Judaism was Polytheistic/Henotheistic

I have come across an idea that modern scholars find probable–that the ancient Jews were most likely henotheistic, positing YHWH at the top of their pantheon of gods. I’m fascinated by this; Does anyone have some information regarding this idea?

Most ancient cultures in contact with Israelite culture did not have a conceptualisation of ‘monotheism’ or ‘henotheism’ until well after the biblical books were written. Just to illustrate this, the Greek word ‘atheism’ was used to describe the Jewish people, because from a Greco-Roman perspective the Jews did not worship the gods of the state religion.(1)

Within the Hebrew Bible, the family of Hebrew and Aramaic words often translated as ‘God’ with a capital-G are used for YHWH, foreign gods (e.g. gods of Egypt, Baal, Chemosh, Dagon), angels (e.g. Psalm 8.5, where ‘elohim’ was understood as referring to ‘angels’ in the LXX, Syriac OT, and NT). In one case, the spirit of a dead prophet is even perceived as an ‘elohim’, even though the context makes it clear the speaker does not have a deity in mind (1 Samuel 28.13).

Many of the occasions we find ‘god’ applied to other entities do not deny the existence of such ‘gods’, only that they were inferior or subordinate to YHWH. For example, in Exodus 12:12 YHWH claims he will ‘execute judgment on all the gods of Egypt’. Psalm 82 portrays God as sitting in judgment amidst a heavenly council of gods. YHWH is called ‘the god of gods’ on more than one occasion, an idiom that means ‘the greatest god’.(2)

What this shows is that the common modern definition of the word ‘god’ (an omnipotent, omniscient supernatural entity) does not correspond very well to the ancient near eastern concept of ‘god’ as we find that word-family used, at least in the Hebrew scriptures.

The issue to look for, however, is not whether the authors of the biblical books believed in the existence of other gods or not, but what qualities they ascribed to YHWH that distinguished him from those other ‘gods’ as they used the term. If we understand that broader usage of the word ‘god’ in the ancient Jewish culture, this can help us understand the meaning of the aforementioned passages in Deuteronomy.

Michael Heiser argues that within an ancient understanding, both YHWH and the angels are ‘gods’, but the qualitative difference was that YHWH is the sole, almighty uncreated god, which is what qualifies him alone for worship, while all other gods (also called ‘sons of God’ or ‘angels’, the latter just designating their roles as YHWH’s messengers) are his creations, and thus unworthy of worship.(3)

**So while ‘there are indeed many gods’, the various biblical authors believed YHWH was utterly supreme and unique, and all other gods (whether they existed or not) were inherently inferior.(4)
1 Cassius Dio, Roman History 67.14.2.

2 Compare the expressions: holy of holies (i.e. most holy), song of songs (greatest song), king of kings (supreme king), etc.

3 Heiser, ‘The Divine Council in Late Canonical and Non-Canonical Second Temple Jewish Literature’.

4 This, for example, is why Paul, as a Jew from the Second Temple period, could say ‘there are indeed many gods’, but immediately turn around and say ‘but for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist’. (1 Corinthians 8.5-6).


“Elohim” is plural for “El”. What interests me is how Judaism became patriarchal. Apparently there was a period in which the cult of Astarte, Asterith (from which Esther is derived) was rife. These statues were almost all of them destroyed, although some of them pop up from time to time.

I lifted the following passage from this site -


What the author, Dennis Bratcher, writes makes sense to me. The ancient Jews probably did have a syncretism of belief, especially as they settled in Canaan, and came in contact with the local culture. It took the purge of the Babylonian Exile to finally cure them of their tendency to syncretism, resulting in a purely monotheistic religion.l

If you think Christians are exempt from the same tendency, think again - we’re influenced by the culture around us - gay marriage, abortion on demand, contraception, political beliefs of both the right and left, death penalty or not, Sola Scriptura versus Catholic Tradition, free speech versus respect for other religions … we’re just as human and fallible as the ancient Israelites were.

While we have no surviving Canaanite religious texts, the accounts of Ba‘al worship in the Old Testament correspond closely to the existing versions of the Ba‘al myth and what we know of religious practices in surrounding areas. The influence of this religious system on Israel can hardly be overestimated. Contrary to how some statements in the biblical traditions are often understood, the problem that faced Israel through most of its history was not that the people totally abandoned Yahweh for the worship of Ba‘al. Rather the problem was syncretism, the blending of Yahweh worship with Ba’al worship.

Yahweh has been experienced as a God of power, the God who fought Pharaoh, who parted the Reed Sea, who led the Israelites through the desert, who parted the Jordan, who brought them into the land by toppling the walls of Jericho and routing the Canaanite and Philistine armies. This led to the idea that Yahweh, the God of the patriarchs, was a powerful warrior God, the God of the desert who could be counted on to march in with his heavenly armies in times of crisis. However, as the Israelites settled into the land, they encountered the fertility cult of Ba‘al. They were easily convinced that while Yahweh may be God of the desert and God of battles and God of power, it was Ba‘al who was in charge of the more mundane aspects of everyday life, such as rain and crops and livestock.

The Israelites never abandoned the worship of Yahweh. They simply added the worship of Ba‘al to their worship of Yahweh (called syncretism). They had one God for crises and another god for everyday life. The actual worship of Ba‘al was carried out in terms of imitative magic whereby sexual acts by both male and female temple prostitutes were understood to arouse Ba‘al who then brought rain to make Mother Earth fertile (in some forms of the myth, represented by a female consort, Asherah or Astarte).

When crops were abundant, Ba‘al was praised and thanked for his abundant rain. It is in this context that drought had such impact throughout the biblical traditions. Not only was lack of rain a threat to survival, it was also a sign that the gods of the Ba‘al myth were unhappy.** It is this context that the “contest” between Elijah and the prophets of Ba’al carries such significance. The issue is really who controls the rain, Ba‘al or Yahweh.**

Hosea suggests and Jeremiah graphically depicts the debauchery and excesses that developed in the worship of Ba‘al. Because of the sexual overtones of Ba‘al worship, it was easy to use the metaphor of adultery or prostitution to describe the problem that such syncretism raised for Israel. The prophets are consistent in condemning Ba‘al worship as a sign of being unfaithful to their covenant relationship with Yahweh. …

…It is likely in response to the Ba‘al myth that Israelites eventually developed their profound doctrine of creation. If Yahweh were to be the only God, then he had to fulfill the role taken by the gods of the Canaanite pantheon. The primary revelation of God for the Israelites was in the exodus. From this experience they could easily work backward to understanding that the same God who created them as a people was the Creator of the world in which they lived. Or, to express this idea from the opposite perspective, Ba‘al worship was a denial that God was really the creator and sustainer of the world. It is from this perspective that many of the names and titles carried by Ba‘al were taken over and transformed to apply to Yahweh (for example, “rider of the clouds” in Psalm 68:4). That was simply a theological way for the Israelites to say that whatever the Canaanites claimed that Ba‘al did, it was actually Yahweh who did those things (see Speaking the Language of Canaan).

The Israelites struggled with Ba‘al worship until the time of the exile, especially in the more agrarian areas of the northern Kingdom of Israel (also due to some degree to its official establishment as a state religion in the North for a time during the reign of Ahab and Jezebel, c. 850 BC). However, as Jeremiah makes clear, it was a recurring problem in the Southern Kingdom as well. Largely due to Jeremiah’s insistence that the nation would fall because of its lack of commitment to God exemplified in its dabbling in Ba‘al worship, the problem faded after the return from exile in 538. While there were traces of it later, Ba‘al worship was never again the problem that it was prior to the Exile. The Judaism that emerged after the exile in the reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah was passionately monotheistic, and has remained so ever since. In fact, it was partly that passion for monotheism that arose from the purge of Ba‘al worship from their corporate consciousness that caused Judaism to have problems accepting Jesus as the Son of God. For many faithful Jews, that sounded too much like a return to a polytheistic syncretism. That was one lesson that they had learned well.

I’ve heard about that particular theory, and I think it’s a little odd. There’s nothing to indicate the period in history during which this supposed deity was worshiped, so there’s no indication that it was worshiped during the time after God revealed himself to them. It’s perfectly reasonable to conclude that Asterith was a pre-Abrahamic pagan deity worshiped by the ancient people who would eventually become the Chosen People of God.

That’s probably true at first. Things changed soon enough, however. After all, Judaism has always been an evolving religion and still is.

Seems likely. While reading the Old Testament, I noticed the fact that it was constantly reiterated “You shall worship no other gods before me.” This implies that there are other gods. You actually have to get far where it says, “There are no other gods, but the one true god.” Or something like that. I forget when the noticeable change occurred.

The following ties in with Bob’s post:

“Astarte, wherever worshiped, was a goddess of fertility and sexual love. A trace of this among the Hebrews appears in Deut. vii. 13, xxviii. 4, 18, where the lambs are called the “ashtarot” of the flock. It is usually assumed that Astarte Worship was always a foreign cult among the Hebrews; but analogy with the development of other Semitic deities, like the Phoenician Baal, would lead to the supposition that Astarte Worship before the days of the Prophets may have somewhat prejudiced that of Yhwh.”

Thank you for sharing ^^

The posts so far have been fantastic. I’m not sure why, but this has been a real thorn in my side for the better part of my day. I keep thinking that if this is true, if the Jews were originally henotheists, then my faith is in vain. Is YHWH just the composition of Canaanite myth? Was there really a divine revelation of God or did the idea of YHWH just “evolve” out of pagan tradition?

It’s just been bugging me

Yosef, I don’t really see a conflict between God’s self-revelation become progressively more full and clear, and the Jews’ understanding also progressing and evolving, gradually becoming more distinct from neighboring pagan traditions.

The Hebrews struggled with idolatry, which would only occur if they believed other gods might be real. They built a golden calf and worshipped it. But their faith in One God was not in vain. God did not abandon them but led them to truth. Post exilic Israel was, and is, firmly monotheist. The old pagan gods are not believed to exist, and the wandering of Israel towards false gods had ended, long before Jesus was born in Bethlehem.

It is a testament to God’s Mercy. Ever faithful to His people, even when they were not faithful to Him. Our God is Great.

Melchizedek in Genesis 14 is the king of Salem (a.k.a. Jerusalem) and priest of “God most high” (“El Elyon” in Hebrew). El and Elyon are two deities of the Canaanite pantheon, but together, El Elyon appears no where else, except in the Old Testament. This appears to be just that - God the most high, a rather clear statement of monotheism it appears. Abraham was living not to far from him at this time and accumulating a tribe (318 men in Gen 14:14), so if God revealed himself to Abraham, I don’t find it surprising that Melchizedek may have learned of God from him.

Another thing to think about is that in English we distinguish between God and god, the latter being a reference to polytheistic deities. In the Hebrew bible they said “Elohim” for “God” when referring to the true God (Genesis 1:1 and beyond), which literally was the plural of “El” - god in the polytheistic sense - but used grammatically as a singular noun. It’s another way they were able to do the same thing we do by capitalizing God.

Just as an aside, most people who are unfamiliar with Arabic believe that “Allah Hu Akbar” means God is great" but the adjective is in only the comparative form. “Il Akbar” is the “greatest”. The reason for the comparative, is conceivably that Allah (some think it the “moon god”) is declared greater than the numerous pagan deities worshiped in the Arabian Peninsula in the 7th century.

Golden calf? If they didn’t believe there were other gods, why created it, worship it etc?

Why did God have to keep calling them back to Himself and punishing them for straying to other gods, and give them a commandment saying not to worship other gods?

The “nature of YHWH”–that is, the modern understanding–wasn’t fully realized until centuries of worship and debate. Before the exile, and the codification of the Pentateuch, he was probably just a standard Levantine storm/sky god; albeit one with greater prominence.

You’re right. I just have always had this idealistic view that the Jews were monotheistic from day one, which I need to purge from my mind. All of the information I’ve gotten so far from this thread, and through some independent research of my own, has really made me rethink the whole issue. In a strange way, I find the idea of the henotheistic Jews slowly being nurtured to truth very beautiful. It’s like how parents teach their children about the world.

When they’re younger they’re told that a baby is the result of a man and woman who love each other. A simple equation, but nonetheless a true one. However when they’ve matured, they are given the whole process, every awkward detail. But with it comes a whole new field of vibrancy;a devotion between husband and wife, a union like no other, a unit that acts as the very foundation of society–the family. It’s as if our whole lives, perhaps the entire universe, are in a state journeying towards truth.

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