Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Ugaritic Pantheon

Growing up in the church, you hear Bible stories about, for instance, Elijah and the prophets of Baal, and perhaps also the goddess Asherah. The Israelites are often rebuked for their worship of the Canaanite gods, gods worshipped by those that lived in and around the Promised Land when it was given to the Israelites by God. The Israelites had their one God, Yahweh, making them a relatively unique monotheistic religion in a world full of divine pantheons. Right?

Maybe. Maybe not. I earlier described the Documentary Hypothesis, which (among other things) dates significant portions of the first books of the Bible to the late seventh century BCE, and it is especially these portions that decry the worship of these other gods. Is it possible that monotheism in Israel was actually a rather late development? Let's look at some of the reasons that may be true.

In 1928, the ancient city of Ugarit was discovered, and with it a number of tablets that describe the Canaanite gods. With the limited reading I have done, I am not sure how much of what follows comes from those tablets specifically, and how much has been attested elsewhere, but I gather that this archeological discovery was relatively important in expanding our knowledge of the beliefs of this region in the second millenium BCE, roughly the time where the Israelites (supposedly) returned from Egypt. In any case, the Canaanite pantheon had as its chief god El with Asherah being his consort or wife. They had seventy divine children (all sons?), including Baal and possibly Yahweh.

I say "possibly" because some accounts I have read say yes and some don't say. For instance, in The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts, Mark Smith says "In the earliest stage, it would appear that Yahweh was one of these seventy children". Ugarit and the Bible also places Yahweh in this group of seventy. Other sources (that I have read) that describe the Ugaritic texts tend not to mention Yahweh, but neither do they list all of the seventy divine children, so this is a bit of an open question for me. However, we will encounter some other reasons to suspect that Yahweh was a member of this pantheon in a moment.

Before we get to that, though, there is one more word that requires some elaboration: "elohim". The elohim are the sons of El; it is plural. Some of you will recognize this word as being used in the Bible to describe God. Why plural then? Naturally there have been a variety of suggested explanations for this. But as we continue, consider how much sense that "sons of El" makes where "elohim" is used.

Let us consider then the hypothesis that the Israelites were polythestic until relatively late in their history, perhaps until approximately the time that the Deuteronomist did his work. We would expect, then, that earlier writing would retain references to this polytheism, even in the Bible. Are there such references? Here are some examples.

First, Deuteronomy 32:8-9./p>

When the Most High [El] gave the nations their inheritance, when he divided all mankind, he set up boundaries for the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel [sons of El]. For the LORD's [Yahweh's] portion is his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance.

Here would we have El dividing up the nations among his sons, with Yahweh receiving Jacob's people. An interesting note is that the phrase "sons of Israel" is found in the Masoretic Text, but the Dead Sea Scrolls and Septuagint say "sons of God". So Yahweh would be the national deity for Israel, and other nations would have others. (This is an important point in Mark Smith's proposed explanation for the development of monotheism.)

One difficulty with some of these passages is that modern translations may be colored by modern expectations about what was meant. Not being able to read Hebrew myself, I cannot vouch for some of the translations below. I will compare them with a couple of common translations. Checking against some kind of Hebrew interlinear translation would be helpful, but I have not done that.

Consider these translations from Canaanite Gods Mentioned in the Bible:

  • Psalm 82:1: Elohim has taken his place in the assembly of EL, in the midst of the elohim He holds judgment.
  • Psalm 29:1: Ascribe to Yahweh, O sons of EL, ascribe to Yahweh glory and strength.
  • Psalm 89:6: For who in the skies can be compared to Yahweh, who among the sons of EL is like Yahweh,

In the NIV, these are translated:

  • Psalm 82:1: God presides in the great assembly; he gives judgment among the "gods"
  • Psalm 29:1: Ascribe to the LORD, O mighty ones, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
  • Psalm 89:6: For who in the skies above can compare with the LORD? Who is like the LORD among the heavenly beings?

And in NASB:

  • Psalm 82:1: God takes His stand in His own congregation; He judges in the midst of the rulers.
  • Psalm 29:1: Ascribe to the LORD, O sons of the mighty, Ascribe to the LORD glory and strength.
  • Psalm 89:6: For who in the skies is comparable to the LORD? Who among the sons of the mighty is like the LORD,

Over time, the roles of the various players seem to have changed. Eventually, Yahweh became (to the Israelites at least) interchangeable with El. Asherah (previously El's consort or wife) becomes associated with Yahweh, as two inscriptions from around 850 to 750 BCE relate:

I bless you through Yahweh of Samaria, and through his Asherah!


Uriyahu, the king, has written this. Blessed be Uriyahu through Yahweh, and his enemies have been conquered through Yahweh’s Asherah.

(From Ugarit and the Bible)

As I said, this is not anything that I have studied extensively, and certainly I have not even included here everything that I have read. I do find it a very interesting hypothesis (that Israelite polytheism was normal and prevalent until rather late). Will continued research support this hypothesis? What would it mean for you if it could be proven?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Agreed, it appears to be accurate that Yahweh was originally a son of El, this is confirmed by the tablet (KTU 1.1 IV 14) from the Ugarit texts. The abbreviation KTU stands for “Keilalphabetische Texte aus Ugarit”, the numbers are chapter and verse as it were. It reads sm . bny . yw . ilt, which translates as "The name of the son of god (EL), (is) Yahweh." All of the texts found at Ugarit were pressed into clay around 1300- 1200 BCE. So 500 years or so afterwards, a Hebrew scribe records in Deuteronomy 32:8-9 this same belief, that El presides over his sons, assigning each of them a people to govern. “Yahweh's own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share." This is clearly not "monotheism". Yahweh was just the tribal god of the Hebrews. Yahweh is now consistently translated LORD which is misleading, just as all the different names such as El and Elyon are now generically rendered God. Words do matter; this distillation may be blameless today, however the misunderstanding it has shaped is real. Nevertheless we have all been taught that these names are one in the same God. Historically this is inaccurate information. We now take this for granted as if it had been accepted this way from the beginning. However El and Yahweh are distinct gods from each other, or at least they were. What we have here today is the last God standing from the Canaanite pantheon.