When God was not alone: Polytheism in Ancient Israel.
Copyright © 1993 Michael Walden. All rights reserved
I wrote this for a class in religious studies while in college. This was the only assignment for the entire class. I was happy to have received an “A” for the class. Keep in mind this was written many years ago and does not reflect any post 1993 historical findings.
Nearly every version of the Bible begins with these words: “In the beginning God…” (Genesis 1:1). In English translation, “God” appears to be a single entity or being. However, the original Hebrew word used here for “God” is elohiym which, literally translated, means “Gods.” Most scholars agree that elohiym is a plural word without gender. Research has shown that “God” was not always the single, yet tripartite, being that is confessed by many today. Contrary to the general beliefs held by many people, at one time there were many Gods and Goddesses who were recognized by the ancient Israelites.
“Although monotheism is recognized as an innovation of the Israelites in the biblical period, the dominant view among critical scholars has been that the Israelite populace as a whole was not monotheistic or even monolatrous until shortly before or even after the fall of the Judahite kingdom in 587/86 B.C.E.” (Ancient Israelite Religion 157).
What of these Gods and Goddesses who were abandoned in the desert and how were they replaced by the One God?
“There has been and is much disagreement among theologians about the god honored among the Hebrews” (Smith, Mark xix). Mark Smith says that this statement by Lydus, a Greek of the sixth century, is just as true today as it was when it was written. Before we delve too deeply into this drama, let’s take a look at the major deities that play a role in the development of the belief in a single deity, namely Yahweh, and monotheism in general.
Ancient Israelite Deities
El(Il) – Modeled on the creator God of the Canaanites, Il, represented by the bull and revered by the Hebrew tribes who settled northern Palestine. In Biblical texts the word el comes to be used in a descriptive sense as a qualifying epithet meaning “lord.” Possibly El came to represent the sum of all the creator spirits of the northern tribes.
Yahweh – Creator God of the southern tribes of Israel. Possible copy of the Egyptian God Atum(Aten). This is the God, who according to tradition, was revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai, who provided the covenant, ten tablets of law. Eventually superseded El, to become the supreme deity of Israel. In English translation, Yahweh (or YhWh) is usually replaced by the tern “Lord.” “Jehovah” is a corruption introduced circa 1200-1300 ad.
Baal – Brother of the Goddess Anat (see below). Son of Dagan and in turn the father of seven storm Gods, the Baalim, and seven mid-wife Goddesses, the Sasuratum. Worshiped from at least the nineteenth century BC by the Canaanites and northern Israel.
Anat – Sister of Baal (see above), primarily a fertility Goddess. Described variously as “Mother of the Gods” and “Mistress of the sky.” Also a youthful and aggressive Goddess of war. Worshiped from circa 2500 BC until 200 AD or later.
Asherah – Great Mother Goddess of Canaan. Seems to have lived close by the place of Il(See El above) and is said to have had many sons. Described as the “Creatress of the Gods”. Worshipped from circa third millennium BC until Christianization (circa 400 AD).
All of these deities were at some time worshiped by the ancient Israelites. Canaanite deities worshiped by Israelites? We will discover that the Israelite religion is modeled closely after that of their neighbors, the Canaanites. “Early Israelite culture cannot be separated easily from the culture of Canaan. The highlands of Israel during the Iron Age (ca. 1200-587) reflect continuity with the Canaanite culture during the preceding period both in the highlands and contemporary cities on the coast and in the valleys” (Smith, Mark 1).
“The original God of Israel was El. This reconstruction may be inferred from two pieces of information. First, the name of Israel is not a Yahwistic name with the divine element of Yahweh, but an El name, with the element, el. This fact would suggest that El was the original chief God of the group named Israel. Second, Genesis 49:24-25 presents a series of El epithets separate from the mention of Yahweh in verse 18. Similarly, Deuteronomy 32:8-9 casts Yahweh in the role of one of the sons of El, called elyon” (Smith, Mark 7).
“When the Most High (elyon) gave to the nations their inheritance, when he separated humanity, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of divine beings. For Yahweh’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage” (Smith, Mark 7).
Smith goes on to explain that this passage shows that each deity received its own nation and that Israel was the nation that was received by Yahweh. Another indication, according to Smith, that Yahweh and El were the same is the fact that there are no biblical arguments against El. Israelite tradition identified El with Yahweh or presupposed this equality (Smith, Mark 8).
According to J. Tigay, the few proper names with the divine names of Anat and Asherah do not indicate a cult to these deities, with Baal as a possible exception. “Just as no cult is attested for Anat or Asherah in Israelite religion, so also there is no distinct cult attested for El except in his identity as Yahweh” (Smith, Mark 8-9, emphasis mine).
“It is highly likely that Abraham’s God was El, the High God of Canaan. The deity introduces himself to Abraham as El Shaddai (El of the Mountain), which was one of El’s traditional titles. The name of the Canaanite High God is preserved in such Hebrew names as Isra-El or Ishma-El” (Armstrong 14).
The Old Testament is full of references to El. For example, Genesis 32:30 reads “And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.” In the original Hebrew the name used here for God is El. Other references make use of the name Yahweh.
According to the Bible, Baal worship was threatening to Israel from the time of the Judges down to the monarchy. 1 Kings 11:4 assumes that this was the case for Solomon’s reign.
“For it came to pass, when Solomon was old, that his wives turned away his heart after other gods: and his heart was not perfect with the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father” (KJV).
Names that contain the name of Baal such as Jerubbaal, Ishbaal and Meribbaal, have been used as a basis for the theory that Israelite society, including some among the royalty, saw the worship of Baal as a reasonable practice. Some scholars have even gone so far as to say that Baal was a name for Yahweh and that the cult of Baal co-existed with the cult of Yahweh (Smith, Mark 41).
The Bible intimates that Baal, and to a lesser extent Asherah (see below), are separate deities, but there is no such characterization of Anat. Except for the use of personal names, Anat does not appear in the Bible. Anat was a Goddess in parts of Egypt, but there is no evidence to prove that She was a Goddess in Israel. There are many similarities between the Goddess Anat and the God Yahweh, as a comparison of many biblical passages with Ugaritic passages will show. For example Isaiah 59:15-19 from the Bible and CTA 3.2 3-30 both describe the bloodiness of a warring deity, Anat and Yahweh respectively. Many scholars believe that Anat was assimilated into the personage of Yahweh (Smith, Mark 60-64).
Numerous biblical passages “indicate that the devotion to the cult symbol known as the asherah, a wooden pole of some sort, and the religious items collectively called the asherim was observed as early as the period of the Judges and as late as a few decades before the fall of the southern kingdom” (Smith, Mark 80).
According to Smith, the asherah was a wooden object that symbolized a tree. Trees were considered to be a symbol of the Goddess and represented Her presence.
“The biblical and classical witnesses may point to a common Canaanite tradition. Was the tree originally the symbol of the goddess, and did the pole substituting for a tree secondarily come to be a symbol of the asherah? In this case, the symbol developed originally from the cultic use of an actual tree. This interpretation underlies the proposal of Albright that BH elah may be derived from the epithet of Asherah, ilt, ‘goddess.’ Both Hebrew elah and Ugaritic il are grammatically feminine singular nouns corresponding to the masculine forms el in Hebrew and il Ugaritic. (Both Hebrew el and Ugaritic il are generic words for ‘god’ and designations for the god ‘El'” (Smith, Mark 83).
Was Asherah an Israelite Goddess? If so, was She the consort of Yahweh or perhaps the information we have points to the asherah as a symbol within the cult of Yahweh without indicating a Goddess? A majority of scholars hold with the idea that Asherah was indeed an Israelite Goddess. Smith writes that the question of “whether the symbol represented a goddess who was Yahweh’s consort requires an appeal to the biblical evidence…” (Smith, Mark 89). Genesis 49:25 may indicate that Asherah was the consort of El rather than of Yahweh at some point in early Israelite religion:
“Even by the God of the 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;”
“Olyan’s argument that Asherah became Yahweh’s consort by virtue of the identification of Yahweh and El has provided a viable explanation for the development of the cult of Yahweh and his Asherah. Indeed a number of biblical passages have been cited in defense of the reconstruction that Asherah was a Goddess in Israel,” see 1 Kings 18:19, 2 Kings 21:7, 2 Kings 23:4, Judges 3:7, and Jeremiah 2:27 (Smith, Mark 89).
As discussed earlier, there are features of El and Baal that can be seen in the nature of Yahweh. Likewise, “it is possible to trace some female images for Yahweh to the Goddess Asherah or at least Her symbol, the asherah” (Smith, Mark 103).
In 722 BCE King Sargon II conquered the northern kingdom and the ten tribes of Israel disappeared from history forever. Meanwhile, the tiny kingdom of Judah lived in fear of annihilation. It was here that Isaiah prayed in the temple. He was probably afraid that the religion of Israel had lost its integrity and meaning. Suddenly he found himself having visions of Yahweh attended by two of the seraphim. “Holy! holy! holy is Yahweh Sabaoth. His glory fills the whole earth” they cried, covering their faces with their wings for fear of seeing his face (Isaiah 6:3). The word “holy,” as used today, carries with it connotations of moral superiority. This is quite different from the original meaning of the word in Hebrew. The word used here for “holy” is the Hebrew word kaddosh which means something closer to “otherness.” So, in effect, the seraphim were saying, “Yahweh is other! other! other!” Not only other, but one! (Armstrong 40-41).
This “Other” God of Israel (Yahweh) revealed Himself in current events rather than in mythology. By doing so, He set Himself apart from the “pagan” Gods and Goddesses. The prophets of Yahweh taught that political events were revealing the God who would later become the lord and master of history.
To the Egyptians, Babylonians and other peoples of the day, the major powers of nature each existed as an individual God or Goddess. “The storm was the Storm-God, the sun the Sun-God, the rain the Rain-God”. The Jews, as did their pagan counterparts, viewed God as a personal God. The Jews, however, differed in focusing this personalism in a single supreme will. To them, nature was an expression of the single Lord of all things (Smith, Huston 273-4).
Monotheism brought a very different focus into life. “If God is that to which one gives oneself unreservedly, to have more than one God is to have a life of divided loyalties” (Smith, Huston 275). Smith goes on to explain that if life is not to be spent going around discovering “who is in charge” that day; that there must be a consistent way that life is to be lived. If it is to be constantly moving toward fulfillment, then there must be a singleness toward this “Other” that supports his way (Smith, Huston 274-275).
We can see that attributes and actions of many different Gods and Goddesses have been assimilated into the personage of Yahweh. Obviously this is a process that did not occur “overnight”, but rather through several generations of ancient Israelites. It is this assimilation that eventually caused the prophets to declare:
“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One”(Deuteronomy 6:4).
The question of whether the God who revealed Himself to Moses in the burning bush is the same God who revealed Himself to Abraham remains a mystery. So it is with the questions of the relationship of El, Baal, Anat, and Asherah to Yahweh. No amount of archeological evidence or ancient literature will ever answer this question fully for us. After all, the only evidence we really have, comes from people who, like the rest of us, are fallible human beings.
Copyright © 1993 Michael Walden. All Rights Reserved.
Armstrong, Karen, A History of God: The 4000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, New York, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1993.
Herdner, A. (CTA) Corpus des tablettes en cuneiformes alphabetiques de couvertes a Ras Shamra-Ugarit de 1929 a 1939. Mission de Ras Shamra 10. Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1963.
Smith, Huston, The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions, New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 1991.
Smith, Mark S., The Early History of God: YAHWEH and the OTHER DEITIES in ANCIENT ISRAEL. New York, NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 1990.
Miller, Patrick D., Jr., Hanson, Paul D., and McBride, S. Dean, eds. Ancient Israelite Religion. By et al. Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1987.
Stong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, James Strong, LL.D.,S.T.D., Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984. Page 42 of Hebrew & Chaldee Dictionary.
You will note that I have consistently capitalized the words “Gods/Goddesses”, certain titles like “Mother of the Gods”, and pronouns such as He and She when used in reference to a deity (except in quotations). While not traditional, I do not believe this to be incorrect. I do so out of respect for the deities involved.
Information from Encyclopedia Of Gods: Over 2,500 Deities of the World by Michael Jordan. Facts On File: New York, NY, 1993. Italics mine – MW.
This verse, as well as any others from here out, are from the Authorized King James Version of the Bible.
See Judges 3:7; 6:25-30, Exodus 34:13; Deuteronomy 7:5; 12:3; 16:21, Isaiah 17:8; 27:9; Jeremiah 17:2; Micah 5:13 etc. – (Smith, Mark 80).
You will notice that much of the following text appeared in my first paper (with the proper citations of course).
It is my opinion that the truth will only be known when we give up our earthly shells. There are far to many people with hidden agendas investigating questions of this type. I suppose that this is one of the reasons that many people are taught to simply have faith and not to try to find the answers – I feel that when we we finally do have the answers, we will understand that our minds couldn’t have handled it in earthly life. M.W.
This citation was taken from The Early History of God by Mark Smith in his list of abbreviations.