Jewish Beliefs About God
Ancient Israelite Polytheism?
Atheists (such as the one our questioner quotes) sometimes claim that Jewish beliefs about God evolved from more primitive, polytheistic religious systems. In this week’s answer, guest respondent Dr. Richard Hess highlights the distinctions one must make between the personal name of God, the titles of God, and the epithets used of God to properly understand the Old Testament text. Given these distinctions, the Bible clearly portrays the Ancient Israelites as monotheists, implying that traditional Jewish beliefs about God have their roots in revelation rather than polytheism.
One of my atheist friend recently sent me this question and information that I need help with:
Ancient Israel started out as a Polytheistic nation that latter ‘evolved’ into a Monotheistic Religion and that they blended their bibles (religious lore) and amalgamated their gods, El and Yahweh [Lord], into one single god. A thorough study of the Bible makes it clear that Yahweh is not the same as El. These were two different deities that were later synthesized in one. Yahweh originally was the god of war, the deity of Yahwism--a very old Bedouin religion of Arabia. His name is most likely the diminutive of “Yahweh Sabaoth.” Which means, “he musters armies.” A reference to that can be found in the Ex 15:3: “Yahweh is a warrior. Yahweh is his NAME.” He is the exclusive God of the Hebrews (Ex. 7:16) and it is him who plays all sorts of trick and punishes the Pharaoh and the Egyptians. It is again Yahweh who acts as the commander in chief when the Israelis led by Moses and then by Joshua invade nation after nation, massacring them and pillaging their towns and pledges to make them victories over their enemies whose lands were promised to the Jews (Ex. 23:27-33). Yahwism was the religion of Judah the tribe that settled in southern regions of Palestine and from there it must have spread to the rest of Arabia. Yahweh is basically a chieftain very much concerned to find new homes for his clan and assist them in their wars. The old version of Yahwism was the religion of Ancient Arabia.
The god of Jacob however, was El. El was worshipped in Aramea were Jacob came from (Deut 26:5). Therefore Israelites are originally Arameans. And El was worshiped in the kingdom of Israel. Psalms 82 leaves no doubt that indeed El and Yahweh are two distinct gods. This short chapter is the minutes taken at the counsel of gods where Yahweh is presiding. These are all sons of El, the Most High. Yahweh is admonishing other gods, rebuking them and firing them for being inept. In fact he reminds them that they are the sons of the Almighty (Elyon). This makes it clear that Yahweh is not the Most High. The Most High is El or Elyon, Yahweh’s father and the father of all the gods. At the end he cast an ominous condemnation at his sibling gods and warns them that they shall die like Mortals. The Bible does not say whether these gods actually died but Yahweh [LORD] calls upon The Most High [Elyon] to rise up, judge the Earth, for all the nations belong to him. Psalms 82: 6-8: “I say, ‘You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.’ Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!”
Firing all the gods, condemning them to death and monopolizing the power in the hands of El must have been a political move by the Israel to impose its hegemony over other nations. It is possible that this decision was taken during the kingship of Jeroboam I on behalf of the Elyon to establish the superiority of Israel over Judah and most likely other nations. Though the Psalms 82 is politically motivated, its implication on history of monotheism and the subsequent monotheistic religions is immense. From this moment on, Elyon, the sky god, the most high is to rule the entire world single handedly without the help of intermediaries. This psalm does not head off monotheism right away. But it levels the terrain for the direct rule of one god over all the nations. With this psalm the seed of monotheism is planted but the fruit of that will be harvested when Paul travels to Rome and Athens to present the Jewish god as the god of all humanity and the same god worshipped by the Athenians and Romans (Act 17: 22, 23).
The verses in Deut 32: 8 and 9 reaffirm the existence of multiple Gods -- Each of which is in charge of a nation. The following translation is from New Revised Standard 32: 8-9: “When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods; the Lord’s own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.” This verse in other versions is translated differently. In the Hebrew Names Version of World English Bible we read: “When Ha`Elyon gave to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the children of men, He set the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the children of Yisra’el. For the LORD’s portion is his people; Ya`akov is the lot of his inheritance.” Here is clear that the Most High is the Elyon. But unlike the translation in NRS it says that the nations of the world were divided according to the number of the children of Israel and not according to the number of the gods. Elyon (Upper, Most High) is a name for the God of Israel, among others. It may also be a pre-Biblical deity in which the Hebrews had believed. Compare the Aramaic deity Ilyaan in cuneiform scripts. (Ilyaan = Elyon just as Hebrew olam = Arabic ‘aalam, “world”). So Elyon can be translated as “Most High”, but if you’re writing an article on Bible criticism then you can mention Elyon as the name of a previous deity.
“In the numbers of the children of Israel” is correct -- it refers to the 70 children of Israel who are mentioned in the very opening of Exodus. That is the meaning, which both critical and pious (like Rashi, the 11th century commentator on the Torah, parallel to the Jalaalain of Islam) gave, but the critical commentators also allow for it to mean “in the number of the sons of El.” El was a Canaanite deity and had 70 sons.
Wherever “elohim” appears in the Bible, the Greeks translated it as “ho theos” (God, Latin Deus), whereas “YHWH” they translated “ho kyrios” (master, Lord, Latin Dominus). The God of the Hebrews has many names: Elohim (plural of elo[a]h = Arabic ilaah), El, YHWH, Shaddai. They may be names of previous separate male deities (there were also female deities, such as “tehom”, abyss in Genesis 1, which is Babylonian tiamat, the Sea Godess if I recall correctly). There is little doubt the ancient Hebrews believed in many gods, but gradually a single Skygod became supreme among them eventually excluding their existence altogether. What we have in the Bible is edited material striving to wipe out the old polytheism, so we have to discern the old belief through a filter. Whether the children of Israel were tossed from one god to another is unclear -- a possibility, but don’t count on verifying it through all this filtering.
So if you could please help me with this question and information. Thank you and God bless you.
When I receive an interesting question in an area outside my specialization, I sometimes like to invite a guest scholar who is an expert in the area to respond to the question. This week’s answer comes from Dr. Richard Hess, who is the Earl S. Kalland Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Denver Seminary and is an expert in ancient Israelite religion. His reply follows:
You raise some very important issues in your question. Given its length, allow me to divide it into some of the major concerns and address them.
You begin with an evaluation that a significant number of current Old Testament scholars hold; that Israel began as a polytheistic nation and evolved into one which followed a monotheistic religion. Different scholars cite different pieces of evidence for this. You summarize some of the major arguments, which I will attempt to deal with here. Before I do that, allow me to note that I do believe that some Israelites believed in many gods, of which Yahweh was one. However, there is also evidence inside and outside the Bible that there were other Israelites who believed in a single deity.
Please distinguish between a personal name of a deity, a title of a deity, and an epithet.
In the Bible “Yahweh” is a personal name, revealed as such in Exodus 6:2-8. “Yahweh” appears in a number of early Israelite poems (Exodus 15, Deuteronomy 33, Judges 5) where he is associated with the southern desert and with a warrior deity. A god named “Yahweh” may well have been known in this area, as suggested by one early inscription and by the connection of Moses’ father-in-law Jethro and his clan with the God of Israel (Exodus 3:1; 18:1, 12). The manner in which Moses accepts Jethro and takes him into his confidence would seem to violate laws about intolerance toward other deities unless the god whom Jethro worshiped and served as a priest was the same deity that Moses served. However, Jethro’s understanding of this deity was not the same as the revelation of Yahweh to Israel through his historic act of redemption from Egypt (Exodus 20:2) and through making an unprecedented covenant with that nation. The Bible makes clear that Yahweh is not known merely by his name but by the divinely enacted covenant (in both act and word) with which God binds Israel to himself. In a similar manner as the third century Roman emperor who placed a statue of Jesus among the images of the many deities he worshiped, so Jethro might have had only an inkling of the true nature of Israel’s God. The identity of Yahweh is not found merely in a distinctive name, but much more in his acts of love and mercy for his people. (By the way, the comments about massacres and pillaging carried on by this God are a misreading of the actual text of Joshua and elsewhere which I would be happy to discuss in a different context than what I am presenting here.)
Jewish Beliefs about God – The titles of “El” and “Elohim”
“El” appears as a title in the Bible. Like the much more frequent “Elohim,” it derives from ancient Semitic words for “god/God.” It is true that “El” appears as the name of the chief god in the myths of Ugarit, a West Semitic (Hebrew is also a West Semitic language) city from the 13th century B.C. However, the word also appears there to refer to any deity or even a spirit. Therefore, it need not refer to the God of Israel. You discuss Psalm 82 at some length. It is possible that this text refers to the allotment of responsibilities for the management of different nations of the earth to members of the heavenly council, whom we would call angels. As a result of their failing to act with justice, God terminates their rule. Nevertheless, Yahweh is frequently identified with El (Numbers 23:22-23; 2 Samuel 23:5; Psalm 118:27; Isaiah 40:18; 43:12; 45:22; etc.). However, the Bible also recognizes El as a separate god in texts such as Ezekiel 28:2 where the leader of Tyre claims that he is El (but this is probably also another use of “El” as a title, “god”). Note that the term “sons of El” need not refer to physical sons of a god. It may refer merely to those who share the characteristics of the divine (in terms of authority and rule, for example). Compare the “sons of Belial,” in Deuteronomy 13:14; Judges 19:22; 20:13; 1 Samuel 2:12; 10:27; 25:17; 1 Kings 21:10, 13; etc. This expression does not mean that all these people had the same physical parent by the name of Belial. No, it refers to a common characteristic of all these people. There are other such examples, both within the Bible and in contemporary extra-biblical literature.
By the way, the connection of Jacob with El is sometimes asserted on the basis of Jacob’s other name, “Israel,” where “El” is the last part of the name. Again, “El” is a title for god that is often used in other personal names in Israel (such as “Samuel”) and in neighboring nations. So in the Ammonite collection of personal names more than 150 contain the name “El”, but most would affirm that the chief god of Ammon was Milkom, and that “El” was a title of Milkom. One must be very careful about drawing lots of conclusions from a word that can be a title for any god in the West Semitic world.
Jewish Beliefs about God – Epithets highlight God’s attributes
“Elyon” is an epithet used with reference to God. It means “Most High.” Note that it is unrelated to “El.” “El” begins with the Hebrew letter aleph, whereas “Elyon” begins with an ayin. This distinction is very important and needs to be kept in mind. In Genesis 14:18-22, Melchizedek is called the priest of El Elyon (God most high), a deity with whom Abram identifies in v. 22. There are those who would like to identify this epithet with a separate deity. They argue that El Elyon was originally a god separate from Yahweh and worshiped by the Canaanites in Jerusalem. Only later did the Israelite tradition of Yahweh merge with it so that it evolved into a title of Yahweh. In order to do this, however, it is necessary to hypothesize an otherwise unknown deity by this name--a deity nowhere attested inside or outside the Bible by this name. Further, the usage of “Elyon” in the Bible does not support such an interpretation. In Psalm 82:6, those who are called “children” (or “sons”) of Elyon are certainly the “children” of the God of Israel, who is here in charge of this divine council and who regulates all its doings. Yahweh is not their physical father. He is their ruler.
Now as to the matter of Deuteronomy 32:8-9, I translate the Hebrew as we have it: “When the Most High (Elyon) gave nations their inheritance among humanity, he established boundaries for the people according to the number of the sons of Israel. (He did this) because Yahweh’s allotment is his people. Jacob is the portion of his inheritance.” To find “sons of God” in place of “sons of Israel,” you need to rely on the Greek Septuagint translation, which actually has “angels of God.” It is not in the Hebrew. That is not to say that this old Hebrew poetry is easy to translate. However, this is a far cry from citing this as proof of a distinction between Elyon and Yahweh. To the contrary, the Hebrew identifies the two as both personally involved with Israel, and thus most likely as identical. As for the supposed Aramaic deity Ilyaan, I cannot find the name attested in Early Aramaic texts or as an element in personal names. On the other hand, connecting the “number of the sons of Israel” in Deuteronomy 32:8 with the 70 children of Israel who entered Egypt is at least found in later Jewish tradition. However, the view that this must refer to the 70 sons of El and Asherah, a number defined in this manner only in the myths of Ugarit, is hardly necessary. Some medieval interpretations connected it with the 70 nations of the world as counted in the Table of Nations in Genesis 10. This is possible. Clearly, 70 is a common number occurring about 57 times in the Bible and often used to describe a sense of completion or perfection. A leap to Ugarit myths and polytheism is not warranted without more compelling evidence.
As for the statement that the God of the Hebrews had many names, I would encourage you to distinguish once more between the personal name “Yahweh,” various titles of “god” such as “Elohim” and “El,” and epithets such as “Shaddai” (perhaps related to the divine council or hosts of heaven). “Elohim” does, indeed, appear by itself to be a plural form (with the -im ending). However, whenever it refers to the God of Israel, it always takes singular verbs and so is treated as a singular noun.
I conclude with the observation that ancient Israel appropriated the Hebrew language and many other cultural features, often transforming them in the Bible so as to conform to its distinctive theology. The same is true of various religious practices. So the name “El” may refer to the chief god in Ugarit of the 13th century B.C. However, this does not mean it must be the name of a god separate from Yahweh in the Bible. As a title for various gods inside and outside the Bible, it can be applied to Yahweh without proving anything about early Israelite beliefs.
For further reading on this, see my Israelite Religions: An Archaeological and Biblical Survey (Baker: 2007).