|Map of Canaan Phoenicia Before Occupation by Israelites
Begged, borrowed or stolen God of the Israelites
The Canaanite people predate the arrival of Israelites by roughly two millennia. The early Canaanites arose around 3,500 BC and settled in the Eastern Mediterranean in the region extending from the borders of Sinai until Turkey. Canaan was a region in the ancient Near East situated in the southern Levant. It had significant geopolitical importance in the Late Bronze Age. During the Amarna period, it became an area where the spheres of interest of the Egyptian, Hittite and Assyrian empires converged.
Knowledge of Canaan comes from archaeological sources. Specifically, exclusives from artefacts dated to the period in which the region existed under the hegemony of the new kingdom of Egypt. Since the Egyptian empire controlled this region during that time, much of our knowledge from archaeology comes from the Amarna letters and other documents of governance which record information from the time of Egyptian rule. Much of the primary source knowledge of Canaan stems from excavations in areas such as Tell Hazor, Tell Megiddo and Gezer
The Israelite religion is one which originated out of these Bronze Age polytheistic, ancient, Semitic religious traditions. Specifically, the Canaanite religion impacted Israelite religion with influential elements from Babylonian and Egyptian religions.
The Canaanite God El
The Israelite religion began as a henotheistic offshoot of the Canaanite worship of El, along with his secondary epithet Yahweh which refers to El Yahweh Sabaoth often translated as Lord of hosts. It likely means El who creates the armies. El who was the supreme god of the Mesopotamian Semites later became the chief god of the Hebrew Bible. In Canaan he was known to be the father and the ruler of the Divines as well as the Creator. The God of the Jews evolved gradually from the Canaanite El who was the high god of the pantheon, to Israel the chief god of the Hebrews. The essential qualities of the Canaanite El were retained in the God of the Hebrews, along with memories of the theogony of El and gods. Over time the Israelite group of Canaanites converged the sky gods El and his son Baal Hadad and El was conflated as Yahweh. Early on, the Israelites also worshipped Yahweh along with his wife Asherah, who was originally the consort of El. In the Canaanite tradition, for a long time, scholars of the Hebrew Bible concluded that a major difference between the God of the Bible and the gods of other traditions was that so-called pagan gods had sexual lives and consorts. Yet, Yahweh did not maintain his wife Asherah as a consort. In the late 20th century, archaeologists uncovered two intriguing inscriptions from two different Middle Eastern sites. The inscriptions were blessings, not only in the name of Yahweh but also his consort, Asherah. Over time, there was a push towards monolatry -- the worship of one God among many, but not necessarily denying the existence of other gods. This made the Israelites focus on El Yahweh and compelled them to make it appear that there was a greater divide between Yahweh and the older god Baal. Thus, in order to build up and emphasize the distinction between Yahweh and Baal, the Hebrew text goes to great lengths to make Yahweh's conflict with Baal apparent. This marked the trend of Israel rejecting its heritage.
The attempts by monotheistic exegeses of the Israelite religion failed to define Asherah as a rock or pole, instead of a goddess. Poles and large stones where the main features of the Canaanite temples and were placed in their most holy places. Thereupon, the Israelites were always well aware of the holiness of such representations of Asherah in Canaanite temples. Hence, they accommodated them in their own temples as well.
God El in Canaanite Religion and the Hebrew Bible
Although the Israelites apparently broke off from Canaanite tradition, at some point the essential elements from the Canaanite sources were maintained in the Bible such as the same dwellings and epithets of El resides on Mount Zaphon. In certain texts, he dwells within a tent, just like the Tabernacle described in Exodus. Titles of the Canaanite El were preserved in the Hebrew tradition such as the following:
- Elyon which is most high
- Rahem which is bull, also
- El was called the God of patriarchs, a warrior, and
- El was called Olam which means eternal,
- El-Olam, the Ancient One
- El-Shadday, of the Holy Mountain
- El-Elyon, the Most High
- Toru, bull
- Hatikkuka, god of the Patriarchs
- Gibbor, warrior
|Canaanite Phoenician God El
These were the names for the Canaanite El and they became the names for the Hebrew El. Interestingly, Babel relating to Babylon is a conjunction of Bab and El meaning “gate of the God.”It was not singly El from which Yahweh evolved but also Baal Haddad, the Canaanite storm god. Indeed, also the name which Jews substitute for Yahweh lest they utter it was Adonai. This term is from Canaanite which means Adon or Lord (Adonai comes from “Adon” for Lord and “ai” for the possessive meaning “My Lord"). It is a synonym for Baal.
The Connection Between God of Canaan and God of Israel
The connection between Yahweh and Baal is undeniable. We find narrative instances of the Israelites undertake to understand this connection in parts of the Hebrew text such as Exodus 32:8 “...Crafting of the bull by Aaron by the Hebrews when Moses was on Sinai. Their bulls are referred to as gods, in which it is said: "These are your gods o Israel.”We see in the Israelite religion precisely what one should expect to see from a religion evolving from and assimilating surrounding religions. In numerous passages, Yahweh is depicted as any ancient Near East storm deity, the most notable of which is Baal Hadad. Like Baal, Yahweh is a warrior, who descends from his mountain home riding on a chariot of clouds, his voice is thunder and his weapon is lightning and earthquakes. The skies release rain at his command. In primaeval times, he asserted his authority by defeating the sea becoming the ruler of the skies. Exodus 15:3 reads “Yahweh is a warrior, Yahweh is his name” Numbers 23:22 “El who brings them out of Egypt is for them the horns of a wild bull." Numbers” 24:8 “El who brings them out of Egypt is like the horns of a wild bull. For them, he shall devour the nations that are his foes and break their bones.” El of the Canaanites was also called bull and warrior. Here are some examples of parallels between Baal and Yahweh, as attested to by the Ugaritic literature in the Baal cycle and the Hebrew Bible:
- “Let me tell you, Prince Baal,
- Let me repeat, Rider on the Clouds,
- Now your enemy Baal,
- Now you will kill your enemy,
- Now you will annihilate your foe,
- You will take your eternal kingship,
- Your dominion forever and ever.
And the Hebrew Bible reads:
- Behold your enemies Yahweh,
- Behold your enemies perish,
- All evildoers are scattered,
- Your kingship is an eternal kingship,
- Your dominion is forever and ever.
The parallels with Baal extend also to the motif of the mountain where Yahweh has revealed himself. There were thunder and lightning and the heavy cloud on the mountain and Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because Yahweh had descended upon it in a fire. The whole mountain trembled violently.
|Canaanite Phoenician God El
The same imagery is used of Baal theophany:
- “Then Baal opened a break in the clouds.
- Baal sounded his holy voice.
- Baal thundered from his lips…
- The Earth's high places
- [mountains] shook."
- "Oldest of the gods (Father of Years)
- Head of Pantheon (Divine Council)
- Progenitor of other deities
- Father of Adam (Man -- Divine King)
- Ruler of the Universe and Supreme Arbiter
- Full of grace and compassion..."
The association of Yahweh as a storm God is also echoed in Judges 5:4-5
- "Yahweh when you marched from the highland of Edom,
- The earth shook.
- And heavens, too, streamed,
- And the clouds streamed with water;
- The mountain shook.
- Before Yahweh, the one of Sinai,
- Before Yahweh, the god of Israel.”
And Psalm 104:3
“Yahweh sets the beams of his chambers on the waters; he makes the clouds his chariot, he rides on the wings of the wind.”
There is also a shared emphasis, on the seventh day. For it was on the seventh day of Daniel’s incubation right, in the temple, that Baal intercedes for him and El blesses him. Similarly, as it is on the seventh day that, Yahweh called to Moses on the cloud-covered mountain. Indeed, the characteristic origin of Yahweh in the roots of El and Baal is preserved in Hosea 2:16 which read “Yahweh says you will call me‘my husband’and no longer‘my Baal.’”
Frank M. Cross* suggested, in 1973, a potential connection with the Egyptian deity, Patah who has given the title du gitti, “Lord of Gath” in which Patah is called Lord Eternal. It may be this identification of El with Patah that led to the epithet Olam which means eternal so early and so consistently with the Israelites. Another similarity is that both the gods Pathan and El create the world through their very will and not through a divine battle between gods.
* Frank Moore Cross, Jr. was the Hancock Professor of Hebrew and Other Oriental Languages Emeritus at Harvard University, notable for his work in the interpretation of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In his "Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel," he traces the continuities between early Israelite religion and the Canaanite culture from which it emerged.
|Canaanite Phoenician God El After Whom all the Names of God Come
The Jews also seemed to be oddly concerned with circumcision, which serves as another connection to Egyptian culture. The earliest historical record of circumcision comes from Egypt in an inscription of the tomb at Saqqara dating to around 2,400 BC. While circumcision might have been done for hygienic reasons, it was for the Egyptians part of their obsession with purity and was associated with spiritual and intellectual development. These connections would all make sense considering the Levant was politically and culturally dominated by the Egyptian Empire.
Though the Israelites are thought to have arisen, by the end of the Late Bronze (1,500–1,200 BC) period; however, it is probably not until the Iron Age I (1,200–1,000 BC) that a population began to identify itself as Israelite. The earliest documented instance of the name Israel is from the Egyptians stele of Pharaoh Merneptah around 1,208 BC. It records that Israel is laid waste and his seed is not. The earliest possible occurrence of the name Yahweh is like a place name in the Egyptian inscription from the time of Pharaoh Amenhotep III. He reigned from 1,402 to 1,363 BC. He refers to the land of Yahweh which is the land of the Shasho, being nomads from Midian. Thus, the worship of Yahweh seems to have originated in areas south of Israel. The name Yahweh took on various forms in the Semitic tongue: Yah for theophoric purposes. For example, Adonaijah, which is Adon, master and Yah, referring to Yah or Yahweh contains the core name Yah. Along with being the chief and ruler God, Yahweh shares unequivocal resemblances to the Sumerian god Yah, who is culturally synonymous with Marduk and Baal Haddad -- Yah and Yahweh are virtually the same God.
The Torah's (Old Testament's) Borrowing from Other, Non-Canaanite Religions
The Torah draws heavily from other ancient Near East influences which pre-existed it, incorporating and modifying them. Things such as the laws of Ashuna, Hammurabi, Middle Assyrian laws and Ur Nammu. The covenant theme, which runs throughout, is known to be directly related to the Hittite suzerainty contracts and the vassal treaties of Esarhaddon. One example of the covenant from outside the Hebrew Bible lies in the Phoenicians inscribed Arslan Tosh amulets: “Eternal one’s covenant, Council of holy ones, Sons of El” (Psalm 82). Interestingly, there's also a fifth century AD Christian amulet from Cyprus which associates Ray and Osiris with Yahweh and Jesus in imagery on one side and a palindrome text on the other stating: “Yahweh is the bearer of the secret name; the lion of Ray is secure in his shrine.” This is interesting because the throne of El is depicted with features of a lion and the earliest possible instance of El. and an artefact depicting him with two lions. The Israelite accounts of creation contain clear allusions to ancient near-eastern cosmogonies. The first verse draws upon the Babylonian Epic: Enuma Elish, which means “when on high.”Both begin with a temporal clause, the book of Genesis beginning with “when El created the sky and earth.” In which also, nothing existed but primaeval waters male and female, fresh and salt Abzu and Tiamat, respectively. The god Marduk manages to create the world by destroying Tiamat with the wind ripping her asunder and forming the sky and the earth from her carcass. Genesis applies the same styles and motifs of its ancient Near Eastern setting only demythologize that lacks any theogony of the gods which the texts discuss. The memory of the battle narrative though is preserved in other parts of the Tanakh:
|Christian amulet from Cyprus which associates Ray and Osiris with Yahweh and Jesus
- Psalm 104:6 “You cover it with Tehom as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains. At your rebuke they flee; at the sound of your thunder, they take to flight.”
- Isaiah, 51:9 “was it, not you who cut Rachav to pieces and pierced the dragon? Was it, not you who dried up the sea, the waters of great Tehom?”
- Job 41 “Can you draw out Leviathan…think of the battle. You will do it again!”
There are still significant differences however between typical ancient Near East religious traditions and the Hebrew Bible. The most remarkable feature is the suppression of mythology in the Hebrew tradition there is no biography or theogony of Yahweh.
The most obvious conclusion of this analysis is the fact that the Israelites or the people who became the Israelites had no god or gods of their own. This means that their god(s) "came into being" in the Iron Age I (1,200–1,000 BC) when the population began to identify itself as Israelite. Further, if the story of their enslavement in Egypt (ending in Exodus) is true, then the elementary denouement, outcome or resolution of the discussion is:
Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (if they actually existed) and the Israelites did not worship any god(s). Their religion evolved as a beg, borrow or steal one from the Canaanite, Mesopotamian and Egyptian religions over about two thousand years.
The Religion of Israel
“The real religion of ancient Israel is almost everything the biblical writers condemned. The whole theology of the Hebrew Bible would have been foreign to most people.” – Prof. William G. Dever (Archaeologist, Anthropologist, University of Arizona) The Hebrew Bible is not a very good source for reconstructing the real religions of ancient Israel, for many reasons:
1) The Bible was written by a handful of elites who were attached to the court and temple in Jerusalem. They were not representative of the majority of people, but were members of an ultra orthodox, nationalist party. What they did was to do revisionist history. They rewrote the history of Israel, using older sources, and that's the story we have today.
2) This ‘minority report’ paints an idealistic picture of what Israelite belief and practice should have been like, but never was. It would have been, had these nationalists been in charge, but they never were. So what you get is a portrait of a certain Israel that is a later construct. This ‘minority report’ tries to reconstruct religion to suit the few who wrote the Bible.
3) The biblical text as we have it was put together after the fall of Jerusalem, during the exile, after the history of Israel was over. This was long after events had transpired (in some cases centuries later). For these reasons, the Bible is now viewed a secondary source for understanding the real ancient Israel and Judah. Where would you go to find out about the real Israel in the Iron Age? Archaeology provides us with another window through which to look at Israelite beliefs and practices and new tools for understanding ancient Israel.
Archaeology is about a real people in real time and a real place. They really did exist and now we know a lot about them. In the last 20 to 30 this science has revolutionized our understanding of Israelite religion. This has given the ancient Israelites a voice and they speak from a different perspective as the one in the Bible.
In this short clip, Dr. William Dever covers just a few things to give us an idea of what it was actually like for most people most of the time in ancient Israel and Judah. It gives us some idea of what people were actually doing in the name of their religion: “The real religion of ancient Israel is almost everything the biblical writers condemned.”
Most people in ancient Israel had never been to Jerusalem. They certainly had never been in the Temple in Jerusalem which was a royal chapel and could be visited mostly by the priests and high priest. If those people had had to Bible they couldn't read it anyway because they were illiterate. As far as we know perhaps only one or two percent of the population was littered.
The Bible wasn’t yet finished anyway, so Dever suggests that the whole theology of the Hebrew Bible would have been foreign to most people. They didn't know about it, they couldn't read, and it didn't make any difference. The temple was of no importance, and they probably never met a real priest. It was all about surviving in the agricultural villages where they lived and observed the family religion, as opposed to state religion in Jerusalem.