He, and other scholars, claim that Yahweh and El are different god’s originally taken from the Canaanite pantheon, and merged over time. They claim that the references in the OT (such as the divine council, statements like “you will have no other gods before me” and “For the LORD is the great God, the great King above all gods”) insinuate that the Israelites believed in other gods at one time, but just believed that El was the head of them (as the Canaanites believed), and then some claimed Yahweh as the personal god of israel, and merged him with El.
Their sources seem to be somewhat convincing, and personally, some what troubling.
I’m not familiar specifically with the work of Mark S. Smith, but I have read there were several competing movements of Judaism at the outset, as many as 20 or so. Some of them appear not to have been monotheistic, perhaps borrowing from the Canaanite pantheon, while others, such as the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and so on were strictly monotheistic. Even within the monotheistic movements, however, there were doctrinal differences, and eventually the core beliefs of the Pharisaic movement emerged as mainstream Judaism.
I’m not familiar with the writer you speak of either. It wouldn’t surprise me if it were true, however, as it seems like God spent an inordinate amount of time fighting with the early Jews about whether they should worship Him or a golden calf, etc.
You’re conflating later Second Temple Judaism with earlier Israelite religion, what would some call Yhwism. Monotheism (the belief in one God) was dogma after the exile: what the various groups which sprouted at the time of the second Temple - the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, etc. - disagreed with is only in the matter of “how to be a Jew,” i.e. how to practice ‘Judaean customs’ (= Judaism). No Jew at that time would seriously claim that there are multiple gods: that is - as you know - blasphemous and a repudiation of Judaism.
Which of course wasn’t the case with ancient Israelite religion before the Exile, as even the Bible attests. While ‘official’ orthodox Yhwism as practiced in the Jerusalem Temple by its priests and preached by the Biblical prophets is monotheistic, folk beliefs - the kind practiced on the popular level and the one condemned by the prophets - tended to be more open and syncretic (what some would call ‘Yhwistic paganism’). Yhwistic paganism is midway between the foreign pagan practices and the pure monotheism of orthodox Yhwism and represents a sort of fusion between the two. While some of the kings of Judah (such as Hezekiah and Josiah) made efforts to centralize the monotheistic cult in Jerusalem, we must conclude by looking at the archaeological evidence that they were less than 100 percent successful. Indeed, until the Babylonian destruction of Judah and the end of the Israelite monarchy in 586 BC, pagan Yhwism was common even in Jerusalem, to say nothing of the rest of Judah.
The Hebrew Bible implies that there were many shrines both in Israel and in Judah, coexisting with the temple in Jerusalem, something which archaeology also attests to. Aside from the state-sponsored cultic centers at Dan and Bethel, there were probably also religious activity in places like Gilgal, Beersheba, Lachish, Shiloh, Shechem, Samaria, Hazor, Gezer, Nebo, Arad, Hebron, and Beersheba.
The thing about ancient religion is that there are different levels of cult (a particular group’s enactment of their beliefs and customs), and to some extent this is also true of Israelite religion. First off you have the domestic cult. Although there aren’t too many of them in the archaeological record, some homes had a modest household shrine, perhaps one equipped with simple paraphernalia like miniature altars, lamps, clay figurines or a ‘standing-stone’ (maṣṣebah) which the family members tended with care and regularity to ensure the family’s well-being. Family and clan tombs (for the Israelites, burial - “to be gathered to one’s fathers” - like most anything was a family affair) could also serve as places of ritual and reverence.
A local cult, meanwhile, is one that is maintained by a community - say, a village or several villages, or neighborhoods in urban areas. Worship sites for local cults seem to have been the bamoth (“high places”), open-air shrines located upon a natural or an artificial raised area (for example, a hill or a man-made mound or platform) outside a village, where villagers gathered for religious and communal festivals and other events (there was no clear distinction between the two in those days), perhaps equipped with nothing more than an altar (some may have a number of maṣṣeboth standing erect). A regional cult served an area larger than just a few villages, perhaps a tribal territory; we do not know much about them just as less is known materially about tribes than about villages in ancient Israel.
At the top stands the central cult, in particular the state cult. The temple of Jerusalem and the sanctuaries of Dan and Bethel are two examples of this official, centralized form of religion. The central cult provides us an example of the interweaving of religion and politics (there was no “separation of Church and State” in the ancient world): Jeroboam sets up official sanctuaries in Bethel and Dan, two sites hallowed since ancient times, because he feared that his subjects would switch their allegiance to Judah if they were to go to Jerusalem. Hezekiah and Josiah both enact their religious reforms (centralizing - ‘restoring’ - Yhwistic orthodoxy by removing all unauthorized worship centers) as part of political actions: one can say that both kings ruled in rather politically-troubled times.
Even paganism had bits of truth in it. Yes, it’s quite plausible that El and YHWH were parts of the Canaanite pantheon and even as separate gods. That does not in any way contradict the fact that the One True God eventually revealed himself as that whom those people worshipped as El and YHWH.
Even pre-exilic Israelite religion and culture appears to have been henotheistic rather than strictly monotheistic. Strict monotheism solidified during the exile and the period of the Second Temple.
Because if El and YHWH were proven to be two different gods taken from the Canaanite pantheon and adopted by the Hebrews, then morphed into one god, would obviously have huge implications for our faith.
The Hebrew Bible consists of multiple books, and those books have had an amalgam of very different sources threaded into them.
There are a variety of different ideas of how monotheism eventually emerged out of the polytheism of the ancient world, and no theory rises to the level of absolute certain truth. It would be reasonable to expect though that from the multiple sources of the Bible that all emerge out from the originally polytheistic culture. the Bible would contain at least some elements of having spiritual reality of God described in less than monotheistic terms.
There definitely are polytheistic elements and descriptions woven and sourced into the Bible.
For all that, the Bible worldview cannot really be described as polytheistic, or in any way furthering the values of a polytheistic spirituality. A polytheistic universe is impersonal, and involves magical manipulations on behalf of the priesthood in order to gain favor with the spiritual forces that control Nature.
There is absolutely nothing impersonal about the face of God that emerges from any Biblical source. This is a spiritual being that relates to people on a personal level, and literally insists on the relationship between him and his people to be an intimate, emotional one, with all the love and anger and jealousy, and cajoling and compromising and bartering that are involved in any human relationship.
The gods of the ancient world were for the most part indifferent to people, if not outright disdainful of the peons who were useful only to do the dirty work. Ethics and morality played no role in the relationships between the spiritual world and the human one, any more than emotions and right and wrong play a role in the relationship between a person and a storm.
By any other name, El or Yaweh or whatever, God even presiding over a divine council of spiritual beings, was not a spiritual being from the ancient world of polytheism. This is a very different being that emerges from the pages of Biblical history.
And Smith’s findings may very well be true, that El and YHWH were indeed two separate Canaanite gods. In fact, it is theorized that YHWH was one of seventy sons of the supreme god El in the earliest form of Canaanite religion.
It’s no problem for Jews and Christians because we know God revealed himself as One, and he inspired the Biblical authors to eventually write down that El and YHWH were two ways of addressing the one true God and were not two separate gods. The Canaanites did not have the benefit of full revelation; the Jews were privileged to have received more revelation than they did. If the Israelites indeed merged El and YHWH, it was because they received the revealed truth that there is only one God.
During the pre-exilic Israelite and Judahite monarchies, it is quite likely that even the Israelite religion at the time was henotheistic; that is to say, they acknowledged the existence of other gods but would worship only the national god YHWH (although there was a period of parallel Baal worship under the influence of the Phoenecians), who had later been merged with El, the supreme God. This was just another step in their development of their understanding of God. Israel would not be truly monotheistic until after the fall of Jerusalem and the emergence of the Second Temple. This is just another example of God tolerating beliefs and behaviours as he prepared Israel for the fullness of time.
So again, I see no problem. God simply corrected for Israel what the Canaanites were getting wrong.
The research behind the article is sound, and I as a non Christian personally hold to this theory as to where Judaism originated. Unfortunately for whatever reasons this information is not widely known.