Yahweh in Polytheistic Ancient Israel

To most readers, it might not seem at first glance that the Bible exhibits polytheism. It says numerous times that ‘God is one’, and forbids worshiping the false gods of other religions. However, the issue is not what the Bible says, but what it shows, which is that Israel was thoroughly polytheistic, though a Yahweh-centric group in Jerusalem pushed for monolatry in the decades preceding the Babylonian exile (587 BC). This does not require far-fetched speculation, but a careful look at the more obscure parts of the Hebrew Bible.

Yahweh the Southern God

The Torah’s narrative identifies Israel’s god ‘Yahweh’ as the supreme, capital-G creator, God. Yet the Torah contains several anachronisms showing it was written during or after the late First Temple period (650–587 BC), and there are numerous internal consistencies with the Torah’s narrative. Poetic texts in the Torah and the Prophets are generally recognized as quite old, predating the Torah itself, and it is in these poetic texts that we find hints about Yahweh’s origins, historically speaking.

Deut 33.2 says Yahweh came ‘from Seir’ and ‘from Mount Paran’. Judges 5.4 says Yahweh ‘went out from Seir’ and ‘marched from the region of Edom’. Hab 3.2–3 likewise says he ‘came from Teman’ and ‘from Mount Paran’. The most ancient texts within the Hebrew Bible associate Yahweh with Edom.

Egyptian texts from the 15th century BC mention a people-group called the ‘Shasu’, which the texts locate in the southern Transjordan region. One text lists their various locations, including ‘the land of the Shasu Yahu’. (‘Yahu’ is a shortened form of Yahweh found both in the Bible and in other ancient texts.) The overall grouping of the Shasu settlements places them in ‘the area of Edom, Seir, and the Transjordan east of the Arabah’.1 This evidence, though small, when taken in conjunction with the oldest poetic parts of the Bible, would suggest Yahweh started off as a local deity in Edom.

Yahweh Battles Other Gods

The intention of the biblical editors was to show the total supremacy of Yahweh, and the overall thrust of Judaism was that he is the only true God. It is surprising, then, that not only are there stories acknowledging the existence of other deities, but stories where Yahweh fights them, and is outwitted or overpowered in his mission to elevate Israel’s status in the world.

A long-running suggestion is the plagues in Exodus are meant to show Yahweh demonstrating his power over aspects of the world that the Egyptians associated with their own gods. In this view, turning water into blood is meant to show Israel’s god Yahweh, not Egypt’s god Hapi, has power over the Nile. The plague of frogs is an ironic subversion of Egypt’s goddess Heket, who was depicted with a frog’s head.2

It’s difficult to verify if the individual plagues are meant to be so specifically subversive, but in fact Exo 12.12 openly says God was waging war against Egypt’s gods.

‘For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am Yahweh.’

This does not deny the existence of Egypt’s gods, nor does it relegate their existence to merely being ‘demons’ (i.e. angels created by God that ‘fell’ into sin). Instead, Egypt’s gods are real, they are a threat to Israel, and Yahweh is removing that threat.

Yahweh is victorious in Exodus, but he suffers two major defeats later on in the biblical narrative. In Judges 1.1–2, Yahweh promises to the tribe of Judah that he would fight alongside them against the Canaanites and ‘give the land’ into the tribe’s hand. The following passage, 1.3–18, shows Judah successfully invading the Canaanite’s land. Their fortune fails in the next verse:

Yahweh was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain, because they had chariots of iron.

Yahweh is unable to help Judah conquer the Canaanites in the plain because of their chariots. Israel’s god is thwarted by the superior technology of Israel’s enemy.

A similar problem occurs in 2 Kings 3. In this chapter, the kingdom of Israel is at war with the kingdom of Moab. The king of Israel enlists the help of the kings of Judah and Edom. Judah wants to be sure they are doing the right thing, and insists they seek instruction from Yahweh. They find none other than Elisha, the successor of Elijah, to inquire of Yahweh what they must do to win their battle with Moab. Elisha listens to a musician play, waiting for Yahweh to speak. And he does:

‘Thus says Yahweh, “I will make this wadi full of pools.” For thus says Yahweh, “You shall see neither wind nor rain, but the wadi shall be filled with water, so that you shall drink, you, your cattle, and your animals.” This is only a trifle in the sight of Yahweh, for he will also hand Moab over to you. You shall conquer every fortified city and every choice city; every good tree you shall fell, all springs of water you shall stop up, and every good piece of land you shall ruin with stones.’

Yahweh will make water appear from nothing, an event which will signal Yahweh will fulfill his promise that Moab will be utterly conquered by Israel, Judah, and Edom. The next day the water appears. The Moabites attack, but are repelled. And just as Yahweh’s guarantee is nearly fulfilled:

Then [the king of Moab] took his firstborn son who was to succeed him, and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall. And great wrath came upon Israel, so they withdrew from him and returned to their own land.

Yahweh’s promise fails because of Moab’s pagan sacrifice. This is not because, as some readers claim, Israel’s side did something wrong. We are not told, for example, that Israel stopped fighting because they were ‘moved to pity’ when seeing Moab’s king sacrifice his own son.3 The Israelites themselves were known to practice child sacrifice, though not without criticism by the biblical authors (cf. Deut 12.29–31; Jer 7.31; Ezek 20.25–26). Moab’s god foils Israel’s god, because Moab offered an appropriate sacrifice.

Yahweh in the Pantheon

The Canaanite god El and his consort Athirat/Asherah had seventy sons, called the ‘family of the sons of El’ and the ‘seventy sons of Asherah’. The entire pantheon consisted of El, Asherah, and their seventy sons (except for possibly Baʿal), so the pantheon is referred to as ‘the totality of the sons of El’.4 If Yahweh was not identified as the creator god, where did he come from? The Hebrew Bible contains several hints that Yahweh was one of these sons of El.

These ‘sons of El’ appear in the Hebrew Bible in the form of the ‘sons of God’, where the word ‘God’ is Elohim, the plural of ‘El’. These ‘sons of God’ are typically interpreted as angels created ex nihilo by Yahweh, but clues to their earlier identity as deities can still be found.

In Job 38.7 the ‘sons of God’ are equated with the ‘morning stars’. Many ancient cultures believed the sun, moon, and stars were deities, and this is reflected in Gen 1.14–19, where they are called just ‘lights’. Worship of stars is acknowledged in Deut 4.19–20, but the way this is phrased is important to follow:

And when you look up to the heavens and see the sun, the moon, and the stars, all the host of heaven, do not be led astray and bow down to them and serve them, things that Yahweh your God has allotted to all the peoples everywhere under heaven. But Yahweh has taken you and brought you out of the iron-smelter, out of Egypt, to become a people of his very own possession, as you are now.

Here Yahweh is the supreme creator and Israel must worship only him, but he is not the only divinity. Israel’s national god is Yahweh, distinct from the national gods he assigned to other nations. This brings us to Deut 32.8. There are two points in this text that need ironing out. First, ‘Most High’ in this verse is a translation of Elyon, one of the many epithets given to El in ancient literature, along with the epithet Shaddai.5 (In Numbers 24.16, the prophet Balaam mentions El, calling him both Elyon and Shaddai.) Second, ‘sons of Israel’ is actually a corruption of the earlier text, which instead had ‘sons of El’.6 This gives us a text which reads:

When Elyon apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the sons of El. Yahweh’s own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.

In Ugaritic tradition, there were seventy sons of El. In Israelite tradition, there were seventy nations.7 And here, Elyon divides the nations according to the number of his sons, and Yahweh’s portion is the nation of Israel. The result is that Yahweh is here one of El’s sons, not El himself.

One of the most obvious remnants of polytheism still in the Hebrew Bible is Psalm 82.

God [Elohim] has taken his place in the assembly of El;
in the midst of the gods [elohim] he holds judgment:
‘How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked? (Selah)
Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.’

They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk around in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.

I say, ‘You are gods [elohim],
sons of Elyon, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like man,
and fall like any prince.’

Rise up, O God [Elohim], judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you!

The ‘assembly of El’ (ʿadat ʾel) comes from the Ugaritic ‘assembly of gods’ (ʿadat ʾilm), a council of deities that El rules over. The psalm displays scorn for the many sons of El Elyon, but it does not deny their existence, nor does it minimize them as ‘demons’ or mere ‘idols’. Instead, the gods exist but are sentenced to die because of their failure to maintain justice.8 The psalm does not clearly equate Elohim and El as the same deity, but it reads better if they are distinguished. In this case, Elohim is the ‘God’ of Israel, and he asserts that the other sons of El (his siblings) have failed to enact justice in the nations allotted to them by their father. Israel’s god steps up to seize control over all nations, not just the one El gave to him, to implement true justice.9 In context of the whole book of Psalms, ‘the poem then becomes an etiology that explains why Israelites worship Yahweh alone’.10

Yahweh Supplants Baʿal Hadad

Baʿal Hadad was a storm god in Canaan, nicknamed the Cloud-rider. While El was the head of the pantheon, Baʿal sought to rule by overpowering El’s appointed authority, an ocean god called Yamm and Nahar.

Now your enemy, O Baʿal, now you will smite your enemy, now you will cut off your adversary. You shall take your eternal kingdom, your everlasting dominion. [...] Strike the pate of Prince Yamm, between the eyes of Judge Nahar.11

Yamm’s name is the Semitic word meaning ‘sea’, and his other name Nahar is the word ‘river’. Yahweh is occasionally shown asserting his authority over the ‘seas’ and ‘rivers’ (e.g. Psa 24.2; Isa 11.15; Nah 1.4), but Hab 3.8 in particular is important for us. With only slight emendation, turning the plurals ‘rivers’ and ‘seas’ to their singular forms, we have a text which reads:

Was your wrath against Nahar, O Yahweh? Or your anger against Nahar, or your rage against Yamm, when you drove your horses, your chariots to victory?

Psa 104.3 identifies Yahweh’s chariots as ‘the clouds’. When paired with Hab 3.8, we have Yahweh riding the clouds and striking down Yamm/Nahar, identical to the Cloud-rider.

In the Baʿal Cycle, the titular god is (temporarily) killed by Mot, a death god.

One lip [of Mot’s mouth] to earth and one to heaven, he stretches his tongue to the stars. Baʿal enters his mouth, descends into him like an olive-cake, like the yield of the earth and trees’ fruit.12

This depiction of Baʿal as being swallowed by Mot is not just metaphor. Mot’s appetite is literally universal, and he actually does eat Baʿal.

‘I did masticate powerful Baʿal. I made him like a lamb in my mouth; like a kid in my gullet he’s crushed.’13

The idea that death ‘eats’ the living is also found in the Hebrew Bible (e.g. Num 16.30; Pro 1.12; Hab 2.5). Mot feasts upon Baʿal, but Isa 25.6–8 shows Yahweh gathering all people for ‘a feast of rich food’, and it is here Yahweh ‘will swallow up death forever’ (where ‘death’ is the Hebrew maveth, cognate of Mot).

In the Feast of the Goodly Gods, the destruction of Mot is narrated within a feasting context. These analogies, the traditio-historical connection between death and the verb בלע, and the thematic connection between death and feasting make it likely that the death that appears in Isa 25:8aα evokes the god of death.14

The same Baʿal Cycle comes up again just chapters later, in Isa 27. In the Baʿal Cycle, Baʿal slays the seven-headed dragon named Shalyat and Lotan.

When you [Baʿal] killed Lotan, the fleeing serpent, destroyed the twisting serpent, Shalyat the seven-headed

The Hebrew cognate of Lotan is liwyatan, ‘Leviathan’, a chaos monster that shows up on occasion in the Hebrew Bible. Like Lotan, Leviathan has many heads (Psa 74.13–14). Isa 27.1 closely follows the above text, simply replacing Baʿal with Yahweh, and Lotan with Leviathan.

On that day Yahweh [...] will punish Leviathan, the fleeing serpent, Leviathan, the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.

The author of Isaiah 27.1 may not have had a copy of the older Ugaritic text about Baʿal on hand, but the nearly identical phrasing (see footnote 2 in my previous post on Leviathan here) necessarily means that Baʿal’s achievement had been consciously attributed to Yahweh at some point, and the particular wording had become almost creed-like in its usage.15

Baʿal, as a storm god, was also said to wield ‘seven lightnings’ or ‘thunders’. In Psa 18.13–14, Yahweh ‘thundered in the heavens’, and as he rode the clouds he ‘sent out his arrows’, which are equated with ‘lightning’. Back in Hab 3.9,11, Yahweh fires ‘arrows’ from his chariot. Psa 29 also describes Yahweh’s ‘voice’ seven times, which is so powerful it shatters trees, terrifies animals, sparks fires, and shakes the wilderness. In these poems, Yahweh is a storm god wielding seven lightnings/thunders, just as Baʿal does.16

Yahweh Rules the Pantheon

Different regions of the Levant favored El or Yahweh. This is reflected in theonyms like ‘Samuel’ (heard of El) and ‘Isaiah’ (Yah has saved). It is also seen in alternate versions of stories in Genesis. By the time the biblical narrative of the Hebrew Bible was compiled and these alternate versions were brought together, Yahweh and El were identified as one and the same, and Exo 6.3 was written to make this identification unambiguous.

God also spoke to Moses and said to him: ‘I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but by my name “Yahweh” I did not make myself known to them.’

As mentioned above, Shaddai was one of the epithets for El,17 and this text seeks to bridge two community’s traditions by equating their gods with one another. However, in claiming that Israel’s god initially only revealed himself to the patriarchs just as ‘El Shaddai’, and never revealed himself as ‘Yahweh’ until the time of Moses, this explanation contradicts that he did explicitly identify himself to the patriarchs with both names (Gen 15.7–21; 17.1–2). Exo 6.3 was meant to connect the two traditions, but both traditions had already been brought together in Genesis.

A story of this kind is common among religious groups that have combined two or more gods into a single entity: the names of each original god become the multiple names of the one god. In this case, Exod. 6.2–3 demonstrates that biblical writers were aware of a combination of gods in their community’s past, and that the Yahweh element in this deity was a latecomer to the Israelite religion.18

In the Babylonian creation myth Enûma Eliš, the first two things to exist are Apsu and Tiamat, a god and goddess personifying fresh water and salt water, respectively. When the two gods/waters mingle together, they create a new generation of gods, who in turn form other gods. After the gods slay Apsu, Tiamat seeks revenge. Eventually, the god Marduk rises to the challenge, demanding that if the gods install him as their king he will slay Tiamat. Marduk wields a bow with arrows, a mace, lightning, and the wind as his weapons. When he kills Tiamat, he crushes her head and splits her body in half, with one half used to make heaven.

The Hebrew cognate of Tiamat was tehôm, the ‘deep’, referring to the salty oceans and seas of the world. In the Israelite creation myth, Gen 1.1–2.4, the world begins with tehôm. God (here called Elohim, not Yahweh) splits tehôm in two, making the heavens above and the earth below. There is no conflict, no war of the gods in this creation story. But other parts of the Hebrew Bible allude to earlier traditions, where Israel’s god did battle a similar sea-monster, crushing its heads when he created the world (e.g. Psa 74.12–17).

In Hab 3, Yahweh emerges from Edom to terrify the earth with his power, to express his wrath against Nahar/Yamm. In many English versions, Hab 3.5 says Yahweh is accompanied by ‘pestilence’ and ‘plague’, or translations along those lines. These words in Hebrew are deber and resheph.

His glory covered the heavens, and the earth was full of his praise. The brightness was like the sun; rays came forth from his hand, where his power lay hidden. Before him went Deber, and Resheph followed close behind. He stopped and shook the earth; he looked and made the nations tremble.

Deber and Resheph are the names of two Canaanite gods, and here they function as Yahweh’s ‘bodyguards’.19 Resheph is the better known of the two from ancient texts, called ‘the archer’ and ‘Respheh of the arrow’. His presence as a deity (and not simply a Hebrew word meaning ‘plague’) lingers in the Hebrew Bible, but these are often sanitized in English translations. For example, Job 5.7 is usually given as ‘but man is born to trouble, just as sparks fly upward’, where ‘sparks’ actually reads ‘sons of Resheph’ in Hebrew.

These two figures are known as gods in Ugaritic literature. In Habakkuk 3, which may be dated to the monarchy (see “your anointed” mentioned in v. 13), we see the two old gods as two members of the divine military troops accompanying God [...] here in Habakkuk 3 they have been subordinated to the Israelite head god.20

Conclusion

Alternate forms of various myths and legends are found across ancient Near Eastern cultures, and as these cultures met their different gods were sometimes identified with each other. In a late example, the Canaanite god Baʿal and the Greek god Zeus were identified with one another.21

It would appear that something similar happened with Yahweh, for the available evidence suggests the following: Yahweh began as a localized god in Edom, and was known as one of the sons of El. By the middle of the first millennium BC Yahweh had subsumed El almost entirely, he had taken credit for the achievements of Baʿal, he was identified as the world-creator like Marduk, and other gods were demoted beneath him. At the same time, the presence (and later the existence) of these other gods became increasingly suppressed.

There is more that could be covered. Ancient deities commonly had consorts, and Yahweh’s may have been Asherah.22 There is also a scene of David performing priestly duties despite not being a Levite,23 and another text shows him receiving worship alongside Yahweh.24 These may suggest Israel’s monarch was originally a semi-divine priest-king, another common trope in ancient Near Eastern cultures.

Though there is not enough space to consider these and other points of evidence, what we have seen is abundant, and it all points to the same conclusion: Yahweh was once one of many gods in ancient Israelite culture, but through centuries of religious evolution he emerged as the one and only God who created all things.


1 Lester Grabbe, The Land of Canaan in the Late Bronze Age, 26; cf. Thomas Römer, ‘The Revelation of the Divine Name to Moses’, Israel’s Exodus in Transdisciplinary Perspective (ed. Levy, Schneider, Propp), 313.

2 Peter Enns, Exodus, 200ff.

3 Johannes Bugenhagen, 1–2 Samuel, 1–2 Kings, 1–2 Chronicles (ed. Derek Cooper, Martin Lohrmann), 411.

4 Marvin Pope, El in the Ugaritic Texts, Volume 2, 47–49.

5 Ibid., 55.

6 ‘Sons of El’ is reconstructed from several other texts. Most copies of LXX Deut 32.8 have ἀγγέλων θεοῦ (angels of God), while some copies have υἱῶν θεοῦ (sons of God). In the Dead Sea Scrolls, text 4QDtj has ‘sons of Elohim’, but 4QDtq importantly has ‘sons of El’.

7 Gen 10 lists seventy nations, and Jubilees 44.34 mentions ‘the seventy Gentile nations’. First Enoch 89.59–60 and 90.22 symbolize the allotment of seventy nations to seventy angels as sheep given to shepherds (cf. Dan 10–12, where nations are apparently allotted to angelic ‘princes’). This tradition is also found in the Synoptic Gospels; Luke is far more focused on Gentile inclusion than Matthew (see, e.g., commentaries on the theological differences between the genealogies in Matt 1 and Luke 3). Matt 10.6 and 15.24 show the author’s Israelite-centric focus, so there is heavy focus on Jesus sending out the twelve disciples in Matt 10, representing the twelve tribes. The parallel account in Luke changes these to seventy disciples, presumably to match the idea that there are seventy nations.

8 James Kugel, The God of Old: Inside the Lost World of the Bible, 122–125.

9 Mark Smith, God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World, 133–136.

10 David Penchansky, Twilight of the Gods, 36.

11 Adapted from H.L. Ginsberg, Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament (ed. James Pritchard), 131.

12 Ibid., 138.

13 Ibid., 140.

14 Paul Kang-Kul Cho, Janling Fu, ‘Death and Feasting in the Isaiah Apocalypse (Isaiah 25:6–8)’, Formation and Intertextuality in Isaiah 24–27 (ed. J. Todd Hibbard, Hyun Chul Paul Kim), 129.

15 Henry Richardson, Uncovering Ancient Stones, 5.

16 John Day, ‘Echoes of Baal’s Seven Thunders and Lightnings in Psalm XXIX and Habakkuk III 9 and the Identity of the Seraphim in Isaiah VI’, Vetus Testamentum 29.2, 143–151.

17 John McLaughlin, The Ancient Near East, 100.

18 Kurt Noll, Canaan and Israel in Antiquity, 135.

19 John Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, 200.

20 Mark Smith, The Memoirs of God, 114.

21 Pope, El, 56ff.

22 Cf. William Dever, Did God Have a Wife?.

23 In 2 Sam 6.12–19, David offers sacrifices and burnt-offerings, and blesses the people. No mention is made of Levites or other priests in the chapter. David even wears an ‘ephod’, an article of clothing the Hebrew Bible exclusively associates with a person performing the rituals of worship. Psa 110.4 justifies this by calling Israel’s ruler ‘a priest after the order of Melchizedek’, the priest-king of Salem briefly mentioned in Gen 14.18.

24 1 Chr 29.20: ‘Then David said to the whole assembly, “Bless Yahweh your God.” And all the assembly blessed Yahweh, the God of their fathers, and bowed their heads and worshiped Yahweh and the king.’