Polytheism in the Hebrew Bible

Polytheism in the Hebrew Bible


El, Father of the Gods

Isa 14 How you are fallen from heaven,
O shining one, son of the dawn!
How you are cut down to the ground,
you who laid the nations low!
You said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven,
I will raise my throne
above the stars of El,
I will sit on the mount of assembly
on the heights of Zaphon,
I will ascend to the tops of the clouds,
I will make myself like Elyon.’
But you are brought down to Sheol,
to the depths of the Pit.

El — Canaanite god, chief of the pantheon, creator of humanity, father of the seventy national gods.

the stars of El — Stars were believed to be gods.

mount of assembly … Zaphon — The gathering place of the gods.

the Most High — A title for El.

Sheol — Hebrew underworld.

This is a poem condemning the king of Babylon, accusing him of exalting himself over even the gods. El, Zaphon, and Sheol were not from Babylonian religion, showing Isaiah was describing his perception of Babylon’s king according to his Judean theology. If the poem comes from Isaiah himself, it means he accepted El as ruler of the pantheon, and that Yahweh was simply Judah’s own national god.

Deut 32 When Elyon apportioned the nations,
when he divided humankind,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples
according to the number of the gods;
Yahweh’s own portion was his people,
Jacob his allotted share.

the number of the gods — The seventy sons of El were national gods. El assigned who ruled which nation.

This poem identifies Yahweh as one of El’s seventy sons, with ‘Jacob’ (Israel) being his assigned nation.

Psa 82 Elohim has taken his place in El’s council.
He judges in the midst of the gods.
‘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,
sons of Elyon, all of you.
Nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince.’
Rise up, O Elohim, judge the earth,
for all the nations belong to you!

Elohim — Literally ‘gods’, but this is an intensive plural used as a proper noun, another name for Israel’s national god, Yahweh.

El’s council — The congregation of the seventy sons of El, the pantheon of national gods.

the gods … you are gods … sons of Elyon — the sons of El.

Yahweh sees the other national gods failing in their responsibilities to protect the weak and ensure justice. He vows to overthrow these other gods, and the psalmist declares that Yahweh has asserted his control over all nations.

Yahweh from Edom

Deut 33 Yahweh came from Sinai,
and dawned from Seir upon us;
he shone forth from Mount Paran.
With him were myriads of holy ones;
at his right, a host of his own.

Seir — A mountain in Edom.

Paran — A mountain near Edom.

Hab 3 O Yahweh, I have heard of your renown,
and I stand in awe, O Yahweh, of your work.
In our own time revive it;
in our own time make it known;
in wrath may you remember mercy.
God came from Teman,
the holy one from Mount Paran. (Selah)

God — Hebrew ʾělōah, singular of Elohim. Used here without the definite article, making ‘God’ function as a name distinct from El or Elohim.

Teman — A region in Edom.

Judges 5 Yahweh, when you went out from Seir,
when you marched from the region of Edom

Edom — A land south of Judah, east of Egypt and Sinai.

Yahweh Assimilates El

Gen 14 And King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of El Elyon. He blessed him and said, ‘Blessed be Abram by El Elyon, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be El Elyon, who has delivered your enemies into your hand!’ And Abram gave him one-tenth of everything.

The story is an interpolation. ‘Melchizedek’ is an invented king (based on malkī ṣedeq ‘my king is just’ in Psa 110). ‘Salem’ is an anachronistic name for Jerusalem (it was originally called Jebus). Although ‘El Most High’ is the name of the Canaanite god, it here most likely intends to refer to Yahweh.

Gen–Exo When Abram was ninety-nine years old, Yahweh appeared to Abram, and said to him, ‘I am El of the Mountain.’
Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beer-sheba, and called there on the name of Yahweh, El Eternal.
‘May El of the Mountain bless you and make you fruitful and numerous, that you may become a company of peoples.’
Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely Yahweh is in this place—and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of Elohim, and this is the gate of heaven.’
‘I am El of Bethel, where you anointed a pillar and made a vow to me.’
Elohim said to Jacob, ‘Arise, go up to Bethel, and settle there. Make an altar there to El who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.’
There he erected an altar and called it ‘El is the god of Israel.’
Elohim also spoke to Moses and said to him: ‘I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El of the Mountain, but by my name “Yahweh” I did not make myself known to them.

El of the Mountain — A title for El.

El Eternal — A title for El.

Genesis contains folktales about Israel’s patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. Many of these stories come from alternate, sometimes conflicting traditions. Roughly half of these stories identifies the patron god as Yahweh, while the other half identifies this god as El. The redactor of Genesis, in combining these traditions, directly conflated the two gods into one. The redactor lived well into period of Israel’s kingdom, showing his intention to unify these disparate traditions, even though it resulted in certain contradictions.

Gen 49 Joseph is a fruitful bough,
a fruitful bough by a spring;
his branches run over the wall.
The archers fiercely attacked him;
they shot at him and pressed him hard.
Yet his bow remained taut,
and his arms were made agile
by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob,
by the name of the shepherd, the rock of Israel,
by El of your father, who will help you,
by El of the Mountain who will bless you
with blessings of heaven above,
blessings of the deep that lies beneath,
blessings of the breasts and of the womb.

Mighty One of Jacob — This specific phrase (and the similar ‘Mighty One of Israel’) occurs a few times in the Hebrew Bible. Elsewhere in Genesis, Jacob’s god is identified as El, who is called the ‘Bull’ in Ugaritic texts. The word here ʾabīr (Mighty One) is a cognate of Ugaritic ʾbr (bull).

Mount Zaphon

Psa 48 Great is Yahweh and greatly to be praised
in the city of our god.
His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation,
is the joy of all the earth,
Mount Zion, on the side of Zaphon,
the city of the great King.
Within its citadels Elohim
has shown himself a sure defence.

on the side of Zaphon — Zion (the hill Jerusalem’s temple was built on) is described as standing beneath Mount Zaphon, showing how close Jerusalem was to the divine.

Yahweh the Storm God

Nah 1 El is jealous, and Yahweh avenges,
Yahweh is avenging and wrathful;
Yahweh takes vengeance on his adversaries
and rages against his enemies.
Yahweh is slow to anger but great in power,
and Yahweh will by no means clear the guilty.
His way is in whirlwind and storm,
and the clouds are the dust of his feet.
He rebukes the sea and makes it dry,
and he dries up all the rivers;
Bashan and Carmel wither,
and the bloom of Lebanon fades.
The mountains quake before him,
and the hills melt;
the earth heaves before him,
the world and all who live in it.
Who can stand before his indignation?
Who can endure the heat of his anger?
His wrath is poured out like fire,
and by him the rocks are broken in pieces.

whirlwind … storm … clouds — Yahweh’s storm.

quake — Yahweh’s thunder.

Psa 18 Then the earth reeled and rocked;
the foundations also of the mountains trembled
and quaked, because he was angry.
Smoke went up from his nostrils,
and devouring fire from his mouth;
glowing coals flamed forth from him.
He bowed the heavens, and came down;
thick darkness was under his feet.
He rode on a cherub, and flew;
he came swiftly upon the wings of the wind.
He made darkness his covering around him,
his canopy thick clouds dark with water.
Out of the brightness before him
there broke through his clouds
hailstones and coals of fire.
Yahweh also thundered in the heavens,
and Elyon uttered his voice.
And he sent out his arrows, and scattered them;
he flashed forth lightnings, and routed them.
Then the channels of the sea were seen,
and the foundations of the world were laid bare
at your rebuke, O Yahweh,
at the blast of the breath of your nostrils.

reeled … rocked … trembled … quaked — Yahweh’s thunder.

devouring fire … arrows … lightning — Yahweh’s lightning.

thick darkness … thick clouds — Yahweh’s storm clouds.

cherub — Hebrew analogue to Akkadian lamassu or šēdu.

hailstones — Yahweh’s storm.

Psa 29 Ascribe to Yahweh, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength.
Ascribe to Yahweh the glory of his name;
worship Yahweh in holy splendour.
The voice of Yahweh is over the waters;
El of glory thunders,
Yahweh, over mighty waters.
The voice of Yahweh is powerful.
The voice of Yahweh is full of majesty.
The voice of Yahweh breaks the cedars;
Yahweh breaks the cedars of Lebanon.
He makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
and Sirion like a young wild ox.
The voice of Yahweh flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of Yahweh shakes the wilderness;
Yahweh shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of Yahweh causes the oaks to whirl,
and strips the forest bare;
and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’
Yahweh sits enthroned over the flood;
Yahweh sits enthroned as king for ever.
May Yahweh give strength to his people!
May Yahweh bless his people with peace!

the voice of Yahweh — Yahweh’s thunder. It’s mentioned seven times, just as Baal’s thunder or lightning is mentioned seven times in Ugaritic literature.

Yahweh … El — Yahweh and El appear to be conflated now.

breaks the cedars — Probably referring to lightning destroying trees.

flames of fire — Yahweh’s lightning.

Psa 50 Our Elohim comes and does not keep silence,
before him is a devouring fire,
and a mighty tempest all around him.

devouring fire — Yahweh’s lightning.

tempest — Yahweh’s storm.

Judges 5 Yahweh, when you went out from Seir,
when you marched from the region of Edom,
the earth trembled,
and the heavens poured,
the clouds indeed poured water.
The mountains quaked before Yahweh, the one of Sinai,
before Yahweh, the god of Israel.

trembled … quaked — Yahweh’s thunder.

poured … poured water — Yahweh’s rain.

Other Gods

Hab 3 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.
The eternal mountains were shattered;
along his ancient pathways
the everlasting hills sank low.
I saw the tents of Cushan under affliction;
the tent-curtains of the land of Midian trembled.
Was your wrath against Nahar, O Yahweh?
Or your anger against Nahar,
or your rage against Yam,
when you drove your horses,
your chariots to victory?
You brandished your naked bow,
sated were the arrows at your command. (Selah)
You split the earth with rivers.
The mountains saw you, and writhed;
a torrent of water swept by;
the deep gave forth its voice.
Shamash raised high his hands;
Yarikh stood still in his exalted place,
at the light of your arrows speeding by,
at the gleam of your flashing spear.
In fury you trod the earth,
in anger you trampled nations.
You came forth to save your people,
to save your anointed.
You crushed the head of the wicked house,
laying it bare from foundation to roof. (Selah)
You pierced with their own arrows the head of his warriors,
who came like a whirlwind to scatter us,
gloating as if ready to devour the poor who were in hiding.
You trampled Yam with your horses,
churning the raging waters.
I hear, and I tremble within;
my lips quiver at the sound.
Rottenness enters into my bones,
and my steps tremble beneath me.
I wait quietly for the day of calamity
to come upon the people who attack us.
Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in Yahweh;
I will exult in the god of my salvation.
Yahweh Adonai is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.

Deber — Canaanite god of disease.

Resheph — Canaanite god of plague, war, thunder.

Yam — Canaanite god of the sea.

Nahar — Another name for Yam.

Shamash — Semitic god of the sun.

Yarikh — Canaanite god of the moon.

shook the earth — Yahweh’s thunder.

the light of your arrows … the gleam of your flashing spear — Yahweh’s lightning.

whirlwind — Yahweh’s storm.

Adonai — Intensive plural ‘lord’, possibly originating as the name of another Canaanite god.

Throughout this poem, Yahweh is depicted as a storm god marching to war (from Edom, not Israel) against the god Yam/Nahar. Other gods, Deber and Resheph, are in his retinue. The whole scene is nearly identical to the ‘Baal Cycle’, in which the Canaanite storm god Baal Hadad wages war on Yam/Nahar to secure his rule over the pantheon.

Isa 27 On that day Yahweh
with his cruel and great and strong sword
will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent,
Leviathan the twisting serpent,
and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.

Leviathan — Hebrew cognate of Lotan, the Canaanite dragon of the sea, servant of Yam.

The phrasing in lines three and four are almost verbatim to a Ugaritic text of Baal slaying Lotan after defeating Yam/Nahar. In this mythology, only Baal was able to overpower the monster. Yahweh has assimilated Baal’s role as the conqueror of Lotan/Leviathan.

Psa 74 Yet Elohim my king is from of old,
working salvation in the earth.
You thwarted Yam by your might;
you broke the heads of the dragon in the waters.
You crushed the heads of Leviathan;
you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness.
You cut openings for springs and torrents;
you dried up ever-flowing streams.
Yours is the day, yours also the night;
you established the luminaries and the sun.
You have fixed all the bounds of the earth;
you made summer and winter.

This psalm represents an alternate creation myth, where Elohim (he is only called ‘Yahweh’ once, possibly a redaction) creates the world after first conquering the forces of chaos, represented by divine embodiments of the sea, Yam and Leviathan. This chaoskampf is a common element in ANE creation myths.

Job 41 ‘Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook,
or press down its tongue with a cord? [...]
Any hope of capturing it will be disappointed;
were not even the gods overwhelmed at the sight of it? [...]
When it raises itself up the gods are afraid;
at the crashing they are beside themselves.’

Further allusions to the chaoskampf are found in the Book of Job. Yahweh lists various reasons why he is superior to all things, and this chapter demonstrates that he, contrary to the rest of the pantheon, is able to overpower Leviathan.

Jer 9Death has come up into our windows,
he has entered our palaces,
to cut off the children from the streets
and the young men from the squares.’

Death — Mawet, Hebrew cognate of Canaanite god of death Mot.

Job 38 ‘Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of Death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?’
Isa 25 On this mountain Yahweh of hosts
will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food,
a feast of well-matured wines,
of rich food filled with marrow,
of well-matured wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain
the shroud that is cast over all peoples,
the sheet that is spread over all nations;
he will swallow up Death for ever.

he will swallow up Death — A reversal of the story where Mot, god of death, swallows Baal whole.

Exo 12 ‘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.’

The text assumes the existence of Egypt’s gods. Yahweh is literally overpowering them through the plagues. According to the exodus narrative, this is how Yahweh acquired his own nation.

Deut 4 ‘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.’

The existence of other gods — here identified with lights in the sky — is not denied, nor is worship of them regarded as inherently wrong. Rather, the only prohibition is for Israel to worship them. Yahweh has assimilated El as the one who assigned gods to nations, yet he continues in his role as Israel’s national god. This is not monotheism (only one god exists), but Israelite monolatry (Israel must worship this specific god alone).

2 Kings 3 And he said ‘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.’ […] Then he [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.

This story depicts Israel at war with Moab. Yahweh tells the Israelites he will lead them to victory, and gives them a sign that his promise is trustworthy. The sign is fulfilled exactly as predicted, showing the prophecy is real. When Moab begins to lose, however, the Moabite king sacrifices his firstborn son to one of nation’s god, Chemosh. In the face of this sacrifice to his enemy, Yahweh fails to fulfill his promise to Israel. He is, literally, outmatched by another god.