Were the Ancient Israelites Henotheistic?
Henotheism – the worship of one god without denying the existence of other gods.
Throughout the Christian Bible we see that God warned his people Israel to never worship other gods. In Exodus 2:2-3 he said:
2 I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery.
3 You shall have no other gods before me.
Some translations say “You shall have no other god except me.” Notice that God does not say that no other gods exist. In many passages the God of the Bible makes a declaration that he is the only god that one should worship:
You shall have no other gods before Me.
Let there be no strange god among you;
Nor shall you worship any foreign god.
You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me…
Nowhere in these passages does Yahweh deny the existence of other gods. He is warning his people that the worship of these other gods will cause him to punish them. Exodus 34:14 and Deuteronomy 5:9 describe Yahweh as a jealous god; he even says his name is Jealous. If Yahweh himself was the only god of the universe, why then wouldn’t he just say so? Why state that he is jealous? Jealous of whom? It makes no sense that the all-powerful God of the universe would describe himself as jealous if there were no other gods to compete with.
Nearly every time that Yahweh does something to show his power, be it causing a plague to wipe out thousands of innocent people or sending his band of barbarians, the Israelites, to slaughter and rape innocent men, women, children, and babies, he usually ends his commands with “and they will know that I am the lord” or some variation of it:
Thus you will know that I am the Lord; for you have not walked in My statutes nor have you executed My ordinances, but have acted according to the ordinances of the nations around you.
Then I will take you for My people, and I will be your God; and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.
Thus I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and he will chase after them; and I will be honored through Pharaoh and all his army, and the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord.” And they did so.
Anytime the word LORD is spelled in all capital letters in any translation of the English Bible, the Hebrew word is Yahweh. He really wants people to know his name. Why does he talk like this? According to the Bible, Israel saw their god do many amazing things: parting the Red Sea, sending manna from heaven, creating a pillar of fire and smoke, causing countless military victories, and keeping the Sun in the sky so Joshua’s forces could finish off their enemies. Despite witnessing these “miracles,” the Israelites always turned to a different god or gods and worshiped them for a while until Yahweh punished them to bring them back to him. It seems as though Yahweh was his own hype man. He has to repeat himself over and over to his own people.
In Exodus 7:8-13, Yahweh orders Moses to have Aaron challenge the Pharaoh’s magicians to a supernatural contest. Aaron is to cast down his staff to show his god’s power. He does so, and the staff turns into a snake. The Pharaoh’s magicians are not impressed by this trick, and they cast down their own staffs that become snakes as well. Not willing to be outdone, Yahweh’s snake devours the magicians’ snakes. Though it is not clearly stated, one can assume that the Egyptian magicians achieved their mastery of magic with the help of their gods. In this story, Yahweh does not claim that the magic used by the Egyptians doesn’t exist, nor is he denying the existence of the Egyptian gods. He is using Aaron to show that he is more powerful than anyone or anything in Egypt, including their gods.
A look into the origins of Yahweh and the beliefs of ancient Semitic people may shed light on his odd behavior. The ancient Semitic people are defined as the group of people who would diversify into all of the nations of the Near East. Bernard E. Lewis explains the ancient Semitic people in his paper “Who are the Semites?”:
It was not until 1781 that this group was given the name which it has retained ever since. In that year, August Ludwig Schlozer contributed an essay on this subject to a comprehensive German work on biblical and Oriental literature. According Schlozer, “from the Mediterranean Sea to the Euphrates and from Mesopotamia down to Arabia, as is known, only one language reigned. The Syrians, Babylonians, Hebrews and Arabs were one people. Even the Phoenicians who were Hamites spoke this language, which I might call the Semitic.”
The people who would become Israel did not always worship Yahweh. They worshiped a god called El. El was described as the supreme god. He and his pantheon were worshiped not only by the people of Israel, but across the Near East. According to Mark S. Smith, a New Testament scholar with a Ph.D. in Ancient Near Eastern Languages:
In early Israel, the cult of Yahweh generally held sway. However, this statement does not fully characterize pre-exilic Israelite religion as a whole. Rather, Israelite religion apparently included worship of Yahweh, El, Asherah, and Baal.
During the Judges period, the major deities in the territory of Israel included Yahweh, El, Baal, and perhaps Asherah.
Israelite inclusion of Yahweh into the older figure of El was not syncretistic insofar as El belonged to Israel’s original religious heritage. If syncretism was involved, it was a syncretism of various Israelite notions, and one that the prophets ultimately applauded.
…Israelite and Canaanite cultures shared a great deal in common, and religion was no exception. Deities and their cults in Iron Age Israel represented aspects of the cultural continuity with the indigenous Late Bronze Age culture and the contemporary urban culture on the coast and in the valleys. The examples of El, Baal, and the symbol of the asherah illustrate this continuity for the period of the Judges.
…Yahweh, originally a warrior-god from Sinai/Paran/Edom/Teiman, was known separately from El at an early point in early Israel. Perhaps due to trade with Edom/Midian, Yahweh entered secondarily into the Israelite highland religion.
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, *’ēl. This fact would suggest that El was the original chief god of the group named Israel.
There are pieces of this history left over in the Bible. El (also known as El Elyon) was described as “the Most High God” by the early Semitic peoples. The title of “Most High God” is also sometimes attributed to Ba’al as well:
Deuteronomy 32:8-9 casts Yahweh in the role of one of the sons of El, here called ‘elyên.
Let’s look at Deuteronomy 32:8-9:
8 When the Most High assigned lands to the nations,
when he divided up the human race,
he established the boundaries of the peoples
according to the number in his heavenly court.
9 For the people of Israel belong to the Lord;
Jacob is his special possession.
Verse 8 states that when El Elyon granted lands to the nations, he did so according to “the number in his heavenly court.” Verse 9 states that the people of Israel belong to the LORD or Yahweh. This indicates polytheism, as there are at least 2 deities mentioned by name, El Elyon and Yahweh, and others are implied. We can assume that, since Yahweh received Jacob or Israel as his “special possession,” the unnamed deities included in the “heavenly court” received their own nations as their “special possession.” As mentioned, El Elyon and his celestial family were worshipped across the Near East. The Amorite people’s deity of choice in the Bible was Ba’al. The ancient Amorite text called Ras Shamra states that El Elyon was the father of Ba’al and his wife’s name was Asherah. There is biblical evidence that acknowledges that Yahweh was one of the sons of El Elyon:
- God presides in the great assembly; he renders judgment among the gods:
- How long will you defend the unjust and show partiality to the wicked?
- Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
- Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
- The gods know nothing, they understand nothing. They walk about in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
- I said, You are gods; you are all sons of the Most High.
- But you will die like mere mortals; you will fall like every other ruler.
- Rise up, O God, judge the earth, for all the nations are your inheritance.
According to verse 1, God (Yahweh) presides among the great assembly and renders judgment with the other gods. Verse 6 again confirms that the other gods worshiped by the ancient Semitic people are derived from El Elyon, the Most High God. In verse 7, the psalmist, probably Asaph, claims that the gods are mortal; one can also assume that this applies to Yahweh. He seems to be frustrated with Yahweh’s “siblings,” even passing judgment on them in verse 7. In verse 8, the psalmist implies that Yahweh was no longer content with just his “special possession” Jacob (Israel), and he crowns him ruler of all of the Earth, claiming it as his inheritance. El Elyon could not have fathered his 70 god sons without his goddess wife Asherah:
S. Olyan has demonstrated that Asherah was a goddess paired with El, and this pairing was bequeathed to Israelite religion by virtue of the Yahweh-El identification. This reconstruction is consistent with the evidence of Genesis 49:25..
This goddess is known from several other Ancient Near Eastern cultures. Sometimes she is known as “Lady Asherah of the Sea” but could be taken as “She who walks on the sea.” As Athirat, a cognate name for Asherah, she is mother of 70 children (this relates to the Jewish idea of the 70 guardian angels of the nations). Arguments have been made that Asherah is a figure in Egyptian, Hittite, Philistine and Arabic texts. Egyptian representations of “Qudshu” (potentially the Egyptian name for Asherah) show her naked with snakes and flowers, sometimes standing on a lion. Whether this should be interpreted as Asherah is contested and thus should be viewed with caution. Another suggestion is Asherah is also the Hittite goddess Asertu, who is married to Elkunirsa, the storm god (she is often viewed in connection with the regional storm god).
There are many mentions of Asherah in the Hebrew Bible. Most of these verses condemn her worship because by the time it was written, the predecessors of the Israelites had merged the Semitic pantheon of gods to create Yahweh. Several of these verses mention Asherah poles, which were sacred trees or poles that stood near Canaanite religious locations to honor the Ugaritic mother goddess Asherah, consort of El. Let us look at a few of these verses:
2 Kings 23:14
He smashed the sacred pillars and cut down the Asherah poles. Then he desecrated these places by scattering human bones over them.
2 Kings 21:7
Manasseh even made a carved image of Asherah and set it up in the Temple, the very place where the Lord had told David and his son Solomon: “My name will be honored forever in this Temple and in Jerusalem—the city I have chosen from among all the tribes of Israel.
They will no longer look to their idols for help or worship what their own hands have made. They will never again bow down to their Asherah poles or worship at the pagan shrines they have built.
2 Chronicles 15:16
King Asa even deposed his grandmother Maacah from her position as queen mother because she had made an obscene Asherah pole. He cut down her obscene pole, broke it up, and burned it in the Kidron Valley.
There is no doubt that the ancient people who would become Israel were polytheists; even the name Israel has El Elyon’s name in it, not Yahweh’s name. The Israelites took what their ancestors had believed and altered it. They made their own theology and created their own God by combining the pantheon of gods that their forefathers revered into one composite deity, Yahweh. The rest of the Semitic peoples, known in the Bible as the Canaanites, did the same. For them the change was simpler; El Elyon, the god that their ancestors revered, was the father and Asherah, the Queen of Heaven, was his wife and the mother of their preferred god Ba’al. The Israelites and Canaanites had more in common than they thought. Both groups acknowledged each other’s deities.
Were the Israelites henotheistic? All the evidence seems to indicate that they were. According to the examples presented above, the reason Yahweh could never denounce the existence of other gods is that he himself was the conflation of El Elyon, Asherah, and possibly Ba’al, or possibly a product of El Elyon and Asherah’s union. Having their god denounce his own precursors would make no sense to a Jewish audience. They knew of their history and the stories that their ancestors passed down. They were taught the ways of their forefathers from infancy and often reverted to what was comfortable to them (Jeremiah 44:16-19). Yahweh would then punish them to bring them back to him, and the cycle would repeat over and over again.
There is still much we don’t know about ancient history, as much has been lost to time. However, there is one thing that we can know for certain: all of the gods that were worshipped by the Semitic peoples, and all of the gods revered and respected throughout history, were man-made.
The Semitic pantheon is only one example of man creating gods to understand his world.
The ancient Greeks had scores of gods. For example, they did not understand where lightning and thunder came from, and personified it in the form of Zeus. Zeus and the rest of the pantheon were worshipped by the Greek world for 1,200 to 1,300 years, from the 9th or 8th century BCE to the 4th century CE. As knowledge of the world increased, reverence of the Greek pantheon of gods decreased.
Poseidon was god of the sea, earthquakes, storms, and horses, and is considered one of the most bad-tempered, moody, and greedy of the Olympian gods. He was known to be vengeful when insulted. The Greeks had no understanding of why the sea was tumultuous at times and calm at others. They knew nothing of geology or plate tectonics, so they created a god to fill in their gaps of knowledge.
The Semitic people were no different. They had no idea of how the universe came about and knew very little about how anything in nature actually worked. They, like the Greeks and most other cultures on Earth, gave agency to the things that they did not understand, thereby creating gods. The evidence is clear; the Semitic gods didn’t make man in his image, nor did any other gods; we made them in our image and endowed them with all of our fears, prejudices, and failings.
 Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Henotheism. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. <https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/henotheism>.
 For more scriptural references to Yahweh’s command to worship no other gods, see: Deuteronomy 5:7; Exodus 23:24; Deuteronomy 6:14; 1 Kings 11:10; Deuteronomy 7:16; Exodus 23:32; Exodus 23:13; Joshua 23:7; Deuteronomy 28:14; Deuteronomy 8:19; Deuteronomy 5:9; Exodus 34:14; Jeremiah 35:15; Jeremiah 25:6; 2 Kings 17:35; 2 Kings 17:38; Deuteronomy 4:19; Deuteronomy 12:30; Exodus 23:32.
 Bernard E. Lewis, “Who are the Ancient Semites? A Historian Traces the Origins of the Term” (n.d.). My Jewish Learning website. <https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/who-are-the-semites/>.
 Ellen White, “Asherah and the Asherim: Goddess or Cult Symbol? Exploring the Biblical and Archaeological Evidence” (November 4, 2014), Bible History Daily. <https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/ancient-cultures/ancient-israel/asherah-and-the-asherim-goddess-or-cult-symbol/>.
 Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2008). Greek Religion (Ancient Religion). In Encyclopaedia Britannica online. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/Greek-religion>.
 Greek Gods & Goddesses. (2014). Poseidon. In Greek Gods & Goddesses online. <https://greekgodsandgoddesses.net/gods/poseidon/>.
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