The article discusses the language used in the Bible to refer to the divine, and also the Canaanite ancestry of Israelite religion.
Dr. Matthew Ramage: Assistant Professor of Theology at Benedictine College. Before Benedictine, he studied at the Pontifical Lateran University, worked in campus ministry, and taught Religious Studies at the University of Illinois.
Archaeologist Bill Dever has investigated the archaeology of the ancient Near East for more than three decades. He says that in addition to the Hebrew god Yahweh, ancient Israelites may have also worshipped Canaanite gods and goddesses. Polytheism may have been the norm in ancient Israel.
The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2001). Mark S. Smith.
Mark S. Smith is Skirball Professor of Bible and Near Eastern Studies New York University.
It may come as a surprise to some that there are texts from ancient Israel, Judah, and its environs that are not found in the Bible. There are also a number of texts from (especially) ancient Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia that make reference to Biblical persons, places, and events. Such epigraphic texts are important for many reasons. I want to discuss some aspects of why these texts are important in what follows, and to give some basic information with respect to some of the more prominent epigraphic discoveries that date to the period before Judah’s fall in 586/7 B.C.E. This latter task will be spread out over several posts, and I will proceed in roughly chronological order in my presentation of the material.
One reason such ancient epigraphic remains are important is that they potentially offer valuable information to the modern historian who seeks to reconstruct history and to describe the past with respect to ancient Israel and Judah. Literary-critical analyses of the Bible by modern scholars, although often of great value, not infrequently disagree — sometimes radically — both as to the dates of composition of the Biblical texts, and their value for historical reconstruction. Moreover, in recent years, there has been an ever growing tendency among modern Biblical scholars to lower the dates for the composition of many Biblical texts and narratives, including what were once thought to be very old, i.e., pre-monarchic/Iron I, Hebrew poems (e.g., Gen 49; Exod 15; Num 23–24; Deut 32–33; Judg 5; 1 Sam 2; 2 Sam 1; Pss 29, 68; Hab 3). There appears to be little contemporary material in the Bible available to the modern historian for the formative periods of Israel’s and Judah’s emergence in the Levant during the 13th–9th centuries B.C.E.
Introduction: Was Ancient Israel Monotheistic?
Western Society is perhaps more indebted to the Hebrew Bible than to any other book, and arguably the most famous teaching associated with the Hebrew Bible is that of absolute monotheism. This position famously affirms that there is only one god in existence and no other(s). For example, Deuteronomy 6:4, known as the Shema, has often been cited since antiquity as supporting this understanding of monotheism. It declares, “Listen, O Israel, YHWH is our god, YHWH alone [lit. YHWH (is) one]” (שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵינוּ יְהוָה אֶחָֽד). This understanding of ancient Israelite faith, found in both popular and scholarly circles, purportedly traces itself in the biblical narrative to at least the time when YHWH revealed himself at Sinai to Moses and Israel, if not all the way back to the creation of the world in Genesis 1 when God alone created the world by his word. Naturally, this view has been held to be in direct opposition to the Mesopotamian theogonic and cosmogonic myths, such as the infamous Enuma Elish, which recounts the creation of the gods and the world through fierce battles and rivalries between the personified primal elements of nature and the many gods who eventually tame them.
As the very name Israel might indicate on account of its theophoric element el (אל), it appears that the chief god worshiped in earliest Israel was El, the chief god of the Canaanite pantheon in the Late Bronze Age. The god El has been revealed most clearly to the modern inquirer through the discovery of the Ugaritic texts at Tel Ras Shamra in 1929, a flourishing kingdom-city-state on the Syrian coast during the second half of the second millennium B.C.E. As biblical tradition affirms as represented by the E and P sources (probably to be dated to the eighth and seventh/ sixth centuries B.C.E., respectively), throughout the book of Genesis the ancient forbears of Israel worshiped the god El. For example, Exodus 6:2-3 (P), recounting the divine theophany of YHWH to Moses at Sinai, states:
And YHWH said to Moses: say to him that I am YHWH. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El-Shaddai; but (by) my name YHWH I was not known to them. וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי יְהוָֽה׃ וָאֵרָא אֶל־אַבְרָהָם אֶל־יִצְחָק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹב בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶֽם