Polytheism in the Old Testament


Certain religious people sometimes object to various holidays, customs or beliefs because of their "pagan roots". 

 

The difficulty with the argument is that there are pagan and polytheistic roots to be found in all cultures, all civilizations and all religions, including the culture which produced the Old Testament. The idea of only one true God is one that was only realized gradually. This is partially obscured by the redacting of the Old Testament, but traces of it remain, particularly in the older poetic fragments.

 

Among the Canaanites and the other inhabitants of the Middle East, a common pantheon of gods was worshiped. The father of the gods, the creator, was “El”, the mighty one – who’s symbol was a bull. The word “El” is used throughout the Old Testament to mean “God”, as well as to indicate lesser powers. The consort of El was Asherah, a mother goddess represented by a stylized tree of seven branches – similar to the seven branched menorah used in the temple . There were seventy children of El and his consort, and these lesser deities were the particular gods of the various lands and tribes of the region. Together they met in the council of the gods – the “bene el” or “Children of El” or the “elohim”. Among the children of El were Baal, and apparently Ya, or Yahweh in a later form.

 

There is an interesting artifact of this view in Deuteronomy 32. In verse 8, it speaks of the peoples being divided up according to the number of the “children of Israel”. However, a very early version of Deuteronomy found among the Dead Sea Scrolls shows that originally the verse mentioned “The children of El”, not the “children of Israel”. Here is how the passage originally read:

 

“Remember the days of old.

Consider the years of many generations.

Ask your father, and he will show you;

your elders, and they will tell you.

When the Most High (El-yon) 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 El.

For Yahwehs portion is his people.

Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 32:7-9)

 

The picture is that El divided up all the nations and assigned one of his children to each of them. Israel was given to Yahweh as his portion.

 

The first verse of Genesis, translated literally, reads “In the beginning, the gods (elohim) created the heavens and the earth”. Throughout Genesis one, there are obviously a group of divine beings involved (“Let us make man in our own image”).

 

Many other scriptures clearly imply that the other gods of the region are not simply human inventions, but are quite real. The God of Israel is praised for being superior to them. Yahweh gradually moves from being simply being one of the children of El to being the greatest of the gods.

 

“For Yahweh your God, he is God of gods, and Lord of lords, the great God, the mighty, and the awesome, who doesnt respect persons, nor takes reward.”

(Deuteronomy 10:17 WEB)

 

There is no one like you among the gods, Lord,

nor any deeds like your deeds. (Psalms 86:8 WEB)

 

For Yahweh is a great God,

a great King above all gods. (Psalms 95:3 WEB)

 

Eventually, the God of Israel appears to judge all the other gods, strip them of their immortality, and take charge over the whole earth, as the scripture below tells.

 

“God presides in the great assembly (literally, the council of EL).

He judges among the gods.

How long will you judge unjustly,

and show partiality to the wicked?

Selah.

 

Defend the weak, the poor, and the fatherless.

Maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed.

Rescue the weak and needy.

Deliver them out of the hand of the wicked.

They dont know, neither do they understand.

They walk back and forth in darkness.

All the foundations of the earth are shaken.

I said, You are gods,

all of you are sons of the Most High (bene El-yon).

Nevertheless you shall die like men,

and fall like one of the rulers.

Arise, God, judge the earth,

for you inherit all of the nations.

(Psalms 82:1-8 WEB)

 

It might be argued from Jesus quotation of this scripture that the verses refer to human rulers. By Jesus time, this was the traditional interpretation, and so it was suitable to make Jesus’ point for him. But originally, it clearly has a different meaning. What is the point of threatening a human ruler that he will “die like men” – since that is the fate of all human beings. And God did not preside over some court of human rulers. It is the Sons of El that are being discussed here.

 

The point is, just because Judaism has its most ancient roots in the polytheism of Canaan means nothing today. Through the agency of prophets, scribes and inspired authors, the concept of God grew and developed. In its final form, Judaism is unfailingly monotheistic, as is Christianity and Islam.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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