Was Judaism ever polytheistic?

Beforehand I would like to note that I deliberately posted this in the apologetics forum, as it touches on our Christian roots.

There was a TV programme on the German station ZDF, entitled “The career of God”. As I have often seen absurd and very biased reports on that TV station on Christianity and other things, I was skeptical.

So, it turns out the show itself was not quite as odd as others, but there were some claims that seem far fetched or at least foreign to me. I would like to list them here in short.

  1. The oldest occurrence of the name Yahweh is from about 1400 BC in the territory of modern Sudan. It is in an inscription of a list that a pharaoh had made of all peoples he had under is rule and their gods.

  2. Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush was derived from the volcanic geology in the area of the Sinai and Arabian peninsulas. The Jewish God had His origin in this volcanic activity, that’s why there are the descriptions of the pillar of smoke and the pillar of fire, and other volcanic imagery. (cf. Ex 21:13)

  3. Judaism was not monotheistic until after the 7th (or 6th) century BC. There was a goddess of fertility (Aschera) being worshipped next to Yahweh, in addition to other idols. References cited included 2 Kings 21:7.

I am sure there is some explanation, or refutation, of all of this, therefore I kindly ask your comments.

Thank you.

Judaism has always been strictly monotheistic (Judaism being the Judahite religion during the Second Temple Period and beyond), but the argument can be reasonably made that pre-exilic Israelite Yahwism, while monolatric, may have accepted the existence of multiple gods, but which they were forbidden to worship.

The German TV Station is not alone in airing anti-religious “history” programming. We have the History Channel on cable here in the US.
This station has aired numerous programs to explain biblical events by quasi-historical/scientific events that could explain by natural means what was reported as a miracle in the Bible. No one, other than those wiith a limited education (which, unfortunately, is most people) can believe this nonsense. The only people who believe it are those who believe the DaVinci claptrap.
IMHO this is a part of the mass media program to secularize our society.
The History Channel should stick to what they know best: Ice Truckers, Flying Saucers, and the like.

Early on, you’d probably describe the Jewish people as henotheistic. They acknowledged the presence of other gods, but forbade the worship of any but YHWH. Gradually, they moved to a strict monotheism. Psalm 95 describes God as God above all the gods, for instance. In some places like 1 Kings 18, there is an indication that there was only one God, because the prayer to the pagan gods produced no result, but the Jewish people continued to fall into the idolatry of their neighbors until the exile. I think their theology simply advanced towards strict monotheism as we’d describe it today. I don’t think that’s surprising. Salvation history shows a slow development of theology and morality.


I’d be skeptical too given the rather weak linkages they are making.

The Jewish Virtual Library, hosted by the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, contains an encyclopedia that suggests that early Judaism may have indeed been polytheistic while noting the controversy around this idea. There is, however, much evidence of an historic polytheism in that ancient culture.

Point of Order if you will.

When you are asking if Judaism was ever polytheistic, are you referring to the formal structure of the religion (bearing in mind of course that “formal structure” here is used very loosely and not implying something a kin to your Curia), or simply what the Jews as a people we’re doing at the time?

If i recall correctly, isn’t this one of the reasons why all the various Prophets kept on exhorting them to return to the worship of Ha-Shem?

I’m not an expert on ancient history or religious history. But one need not be to see the problems with these claims. These kind of claims are made all the time.

We can never know what is in fact the oldest occurrence. This is at best the oldest known occurrence. Older occurrences could be sitting in the ground waiting to be dug up. Older occurrences could have been destroyed. It could be that it was not committed to a medium that would last for 6,000 years. Since this is a language how do they know there are not older occurrences in other languages which they do not understand?

This is just wild speculation. No one could ever know this. Guessing the motives is what you do in an English literature class and not in any way scientific. You can not know what the motivations are for anyone other than yourself. So how could anyone claim to know what motivated people thousands of years ago?

There is no way of knowing this. What is the basis for this claim? The Bible itself is quite clear that the Israelites and their neighbors were inclined to worship many gods.

These enterprises are pseudeo-science. If they simply described or showed what they found and told us their guess of what the the symbol represents it would be an honest endeavor. As soon as these academics start telling us about what went on in the minds of ancient people they are behaving no different from any psychic and should like any other be ignored.

Yes, but Judaism, strictly speaking, refers only to the monotheistic religion of the tribe of Judah.

By the time of the Exile and Return, the Jewish people had become “monotheistic”

Prior to that, the Hebrews struggled with the worship only of YHVH. Early Israelite history does show them a “henotheistic”. While they believed in various gods YHVH was the only god the Israelites were to worship.

If you read thru Genesis, you will find Israel’s wives hidding the images and likenesses of their “household gods”.

As has already been stated, they were henotheistic. This was the result of their culture/society, where regions/tribes worshipped differing gods. The tribe who conquered was viewed as having the most powerful god. The conquered often took on the custom of worshipping the more powerful god(s).

As has also been pointed out, idolatry is a main theme of struggle in the pre-Exilic period. It took a while (a long time) for the Israelites to “get it”, but “get it” they did. Deuteronomy is clear, there is one God, and only one God.

Historian William McNeil, Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Chicago, has written that Judaism may have been henotheistic, but this change after the Assyrian Siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C.The defeat of the Assyrians, which was the most powerful nation known to the Kingdom of Judah at the time, and its “gods” confirmed Judaism’s journey to the belief in monotheism.

Judaism has never been polytheistic since the time it was established by Abraham and until this very day. It has always been strictly monotheistic. The fact that some or part of the Jews have fallen into politheistic practices, does not mean that Judaism has ever been politheistic. During the time of prophet Elijah, thousands of Jews were practicing the pagan
religion of Baal and following the prophets of Baal. 850 of their prophets ended up throat-slitted at the order of Elijah. (I Kings 18:19,40) The problem is that they would insist on being identified as Jews while behaving as idolatrous pagans. They remind me of “Jews-
for-Jesus” today. These use the same method: Insist on being identified as Jews while behaving as Christians.

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