The Bible is usually thought of being strictly monotheistic, but the OT is like an archaeological site, with several strata clearly identifiable. Some of these strata are clearly polytheistic as they have escaped the later heavy redaction.
As the base population of the Israelite tribal league was of Canaanite origin, as shown in my previous article on this blog, there is no reason to assume that they had abandoned the worship of their familiar gods, of whom ‘El was the chief one, as evidenced by the texts found in Ugarit. It is certainly very telling that in the segments of the OT judged to be the oldest, the theophoric element found in personal names is usually ‘-’el’ or ‘-shaddai’ – both originally independent deities, later assimilated into Yahweh – never ‘-jah’ or any other form of Yahweh. For example see Num. 1:1-15 and Num. 13:4-15.
Ba’al was another popular theophoric element in names (any personal name in the Bible that includes the element ‘-bosheth’ ['shame'], used to replace -’ba’al’ by later Yahwistic editors, betrays its Ba’alistic origin). There is a marked prevalence of the theophoric element -ba’al in personal names in Israelite ostraca of the Monarchy era, strongly suggesting the popularity of the Israelite cult of Ba’al.
Other gods known to have been worshipped were Sakkuth and Kaiwan. Amos (5:26) accuses the ‘the house of Israel’ of worshipping these gods who have been connected with the cult of Saturn. Molech, referred to in Jeremiah (32:35) and elsewhere was evidently a Canaanite god to whom people offered human sacrifice in the valley of Hinnom near Jerusalem (Day 1989).
Human sacrifice was also associated with the Yahwistic cult, one example being the story of Jephthah’s daughter at Judges 11:
And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord, and said, ‘If you will give the Ammonites into my hand, then whoever comes out of the doors of my house to meet me, when I return victorious from the Ammonites, shall be the Lord’s, to be offered up by me as a burnt-offering.’… Then Jephthah came to his home at Mizpah; and there was his daughter coming out to meet him with timbrels and with dancing. She was his only child; he had no son or daughter except her. When he saw her, he tore his clothes, and said, ‘Alas, my daughter! You have brought me very low; you have become the cause of great trouble to me. For I have opened my mouth to the Lord, and I cannot take back my vow.’ She said to him, ‘My father, if you have opened your mouth to the Lord, do to me according to what has gone out of your mouth, now that the Lord has given you vengeance against your enemies, the Ammonites.’ And she said to her father, ‘Let this thing be done for me: Grant me two months, so that I may go and wander on the mountains, and bewail my virginity, my companions and I.’ ‘Go,’ he said and sent her away for two months. So she departed, she and her companions, and bewailed her virginity on the mountains. At the end of two months, she returned to her father, who did with her according to the vow he had made.
Most references to Yahwistic human sacrifice have been purged, but in addition to this tale, there are the narrative of Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Isaac and the requirement of sacrificing every first-born except human ones, who were redeemable with an animal substitute sacrifice. This, however, is clearly a later substitution for the original sacrifice of the first-born son.
When and from where did Yahweh make his appearance in the Israelite pantheon?
All the extrabiblical textual evidence we have of Yahweh point directly to the south: the earliest mention of Yahweh is from the Soleb list of Amenhotep III (1386-1349 BCE) where the reading t3 šsw yhw (“Yhw in the land of the Shasu”) refers in all likelihood to Yahweh. The land of the Shasu would have been in the Sinai region. As the great Yahwistic cultural hero Moses is portrayed as having connections with the Midianites, who indeed roamed in south, it is likely that the Hebrews acquired Yahweh from one of these southern nomadic tribes, possibly the Midianites. It is likely that the worship of Yahweh was brought north by the Levites, who were returning to Palestine, toting a Sinaitic deity, Yahweh, with them. The Egyptian connection is shown in some Biblical names in the Levite genealogies: Moses is the same word as -mosis as in Thutmosis, and Pinehas is a clearly Egyptian name.
The clear parallels between the god of the ancestors described in Genesis 12:36 and the Canaanite ‘El are all the more striking when considered that the depiction of Israel’s God in Exodus and following is quite different from that found here. Beginning in Exodus, while many of the characteristics of ‘El are retained, Yahweh is now depicted with strong storm god and martial imagery not present in Genesis, imagery that shows that the merger with Ba’al has now happened. This suggests that the stories in Genesis have preserved genuine traditions of the more archaic religion of Israelites before they adopted Yahweh to their pantheon. Some of the attributes of Yahweh, like the epithet ‘cloud-riding’, were used of ‘El and are attested in the Ugaritic texts.
The Consort of Yahweh
Inscriptions mentioning Yahweh and His Asherah have been found in Kuntillet ‘Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom. “‘Uriyahu, the prosperous one (? or: ‘the chief’; or ‘the singer’), wrote this: A blessed man is ‘Uriyahu because of Yahweh – from his troubles He saved him through His Asherah.” (Mittman 1981) This inscription clearly associates Yahweh with a goddess, Asherah, and in all likelihood she was understood to be Yahweh’s consort. She is the same as ‘Aṯiraṭu of the Ugaritic pantheon.
Kuntillet ‘Ajrud pithos I
The Kuntillet ‘Ajrud picture of Yahweh and his Asherah consists of three anthropomorphic figures, of whom two are clearly male, and one clearly female.
The female figure may be the Mycenaean-derived seated goddess, whose images are mostly found in Philistine sites (so-called ‘Ashdoda’ figurine). On the other hand, the female figure is playing a lyre, and that is a well-known motif in Phoenician ivories. As is obvious, the picture is considerably hard to interpret. The inscriptions, however, are clear:
[...] says, say to Yehalle[lel], Yoashah, and [...]: I bless you Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah.”. “Amaryaw [says], say to my lord, Are you well? I bless you by Yahweh of [Teman] and his Asherah. May he bless you and keep you, and be with my lord [...]
Asherah in these inscriptions is clearly a deity and not a cult site or object, as often claimed by Christian apologists. Asherah may have been incorporated in the later Judaeo-Christian mythology as the Holy Spirit, resembling there the female counterpart/active force of the Hindu gods, sakti, and she certainly is present in the OT as the personified Wisdom of the Proverbs.
Later Cultic Practices And the Slowly Developing Monotheism
‘Yahweh-Only’ movement – the beginning of Hebrew monotheism – was born in the 8th century at the latest, and its aim was to suppress the worship of all the other gods, unless they were clearly subordinate to Yahweh (e.g. moved to a lesser status). No Semitic culture before the onset of this movement denied the existence of other gods, and the Yahweh and His Asherah – inscriptions make it very likely that many of the reviled ‘foreign’ deities mentioned in the OT were not foreign at all, but a genuine part of the original Israelite religion. Many OT texts, from the 12th century down to the Babylonian exile describe the divine court over which Yahweh presides as the council of the gods – the council/assembly of the gods is a very widespread Semitic idea, known from several Mesopotamian sources – the gods report and suggest strategy to Yahweh, praise Yahweh and are assessed by Yahweh, Deut. 32:8-9, Job 1:6- 2:10, Isa. 6, Pss 29:1-2 (This psalm was originally a Canaanite hymn), 82:1,6. In Monarchic theologies the subordinate gods administered other nations for Yahweh, Deut. 33:2-3, Josh. 5:13-14, Judg. 5:20 1 Kings 19:19-23.
Let’s take a closer look at Psalm 82:1, as it is the most polytheistic verse in the Bible:
אֱלֹהִים נִצָּב בַּעֲדַת-אֵל בְּקֶרֶב אֱלֹהִים יִשְׁפֹּט
’ĕlōhîm niṣṣāḇ ba‘ăḏaṯ-’ēl bəqereḇ ’ĕlōhîm yišəpōṭ
“God stands in the Assembly of ‘El, He judges among the gods.”
I know most Bibles do not translate it in this way – for obvious reasons – but that is what it says in Hebrew. As I prefer to treat ‘El in the verse as a proper name, it becomes very clearly polytheistic, as God is obviously not here the same as ‘El. Moreover, as in the Mesopotamian religion the above-mentioned Assembly of the Gods – puhur ilim in Akkadian – is a very important mythological feature, the same concept is presented here – also mentioned in the Book of Job.
Other practices and beings in the OT are clearly borrowed from neighbouring cultures. The Ark of the Covenant is described as having two cherubs (kərûḇîm) on the lid. These cherubs in all likelihood would have looked like the Babylonian winged bulls with human heads, the kurību. The Hebrew cherub and Akkadian kurību are basically the one and the same word, and since the word denotes a mythological being, odds are they looked the same. They’re protective spirits. In fact, the mention of the cherubs at the entrance of the Garden at is highly reminiscent of the colossal statues of kurību/lamassu/aladlammû on the sides of the entrance to a Mesopotamian palace. In 2 Sam 22:11 and Psalm 18:10 Yahweh is said to ride on them. This seems to support the theory they were not thought of as anthropomorphic beings. Identification of cherubs as angels is a very late one. ‘Angel’ usually translates malə’aḵ ‘messenger’, cherub is really no translation at all.
Both Israelite and Mesopotamian religion happen to belong in the same cultural continuum, and so you can find quite a lot of common elements in both of them, the Israelite mənōrâ and the Assyrian munawwir (same root in both words and the same function) being just another example.
The complaint of Jeremiah to the people that they worship strange gods finds a reply: “Instead, we will do everything that we have vowed, make offerings to the queen of heaven and pour out libations to her, just as we and our ancestors, our kings and officials, used to do in the towns of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. We used to have plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no misfortune. But from the time we stopped making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her, we have lacked everything and have perished by the sword and famine.” Jer. 44:17-18 There is no reason to assume anything other than this was an old practice that was only now being frowned upon by the ‘Yahweh Only’ radicals. That the worship of the Queen of Heaven (Ištar) was a widespread practice is evident from Assyrian sources: the name of the cakes used in this worship in Hebrew is ‘kaûānîm‘, a word cognate with the Akkadian ‘kamānu‘. The ‘kamānu‘ cakes were used in similar worship of Ištar, clearly pointing to the common origin of these rites.
Military defeat due to the wrath of a god is a very common Semitic thought. Whenever any one of these nations took a beating, it was due to Yahweh/Kemoš/Marduk/Aššur/[insert a god here] being angry with them. In the same way, victories were also credited to the favour of the god. The Exile was a major blow to the Israelite self-confidence, and the ‘Yahweh-Only’ people were quick to take advantage of it, blaming the worship of other gods. It is very clear that the above-mentioned worshippers of the Queen of Heaven saw the matter in very different light from the Yahweh-Only faction: they blamed the cessation of her worship for the catastrophe, as is evident from that same passage in Jeremiah. Psalm 44, which speaks of the Exile is certainly highly interesting. If you read it carefully, you will notice that the writer does not understand why Yahweh has abandoned his people: “Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way, yet you have broken us in the haunt of jackals and covered us with deep darkness.” (vss. 18-19)
The books of the OT have gone through several redactions, and the then current mode of worship has been set down as the ‘pure’ religion – contrast the late command to concentrate all sacrificial worship to the Temple of Jerusalem with practice of sacrificing on high places of various towns and having clearly independent sanctuaries. For example, in the story of David, David goes to the sanctuary at Nob where he and his men are given holy bread to eat (1 Sam. 21:1–6). Elsewhere Amos criticizes the Israelites because they offer sacrifices at Bethel and Gilgal but oppress the poor (Amos 4:1–5). The accusation that their sacrifices are insincere is a strong one; but Amos could have used a stronger argument – that Moses had explicitly forbidden any sacrifices except at the single Temple in Jerusalem. Amos did not use this argument because no such law existed in his time (the second half of the eighth century BCE). Interestingly, there were even two Jewish Temples founded by Egyptian Israelites in Elephantine and Leontopolis. The Elephantine Temple was founded around 500 BCE and the Leontopolis one c.a. 200 BCE.
The defeat and Exile was such a horrendous experience that the Jews were prepared to go any lengths in order not to anger Yahweh again. And as most of the returnees were the strict Yahwists, their interpretation of the cause of Yahweh’s anger became the ‘official’ one. There was an extensive redaction of most of the then existing texts and compilation to books (this process will be discussed in detail in a later article) to make them conform to the ‘party line’, and this process is why the OT is so uniform in condemning the worship of other gods.
- J. Day: Molech: a god of human sacrifice in the Old Testament (University of Cambridge Oriental Publications 41. Cambridge, 1988)
- K. Elliger & W. Rudolph, eds: Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1998)
- J. R. Hinnells: A Handbook of Ancient Religions (Cambridge, 2007)
- J. Lindenberger: Ancient Aramaic and Hebrew Letters (Atlanta, 2003)
- B. Metzger & M. Coogan (eds): The Oxford Companion to the Bible (Oxford, 1993)
- S. Mittman: Die Grabinschrift des Sängers Uriahu (ZDPV 97:139-152, 1981)
- W. Pitard: Voices from the Dust: The Tablets from Ugarit and the Bible (JSOT Supplement Series 341, 2002)
- How the Israelite Nation Was Born – And Why There Was No Exodus (plagueofmice.anarchic-teapot.net)