Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Repost: Ancient Judaism was Polytheistic

Today, I received a comment from my 2006 post originally titled Ancient Judaism and Canaanite Religions. Since I haven't recently blogged about this subject, I thought it would be a good time for a repost:

There are many names of God or Gods used in tanakh. Orthodox Jews maintain that every name refers to the same God, except those names which are clearly used to refer to idols of other religions. Some of the names, however, are strikingly similar to the names of gods from the polytheistic religions surrounding ancient Israel.

Ugarit was an ancient city in what is now northern Syria, which existed from before 6000 B.C.E. (or approximately 2000 years before the creation of the Universe, if you're a young-Earth creationist) to around 1200 B.C.E. It was rediscovered in 1928:

The excavations uncovered a royal palace of 90 rooms laid out around eight enclosed courtyards, many ambitious private dwellings, including two private libraries (one belonging to a diplomat named Rapanu) that contained diplomatic, legal, economic, administrative, scholastic, literary and religious texts. Crowning the hill where the city was built were two main temples: one to Baal the "king", son of El, and one to Dagon, the chthonic god of fertility and wheat.

On excavation of the site, several deposits of cuneiform clay tablets were found, constituting a palace library, a temple library and -- apparently unique in the world at the time -- two private libraries; all dating from the last phase of Ugarit, around 1200 BC


The discovery of the Ugaritic archives has been of great significance to biblical scholarship, as these archives for the first time provided a detailed description of Canaanite religious beliefs during the period directly preceding the Israelite settlement. These texts show significant parallels to Biblical Hebrew literature, particularly in the areas of divine imagery and poetic form. Ugaritic poetry has many elements later found in Hebrew poetry: parallelisms, meters, and rhythms. The discoveries at Ugarit have led to a new appraisal of the Old Testament as literature


Ugaritic religion centered on the chief god, Ilu or El, the "father of mankind", "the creator of the creation". The Court of El or Ilu was referred to as the 'lhm. The most important of the great gods was Hadad, the king of Heaven, Athirat or Asherah (familiar to readers of the Bible), Yam (Sea, the god of the primordial chaos, tempests, and mass-destruction) and Mot (Death). Other gods worshipped at Ugarit were Dagon (Grain), Tirosch, Horon, Resheph (Healing), the craftsman Kothar-and-Khasis (Skilled and Clever), Shahar (Dawn), and Shalim (Dusk). Ugaritic texts have provided biblical scholars with a wealth of material on the religion of the Canaanites and its connections with that of the Israelites.

There are some obvious parallels here. The God of tanakh is often referred to as El, recalling the chief God of Canaanite religion. Furthermore, the term Elohim, which is now thought of as merely another name of God, was in Canaanite religion a term for the whole court of El. (Hebrew not having vowels, Elohim in Hebrew is basically the same as 'lhm.) Some of the other Gods mentioned in the Ugaritic texts are also mentioned in the Bible, not as synonymous with the Jewish God, but rather as "other gods," which are now (by Orthodox Jews) thought to mean "idols" or false gods. Asherah is mentioned in 2 Kings 18.8:

He removed the high places, and brake the images, and cut down the grove, 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.

Where's Asherah in that verse, you ask? Well, the hebrew word that's translated as "grove" is... Asherah. Which frankly makes a lot more sense when you notice that its parallel to "the high places," "the images," and "the brasen serpent," all sources of idolatry. Some English translations retain "Asherah," such as the New Living Translation. The New King James Version translates it as "sacred pillars."

Asherah is interesting because of her status in Canaanite religion. She is the "consort" of El, and the mother of his 70 sons.

Scholars believe that Asherah was worshipped by many in ancient Israel and Judah, referred to by Jeremiah as "the Queen of Heaven."

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.

Another interesting Canaanite God is Ba'al, who is mentioned in tanakh. Orthodox Jews understand Ba'al to be a false god -- or several false gods -- quite popular in Jeremiah's time.

Now in tanakh, YWHW is the same God as El. But YHWH may have started out in Canaanite religion as one of the 70 sons of El. The Dead Sea Scrolls fragment of Deutoronomy 32.8-9, which agrees with the Septuagint, reads as follows:

When the Most High ('Elyon) allotted peoples for inheritance,
When He divided up the sons of man,
He fixed the boundaries for peoples,
According to the number of the sons of El
But Yahweh’s portion is his people,
Jacob His own inheritance.

Now the Jewish version reads "sons of Israel" in place of "sons of El," but the first time we see that version is from a manuscript dating 700 years later than the above. "The older reading implicates an original polytheist context at the birth of Judaism. Within this framework, humanity was divided into seventy peoples, each with its own patron god. Yahweh takes Jacob as his, shedding additional light on the textual meaning of the chosen people."

The argument for the original polytheistic context at Judaism's birth is bolstered by the name "Elohim."

"Elohim" has the shape of a plural noun, and indeed is often used that way in tanakh when it's used to refer to "other gods." However, it's often used as a singular noun, as in Genesis 1.1. Many scholars argue that the plural form of "Elohim"

reflects early Judaic polytheism. They argue it originally meant 'the gods', or the 'sons of El,' the supreme being. They claim the word may have been singularized by later monotheist priests who sought to replace worship of the many gods of the Judean pantheon with their own singular patron god YHWH alone.


The alternative polytheist theory would seem to explain why there are three words built on the same stem: El, Elohim, and eloah. El, the father god, has many divine sons, who are known by the plural of his name, Elohim, or Els. Eloah, might then be used to differentiate each of the lesser gods from El himself.

This theory makes the Elohim saying "Let US make Man in OUR image, in OUR likeness" make more sense, as well as YHWH's commandment to Israel, "worship no other gods [Hebrew:Elohim] before me."

Dan Brown may have been wrong about Jesus and Mary Magdalene, but a pretty strong case can be made not only for El/YHWH and Asherah, but for an even bigger cover-up than the one in The Da Vinci Code -- that the earliest Jews were polytheistic!


Rabban Gamliel said...

El simply means a god. So Moses says to Pharough when Pharough says he never heard of YHVH that He is the God of the Hebrews "Elohei HaIvriim". Elohim means gods, and also G-d and also judges and rulers. By contrast YHVH is only the Jewish G-d.

tommy said...

El simply means a god.

But El is also the name of a specific Canaanite/Phoenician god. El appears to be the most important deity in the pantheon.

I've heard theories suggesting Yahweh started out as a Midianite deity and that the god Abraham worshiped may not have been the same god worshiped by Moses. According to these theories, Moses first learned of Yahweh through the Midianites and was responsible for conflating Yahweh with the god of Abraham. This is all very speculative, of course.

One Canaanite connection that might be of interest is that between the Ugaritic hero Danel and the Biblical hero Daniel.

Rabban Gamliel said...

Thanks for the link. Indeed in Hebrew Baal means possessor, or lord and El means a god and the various permutations use El and baal not as a simple name form but as different variations because of what is being expressed. Elohei means god of. Elohim means gods or rulers, judges and G-d. Eloheinu means our G-d. By contrast YHVH is a name of only our G-d. If separate names really only indicate different gods then there would be El Shaddai and El Bethel etc. as separate rather than meaning G-d of blank.

jewish philosopher said...

I'm not sure what is surprising here. The Bible is full of references to the Israelites worshiping idols - beginning with the Golden Calf. That doesn't mean they were right.

OriginalAbe said...

You should read some of William Dever's work. He writes quite a bit about Asherah and argues that the archaeological record demonstrates that Asherah was popularly viewed as YHWH's consort in ancient Israel.

Holy Hyrax said...

>Asherah was popularly viewed as YHWH's consort in ancient Israel.

Isen't that perhaps what Jeremiah 7:18 is talking about?

Rabban Gamliel said...

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 to other gods, that they may provoke me to anger.

The sense here would not indicate a a consort but the rejection of all partners. All these theories such as a consort suffer from one great defect: they are not proven fact and are contradicted by all known tradition and any evidence advanced for them is just argument. We have not the slightest archaeological remains of YHVH having any consorts or partners.

Jewish Atheist said...


From wikipedia:

Figurines of Asherah are strikingly common in the archaeological record, indicating the popularity of her cult from the earliest times to the Babylonian exile. More rarely, inscriptions linking Yahweh and Asherah have been discovered: an 8th century BCE ostracon inscribed "Berakhti et’khem l’YHVH Shomron ul’Asherato" was discovered by Israeli archeologists at Quntilat 'Ajrud (Hebrew "Horvat Teman") in the couse of excavations in the Sinai desert in 1975, prior to the Israeli withdrawal from this area. This translates as: "I have blessed you by YHVH of Samaria and His Asherah", or "...by our guardian and his Asherah", if "Shomron" is to be read "shomrenu". Another inscription, from Khirbet el-Kom near Hebron, reads: "Blessed be Uriyahu by Yahweh and by his Asherah; from his enemies he saved him!".[2]

That sounds like "archaeological remains of YHVH having any consorts or partners" to me.

Rabban Gamliel said...

You haven’t looked closely at enough verses such as:
Deuteronomy 16:21. You shall not plant you an Ashera of any tree near the altar of the Lord your God, which you shall make.

The problem is verse after verse makes clear that an Ashera was something planted and that idols were made for them and images of Asheras too were made. Assuming the Wikipedia article is giving you genuine information (as Wikipedia is not to simply be believed as anyone can edit it) you see an example not of a consort for YHVH but of Asheras being made for Him in violation of Deuteronomy. You also see if the reference to Samaria is correct that YHVH was worshipped in the Northern Kingdom.

Rabban Gamliel said...

If it was meant to be the goddess Ashera (who by the way had more than one name so why couldn't G-d) it would not have said "asherato" His Ashera. Asherato implies an Ashera for something as opposed to a specific goddess. As for making Asheras and associating it with YHVH in Samaria this confirms the Biblical complaint.

II Kings 13:6. Nevertheless they departed not from the sins of the house of Jeroboam, who made Israel sin, but walked in them; and there remained the Ashera also in Samaria.

Jewish Atheist said...

Your point about "Asherato" is a good one -- I wouldn't expect that form if it were talking about a goddess. On the other hand, we don't really have many examples of how consorts are described in Biblical hebrew.

The Queen of Heaven reference is pretty interesting, too.

Rabban Gamliel said...

It is interesting. Interesting also that Ashtoreth which was the goddess of the Zidonians is described as Elohei Zidon, the god(dess) of Zidon in Kings Chapter 11 where King Solomon allows as King his wives Temples for their gods.

Frum Heretic said...

Now the Jewish version reads "sons of Israel" in place of "sons of El," but the first time we see that version is from a manuscript dating 700 years later than the above. "The older reading implicates an original polytheist context at the birth of Judaism.

You've made a very common logical flaw in saying that because the Dead Sea Scrolls predates the earliest extant copies of the Masoretic text then it represents an older tradition. We really know nothing about when the DSS and the Masoretic traditions diverged.

Anonymous said...

There's more about this subject here Religious Ideology - 1: Judaism that might be worth a comment or two.

chrisgolfs2003 said...

Polytheism continued for far longer than what your pastor or minister would ever admit. The translators go to great effort to eliminate the actual names of the gods worshiped. However even up to and past the time of King David,you can find verses that are blatantly obvious in regards to the Jews polytheistic practices.

In 2nd Samuel 5:20 ,David gives credit to his lord "BAAL' for his victories.

And David came to Baalperazim, and David smote them there, and said, The LORD hath broken forth upon mine enemies before me, as the breach of waters. Therefore he called the name of that place Baalperazim.

Anonymous said...

I would like to get a hold of some of these translations of those books and other outside sources please send me some information by E-mail. I am a College student at Arkansas State University working on a major in history and a minor in Folklore however I am trying to get Anthropology as a minor at my school. So it could be my minor. My E-mail is andrew.kosinski@smail.astate.edu. so please get me some more solid information on this stuff especially the translations of the holy books of the Abrahamic religions.

Anonymous said...

Well in regard to David you draw a false conclusion. Firstly there is a Egyptian god called YAM, however anyone that knows basic basic hebrew knows that Yam is a Hebrew word for Sea/ Ocean. Now the word Yam is used in the Bible, but by no shape way or form is it used to describe YAM the Egyptian god of course not. I'm not nearly scholarly enough to understand Baal and what it means and how it applies to the situation, but from the 1 minute research on Wikipedia, it seemed clear that it's used to describe master Baʿal (bet-ayin-lamedh) is a Semitic word signifying "The Lord, master, owner (male), keeper, husband". Cognates include Standard Hebrew (Bet-Ayin-Lamed); בַּעַל / בָּעַל, Báʿal, Akkadian Bēl and Arabic بعل. In Hebrew, the word ba'al means "husband" or "owner", and is related to a verb meaning to take possession of, for a man, to consummate a marriage. The word "ba'al" is also used in many Hebrew phrases, denoting both concrete ownership as well as possession of different qualities in one's personality. The feminine form is Baʿalah (Hebrew בַּעֲלָה Baʕalah, Arabic بعلـة baʿalah) signifying "lady, mistress, owner (female), wife".[2]" So just realize that just because Fag in the US means homosexual, in England it means a cigarette.

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