Were the Jews really monotheistic?

It is only really in the twentieth century that we have come to appreciate that not all in the Old Testament should be read as assuming monotheism, for tin fact there are occasional passages (e.g.  Ps 86:8; 97:7-9) which imply the existence of other gods. (David Brown – Professor St Andrews previously Durham and Oxford)

For at least some of the early leaders, however, this power that strengthened them was not the supreme God, but merely one god among many, even if he was perhaps more powerful than the others.  This belief that there were many gods, though only one supporting the Hebrews, is found in the account of Jephthah’s dealings with the Ammonites (Judges 11, especially verse 24) … The likelihood is that such a belief was widespread among the early Hebrews.  In a psalm (95:3) constantly recited by Christians it is stated that “God is a great king above all gods”.  (William Montgomery Watt – Professor Edinburgh)

There are numerous biblical texts which seem to yield at least circumstantial evidence that cults of the dead were part of ancient Israelite society.  (Theodore Lewis)

[1 Samuel 28]  In view of the Deuteronomistic legal material forbidding the practice of necromancy (see above) it is extremely odd that the Deuteronomist has preserved a tale about necromancy rather than suppressing it.  what is even more surprising is that he does not even attempt to discredit the efficacy of the practice.  While he may have suppressed the details of the necromancer’s craft (nothing is said of how the woman actually engaged the spirits of the dead), he left intact the description of the spirit of Samuel coming up from the underworld!  The most likely answer would be that the tale of Saul’s encounter was so well known that the Deuteronomist could not possibly suppress it.  If such were the case the only alternative left to the Deuteronomist would be to use the episode to articulate Saul’s demise (and David’s rise), one of his primary occupations. (Theodore Lewis)

Consulting the dead was a practice well-known to the prophets we have looked at who refer to it in various ways.  It has been shown that Isaiah of Jerusalem, as well as the person(s) responsible for collecting the oracles against the nations, used necromantic imagery with pejorative overtones.  (Theodore Lewis)

In summary, the prophetic material supports what we have seen in the Deuteronomistic literature.  Necromancy and death cult practices such as self-laceration or displaying pgrm seem to have been common.  The prophets pick up on much of this imagery and use it for their own specific purposes.  While some of the images are symbolic and not to be taken literally, the imagery still reflects the existence of such practices in some forms of “popular religion”.  (Theodore Lewis)

Ancient Israel shared a solidarity with the other cultures of the ancient Near East and it should not be surprising to find cults of the dead such as we have in the Ugaritic and Mesopotamic literature.  (Theodore Lewis)

The present study would be incomplete without a final note on the rationale underlying the normative Yahwistic attitude towards cults of the dead.  It has been stated on numerous occasions in the present work that acts such as self-laceration, providing offering to the dead and conjuring the dead were all incompatible with the Yahwism that becomes normative and thus we find laws forbidding their practice.  Even though death cult practices continue to have a wide appeal in some forms of “popular religion,” adherent of normative Yahwism were result in their condemnation.  Deuteronomistic theology, for example, labels such blatant acts of disobedience against Yahweh as “abominations”.  (Theodore Lewis)

was the relationship between Yahweh and the Canaanite god El?  In the Old Testament Yahweh is frequently
called El.  The question is raised
whether Yahweh was a form of the god El from the beginning or whether they were
separate deities who were only equated later.
[one argument against Yahweh and El not being the same is that] in the
Ugaritic texts, the god El is revealed to be wholly benevolent in nature,
whereas Yahweh has a fierce as well as a kind side. (John Day – Professor

is interesting that the OT has no qualms in equating Yahweh with El, something
that stands in marked contrast to the vehement opposition to Baal, let alone
the equation of Yahweh with Baal.   (John
Day – Professor Oxford)

plausible case can be made that several of the El epithets referred to in
Genesis in connection with patriarchal religion do indeed derive from worship
of the Canaanite god El (El-Shaddai, El-Olam, El-Bethel, and possibly
El-Elyon).  Although no one can today
maintain that the patriarchal narratives are historical accounts, there are
ground for believing that their depiction of an El religion does reflect
something of a pre-monarchical religion, however much it has been overlaid by
later accretions.  In favour of a
pre-monarchic El religion among the Hebrews one may first of all note the very
name Israel, meaning provably “El will rule”, a name already attested in later
13th century BCE  on the stele
of the Egyptian pharaoh Merneptah.  (John
Day – Professor Oxford)


From the back of “gods and goddesses of Yahweh and the gods and goddesses of Canaan.  The work considers in detail the relationship between Yahweh and the various gods and goddesses of Canaan, including the leading gods El and Baal, the great goddesses (Asherah, Astarte and Anat), astral deities (sun, moon, Lucifer) and underworld deities (Mot, Resheph, Molech, and the Rephaim).  Day assesses both what Yahwinism assimilated from these deities and what it came to reject.  More generally he discusses the impact of Canaanite polytheism on Ancient Israel and how monotheism was eventually achieved.  (John Day – Professor Oxford)  [highlights added]

extraordinary innovation, the faceless, formless God of Jewish monotheism….
Slow to emerge from rival gods… clear that it took centuries for the Jews to
recognise their god as the one and only god.
(Simon Schama)

He was at the forefront of those investigating
the history and culture of ancient Israel and of its relationships to the ancient
Near Eastern and Mediterranean cultures around it. Especially incisive and
important was his work on the character and history of ancient Israelite
religion, emphasizing its background in and adaptation of beliefs and practices
from its Canaanite neighbors and forebears.
(Peter Machinist – Harvard – obituary of Cross)

In Israel, Yahweh was creator and judge

in the divine court. Other divine beings existed, but they were not

important; they exercised little authority or initiative. If they retained

a modicum of power, let’s say to heal or provide omens, the Israelite

was forbidden to make use of their power. (Frank Moore Cross – Professor Harvard)

Solomon grew old, his wives turned his heart after other gods, and his heart
was not fully devoted to the Lord
his God, as the heart of David his father had been. He
followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molek the detestable god
of the Ammonites. So Solomon did evil in the eyes of the Lord; he did not follow the Lord completely, as David his father had
done.On a hill east of Jerusalem, Solomon built a high place
for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the
Ammonites. He did the same for all his foreign wives, who burned
incense and offered sacrifices to their gods. (1 Kings 11)

Abraham, then, is the
father of a people, but not a teacher or a prophet or the founder of a
religion. Specifically, he is not—in the Bible, at least—what he is often
praised for being, the originator of monotheism. “At no point,” Levenson
underscores, “does Abraham utter even a word of testimony to the uniqueness,
incomparability, or exclusive claim of his God.” It is true that God singles
out Abraham and promises to care for him and his descendants forever: “an
everlasting covenant throughout the ages, to be God to you and to your
offspring to come.” But this does not mean that Abraham denies the existence of
all gods other than his own. On the contrary, the Bible shows him negotiating
with Canaanite kings who worship other gods; in Genesis 14, Abraham even
accepts the blessing of King Melchizedek in the name of a god called El Elyon,
“God Most High.” (from review of book by Daniel Leveson – Professor Harvard)

his vision of heaven ruled by God but populated by lesser divine beings and righteous souls may not seem to infringe on the core concept of monotheism. But among the inhabitants of heaven is an unexpected figure: God’s Bride. This divine figure is known as the Shekhinah. At first this term referred to God’s presence in this world, what is known as the Divine Presence. But by the thirteenth century, the term “Shekhinah,” which is feminine in gender, had come to mean “Bride of God” and the Shekhinah was openly identified as God’s spouse in the Zohar, the central text of Jewish mysticism.2 This is a major evelopment in terms of Jewish mythology, as the very notion of such a divine Bride is the essence of myth, echoing such pairs as Zeus and Hera in Greek mythology, and El and Asherah in the Canaanite. But the existence of such a figure, strongly resembling a Hebrew goddess, echoing the role attributed by some to Asherah in ancient Israel, raises the most elementary questions about her role in a monotheistic system.3 There are other unexpected echoes of polytheistic mythology to be found in Judaism. Genesis Rabbah, an important rabbinic text dating from the fourth or fifth century, speaks of a Council of Souls, apparently a council of heavenly deities, whom God consults with about the creation of the world and the creation of man. Here there is not one other divine figure, but multiple ones such as those found in pagan religions. Indeed, the Council of Souls is exactly like the divine council, led by the god El, who rules the world in Canaanite mythology. Such divine counsels rule in Mesopotamian and Babylonian mythologies as well.4 How could such a myth about multiple divinities be found in a mainstream rabbinic text such as Genesis Rabbah? Why was it not rejected as blasphemous? The answer is that Judaism is not, and never has been, a single stream of thought, but a river formed of many, often contradictory, streams, and rabbinic texts are composites of different kinds of thinking. There has been a perennial struggle in Judaism between the antimythic, monotheistic forces, and the kind of mythic forces that are prevalent in many kabbalistic texts. Therefore, in many mainstream rabbinic texts, including the Talmud and the Midrash, it is quite possible to find dualistic or even polytheistic configurations, such as this one about a Council of Souls, side by side with monotheistic texts. (Howard Abraham – Professor University Missouri)

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