.  Especially since the two quotes from the Jewish Tanakh and the Christian New Testament show the divergence of light in which the role is viewed by adherents of the two religions.

Job 28:14 & 22

In these two verses, we have further evidence of lingering polytheism:

The depth saith, It is not in me: and the sea saith, It is not with me.

Destruction and death say, We have heard the fame thereof with our ears.

In the first verse, “depth” refers to the god Mot and “sea” refers to Yaw; in the second verse, “destruction” refers to Yaw and “death” to Mot.

Psalm 97:7-9

Here we have evidence of henotheism, dominance of one deity over others:

Confounded be all they that serve graven images, that boast themselves of idols: worship him, all ye gods.  Zion heard, and was glad; and the daughters of Judah rejoiced because of thy judgments, O Lord.  For thou, Lord, art high above all the earth: thou art exalted far above all gods.

Here Yahweh plays solely the role of judge, with the other gods admonished to serve him.

Isaiah 14:12-15

In this passage, we have yet another implicit reference to the Baal Cycle, only this time without any role for Hadad to have played:

How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!  For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High.  Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.

Many Christian writers have compared this to the passage from Revelations given above to describe Satan being cast out of heaven.  Judaism has never taught any such thing.  The so-called name Lucifer is a Latin form from the Vulgate of the Hebrew word Heylel, which means “morning star”. 

This passage is a reference to the Canaanite deity Attar, god of the morning star and son of the dawn (Shachar).  In the Baal Cycle, while Yaw (forerunner of Yahweh) reigns over the sons of El, Attar tries to take the throne but fails, except that he doesn’t go to any hell.

We know that Samerina was always syncretic and inclusive in its religion, but in Ezekial 8:14, we see a graphic example that even in Yehud inclusive polytheism remained:

Then he brought me to the door of the gate of the Lord's house which was toward the north; and, behold, there sat women weeping for Tammuz.

Tammuz, later fused with Adonis to become the central figure of a Levantine version of the Mediterranean Mystery Cult, came from Babylonia originally.  He also gave his name to the tenth month of the Jewish calendar.

Ezekial 14:14 & 20

In these two verses, three heroic figures from Canaanite legend are mentioned:

Though these three men, Noah, Danel, and Job, were in it, they should deliver but their own souls by their righteousness, saith the Lord God.

 Though Noah, Danel, and Job were in it, as I live, saith the Lord God, they shall deliver neither son nor daughter; they shall but deliver their own souls by their righteousness

Ezekial 28:3

Here, one hero is singled out for special mention:

Behold, thou art wiser than Danel; there is no secret that they can hide from thee:

In all three verses, the Masoretes corrupted “Danel” to “Daniel” in order to reflect the Jewish figure of legend and putative author of the pseudepigraphal Book of Daniel.  In the Septuagint and in the Qumran version, “Danel” remains in its original form.  In fragments surviving from the Late Bronze Age northern Canaanite town of Ugarit, Danel is a legendary figure who is most famous for his wisdom.

Habakkuk 3:3

There’s an interesting reference in:

God came from Teman, and the Holy One from mount Paran.

Here the word “God” is Elahu in the Hebrew original, while “Holy One” is Qadesh.  Elahu is a form of the name El, father of the Canaanite gods, while Qadesh is the main epithet for his consort, the goddess Asherah, whose worship was widespread across both Hebrew kingdoms.

Habakkuk 3:5

This verse mentions two ancient Levantine deities.

Before him went Dabir, and Resheph followed close behind.

The first, Dabir, was the patron of the city of Ebla, while the second, Resheph, was a major battle god popular even among Egyptians who provided protection against plague and war, as well as the patron deity of Shechem.  But you won’t find that in most English translations which usually render the names ‘pestilence’ and ‘plague’.

Psalm 78:48

These two get another mention.

He gave over their cattle to Dabir, and their flocks to Reshephim.

Usually translated as ‘hail’ and ‘thunderbolts’.

Deuteronomy 32:23-24

I will heap disasters upon them, spend my arrows against them: wasting hunger, burning consumption, bitter pestilence.

An better translation provides the names of four deities: I will heap disasters upon them, spend my arrows against them: the ravages of Ra’ab and Lahmu, or Resheph and bitter Qeteb.

Psalm 91:5-6

You will not fear the terror of the night, or Resheph that flies by day, or Dabir that stalks in darkness, or Qeteb that wastes at noonday.

Dabir is usually translated as ‘pestilence’, Qeteb as ‘destruction’, Resheph as ‘arrow’.

Hosea 13:14

Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol?  Shall I redeem them from Mot?  O Mot, where are your Reshephim?  O Sheol, where is your Qeteb?  Compassion is hidden from my eyes.

Sheol was a Canaanite god of the underworld; Mot was the Canaanite god of death; Resheph the god of plague; Qeteb the god of destruction.

2 Kings 18:4

He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the groves, and brake in pieces the brasen serpent that Moses had made: for unto those days the children of Israel did burn incense to it: and he called it Nehushtan.

In this verse we have another indirect but certain mention of Asherah.  The groves that Hezekiah cut down were actually idols to that goddess, probably here meant as Yahweh’s consort.

Jeremiah 7:18

The children gather wood, and the fathers kindle the fire, and the women knead their dough, to make cakes to the queen of heaven, and to pour out drink offerings unto other gods, that they may provoke me to anger.

In this verse we have a more direct reference to Asherah, Queen of Heaven being one of her divine titles.

Judges 17 & 18

In a passage from the Book of Judges, chapters 17 and 18, one Micah of Ephraim made a molten image and a graven image to place in the shrine at his home at which he consecrated one of his sons to be priest.  Later, he managed to acquire a Levite as for that duty.  A band of Danites, men of the tribe of Dan, later stole them and set up both images in their own shrine in the city of Dan.

What is astonishing about this story is that in the text itself there is no condemnation at all of Micah for his “idolatry” nor for his taking upon himself the right to consecrate his own son (an Ephraimite) as a priest.  Likewise, there is no condemnation in the text for the Levite, not the scion of a tribe supposedly set apart to be priests of Yahweh but one consecrated from the tribe of Judah, who agrees to serve at Micah’s shrine with its graven and molten images.  In fact, at the end of chapter 17, it seems that Yahweh looks kindly upon Micah’s undertaking.

These passages also mention the teraphim, cult figures which Israelites used well into the Hellenistic era in Samerina, Yehud, and Egypt.

There is also no condemnation for the Danites who later steal both images as well as the priestly vestments and ritual articles along with the Levite and take them to the city of Dan.

1 Corinthians 8:4-6

Hence, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “no idol in the world really exists,” and that “there is no God but one.”  Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords—yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.

The key phrase here is: “as in fact there are many gods and many lords”.  This is Paul acknowledging that while for Christians there is only one God, other gods do indeed exist.

Micah 4:5

For all the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of the Lord our God forever and ever.

This verse come just after the famous passage containing the clause, “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares…”.

Multiple Yahwehs

Even Yahweh himself had multiple forms.  The archaeological site at Kuntillet Ajrud (see below) offered up an inscription to “Yahweh of Teman” and “Yahweh of Samaria”.  In the Tanakh, 2 Samuel 15:7 mentions “Yahweh of Hebron” while Psalm 99:2 mentions “Yahweh of Zion”.  In fact, there was a different manifestations of Yahweh at every shrine site mentioned in the Tanakh, such as Dan, Bethel, and Shiloh, as well as Gilgal, Bethlehem, Nob, Gibeon, Mizpah, and Beersheba.  Archaeological evidence and passages in the Tanakh show this also to have been the case for Baal and for El.

In this light, the titular verse of the Shema Yisrael, Deuteronomy 6:4—Hear, O Israel, Yahweh our God is one Yahweh—takes on a whole new meaning, especially in the context of the standardization and centralization of worship at Jerusalem and at Shechem.

Archaeological evidence

There is little need to relate surviving archaeological evidence from Samerina that polytheism existed to a late date in the kingdom ruled from Samaria since nearly everyone agrees that was the case.  In fact, temples to several gods existed in that city, including those dedicated to Yahweh, to Baal Hadad, to Asherah, and to Kore (Persephone), among others.  Our focus should be on the land of those claiming to have been monotheists from the dawn of the first millennium BCE, or at least the earliest known date of occupation. 

There was no settlement of Hebrews in the area later called Yehud until after the Philistine city of Gath was destroyed by the armies of Hazael, king of Damascus, in 830 BCE.    Since Gath was 22 miles northwest of modern Hebron, it was while it existed a major impediment to Hebrew expansion south from Samerina.  A few examples should suffice.

Tel Arad

Shortly after Hebrew colonists began to migrate to the area, a citadel was built at what is now called Tel Arad which included one of only three known temples called “House of Yahweh” that have been discovered to date.  The citadel overlooked a city on the plain below.  Within the citadel, the sanctuary held graven images to Yahweh and to Asherah, who was now apparently considered consort of Yahweh rather than El.  The citadel was built around 820 BCE and destroyed around 587 BCE.

Kuntillet Ajrud

Built around 800 BCE, just three decades after Gath fell, Hebrew-speaking people built a shrine in the northeast of the Sinai PeninsulaInscriptions and images depict Yahweh, El, Baal, and Asherah.  Two inscriptions specifically mention blessings “by Yahweh of Samaria and by Asherah” and “by Yahweh of Teman and by Asherah”. 

The identity of Samaria is obvious, in all likelihood referring to the greater country than to the city.  The identity of Teman, on the other hand, is more problematic.  Several have suggested an unidentified town in the country of Edom, though their national god was Qaws.  On the other hand, Hebrews are known to have already inhabited communities all across the southern part of Arabia, with their descendants still being referred to as the Temanim, “Teman” being Hebrew for “south”.

Khirbet el-Qom

Inscriptions at tomb built here around 750 BCE in the Har Yehuda west of Hebron one “Uriyahu” mention Yahuweh and Asherah together as at the previous site.


As mentioned elsewhere, Hebrew military colonies arose here around 650 BCE in the wake of the Nubian withdrawal.  The biggest was at the island of Elephantine in the south, near Nubia, and there were others at Memphis, the capital, and Pathros, and in the northeast border towns of Migdol and Tahpanhes-Daphnae.

The colony at Elephantine hosted a Hebrew temple side-by-side with an Egyptian temple to the god Khnum.  A collection of documents named the Elephantine papyri provide excellent contemporary evidence of the colony’s happenings.  From these we know that Yahweh was worshipped here alongside his consort Anath (another Canaanite goddess).  In addition, the Canaanite gods El, Baal, Bethel, Harambethel, and Asambethel were worshipped as was the Egyptian god Khnum.

Among some of the papyri, letters have ended with blessings from Yahweh and Khnum, while some from Tahpahnes have ended with blessings from Baal Tsaphon and Elohim.

Relations between the Hebrew colonists and their descendants and their Egyptian neighbors were not always harmonious. 

In 411 BCE, a century and a half into Iranian rule of the Levant and Egypt, the temple at Elephantine (identified in papyri as “House of Yahweh”) was destroyed by local devotees of the god Khnum, who were roused to action by their priests.  Kind of like when Christians in Alexandria went on a rampage and destroyed the Serapeum, the Museum, and the Library in 391 CE after exhortations by the Patriarch, Pope Theophilus. 

Four years later, in 407 BCE, tensions had calmed enough for the Hebrews at Elephantine to seek permission for and assistance with rebuilding of the temple there.  These appeals were sent both to the joint Samaritan governors of Samerina, Dalaiah and Shelemiah (sons of the previous governor Sinballidh)and to Bagayavahu (Bagaos or Bagoses), Iranian governor of Yehud. 

In both cases, permission was given and assistance provided, with no sign that these were contingent upon the temple’s taking up monotheism, though such may have already been the case, which might explain the wrath of the Khnum devotees.

Day of Atonement

One notable instance in the Torah not only reveals a latent polytheism but ordains it be carried out is the prescriptions for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  After the temple sacrifices for the occasion were made, the high priest took one of two goats and sacrificed it to Yahweh.  The other, according the passage in Leviticus 16, carried the sins of all the children of Israel and was carried out to the wilderness.  The Torah passage does not say what became of the second, but the Mishnah and midrash do: it was not merely driven out to starve and/or thirst to death but led to a cliff and pushed it over to its death.  Every Christian translation into English glosses over the this fact, often with the word “scapegoat”, but English translations in Jewish versions do not; the second goat was actually sacrificed to Azaz’el, either a lesser god or a demon of the wilderness.


Pre-exile cult stands at the religious centers of Lachish, Tel Halif, Megiddo, Tel Kedesh, Ta’anakh, and Shechem indicate that Yahweh may have been identified as a solar deity, and that Asherah was considered his consort.

Numerous cult figurines from the pre-Exile period of a quite voluptuous female that have been identified as Asherah have been found at Megiddo, Ta’anakh, Tell Tirzah, Ai, and Lachish.


Rursus said...

Thank you for the list!

My Bible (www.bibeln.se) however gives "sons of God" when your Bible gives "sons of Adam". "Sons of Adam" might be another monotheist redax.

Chuck Hamilton said...

You're very welcome, and thank you. And you're probably right.