Foundations of early Hebrew religion and relations to Cannite deities


#1

Recently began to re-read the bible again and have gone done a rabbit’s hole of sorts involving the use of different Semitic words for god. This involves the influence of the Canaanite religion and how it relates to the patriarchal period.

Introductions to the issue:

Yale Professor Christine Hayes (Lecture 7; go to around 30 minutes in) oyc.yale.edu/religious-studies/rlst-145/lecture-7

Reasonable Faith (William Lane Craig’s website) reasonablefaith.org/jewish-beliefs-about-god

Christian to Atheism Deconversion’s take on it (though part 2 doesn’t really continue it but part 1 seems good) youtube.com/watch?v=MlnnWbkMlbg&list=PLA0C3C1D163BE880A

Scott Hahn’s website mentions it a bit (though the writing isn’t his): scotthahn.com/download/attachment/4830
page 23 end of the first paragraph (ends with “writing!”)
“Just as Abraham freely adopted El Elyon when speaking of Yahweh among the Canaanites, so did Paul adopt Theos…”

Mark Smith’s book The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel deals with it (and the Yale link mentions him) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Early_History_of_God

Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible (screenshots from Google Books, an invaluable resource!) covers it on pages 514 - 517 as well as (specifically El) on pages 384 - 386.

Scott Hahn’s Catholic Bible Dictionary only mentions them as different names of God, no mention of their relation to the Canaanites sadly.

The Issue

Several issues come up

  1. Did Abraham worship a Canaanite god and was he polytheistic even thought he knew god?

  2. Did the development of Yahweh come from Moses in Midan and come from a polytheistic backround?

  3. Did the development of Yahweh come from Canaan and result as a evolution of the Canaanite religion?

  4. Why does Genesis use different words from god (clearly removing Mosaic authorship) and not one? Was the reason theological? Or does it point to a polytheistic background (see also the similarities to the Enuma Elish)?

Why this is problematic: If these questions are true it seems to point to the development of the Israelite religion not from divine inspiration but from polytheistic origins. That is the character of God goes from one of reality and complete difference to polytheism all the way to being an origin from those religions. If the character is evolved from polytheism it rather removes the possibility of it being a true, monotheistic, god.

So does anyone know of any good resources (I tried google searches of the Vatican, with no mention in this context and of Catholic.com) about this and the hebrew bible?


#2

Eerdman’s Dictionary of the Bible (screenshots from Google Books, an invaluable resource!) covers it on pages 514 - 517 as well as (specifically El) on pages 384 - 386.

Here are the pages (from Google Books, you can view them yourselves but I figured this would be easier) imgur.com/a/dxhsq

Scott Hahn’s Catholic Bible Dictionary only mentions them as different names of God, no mention of their relation to the Canaanites sadly.

imgur.com/a/A4z4t


#3

I don’t see a problem in believing in evolutionary religious origins of Judaism, starting with polytheism and moving toward monotheism and divine inspiration, just as I don’t see a problem in believing in the theory of evolution as well as G-d’s creation.


#4

I don’t see a problem in believing in evolutionary religious origins of Judaism, starting with polytheism and moving toward monotheism and divine inspiration, just as I don’t see a problem in believing in the theory of evolution as well as G-d’s creation.

Thanks for the reply. However the issue I see is then the origin, creation of the texts, and beliefs are then explained better as a cultural borrowing from Canaanite (etc) polytheism, which then raises issues with the explanation of whether these events actually happened.


#5

Well as far as I know, it’s the Catholic understanding that much of the narratives of the Old Testament are in fact “stories” written in such a way as to impart truths to us, not a literal series of chronological events. This is especially what is true for what is often called the “theological pre-history” of Genesis 1-11, which skips over much of the “mythology” of the era in favor of a very simplified view of human theological development (the development of monotheism first and foremost). The Bible itself states that nearly all the earliest humans were engaged in various superstitions, polytheism, and idol worship. These who actually believed in the “the God of Abraham” are usually very few in number in those days, according to the Bible itself.

All that came before are pre-figures and foreshadowings of various elements of the truth that would eventually find its fulfillment in Christ. For example, I often see the remarkable significance that “fertility goddesses” had on many early human civilizations (and particularly for virgins) and I’m not at all surprised that God would then choose none other than to save humanity with a Child brought forth through a virgin woman (the ‘Blessed Mother’). Not a goddess of course, but mankind needed to start somewhere. Many corollaries can be traced, and it’s almost as if one could say God was “preparing us” all along for the fulfillment of the truth by giving us little bits of it over time, throughout the world.


#6

But the issue is exactly that the Israelites didn’t believe in monotheism, they weren’t special, there was no unique covenant, just elements taken from other polytheistic religions and made into a mythos that is just as false. The issue is not polytheism but that the elements of the Israelite religion were not there because they were true but because they came from other false religions from neighboring areas.


#7

From the Lexham Bible Dictionary

The biblical writers never criticize those who worship the god El. While various reasons have been suggested for this, it is El who is called the god of Israel and of the fathers in the Pentateuch (e.g., Gen 33:20; 46:3), and it is likely that he was worshiped at least by some of the proto-Israelites. The very name Israel, which probably means “El will rule” and which is already found on the Merneptah stele from the 13th century BC, supports this view (Day, Yahweh and the Gods, 16–17), as do the altars built at Bethel by Abraham and Jacob (Gen 13:3–4; 31:13). The later monotheistic writers and editors still acknowledged, then, that the god of the fathers was El, who was probably originally a separate deity from Yahweh but was later assimilated by him (see below, for views on this see Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 60–75; Day, Yahweh and the Gods, 13–14).

later on it continues

At various times, the Israelites worshiped some of the same gods as the Canaanites and took part in their religious practices. However, the cultural interchange with the surrounding peoples also meant that “foreign” concepts had an effect on what the Israelites later saw as their own religion. The worship of the god El effected patriarchal religion, and the traits of this Canaanite god appear to have been assimilated into the character of Yahweh. The god of the Israelites shares El’s old age (compare the biblical epithet El-Olam, which may have originally meant “El, the ancient one,” Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 50), wisdom, and merciful and gracious nature (e.g., Exod 34:6; Psa 103:8; Deut 4:31). Yahweh is also a creator god like El; in fact, His name may be a causative form of the verb “to be,” meaning “He creates’ (Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 60–71). In addition, Yahweh had a divine council, a concept well known throughout the ancient Near East. A direct line of influence from the assembly of El to that of Yahweh can be seen in that the “70 sons of Asherah” (and therefore El) are equivalent to the “sons of God” in Deut 32:8 (LXX), who are equal in number to the 70 nations (Gen 10, 1 Enoch 89:59–77; 90:22–27; see Day, Yahweh and the Gods, 22–24; Mullen, The Assembly of the Gods). Texts such as 2 Kgs 21:3, 5 and Zeph 1:5 suggest that this council was worshiped as the “host of heaven,” an influence which came to provide the voiceless subordinates of 1 Kgs 22:19, and eventually the assembly of angels in the New Testament (Luke 2:13; Acts 7:42).

It seems to indicate that the original god worship was not Yahweh as Judaism would later try to make but the Canaanite god El! That Yahweh was simply a construct from the older Canaanite deities! This makes the later movement to Yahweh only monotheism not proper to the one true god but a strange movement back to a pagan god (El mixed with later beliefs). That is to say the Jewish god was some pagan false god.

Is this just some post modernist view? Because it would largely seem then that the creation of the Israelite religion was not from God coming down to Abraham and Moses but from cultural borrowing! This is extremely problematic IMO! Hopefully someone who has more knowledge can clarify this topic some.


#8

From Wikipedia on El:

According to The Oxford Companion to World Mythology,

It seems almost certain that the God of the Jews evolved gradually from the Canaanite El, who was in all likelihood the 'God of Abraham'... If El was the high God of Abraham—Elohim, the prototype of Yahveh—Asherah was his wife, and there are archaeological indications that she was perceived as such before she was in effect 'divorced' in the context of emerging Judaism of the 7th century BCE. (See 2 Kings 23:15)".[27]

It seems to be generally excepted (even by Oxford so not exactly a new novel idea etc) that the Israelite religion evolved out of the Canaanite mythos!


#9

Looked up Scott Hahn’s Exodus Study Bible on Exodus 6:2-3 (which sums up a lot of this issue as it uses both El and Yahweh and some have suggested it as a polemic that tries to explain the issue of the two names).

Hahn treats it in a new way (which I think points to perhaps a divide in Catholic vs Secular scholarship). Sadly I can’t see his treatment in Genesis as the Google Books version of that is in poor form; might buy it but don’t want to and then have the whole OT come out lol (though that has been a LONG time in the making).

Hahn Exodus 6:2-3 i.imgur.com/jQfxNVn.png

Also looked up Donald Senior’s Catholic Study Bible and it takes a more liberal tone noting it via the documentary hypothesis, so not much more there and not much of a surprise; Searched him on the forums and many seem to think Senior has a liberal bent. (Which I would agree with having read some of his introductions to Exodus etc he seems to reject hte historicity etc)!


#10

I’ll try to post a summary of the argument and views so as to hopefully given anyone with knowledge on this a good starting point to refute or talk on. Again my goal here is not one of antagonism but of presenting the evidence against as best as it can so that it can’t be accuse of straw man arguing if someone does respond with knowledge on the subject.

Things that would NOT affect the belief of Jewish and Christians that there is one god:

  1. That the bible mentions other gods. This could be in the context of mentioning them BECAUSE of the believers in them (e.g Egypt and God punishing their gods). This does NOT make any statement that they (the gods) existed ONLY that people believed in them. In that manner the reason that gods were spoken of as existing is because of their believers. It is a rather poetic way of speaking about it. (Though not concerned with actual poetry).

  2. That the Canaanites [etc] had a belief in a deity and had a little ‘slice’ of the “full knowledge” of the one true god. Again if by either blind luck or historical ancestral chance that Canaanites got something right it WOULD NOT show that is were Israel got their beliefs from, it COULD be a possibility but not the only one. Several explanations could be:

a) blind luck

b) knowledge from Noah ancestral that had been perverted by some theological motif (e.g the fall or perversions to greed and sexual pleasure)

c) knowledge of all humans (along the lines that “it is written on their hearts”) that there was some kernel of knowledge that all humans posses. This however was either not enough for fullness of truth or it was perverted similar to the “Noah explanation”.

  1. That the Israelites fell into paganism, it is a sort of motif that the Jews and Hebrews fail, A LOT, almost to the point of comedy or tragedy. However this would not damage the original theology etc as there is no link or evolution to it.

Now to facts that could damage a belief in Judeo-Christian monotheism:

  1. Those who ‘knew God’ were polytheistic (That Abraham and Moses’ gods contradicted each other). If Abraham or Moses (and to a less extent the kings of Israel and Judea though that could be covered above on point 3 possibly) could be established as having a polytheistic beliefs it would show the ‘truth’ revealed to them WAS polytheism or it was not truth. Instead it would show a evolution from perhaps El to Yahweh etc. That the patriarchs were polytheistic believers and monotheism came with Moses. This couldn’t happen if God actually revealed himself (they would both worship, at least when faithful, the true god).

  2. Moses and Abraham’s god were different or in some manner contradictory with what each knew of ‘their’ god. It would either represent a evolution, a polytheistic belief, or a mistaken belief which couldn’t happen if God actually revealed himself to them. In this vain it must be explained why different names were used and why El should be interpreted as “god” and not the Canaanite deity.

[The above two points deal with why the direct revelation of Abraham and Moses can’t be evolutionary as they both should be fully true, nothing in them should evolve and change]

  1. Why the use of different names in the bible for God, Why not just Yahweh (after all Genesis was written after the reveal of the personal name!) If not Yahweh (maybe too personal similar to why Jews would not say the name) why was it was EVER used. Also it would have to be explained how El in the bible (at least in the proper context) isn’t the Canaanite god.

4. Why all the motifs and similarities between paganism and Judaism. Maybe the Canaanites got lucky. So they would have some similarity to the true god. But why would ISRAEL profane Yahweh by comparing him to pagan gods in e.g Psalm 29 (and a lot of the Psalms!) Why would these similarities go from Israel to Canaanite (etc). The reverse (Canaanite to Israel) can be simply explained as above in point 2 of reasons why not. But why would Israel compare Yahweh in terms used by the Canaanites! It would be profane! What political reason could they have? (unlike Paul in the NT who was trying to convert the Greeks; see Hahn’s attachment in the original post).

Hopefully this helps sum some things up.


#11

See also this (seems to argue for the evolution of Israel from El as a Canaanite deity) journals.lib.byu.edu/spc/index.php/StudiaAntiqua/article/viewFile/12052/11978

The connection between the Canaanite god El and the El of Israel largely
centers on the religion of the great patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Mark Smith points out that Israel is called “Isra-el” instead of “Isra-yahwe,” or,
perhaps better, “Isra-yah,” which would be “in accordance with other proper
names containing the divine name.”31 This suggests that the name of the early
god may have been El, not the Mosaic god Yahweh. We know from the biblical
record that Abraham started his epic in Ur, thought to be in Mesopotamia, and
there moved to Harran. The account continues with Abraham moving through
Damascus and southward to Hebron. We are told that God gave Abraham the
land of Canaan as an inheritance. Abraham also spent much time traveling
south to the Negev and into Egypt.32 Though the story of the Patriarchs has
very little extrabiblical archaeological or historical proof, the biblical record
and tradition holds that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived in Canaan and were
familiar with the people, customs, language, and religion of the people who
lived there.

See also this (as mentioned earlier) for the doubting of the connection between Smith and Catholicism (in the comments) patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2011/08/review-of-mark-s-smith-god-in-translation.html

I am really perplexed on something. I would understand if Mark Smith were an atheist or agnostic about the existence of God, but I don’t understand how he can make the assertion that the Israelites basically created their conception of god just like other ancient cultures, whose gods are now considered purely inventions, and still maintain a belief as a Catholic? Any thoughts on how this is reconciliable? Thanks

Just to clarify, I am not attacking Professor Smith in anyway, I am just curious as to how he maintains belief in the catholic tradition when his thesis portrays ancient israel in this light?


#12

From the BYU link above as well

A surface reading of the Hebrew Bible would lead one to conclude that
Canaanite peoples and Israel had distinct religious traditions and cultures. A
more in-depth examination, however, shows evidence of shared and common
elements. Ancient extrabiblical texts, such as those found at Ras Shamra, have
shed great light on some of these common elements. Though Bronze Age
Israel and other West Semitic peoples may not have had the exact same cult,
it is plausible that these two groups at this time shared many traditions. What
differences existed may have grown greater over time, but echoes of a shared
tradition are alive in the Iron Age worship of Yahweh. Was the pre-Iron Age
God of Israel a Canaanite deity, or was the pre-Iron Age God of the Canaanites
a Hebrew deity? These questions cannot be answered right now. However,
evidence suggests that the divide between the two may not be as broad as once
believed.

From my searching there seems to be a huge lack of Catholic scholarship on Ras Shamra and the Ugarit texts even though they potentially play a HUGE role in the Bible’s interpretation.

The best I’ve found is Frank Moore Cross’ work on the Ugarit texts yet I still can’t get a view of what his beliefs are on the issue of El and Yahweh. As for most others there is a lot of modernist views (many of the people trained by Albrech and Cross) that work very well and paint a picture that Yahweh came from El (as the scholarship above seems to point to).


#13

Can’t post pages of this book sense Google Book’s has some of it blocked. But reading from How to read the Bible by James Kugel he advances and gives a good overview of the same argument in pages 418 to the end of the chapter. Summarizing the Midianite Hypothesis and addressing Alt and Cross. As well as summarizing the Ugarit discovery and the connections to the bible.


#14

This topic cannot be approached objectively, it can only be approached subjectively, and therefore ones world-view is going to be the largest most predominant factor in interpreting the little information that can be obtained.

One view would have it that man had recently come out of the tower of Babel (which also the Sibyl makes mention of) and were scattered abroad, and therefore generational history would have some inkling/incline of God.

The other view would have it that mankind had never had revelation, and therefore was purely situationally morphic (not evolutionary).

The first view believes knowledge was there but when there was error introduced it was always in the direction of anthropomorphic. The second view believes anything it wants to, as long as it sounds plausible within the constraints of little known facts.


#15

Thanks for the input Darryl, I couldn’t agree more! Hopefully I can clarify that I am in no ways trying to say THIS IS the TRUTH. But I am trying to take the other views as best and as honestly as they can be taken (its why I have posted many sources of this view of Israelite and Yahwistic origin as well as the, primary, view that it is in relation to El and harks back to the patriarchs).

I have focussed on Exodus 6:2-3 because I find it really encapsulates the issue and is a good way to get commentaries and views on it (as it would usually be mentioned).

Anyways, thanks for the input Darryl you seem to have some knowledge on it and if I may ask, do you know of any good conservative books or information on this issue. I have found some, primarily though evangelical and protestant conservative circles. Sadly the views of Catholic scholars I have only seen Hahn’s view on the Biblical verses (primarily Exodus 6:2-3) that seem conservative and orthodox. The other I have seen is that of Donald Senior and John J Collins’s study bible which I have found to be EXTREMELY liberal for a Catholic prospective to the point I don’t understand why they aren’t atheistic.

So if anyone has any goo information that goes against the modernist position (which it seems I have lots of sources for) that would be awesome!


#16

Yes, the six titles for G-d are also the titles for pagan gods. So what is the problem ?
How, much of what i say would you understand if i switched to an unheard of language every time i discussed the subject ?


#17

You’ll like volume one of Catholic historian Warren H Carrol’s Christendom series, “The Founding of Christendom”. It has many sources to go deeper on this question in the footnotes as well.


#18

The questions posed by the OP are sort of meaningless and unanswerable without a working knowledge of Jewish Henotheism.


#19

Not really. Pretty much every culture in the world has been aware that there’s one God in charge of everything, or one God Who made everything. Other gods are an add-on, or have powers that make it so you should kiss up to them to avoid trouble, or are ancestors turned into gods for dignity, or there’s some kind of fun worship there. Pretty much every culture has various memories of a time when people were better and different, or multiple gods didn’t exist yet, or humans could talk to animals.

Middle Eastern and Egyptian cultures in general seem to have influenced Hebrew styles of worship, prophecy, covenant, etc. But the extent of Hebrew legends and histories and memories, the clarity of the salvation narrative, and the sort of things God told them to do through the prophets, are way beyond all other cultures.

Don’t let linguistic issues of various titles and names for gods bother you.

Do you say, “Oh, I call God ‘the Lord,’ so obviously I believe God lives on an English estate, serves in Parliament, and drives an Aston-Martin?”

And yes, of course Abraham came from a pagan culture. The Bible says he did. He came from Ur, which was famous in Biblical times for worshipping a moon god and making idols. Abraham’s dad was an idol maker by trade. But he came to realize that the moon god wasn’t God, which is part of why he moved away from home. (The Talmud has all kinds of dramatic Jewish legends about Abraham breaking every idol in his dad’s shop, stuff like that.)

It wasn’t uncommon in pagan cultures around the world for philosophers or deep thinkers to decide that they only wanted to worship only one God, the true God, even if they didn’t know Who He was or what He wanted. You’ve probably heard of the Pharaoh Akhenaton, and it’s said about the Irish King Cormac and quite a few other pre-Christian historical figures.

What was uncommon was for God to answer back, and reveal Himself, like He did with Moses. Or for Him to make humans His family, like His covenant with Abraham and Sarah and their whole household and descendants.


#20

I think you are missing the point. I have posted a lot of people and sources who do identify the genesis of Israel and Yahwism with Canaanite gods…

You’ll like volume one of Catholic historian Warren H Carrol’s Christendom series, “The Founding of Christendom”. It has many sources to go deeper on this question in the footnotes as well.

Thanks sounds like what I am looking for!

Just looked it up on amazon and it seems to be exactly what I am looking for if it covers the OT and the Jews at the start going into Canaan and the Exodus etc. Thanks :thumbsup:

The questions posed by the OP are sort of meaningless and unanswerable without a working knowledge of Jewish Henotheism.

So they are meaningful? Why is it suddenly you can’t know about Jewish Henotheism? It is rather important to find out the foundation of the Jews especially when many scholars, who are knowledgable, state that Israel most likely was founded by syncretism and adoption of Canaanite’s god(s).

And yes, of course Abraham came from a pagan culture. The Bible says he did. He came from Ur, which was famous in Biblical times for worshipping a moon god and making idols. Abraham’s dad was an idol maker by trade. But he came to realize that the moon god wasn’t God, which is part of why he moved away from home. (The Talmud has all kinds of dramatic Jewish legends about Abraham breaking every idol in his dad’s shop, stuff like that.)

It wasn’t uncommon in pagan cultures around the world for philosophers or deep thinkers to decide that they only wanted to worship only one God, the true God, even if they didn’t know Who He was or what He wanted. You’ve probably heard of the Pharaoh Akhenaton, and it’s said about the Irish King Cormac and quite a few other pre-Christian historical figures.

What was uncommon was for God to answer back, and reveal Himself, like He did with Moses. Or for Him to make humans His family, like His covenant with Abraham and Sarah and their whole household and descendants.

But thats my point! Did God reveal himself or was it a later foundation mythos and the real genesis was syncretism with the Canaanite gods. Many scholars I have posted above think it was so it is clearly with some foundation. I am looking for people, scholars etc, who have the other view that** can show or give good reason why this isn’t the case, why the other modernist scholars are wrong and for what reasons.**

Not really. Pretty much every culture in the world has been aware that there’s one God in charge of everything, or one God Who made everything. Other gods are an add-on, or have powers that make it so you should kiss up to them to avoid trouble, or are ancestors turned into gods for dignity, or there’s some kind of fun worship there. Pretty much every culture has various memories of a time when people were better and different, or multiple gods didn’t exist yet, or humans could talk to animals.

Middle Eastern and Egyptian cultures in general seem to have influenced Hebrew styles of worship, prophecy, covenant, etc. But the extent of Hebrew legends and histories and memories, the clarity of the salvation narrative, and the sort of things God told them to do through the prophets, are way beyond all other cultures.

Don’t let linguistic issues of various titles and names for gods bother you.

Do you say, “Oh, I call God ‘the Lord,’ so obviously I believe God lives on an English estate, serves in Parliament, and drives an Aston-Martin?”

Why not let linguistic issues bother? My point is it seems that there is some validity when Bible Dictionaries and Oxford and Yale are all exposing this theory. It seems there might be a little more than just linguistic titles being confused.


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