Early Jews Polytheistic?

Hey I was wondering about Elohim which is supposed to mean God but can also mean gods en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elohim#Significance_in_the_documentary_hypothesis

I know according to many secular scholars it is confirmation that judaism was originally polytheistc but I was wondering what ppl on the boards thought

Would be nice to get our resident Jew chime in as well :wink:

It can mean “heavenly beings” - as in angels.

it can also mean “gods” and even many rabbis i’ve heard have said that judaism began as polytheistic.

Yes, the very early Hebrews were polytheistic. Part of the whole point of the story of Abraham is God revealing Himself as the One.

From th wikipedia link posted above.

The form of the word Elohim, with the ending -im, is plural and masculine, but the construction is usually singular, i.e. it governs a singular verb or adjective when referring to the Hebrew god, but reverts to its normal plural when used of heathen divinities (Psalms 96:5; 97:7). There are many theories as to why the word is plural:

The way I read this and the rest of the page is that it was not plural we being used in reference to the Hebrew God.

I suppose it depends upon what is meant by “early” Jews. More precisely, the Jewish people were henotheistic for a considerably long time.

This means that they understood other Gods to be real, but they were bound to their own God, and were forbidden to worship any other.

Each God was to have a nation and a place. Yahweh brought His people, with Moses, to the Land of Milk and Honey.

Thus, the ten plagues visited upon Egypt showed that the God of the Hebrews (not Jews as yet) was stronger than the gods of Egypt. Later, the Jews and Israelites came to understand that the ‘other’ gods were not actually gods at all. This became especially apparent to them when they were scattered after the destruction of the first temple. Being in foreign lands, the first impulse would be to begin worshiping the gods of the land of the victorious nation (in this case Babylon). Probably many did so and were lost.

But the understanding spread among them that the Babylonians achieved mastery over Judah (and the Assyrians mastery over Israel at an earlier date) because Yahweh allowed it to happen, as part of His Divine Will or plan. The gods of all other peoples were now known to be false, which meant the exiles of Judah had nothing to fear by ignoring those gods in their own (foreign) lands. The Jewish community began to think as monotheists.

It seems to have worked out.

Hesychios, this is really interesting. Do you have any book recommendations that cover the concepts you posted here?

I posted on another thread from an encyclopedia of myths that the northern Hebrews of Israel worshipped EL (God) and the “Judaic” people of Judah worshiped YHWH (I Am that I Am). The two eventually were syncretized. El is cognate with the ancient Canaanite IL who was also a mythic predecessor to Allah (AL-ILAH, “The God”).

It links up with two of the authors of the early scripture - the Yahwist and the Elohist, based on what word/name they used for God which was then translated into LORD (Loaf-warden).:smiley:

Another book I flipped through in my poorer days but (unfortunately) did not buy also mentioned Michael, Gabriel et al (et el?) as minor deities under El. It also went into some further detail, mentioning one deity as being more particularly one of storms and the other one of covenants, which goes hella way to explain God’s somewhat bi-polar portrayal in the OT.

I’d look up the names of other ancient deities, but unfortunately the Encyc I have lists all deities alphabetically, not by pantheon. You sometimes have to know who you’re looking for to find him.

Sorry, not the resident Jew, but I can see where the very early Jewish Religion could have started in a Polytheistic way. Before Abraham knew about the One God, it is possible, I am sure, he and his family or his forefathers, worshipped many gods. They originally were all pagans you know. And of course Abraham was the “father” of all Monotheistic religions, except maybe for Akhenaten and his one god.

A;though in the Bible we move very quickly from Adam to Abram I agree with what I read in a previous post ( I am adding my own words to elaborate) That the descendants of Adam that came to be the Hebrew people Believe that though there were other gods there was only one True God. If I understand what I have read That means that they may have been polytheistic in thought but were monotheistic in worship.

That is called “henotheism.”

Even a cursory reading of Genesis will reveal that many of the partriarchs and their wives had “idols”. Read the story of Rebecca and Leah…those references to “household gods” come to mind.

I believe the previous poster was correct…the early Hebrews were more “henotheistic” than “polytheistic”…it wasn’t until after the Exile that monothesim became a tenet of “Jewish” belief…monotheism was an evolution of belief…

Most of the OT history deals with Israel’s “flirtations” with other gods than YHVH.

Sorry, off the top of my head I cannot think of a book that covers this specific topic in depth.

I was only going on what I remember from a long time ago :blush:. It seems pretty clear though, when one reads the scriptural accounts.

For instance (as Publisher states), we read of the Israelites mixing with Baalists, and possibly others. It’s not possible to worship more than one God if you don’t actually believe in more than one God. At the time they did. All that was necessary was for them to decide whether they were willing to risk offending Yahweh (or Elohim). He is a jealous God.

Thus, adding such a second God to your worship regimen is not actually a conversion. It’s more like exercising an option. I think examining a list of the kings of Israel (and possibly even some from Judah) would reveal a few with names honoring gods other than the Hebrew’s God. That would mean their parents “mixed it up” a little bit, like Jezebel married to Ahab.

When the exiles (some of them) returned from Babylon they immediately had problems with the “people of the land”. which would be the Judean peasants who had not been deported. They may have still been henotheists, which is why they could marry non-Jews so readily. Their own understanding of the Faith was probably going into rapid deterioration.

The returnees (a rather sophisticated bunch from the Big Apple…Babylon) also had huge issues with the Samaritans, who were basically the remnant of the Israelite Hebrew population to the north. These had been separated from the Jerusalem temple for much longer, actually long before the Assyrian conquest (they had their own temples in the north). It is quite possible that these people were full blown active polytheists and did not even pretend to be henotheists at that time, but I don’t know much about that. Well worth a study.


cwould you give a quick run down of where Abraham fit into this timeline? It must have been before the Babylonian exile for the refugees returning to Canaan to have had “trouble with the people in the land”. Right?:confused:

The whole problem with this is we are mistaking the Israelites as a nation for the Hebrew/Jewish religion. We find throughout the OT that there were those that held to the belief in the one true God and those that did not. A better question maybe was Noah poly or monotheistic before God reveled himself and said to build the ark? Was Abram poly or monotheistic before God reveled himself to him? And what were they afterward?
If we look at it Moses was Polytheistic as he was raised in the court of Pharaoh. I don’t think he believe that there were any real gods after God made himself known to him. So It would go to reason that there were those with pagan beliefs among the Israelites Mose was leading out of Egypt. I would also say that the majority were monotheistic at that time though.

I think we are on an acceptable path, here. We are all surmising, I am sure, as none of us were there. It was only after Moses left Egypt that he was introduced to “I Am” in the burning bush and told to bring God’s people out of Egypt. However, the Israelites in Egypt must have had some idea they were a “special people” re: the blood on the lintel at what became Passover. But then what do I know?:shrug:

Abraham was before all of this, by at least several hundred years before Moses.

Abraham was a Bronze Age individual and his existence is really more legend than hard fact. One might think of him as being from 1800BC or as late as 1500 BC.

There seems to be some connection between the Hyksos and the migration of Joseph and his brothers into Egypt. The Hyksos are a fascinating subject in their own right. It is possible that the people of Abraham were the Hyksos themselves, or part of the general migration. The Hyksos probably arrived in Egypt around 1700BC to 1600BC. So that was the Abrahamites (Joseph, his brothers and their father Jacob, plus any others dependent upon them) opening to take the road to Egypt, possibly motivated by famine at home and/or the opportunity for cheap good well irrigated farmland.

The Hyksos were Semites, and controlled Canaan as far north as the whole coast of Lebanon, and possibly as far as the area around Antioch. They also controlled lower (but not upper) Egypt, where they set their capital. They settled primarily in the east Nile delta. You guessed it: Goshen.

Theoretically, if the Abrahamites were not the Hyksos themselves, they could have been Semites who migrated into Egypt in the wake of the conquest.

Eventually, the Hyksos dynasty was overthrown, and the Semitic population in the delta region would have been an unwelcome minority. Hence, the heavy taxation, corvee labor, confiscation of property and even imprisonment that they could expect as a conquered people associated with former oppressers.

When the Hyksos lost power, their whole territory was taken by the new Egyptian dynasty, all the way up the Mediterranean coast. The Bible gives us the idea that the Egyptians controlled the main road through Gaza and Megiddo to points north. The rough highland areas were not patrolled or effectively governed. Canaanite city states each had a ruler, called a king, who would be a vassal or ally of the Pharaoh. This might have been the model the Hyksos used to govern the region before.

While in Egypt, before the arrival of Moses to lead them, they would have been polytheists with merely a vague recollection of the religion of their father Abraham. When the Hebrews escaped the delta region, following Moses, they avoided the main trade route. This may have been roughly 1200BC. After this (and the entry into the highlands of Canaan) the tribes were in the period of Judges. At this point, I think we can assume the Hebrews were henotheists. They did not utterly destroy the Canaanites, they had to coexist with them. Apparently Jerusalem was not taken until King David’s time, possibly as much as two hundred years later.

Solomon’s temple (skipping ahead a bit) was erected in about the tenth century BC, initiating the First Temple Period. Interestingly, it was built by Canaanites in the style of a Canaanite temple (Phoenicians were Canaanites). Quite probably the Hebrews were still henotheists for the most part. The “high places” (local rugged temples, places of sacrifice) had been banned and destroyed, some priestly families were allotted places to serve in turn at Jerusalem. The prophets railed against the Hebrews for their faithlessness (more or less continually) for the next several hundred years. After Solomon died, the united kingdom of Israel split. Judah and Benjamin in the south to be known as Judah and Israel in the north. Israel allowed two more temples initially, so the religion had three officially tolerated sites of worship (plus numerous renegade temple sites, which may have been prone to allow worship of Baal and other Canaanite gods as well as Elohim). Judah never accepted the two new temples as legitimate, some people of Israel would come south to Jerusalem to worship, but could have also visited the Israelite temples back home.
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Israel was crushed in 722BC. The Assyrians allowed worship of any gods and erection of temples. Archeology shows that cities in Judah swelled in population at this time, even after the ravages of the Assyrians across the state, so it is probable that large numbers of refugees from the "ten tribes"of Israel fled south and settled in Judah.

Solomon’s’ Temple was destroyed in 586BC by Babylonia. The exiles were taken away in several groups over a few years time. These people were the ruling class, the educated and the ones with the most leadership potential. The poor farmers were left to fend for themselves, without the temple rites, under (presumably) new non-Hebrew landlords who could be expected to assume the role of community leaders. After the Persian conquest of Babylonia (530BC), some persons from the exile community in the east began to return in small groups.

The second temple was finished in 516BC, after fits and starts with some delays. This was fourteen years after the Babylonians were conquered by Cyrus of Persia.

It is believed that this period, during the Babylonian captivity and shortly after the rebuilding of the temple, that the Biblical accounts were redacted and shared out to the common folk residing in the hinterlands of Judea; and the people of Judea became Jews, the People of the Book and uniformly monotheists.


Its pretty clear they were.If you look in the Catholic New American Bible youll see in the foot note pg 13 for chapter 6 Genesis that the Hebrews got the story from the earlier “Epic of Gilgamesh” tablets found in modern day Iraq. Abraham also says in Genesis11:31 that he came form Ur of the Chaldeans, which is right where the tablets were found…called Uruk in the Epic of Gilgamesh.As youll see if you read a translation (pretty easy to find now days) there were about 5 or more Gods standing around planning the Flood.At some point they must have edited the original story.Since the New American Bible is approved by the Bishops and the Vatican it must be pretty well excepted by the Church. Also Gilgamesh is obviously the Nephilim and “heros of old” spokn of in these stories Genesis 6:4 since Gilgamesh and Enkidu are both HUGE in stature. Elohim was probobly liek the Egyptian word Ennead (hope that spelt right) which represented the Gods counsel as a collective. And of course the Egyptian Book of the dead had a lot of the same material in it also. Good question!

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