Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Polytheism to Henotheism to Monotheism

Parshat Ha'azinu

One of the most common theories in Academia regarding the formation of Judaism is that it began with a polytheistic religion, similar to the older Canaanite religions. Later, particularly in the Monarchic times the religion evolved into what is called Henotheism, or Monolatry. In this form of religion, other Gods are recognized, but worship should only be concentrated on a single individual. It is in this period that many of the texts that make up the Tanach were written. Finally, sometime in the Exilic or post-Exilic period the religion evolved into pure monotheism. At all times, authors and editors retrojected the current form of the religion back to pre-historic (i.e. pre-monarchic) times. They cast their view of religion as the true religion that Israelites or later Jews always worshipped.

The polytheistic and henotheistic roots of Judaism created an issue for some of the later compilers and editors of the texts. How to explain some polytheistic cultic behaviors that were still clearly visible? How to explain some polytheistic or henotheistic portions of the text? After examining some of the evidence for polytheistic worship, we'll look at several approaches that the biblical authors and editors used to solve this problem.

Evidence of Polytheism/Henotheism

There are a myriad number of places throughout the history from Shoftim (Judges) to Melachim (Kings) where worship of other gods is described explicitly in the Tanach. The entire narrative arc of Shoftim essentially looks like:
  1. Israelites worship another god.
  2. God gets angry and subjugates them.
  3. a Shofet (judge) redeems them.
  4. Go to one and repeat.
In Melachim, many kings, including Shlomo, are described as "doing evil," and the main form of evil was through worshipping other deities (1 Kings 11:7, 12:28, 14:23, 16:26, 16:32-33, 21:26 and many more).

In other places, the author of Kings ascribes powers to other deities. When the King of Moab sacrifices his child, it causes a change in the tide of battle (2 Kings 3:26-27)
26 And when the king of Moab saw that the battle was too sore for him, he took with him seven hundred men that drew sword, to break through unto the king of Edom; but they could not. 27 Then he took his eldest son that should have reigned in his stead, and offered him for a burnt-offering upon the wall. And there came great wrath upon Israel; and they departed from him, and returned to their own land.
Even kings and other individuals that aren't described as being idolatrous obviously worship other deities. A good example of this is Shaul (Saul) and his son Yonatan (Jonathan) who name two of his children after Ba'al. These names are recorded in their likely original form in Divrei Hayamim (Chronicles) 1 8:33-34. The author of Melachim noticing the problem with having theophoric names including ba'al changed the parts for Ba'al to boshet, or "embarrassment." We'll look at textual alterations more fully later.

Other stories, like that of Eliyahu (Elijah) and the showdown with the Ba'al worshippers on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18:15-40) the correspondence between Yirmiyahu (Jeremiah) and the Egyptian Jews, and the golden calves at Dan and Beth-el show that worship of other deities and idols was commonplace in Israel.

Now let's look at some of the methods used to discredit these practices.

Idolatry is a Perversion

The first and most common technique is to claim that all those accounts above about worshipping other gods were perversions of the true Israelite religion.  Shlomo only built altars to Chemosh, Molech, Milcom and Ashteroth because his foreign wives seduced him. Similarly, the evil idolatrous practices of Ahav (Ahab) were pinned to his foreign wife Izevel (Jezebel). Throughout the reconstructed history, the authors attributed bad periods to periods of idolatrous worship and good periods to worship of one God. In the Torah, stints with idolatrous worship are swiftly recompensed with plagues and mass killings (Exod 32:28, Num 25:1-9). In Shoftim the periods of idolatry neatly align with periods of subjugation.

When the authors got close to the time they were writing, the match was a lot more tenuous, and they had to fudge it. The greatest fudge occurs with the events surrounding the downfall of the kingdom of Yehudah (Judah). Manashe the son of Hizkiyahu (Hezekiah) is attributed to having done all sorts of awful things (2 Kings 21:1-11), however he also ruled for fifty-five years of peace. Seemingly a direct refutation of the idea that worshipping idols leads to problems. When horrible things start happening in the time of Yoshiyahu (Josiah), a king that the Tanach says was the most fervent servant of God, the bad events are attributed not to the actions of Yoshiyahu but to his grandfather Manashe, despite not having ruled in over half a century. (2 Kings 23:26-30).

In this way the authors attempted to fashion a narrative in which Monotheism or Henotheism was the norm and idolatry the perversion. They attributed good periods to times of Monotheism, and bad periods to times of idolatry. However, it's clear from the text, that the actual history they are recording doesn't neatly align very well with this narrative.

Deity Merging

Anyone who reads the Tanach knows that God is referred to by different names. The most common are Elohim and Yahweh, but there are a few others scattered here and there. When archaeologists unearthed the ancient city of Ugarit they learned a lot about the Canaanite religion that preceded the Israelite one. They learned that El was not just the Ugaritic/Canaanite word for God, but it was the name of a God, the supreme creator deity and the head of the pantheon.

In this light the separate names for the deities become more understandable. Israelite religion merged the Canaanite deity El with their own local god Yahweh. It is not clear at all when this merge occurred, but it was in place by the time most of the Tanach was written (we'll see an early verse where it's not in place yet later).

This idea of merging other deities into one overarching deity is seen elsewhere at around the same time. In Persia, Ahura Mazda gained the attributed of the previous pantheon, and in Babylon we have texts were all the minor deities are considered as alternate names of the Babylonian deity Marduk.

While El and Yahweh both became names for the Israelite god, the same can't be said for Ba'al who was entirely supplanted and discarded. The moment where Ba'al is supplanted is captured in the story of Eliyahu on the mountain. Ba'al was the storm God, and in this story Ba'al is shown as incompetent at bringing rain. The Israelite supreme deity though, is successful. The purpose of this story is that all the things you used to worship Ba'al for, you don't need to anymore, because it's really Yahweh/Elohim that does those things.

Another example of Ba'al attributes being handed over to God is in Psalm 29. This is a devotional psalm to God, but it is very curious. For one the language used very much sounds like a terrible storm, something that is right in the wheelhouse of Ba'al. The second clue is that the locations used in the psalm are Lebanon and Syria, two locations not in Israel, but in the far north, closer to where Ba'al worship was most common. These facts and other metrical inferences that I feel are less forceful has led F.M. Cross to suggest that Ba'al was the original deity who was the subject of this Psalm, and the Israelite author simply crossed off Ba'al and wrote in Yahweh.

Justifying Idolatrous Behavior

In the pre-Exilic period, the authors of the histories had some issues regarding popular cultic practices and locations that had long historic traditions associated with them. They couldn't easily destroy them, they needed to either credit or discredit them. For example, there may have been an oak tree in Shechem which had strong cultic associations with it. Possibly it had an altar located there. Instead of removing it, one of the biblical authors justified its existence by writing a story of how the Judean patriarch Avraham had a divine encounter there. The altar, they said (in two separate accounts), was built by him (Gen 12:6-7, 13:18). In fact, many of the patriarchal wanderings are written to explain how this or that cultic location has monotheistic roots stretching back into pre-history.

We've already seen how at least one biblical author justified the existence of the brass serpent, the nechushtan. They attributed its creation to Moshe and therefore justified the cultic worship of it, at least for a time.

I'll note that this kind of justification doesn't end with the biblical authors. It stretches all the way to Rabbinic times with the creation of the custom of Hannukah candles.

Textual Emendations

Finally, we get to the final trick that the biblical editors used to erase previous polytheistic tendencies, changing the text itself. We see in many cases later editors were loath to erase or change something, but were fine with adding things in. This explains how some of the dire stuff written about Manashe came to be written in the text, a later author added that in to explain the fall of Judea.

However, there are a few places where the polytheistic inferences were so dire, that the editors felt forced to change the text itself, like in removing ba'al from Shaul's descendents' names. This parsha gives us the best example of this kind of edit in the Torah.

Deut 32:8-9 reads in the current Masoretic text:
8 When the Most High 9Elyon) gave to the nations their inheritance, when He separated the children of men (lit. sons of Adam), He set the borders of the peoples according to the number of the children of Israel. 9 For the portion of the LORD (Yahweh) is His people, Jacob the lot of His inheritance.
and in Hebrew:
ח  בְּהַנְחֵל עֶלְיוֹן גּוֹיִם,  בְּהַפְרִידוֹ בְּנֵי אָדָם;   יַצֵּב גְּבֻלֹת עַמִּים,  לְמִסְפַּר בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.ט  כִּי חֵלֶק יְהוָה, עַמּוֹ:   יַעֲקֹב, חֶבֶל נַחֲלָתוֹ. 
The bolded word, Israel is the questionable one. As written, this verse makes very little sense. God (here given with a very archaic name, Elyon) measures out the boundaries of nations, he sets borders with regard to the children of Israel. Why Israel? Israel didn't even exist at this time.

The Septuagint and most versions of the Dead Sea Scrolls have an alternate reading.  Let's look at the Septuagint:

8 When the Most High was apportioning nations, as he scattered Adam’s sons, he fixed boundaries of nations according to the number of divine sons. 9 And his people Iakob became the Lord’s portion,Israel a measured part of his inheritance.
The simple change from b'nei Yisrael (Sons of Israel) to presumably b'nei Elohim (Sons of the gods) makes much more sense. Here one head deity, Elyon is measuring out the land and he gives each of his "sons" a nation. This fits very well with the reality of the day where each nation had its own patron deity. Chemosh was the deity of the Moabites, Milcom the deity of the Ammonites, etc. The next verse nicely describes that Yahweh is the name for the deity of the Israelites. In this reading of the text, Yahweh is just one of multiple deities!

As we've seen before, biblical songs often represent one of the earliest strata of the text available to us, and this is no exception. It gives something of a creation myth and a foundation of Israel which is very different from the rest of the biblical narrative. It is one where Israel is just a nation subject to their own God who is just one amidst all the surrounding gods. Obviously this is hugely problematic to a monotheistic or even henotheistic worldview. But for whatever reason the biblical authors didn't feel like they could excise these verses or delete the song entirely. So they did the next thing, they changed one word to subvert the text's meaning. Now Israel plays the central role, and it is possible once again to equate Yahweh with Elyon, the God doing the apportioning.

On this last account, it reminds me of a story that John Lennon said about his song Imagine. In the song there is a lyric that goes:
Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace
Lennon said he was approached by the world church who wanted to use the song, because it was very popular, but had an issue with one of those lines. They offered the simple solution of changing it to "And one religion too." And you can see how this small change can erase the entire meaning of the song. Perhaps the biblical authors were in the same boat. The Ha'azinu song was well known and maybe popular among the populace. So, they needed to alter it, and they did it by changing just one word. Luckily, the older versions survive, otherwise we may never have known about the subterfuge.

Note on what Follows

With this post we've reached the end of (just a little over) a year of weekly Kefirah of the Week posts. I have three more posts coming up in the next three weeks that give a conclusion to the year long blog. One post talks about my personal story, how I transitioned from religious Jew to Kofer. The second examines a specific question that tilted the scales so to speak. The question is whether or not the Torah is divine, or divinely inspired. I'll detail how I came to the conclusion that there's no good reason to believe in divine inspiration of any of the Hebrew texts. In the third part I'll give a "what would it take?" It's always a good idea to figure out what pieces of evidence would change your mind, and I'll do that for a bunch of topics of relevance to Judaism.

After that it's unclear. I'm traveling (for work) for the first two weeks of October, so I'm unlikely to write down much. I have some ideas for short posts on topics relevant to Judaism as practiced today, which I'll probably jot down. But as far as detailed academic topics, while the well isn't quite dry, the worker is worn out from hauling up buckets. So there will be a break from that for sure.  


  1. For a scholarly analysis of Deut 32:8 see here: http://digitalcommons.liberty.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1278&context=lts_fac_pubs

  2. This forced text justification in the comments is really ugly!

    1. Not much I can do about the comment formatting unfortunately. The biggest problem with papers like the one you linked (I skimmed it for now) is that they assume that the entire bible was written by authors with the same world view. Christian authors even go further and assume that the view is shared by the NT authors. This is a fairly obvious problem.

      Also, I forgot that this was going up on Tuesday, not Wednesday because of Yom Kippur. There's a little extra conclusion now, and I included a link to the "fifty names of Marduk" to actually source that point.

  3. Wow! An entire year!! I've truly grown from your weekly posts, and look forward to reading your autobiography.

    2 small typos btw, shlomo's wives seduced him TOO instead of to, and the quote from ha'azinu says lacob instead of Jacob. No biggies,

    As far as judaism's polytheistic past, once my mind was opened to it, the evidence is ubiquitous. This is, like you point out, because authors and reactors were nice enough to leave the old stratas in place, often with only limited editing.

    I'm reading 'surpassing wonder; the invention of the Bible and the Talmuds' a 700 page nerd-fest. On this topic, the author goes through the vast collection of scriptures from the time of the torah's compilation, and one thing that is amazing is how authors have no problem with doublets, contradictions, and even incorporating sources that were clearly not monotheistic or even judaic.

    1. Uh..neither of those are typos :)

      Shlomo's wives seduced him also. I got rid of the adverb anyway for clarity.

      The Iacob spelling is just how the Greek's do it.

  4. My apologies: maybe it's a kri-ksiv difference :)

  5. My apologies: maybe it's a kri-ksiv difference :)

  6. Wow, it's been a great year. Thank you for all the hard work you have done. It is very appreciated.

    Another great post!

    The whole thing about Hashem judging the Egyptian gods was always confusing to my monotheistic upbringing. Also, all that praise about our god being the best god, hmm...

    1. Thanks!

      Also: מי כמוך באלים יהוה

      It requires a lot of handwringing to interpret that monotheistically.

  7. Gen:1:26 And God said: 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.'

  8. Any interesting thoughts about God's most popular name not being allowed to be pronounced?

    1. It's pretty much the standard "taboo" or "euphemism" idea that we see all around this period. For example, "Ba'al" was a euphemism just like "Adonai" is, they mean the same thing. Adonai is even euphemised now with Hashem, which is a euphemism of a euphemism, what is sometimes called a "euphemism treadmill"

      This occurs not only with divine names, but with any touchy subject. One popular example is with the words "moron" and "idiot" which were later euphemised by the word "retarded" which now sounds harsh, and we usually use something like "developmentally disabled"

  9. does that mean that there isn't a divine command or rabbinic law that forbids to mention this name? which seems to be so wrong that I've seen some dudes covering their ears when someone is about to say it?

    1. There is, it is derived from "Don't say God's name in vain." Of course it is hard to determine what is in vain and what is not, so to be careful, people euphemise it.