Sadly, a lot of people think that “history teaches that Judaism evolved out of ancient Canaanite religion.” They will make claims that ancient pottery and near-eastern myths show that Judaism simply plagiarized other religions. Further, they claim, if you are “really keen,” you will notice “hidden” references to Henotheism in the Bible.
Let me completely refute the very bad scholarship by debunking a research thesis by Andrew Halladay of Pomona College. All the following quotations are from his research paper, The Ascension of Yahweh: The Origins and Development of Israelite Monotheism from the Afrasan to Josiah.
|The bulk of my argument, however, will be centered around the biblical texts themselves” (P. 3).|
As well shall see, the misinterpretation of primary source evidence is the only evidence he has, because he presumes that there used to be other written sources and oral traditions that agreed with him…So, the basis of his whole argument is that there used to be imaginary sources that agree with him, which he infers from the sources that actually exist.
|These oral traditions—when finally codified into the biblical text—seem to have lost much of the polytheistic worldview that archaeology shows was present when these oral traditions first emerged. My method seeks to use these archaeological findings—principally the Ugaritic scriptures—to guide my study of the biblical text. I shall pay particular attention to polytheistic undertones still latent in the biblical text. (P. 17-18).|
The above speaks of the method the scholar will use–that is, he will take vague similarities in mythos and linguistics, and jump to unsubstantiated conclusions, namely that the “real oral tradition” which has never actually been found or recorded actually was flat-out Henotheist.
So, this is purely speculatory guess work, not real historical research.
|One of the most notable examples is the E[lohimist] writing’s choice of the term Elohim to refer to divinity. While it is generally understood to be semantically singular, grammatically the Hebrew plural ending –im remains. It suggests that the oral tradition from which the E writing descended believed that Elohim—that is, the set of gods—had made the world and the other actions attributed to the biblical Elohim. (P. 30)|
This is a widely known fact in Christian circles. It is thought to bolster the idea that God is three Persons of the same substance and one God as being the truth for all time and not a Christian innovation. It is thought that this was only dimly understood before the dawn of Christianity, hence only hints of this in the Hebrew Scriptures.
|The ten commandments, for instance, command that “you shall have no other god before me” (Exodus 20:2). The commandment hardly negates that there are other deities. (P. 30)|
Mind blown! Oh, not really. The Bible frequently makes mention of lowercase “g” gods and confirms their existence. For example, Ex 12:12 states, “[A]gainst all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments—I am the Lord.”
The charge that the Hebrews were initially Henotheists requires that the Jewish religion actually taught that these other gods should be worshiped. However, texts like Ex 12:12 do not say this at all. Rather, these other gods were not to be worshiped and we may infer they represent lower-classed “deities,” i.e. angels and demons.
|Lastly, concerning the wap’er structure of the Afrasan, the role of the priests in Israelite religion closely mirrors it. During the Second Temple period, for instance, only the chief priest (kohen gadol) could utter the tetragrammaton in the Temple on Yom Kippur—granting him the unique rite to access divinity. Even earlier in the biblical period, the role of the priests and the prophets suggests that conversation with divinity was relegated to a very specific segment of Israelite society—just as conversation with a deity had rested exclusively with the wap’er in Afrasan times (P. 31).|
I quote the above as an example of what kind of conclusions the scholar’s methodology creates. In short, X religion has priests that do stuff just like Y religion. Y religion came first. X obviously evolved from Y.
Is the above possible? Sure. Is it a foregone conclusion? Far from it. Is it a conclusion we would make without direct evidence linking the two? By no means!
|Thus “YMN” would be the most accurate—if awkward—transcription of the deity commonly known in English as Amon. My inclusion of /y/ is not merely pedantic; the root “YMN” appears also in Semitic languages (namely Arabic and Hebrew), meaning “right” in both the directional and ethical senses. The word famously appears in Exodus 15: “Your right [hand], YHWH, [is] glorious in power; your right [hand] shattered the enemy.” The image remained important in both Christian and Islamic theology (i.e., “at the right hand of God”). (P. 37)|
I quote the above as an example of how using linguistics one can jump to some odd conclusions. Amon (i.e. Ra the Egyptian sun god) linguistically sounds the same as the word “right” in Hebrew. We know that being at God’s right hand is mentioned all the time in the Bible. This “proves” that a Biblical notion was actually plagiarized from Egyptian religion!
Now, such reasoning is laughably shoddy. It’s like me saying in Khmer women, children, and people who are younger are called “Own” and older people and men are called “Bong.” There is no word “you” or “I” in Khmer, there is just Own and Bong. So, the fact the man can say Bong “I” sraline “love” Own “you,” this shows that the English word “own” derives itself from the sense of ownership that a superior has over someone with lower social status! Come on people, are we really going to take such lingual gymnastics seriously?
|“The famous story in which clans of Gilead (of Canaan) detect Ephraimites (of Israel) by their pronunciation of “shibolet” as “sibolet” underscores how miniscule the differences among dialects of Hebrew-Canaanite were…Clearly, he [Isaiah] is suggesting that Yahwism will take hold in Egypt, and therefore it would make little sense for him to assume that after this mass conversion the language spoken would be that of Israel’s enemy. Instead, we must conclude that the language of Canaan was the
language of the Israelites (P. 48-49).
Here’s an example of typical fuzzy interpretation. He establishes a valid point: Canaanite words sound like Hebrew words. In fact, Hebrew includes obvious Canaanite loan-words. Several Hebrews and at least one city have the name “Baal” and the word “Baal” still exists in modern Hebrew.
However, the scholar then takes a quote from Isaiah that states that Egypt will confess Yahweh’s name in the Canaanite tongue and interprets it to mean that Isaiah viewed the Hebrew’s language as Canaanite.
The facts do not bear this out. The Scripture calls the land the Jews inhabit “the Land of Canaan” over and over. Yet, by the times Isaiah is writing in the 8th century, Canaan had been politically subjugated for centuries, their indigenous peoples being a minority of the population in Canaan (now the Kingdoms of Judah and Israel.) Hence, Isaiah was simply saying Egypt would confess Yahweh using the language of the land he lived in. He wasn’t passing comment on the history of near-Eastern linguistics.
The above is not an example of legitimate scholarship. It is merely guesswork and jumping to brash conclusions.
|Relying heavily on recent archaeological evidence, my discussion seeks to revive the Israelite religion that the biblical writers sought to conceal. (P.59)|
Ooh, a conspiracy theory! I hope it includes the temperature that steel melts and a mention of Operation Northwoods. Let’s see what kind of “evidence” helps support the notion of Israelite Henotheism.
|There is no doubt that the religion described in the epic of Baal and other Ugaritic texts was polytheistic. Nor is there much doubt that the head of the pantheon was—or once had been—El. Although modern descendants of Proto-Semitic languages use variations of the term “el” to refer to any deity generally (Hebrew “el” and Arabic “ilah”), it seems “el” was originally not merely a noun but also an identity. (P. 61)|
So, there isn’t “much doubt” because it “seems” that El might be more than a noun.
Let me translate: We know El is a noun that simply means “God.” However, I would like to speculate that the etymology of the noun originates in a god’s name. I don’t have any real evidence of this, but I do have interpretations of the Ugaritic texts that are highly suggestive!
|Yahweh’s description as the “Lord of hosts” or as the head of a divine pantheon seems to have been lifted directly from the tradition of El, as similar titles are applied to El in the Ugaritic scriptures (P. 62).|
And Artaxerxes in the movie 300 calls himself the Lord of hosts too…Does this mean that Artaxerxes is supposed to be an analogue for Yahweh, or just a similar if not identical title is being used because it, in effect, would be accurate?
|After Jacob’s prophecy about his sons, for instance, he praises El (Genesis 49:25) who is ostensibly separate from Yahweh, whose praise is awkwardly inserted (perhaps as a redaction by the later P source) between the prophecies of Dan and Gad (49:18). (P. 63).|
I will only quote the above example as it pertains to the “is El in Judaism a loan-god from Canaanite religion theory,” because I do this in my spare time and it would irritate me to have to refute every single bad interpretation of a clear text that the scholar is compelled to mangle to make it fit his thesis. Pertaining to Gen 49:25, there is absolutely nothing awkward about the construction being used. In fact, it makes sense. Let’s look at Gen 49:24, 25–
“From the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob
(From there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel),
From the God of your father who helps you,
And by the Almighty who blesses you…”
Each phrase includes a name for God: 1. The Mighty One of Jacob, 2. the Shepherd, 3. the Stone of Israel, 4. the God of your father [i.e. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob], 5. the Almighty (usually constructed El Shaddai, literally God Almighty.).
Obviously, the word “God” is just a title and not a name as the scholar implies. “God of Jacob” is a very common name. “God” is just what He is. The fact that there are five different titles given for God, in a row, does not seem be “awkward” at all, but rather poetic and predictable. Someone is not earning their research grant with elementary reading abilities such as these!
|Accordingly to my reading of Genesis, the biblical writers (perhaps unconsciously) drew upon this ancient myth when composing its second verse, namely “the darkness upon the face of the deep.” This darkness is never explicitly returned to again, and it reads like exposition before Elohim creates the world. It is quite possible that this “darkness” represents the dragon that Asherah vanquished before creation…(P. 65)|
Whoa, this blows my mind! Wait, it doesn’t, I actually wrote about it at length in my third sermon on Job. There is absolutely nothing here which shows that the Biblical construction of the Chaos Dragon myth belies a belief in Henotheism. I refer you, my reader, back to that specific sermon for more detail about how this myth is discussed in the Scripture.
|Archaeological evidence suggests Israelite worship of Asherah in pottery as well; a jar found in Kuntillat ‘Arjud (in the Sinai) dates to the ninth century BCE and includes an interesting inscription: “I bless thee by Yahweh and his Asherah”. (P.65)|
We already knew that the Bible talks about rampant syncretism. A ninth century pot does not prove that historical documents, whose original contents are likely centuries older than the pot, originally spoke in favor of the worship of other gods. In fact, a devolving into syncretism from the laity is not abnormal and it does not suggest that Henotheism was once specifically intended by the self-described prophets who devised the Jewish religion.
|Baal’s relationship with these two goddesses was complicated—often violent. In one myth, for instance, he is said to have violently raped Anat. Anat engaged in violent activities as well, such as a mass slaughtering of humanity which she took pleasure in…(P.70)|
Hmmm, I don’t remember reading an analogue of that in my Bible.
|Independent of other archaeological evidence, often the biblical text is its own sharpest critic.|
If you consider one late dated pot that perfectly squares with the Biblical text and some really bad Biblical interpretation “sharp criticism,” I do not know how much meat is with this T-Bone the scholar is serving.
|The Israelite practices of shelamim (peace offering), minchah (tribute offering), and neder (vow offering) all have direct linguistic parallels in the Ugaritic texts. (P. 72)|
But, we already know that. Sacrifices predate Judaism even in the Bible. Abel made an offering, for example. Abraham gave a tithe to a priest of a Canaanite city, Salem. Similar sacrifices existed in cultures that had no cultural contact whatsoever with the ancient Hebrews. The Aztecs had propitiatory sacrifices of human beings, while the Jewish sacrifices were propitiatory as well. Simply because the sacrifices had similar philosophies belying them, that does not mean one is derived from the other, as that would be literally impossible with the Aztecs. Further, it is no contradiction with Christian belief, that God condescended Himself to man by employing a priestly system which would have been very similar to the priestly systems of the people who surrounded them.
None of this is suggestive of Henotheism, it is simply throwing muck at the wall and seeing what sticks.
|As my last chapter showed, before the time associated with David’s rise (and—as the biblical portrayal of Solomon’s reign shows—after his death) some form of polytheism was dominant among Israelites and Canaanites. (P. 77)|
Actually, as I just showed in the above, it did not prove anything of the sort. I literally looked for the very best examples he had, quoted them in the above, and that’s it.
If you like baseless guesswork, I suggest reading up on liberal Biblical history. If you like your ancient history to actually be based upon real historical documents and interpretations that actually make sense given the plain meaning of the primary sources they use, I suggest reading up on a different field of ancient history.
Of course, all of this is a shame. I, personally, am very interested in archaeology and historical study. I would love to know more about the ancient Canaanites, the Sea Dragon myth, and much more. However, I will not stand for sloppy research like the above. It is not respectable. It is baseless. It needs to be called out.
|From a monotheistic perspective (where the one deity is Yahweh), such legitimacy seems reasonable enough, yet it masks that in the era of David the blessing of a relatively unimportant southern deity probably meant little to the masses.|
The rest of the “research” devolves into a pretty crummy reading of 1 and 2 Samuel, spouting baseless conclusions like the above. For example, there are continual passing references to Yahweh being a minor “southern deity.”
So, we would expect that the scholar unearthed a pot from 1900 BC with Yahweh’s name, along with other gods, on it. Or, maybe in the Ugaritic fables Yahweh is mentioned as the storm god of the south, or something.
Nah, that would be too interesting. The scholar simply makes it up out of whole cloth. He draws the inference that because Judah was a southern Kingdom, and Jerusalem was their capital, then the geography of the temple implies that’s where the whole Yahweh story began.
That’s right. No pots. No ancient fables. No nothing. Simply the scholar’s imagination sufficing for real, hard evidence.
That’s not scholarship. That’s the telling of a fairy tale.
That kind of historicity beckons the question that if you read mein kampf enough times that is it actually a cook book?
Hey I know this is five years late but I’ve had one and got in the rabbit hole of looking this stuff up again because I find it incredibly fascinating , and there’s a big ol’ hole in some of your core reasoning-
You talk about “Elohim” as referring to the trinity nature of god- cool, whatever, old enough term to have reasonable doubt on its interpretation.
but then you talk about how they are wrong in their interpretation of the “no god’s before me” commandment because “lowercase g’s are unimportant uwu” but, that’s an *english* convention? And /you’re/ the one creating a half-assed assumption “out of whole cloth” that the original /Hebrew/, which doesn’t have capital/lowercase letters, is running on the same linguistic principles? A language with no written vowels? When, oh hey! In the original Hebrew, the word that was translated as “gods”? It was “Elohim”. Kinda throws a wrench in your whole thing here doesn’t it?
My initial blog posts were pretty half-u know what. Just me speaking my mind. The more popular the blog has become, the more precise I have to be with my writing,
Having said that, while the argument you record me saying seems to be weak, I would say that if one reads the oldest Jewish documents by anyone’s standards, particularly the prophets before the time of Josiah such as Amos, it is clear they are strict monotheists. If you are terribly interested, I can give you a few passages that reveal this.
Well I mean sure if you’re cherry picking you can really make any claim. But looking at the text holistically you can clearly see a transition in thought from the first temple age to the second temple age of Judaism in which YHWH actually becomes the object of monotheism.
Honestly, doubtful, I purposely picked apart all of the earliest sources and it aligns with a monolithic judaism: https://orthodoxchristiantheology.com/2022/06/04/a-critical-response-to-the-scholarship-of-margaret-barker/