The religion of ancient Israel and Judah was polytheism
The Kings of Israel and Judah worshipped other gods, and this was the norm, and the God of the Jews evolved gradually from the Canaanite El, who was in all likelihood the God of Abraham. The Israelite religion was therefore polytheistic in accordance with general Canaanite beliefs and practices. Increased knowledge about the Canaanite religions, especially of the pantheon around the Canaanite senior deity El and the various local cults in Syro-Palestine therefore assists in a better understanding of early Israelite religion. This is because the gods worshipped by the early Israelites were those initially identified with the Canaanite pantheon of gods and only subsequently metamorphosed into the worship of Yahweh and monotheism.
The major gods of the Canaanite Pantheon were El, Asherah, Baal and Anat.
- El was the supreme god, the father of humankind and of all creatures and the husband of the goddess Asherah as recorded in the clay tablets of Ugarit. He was a fatherly, compassionate figure reminiscent of an old man on a throne.
- Baal was the weather god and Anat his consort.
- Astarte was another goddess associated with Assyria.
- Asherah, sometimes referred to as the Queen of Heaven, was the consort or wife of El (and later the wife of Baal when he became the supreme deity of the pantheon) and the highest of all the goddesses. She was the lady acolyte of the sea, and the mother of the gods, the co-creator of all things, the divine nurturer of the pantheon, and the goddess of milk, life and vitality.
- Astarte (another goddess associated with Assyria), however, seems to have been more closely identified with flocks and herds than the overall fertility of the region. The myths that were developed concerning these deities held close parallels to the events of nature that brought the rains to the Canaanite lands. Evidence for the worship of Asherah has been found in Shiloh and Beth-el, especially in the high places where sacrifices were made which so outraged the priesthood of Yahweh.
What is known of the mythology from Ugarit centres on how Baal supplanted El as the supreme god of the pantheon. In the course of his conquests, he also overthrew two other gods: Yamm, Prince of the Sea, and Mot, a deity representing death. El, a name meaning “god” that is found almost universally in Semitic cultures, was regarded as a personal god rather than some type of divine force. He is identified in the texts as the creator of the universe. However, despite being a personal god, he was seen as remote from creation. Asherah, as his designated wife, was called “the Mother of the Gods” and was said to have borne seventy sons. With the apparent exception of Baal, whose parentage is uncertain, all gods of the Ugarit myths were born to El and Asherah Although El had two wives, Anat in addition to Asherah, it was Asherah alone who nursed the newly born gods .
Yahweh was worshipped in northern and central Canaan before Judah and was incorporated into the Canaanite Pantheon as the son of god. In the fullness of time, he became the major god. There are different manifestations of Yahweh, and the Bible itself is contradictory. Was he a younger god of Canaan; a deity of the Qenite (Kenite) or Midianite tribes; or a southern manifestation of El, from this emerging the notion of Yahweh as the jealous God? The children of Israel came to know Yahweh from the burning bush, and Deuteronomy Chs 32, 33 says that he came from Sinai. He was also known as the El who is present, or alternatively simply the one who is.
The Kenite or Midianite reference recalls an old tradition that Moses was a historical Midianite who brought the cult of Yahweh north to Israel. This idea was originally suggested by Cornelius Tiele in 1872 and remains the standard view among modern scholars. In its classical form as suggested by Tiele, it is based upon on an old tradition, recorded in Judges 1:16, 4:11, that Moses went to the land of Midian to marry, and first encountered YHWH while he was living in Midian with his father-in-law, a Midianite or Kenite priest of Yahweh, thus preserving a memory of the Midianite origin of a god who was worshipped in southern Canaan (Edom, Moab, Midian) from the 14th century BCE as a member of the Canaanite Pantheon of gods and goddesses. This southern manifestation of Yahweh in due course became the Jewish god Yahweh. While the role of the Kenites in the transmission of the cult is widely accepted, the historical role of Moses finds less support in modern scholarship.
It is also possible, says Dijkstra, that Yahwism may have originated simultaneously in Canaan and in north Sinai, perhaps as far as the eastern Delta of Egypt. One of these local forms preserving the traditions of oppression in Egypt and the Exodus experience went with Moses and the tribe of Levi from Egypt to Transjordan and was ultimately introduced into Canaan where it merged with local Israelite forms of early Yahwism. The scanty evidence for such local forms comes from different tribal traditions in the books of Judges and Samuel.
 Unless otherwise indicated, the substance of this section is drawn from Dr Susanne Glover’s The Hebrew Bible in Crisis course, Lecture 4, and other sources mentioned in the text and the footnotes.
 Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas, University of Chicago Press, 1978 (1985) Volume 1, pp 150-151.
 Ibid, p 151;
 For material on the Kenite hypothesis, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yahweh_%28Canaanite_deity%29
 Dijkstra, op cit, 98-102, esp 100.