JC Myth (2.3): Jewish Henotheism/Polytheism: Yahweh’s Jealousy

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Chapter Two: Jewish Henotheism/Polytheism: “Yahweh’s Jealousy”

If the Jews didn’t believe in multiple gods, why was Yahweh angry when they worshiped another god? Of what was he jealous, that the Israelites believed in a figment of their imagination or that they called him by the wrong name? No god should be upset because his people have an imaginary friend or can’t get his name right. Is Yahweh jealous of Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny? (I know some would say yes.)

If we read a story about General Zod doing battle with Superman and we know General Zod isn’t real, shouldn’t we realize that Superman also isn’t real? As I noted in my disclaimer, if we read about Baal’s doing battle with a god named Yahweh (1 Kings 18), and we know that Baal doesn’t really exist, shouldn’t we understand that Yahweh is just part of a fake story too? In 2 Kings 10:19 Jehu called all of the prophets, priests, and servants of Baal together so he could destroy all Baal worshipers. Jehu believed in Baal. And Yahweh instilled and fostered that belief.

Regarding the name of the Israelite god, it was impossible for the Jews to know what to call Yahweh since he refused to give them a name, claiming to be I Am That/What I Am. Later he offered the name Jehovah/Yahweh/YHWH and said he had not been known to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob by that name (as they knew him only as El Shaddai, Ex. 6:3), although the name Yahweh is used in the first few chapters of Genesis (2:4, 5, 7, 8, 9, etc.; 3:1, 8, 9, 13, 14, etc.; 4:1, 3, 4, 6, 9, etc.), and it continues to be used all the way up to Exodus 6 where Yahweh says it is a new name they have not heard. Abraham, in fact, called Yahweh by the name of Jehovah (YHWH/Yahweh) in Genesis 14:22. It seems that, in the beginning “Yahweh was unknown to the patriarchs . . . they are depicted as worshipers of El.”[1] Later, of course, the Jews tried to make it look like El and Yahweh, as well as El Shaddai, were the same god.

The truth most likely is that the high Canaanite god, El, was considered by the Jews to be the main god, then at some point Yahweh became the Israelite god, and then, eventually, Yahweh merged with El as the Israelites became monotheistic. Karen Armstrong explained this by saying that two different people wrote Genesis and Exodus, with one author (J from Judah) calling God Yahweh and the other (E from Israel) calling him El or Elohim.[2] She noted:

“The Israelites called Yahweh ‘the God of our fathers’ yet it seems that he may have been quite a different deity from El, the Canaanite High God worshiped by the patriarchs. He may have been the god of other people before he became the God of Israel. In all his early appearances to Moses, Yahweh insists repeatedly and at some length that he is indeed the God of Abraham, even though he had originally been called El Shaddai. This insistence may preserve the distant echoes of a very early debate about the identity of the God of Moses. It has been suggested that Yahweh was originally a warrior god, a god of volcanoes, a god worshipped in Midian, in what is now Jordan. We shall never know where the Israelites discovered Yahweh, if indeed he really was a completely new deity. . . In pagan antiquity, gods were often merged and amalgamated, or the gods of one locality accepted as identical with the god of another people. All we can be sure of is that, whatever his provenance, the events of the Exodus made Yahweh the definitive God of Israel and that Moses was able to convince the Israelites that he really was one and the same as El, the God beloved by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.”[3]

Armstrong continued to say that “The so-called ‘Midianite Theory’—that Yahweh was originally a god of the people of Midian—is usually discredited today, but it was in Midian that Moses had his first vision of Yahweh.”[4]

In the New Testament Yahweh doesn’t seem to care that his people believe in other gods. His name, if he really has one, is of little significance. The apostle Paul told the Athenians he was going to declare to them the “unknown god” they were worshiping (Acts 17:22-23). He existed in their minds the same as Baal or Molech, the same as I Am That I Am. As someone wrote, “Paul’s God and the Greeks’ God were both Gods. Everyone knew what ‘God’ meant. . . The Athenians liked theirs better. Paul liked his better. Go figure.”[5] The Athenians had no idea who the unknown god was, so he wasn’t Yahweh. Yet Paul said he was Yahweh. Why? Because he didn’t exist, so he could be Yahweh as easily as he could be any other god. Why didn’t this work in the Old Testament if, at that time, the Jews were monotheistic? Yahweh was the god of a thousand names anyway, so what difference did it make if one or two more names (Baal or Molech) were thrown into the mix? Was Yahweh seriously angry that they got his name wrong? Was it better to call him No Name (unknown)? If the Athenians called him No Name and he was Yahweh, why wasn’t he Yahweh when the Hebrews called him Molech? In 1 Corinthians 8:4-13, Paul states that not all of the Christians of his day understood that other gods didn’t exist. (Of course they didn’t! The Jews believed in multiple gods, which is why the Old Testament presents these gods as real!) He didn’t reprimand these Christians or tell them they were going to hell; he said nothing at all to them, as his admonition was to those who would judge the polytheists. He told the monotheists to accept the polytheists. Paul said the fathers of the Corinthians all went down into the Red Sea (1 Cor. 10:1), so perhaps these were Jews still believing in other gods; however, some say the Corinthians were Gentiles rather than Jews and therefore didn’t realize only one god existed. Either way, if “it was good for Paul and Silas,”[6] why not Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? If Yahweh was lenient in Paul’s day, why rant and rail against the early Israelites for being polytheistic?

Some say that Yahweh was angry not because his name was wrong or the people believed in other gods, but because of the evil the Jews were practicing in the name of other gods; however, they were, for instance, only offering their seed to Molech, which Yahweh enjoyed when the children were burnt for him (more will be said about this later). Yahweh’s jealousy makes no sense unless the Jews believed, and they did, that other gods existed. And because they believed this, so did their god. And so did their scribes and “prophets.”

Regarding the first of the Ten Commandments (“Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” Ex. 20:3), Bob Seidensticker wrote:

“Have you ever thought much about the wording of this commandment? Why doesn’t it say that Jehovah is the only god? It’s because this section of the Bible was written in the early days of the Israelite religion (roughly 10th century BCE) when it was still polytheistic. The next commandment notes, “I, Jehovah, your God, am a jealous God”—jealous because there were indeed other viable options, and Jehovah insisted on a commitment. . .

“Let’s use the proper term for this, henotheism. Polytheists acknowledge many gods and worship many gods; henotheists acknowledge many gods but worship only one. In this view, different gods ruled different territories just as kings did, and tribes owed allegiance to whichever god protected them.”[7]

Again, the Jews were not always monotheistic. Their literature expresses this fact. Ze’ev Herzog wrote:

“How many gods, exactly, did Israel have? . . . The question about the date at which monotheism was adopted by the kingdoms of Israel and Judea arose with the discovery of inscriptions in ancient Hebrew that mention a pair of gods . . . At two sites, Kuntiliet Ajrud in the southwestern part of the Negev hill region, and at Khirbet elKom in the Judea piedmont, Hebrew inscriptions have been found that mention ‘Jehovah and his Asherah,’ ‘Jehovah Shomron and his Asherah,’ ‘Jehovah Teman and his Asherah.’ The authors were familiar with a pair of gods, Jehovah and his consort Asherah, and send blessings in the couple’s name. These inscriptions, from the 8th century BCE, raise the possibility that monotheism, as a state religion, is actually an innovation of the period of the Kingdom of Judea, following the destruction of the Kingdom of Israel.”[8]

Armstrong also called Asherah God’s wife and confirmed that archaeologists have unearthed inscriptions dedicated to “YHWH and his Asherah.”[9] Because El and Asherah were together and “bore” seventy children, we see, once again, that Yahweh and El were eventually merged.[10] According to Thom Stark, the progression went like this: “(1) Yahweh as up-and-coming junior deity in the pantheon of El Elyon; (2) Yahweh as enthroned over the nations, yet still distinct from the high god El; (3) Yahweh and El Elyon conflated; (4) monotheism.”[11] Robert Wright concurred, writing: “Nothing in the Deuteronomistic texts, and nothing said by any prophets up to Josiah’s time, expresses the clear belief that Yahweh alone exists—that the gods of other peoples are mere figment of their imagination.”[12] Wright wrote that “monotheism didn’t prevail in Israel until after the Babylonian exile of the sixth century BCE.”[13] Stark continued:

“Indeed, El is called ‘father of mankind,’ as well as ‘father of the children of El’ (i.e., ‘father of the gods’). But this is not at all how Yahweh is described in Deut 32:6. Yahweh is described solely as the father of Israel. This is not an insignificant distinction. The second quote from the Baal cycle identifies El as the father of Baal, and states that El sets up Baal as king (this takes place directly after Baal defeats Yamm). Obviously, as the high god, El is identified as the father of humankind and as father of the gods. But this is not how Yahweh is identified in Deuteronomy 32. Nowhere is Yahweh said to be the father of any deity; nowhere is Yahweh said to be the father of humankind in general. Yahweh is only identified as the father of his people Israel. This was not uncommon. In Num 21:29, the Moabite deity Chemosh is pictured as the father of the Moabite people (they are his sons and daughters). This does not mean that an El characteristic is being applied to Chemosh. It just speaks to the special relationship between Chemosh and his own people; that’s why we call national deities ‘patron’ deities. The same goes for Yahweh in Deut 32:6. . .

“Once again, the distinction is obvious. El is identified as the creator of the earth, and the creator of the gods, but Yahweh is identified here only as the creator of Israel. El is also described as the creator of humankind. But not so Yahweh here. The word for ‘create,’ qanah, can mean ‘buy,’ ‘get,’ ‘acquire,’ ‘possess,’ as well as ‘create.’ So it may or may not need to be translated ‘create’ here. That it stands in parallel to ‘asah (‘to make, fashion’) may indicate that it should be translated ‘create.’ But the key point here is that qanah does not feature here as an epithet; it is a verb describing Yahweh’s action. Moreover, understand that the notion of ‘creation’ in the ancient Near East has nothing to do with creation ex nihilo. The concept refers to shaping, fashioning, or building, out of raw materials. Thus, Yahweh fashioned Israel from Abraham up. He literally created them from Sarah’s barren womb. This has nothing to do with the concept of the creation of the earth or of humankind or of the pantheon of gods, as with the Ugaritic El epithets.”[14] [15]

Speaking of Chemosh, the following quote aids us in understanding that he was to the Moabites what Yahweh was/is to the Israelites.

“I am Mesha, son of Chemosh-gad, king of Moab, the Dibonite. My father reigned over Moab thirty years, and I have reigned after my father. And I have built this sanctuary for Chemosh in Karchah, a sanctuary of salvation, for he saved me from all aggressors, and made me look upon all mine enemies with contempt. . . Omri was king of Israel, and oppressed Moab during many days, and Chemosh was angry with his aggressions. . .  I killed in all seven thousand men, but I did not kill the women and maidens, for I devoted them to Ashtar-Chemosh; and I took from it the vessels of Jehovah, and offered them before Chemosh. . . And Chemosh said to me, Go down, make war against Horonaim, and take it. And I assaulted it, And I took it, for Chemosh restored it in my days.”[16]

Laurence Gardner wrote:

“Originally, these four consonants [in YHWH] represented the four members of the Heavenly Family: Y represented El the Father; H was Asherah the Mother; W corresponded to He the Son; and H was the Daughter Anath. In accordance with the royal traditions of the time and region, God’s mysterious bride, the Matronit, was also reckoned to be his sister. In the Jewish cult of the Cabbala God’s dual male-female image was perpetuated. Meanwhile other sects perceived the Shekinah or Matronit as the female presence of God on Earth. The divine marital chamber was the sanctuary of the Jerusalem Temple, but from the moment the Temple was destroyed, the Matronit was destined to roam the Earth while the male aspect of Jehovah was left to rule the heavens alone.”[17]

Garner obviously sees Yahweh and El as the same being. While I believe they were eventually presented that way, in the beginning it was not so. And no matter how we view this matter, the biblical record reveals that the most high god judged among the lesser gods; thus, henotheism/polytheism reigned in Israel. Also, as we can see, again, the separation of male and female (even among the gods) is the problem the Bible addresses. Unity, or restored unity, is the goal of the Old and New Testaments. The male and female had to be put back together to end the separation, or death.

Tina Rae Collins

My goal is to share my book The Judaeo-Christian Myth one article at a time. If you find these articles interesting or you don’t think I’ll reach my goal (always a possibility, I suppose), and/or you just can’t wait, you can purchase the book by clicking on the picture above or the title in this paragraph. Thanks for reading!

[1] Pagan Origins of the Christ Myth, pocm.info, n.d., web, 16 Jan. 2015 <http://pocm.info/pagan_ideas_god.html&gt;. [2] Armstrong, 12-14. [3] Armstrong, 20-21. See also: L. E. Bihu, “Midianite Elements in Hebrew Religion,” Jewish Theological Studies, 31; and Salo Wittmeyer Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, 10 vols., 2nd ed. (New York, 1952-1967), I, 46. [4] Armstrong, 21. [5] Pagan Origins of the Christ Myth, Ibid. [6] “(Give Me That) Old-Time Religion,” traditional gospel song, 1873, written down by Charles Davis Tillman, 1889, wikipedia.org, 20 Jan. 2015, web, 23 Jan. 2015. [7] Bob Seidensticker, “Polytheism in the Bible,” patheos.com, 13 Feb. 2013, web, 8 Feb. 2015. [8] Ze’ev Herzog, “Deconstructing the walls of Jericho,” haaretz.com, 29 Oct. 1999, web, 1 June 2014. [9] Armstrong,  47. [10] Murdock, Did Moses Exist? The Myth of the Israelite Lawgiver (Seattle: Stellar House Publishing, 2014), 406. Theologian Dr. Robert M. Price wrote in his Amazon review of this book: “This would make a fine dissertation, and you can tell anyone I said so! I wish I could award you a doctorate! You deserve one, my friend.” [11] Thom Stark, “The Most Heiser: Yahweh and Elyon in Psalm 82 and Deuteronomy 32,” Religion at the Margins: Postcards and Postscripts from the Periphery of Faith, religionatthemargins.com, 16 July 2011, web, 12 May 2015. [12] Robert Wright, The Evolution of God (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2009), 164. [13] Wright, 431. [14] Stark, “The Most Heiser: Yahweh and Elyon in Psalm 82 and Deuteronomy 32.” [15] Note: Stark’s view is that Yahweh is the one standing (as Father El would be sitting) in the congregation of the gods, accusing the other gods before El. But the word for the one(s) standing is Elohim, which I would interpret as being the lesser gods who have come to stand before El, the judge, as per Job 1:6: “Now there was a day when the sons of God came to present themselves before the LORD, and Satan came also among them.” This seems to make more sense because in verse 8 is an admonition to Elohim to arise and judge righteously. If Elohim in verse 1 is Yahweh, then he is urging himself  in verse 8 to judge righteously. [16] James King, Moab’s Patriarchal Stone: Being an Account of the Moabite Stone, Its Story and Teaching, Chapter III Translation of the Inscription (Leopold Classic Library, 2015), 55-58. [17] Laurence Gardner, Bloodline of the Holy Grail: The Hidden Lineage of Jesus Revealed (Rockport, MA: Element Books Ltd., 1997), 18.


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