Version 4.8

12 November 2005


Israelite Religion to Judaism: the Evolution of the Religion of Israel

By David Steinberg 

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Preface – Methodology

1. Canaan Before the Israelites

1.1 The Nature of the Country and its Pre-Israelite Ethnic Makeup

1.2 Canaanite Religion

1.2.1 General

1.2.2 The Gods

1.2.3 Rituals

1.2.4 Myths

a) Creation

b) Order out of Chaos - Baal and Yahm (the Sea a son of El)

c) Fertility for the Land – Baal and Mot

d) A House for Baal


2. Alternative Views on the Emergence of Israel and Israelite Religion

2.1 The Fundamental Problem – the Nature of the Evidence

2.1.1 Sources for the Cultural History of Syria-Palestine (1200 BCE-600CE)

2.2 The Origin of Ancient Israel

2.3 Origin and Nature of Ancient Israelite Religion

2.3.1 That Israelite monotheism came into being as a sui generis innovation unrelated to the Semitic polytheism which preceded it.

2.3.2 That Israelite monotheism developed progressively out of Canaanite religion. Practical Monotheism? The Process - Convergence and Differentiation The Fundamental and Pervasive Paradigm of Family and its Manifestation as the Covenant (Brit/Brith)

2.3.3 YHWH and the High Places (bamot/bamoth)


3. What Does Syncretism Mean in Context?


4.  The Transmutation of Israelite Religion Into Judaism

4.1 The Deuteronomic Reform

4.2 The Destruction of the Local Bamot Throughout Judah and the Neighboring Areas of the Former Kingdom of Israel. 

4.3 The Finalization, Promulgation and Acceptance of the Torah as THE word of God and Basis of Israel's Relationship with God



Table 1 - Hypotheses Regarding the Origin of Ancient Israel

Table 2 - Hypotheses Regarding the Origin of Israelite Religion

Table 3 - Hypotheses Regarding the Original Nature of YHWH

Table 4 – Divine Characteristics

Table 5 - Impact of Crisis

Table 6 - Sh’mac Yisrael (Deut. 6:1) - Transvaluation of a Credal Formula

Table 7 - Divine Triads Primarily Reflective of the Nuclear Family

Table 8 - Divine Triads Primarily Reflective of Theological Speculation

Table 9 - Canaanite Religion Compared to Israelite Religion (as reflected in the Torah)



Box 1 - Near Eastern Religion and Morality

Box 2 - Goddess as Role Model

Box 3 - Near Eastern Primordial Myths in the Hebrew Bible

Box 4 - Yahweh – God of Israel

Box 5 - Edelman on the Ugaritic and Judean Pantheon

Box 5a - Ackerman on the Judean Pantheon

Box 5b - Zevit on the Israelite Pantheon

Box 6 - Israelite Religion: Triad to Monolatry - Convergence and Differentiation

Box 7 - Canaanite El to Israelite El

Box 8 - Sexuality Transformed

Box 9 - It’s in Our Hands

Box 10 - Zevit on the Reforms of Hezekiah and Josiah




Annex 1 - Asherah, Anath, Ashtart - Three Canaanite Goddess

Annex 2 - Asherah Goddess of Israel?

Annex 3 - Divine Triads

Annex 4 - What Syncretism Might Mean in the Context of the Theory of Early Israelite Sui Generis Monotheism

Annex 5 - Phoenician Religion


Select Bibliography


A. Some Functions and Characteristics of Canaanite and Israelite Religions and Gods

Many approaches have been taken to the understanding religion as a pan-human phenomenon of which one of the most interesting is evolutionary psychology. However, narrowing the consideration to what is known of Canaanite and early Israelite religion we could make the following observations:

  • Religion as a phenomenon was unknown and would be incomprehensible to the Canaanites and Israelites.  What happened happened because the divine powers either willed it or did not oppose it.  In pre-Hellenistic times there was no concept of an order of nature governed by immutable natural laws.  Hence Biblical Hebrew has no word for “religion”.
  • In Syria-Palestine survival depended on the annual rains and rain fall varies widely from year to year.  It was clear to Canaanites and Israelites that rainfall was sent by the divine powers and the god who could provide rain, as well as the god or gods who assured human and animal fecundity would be the key object(s) of worship in the subsistence farming communities where almost all Israelites and Canaanites lived.
  • Physical security was, of course, also important so divine help in war was a necessity.  This might be given by one of the gods or goddesses covering off weather and fecundity or by a specialized war god, national god or god of the place.
  • As is probably the case in most religions it underwrote the existing social structure.  The most basic of these structures is that of the nuclear family – father, mother, child.  For the king the national god, who would preferably also be a war god would be particularly important to assure ethnic cohesion and military success.
  • The gods, on whom all depended, must be accessible (i.e. exhibit imminence and be worshiped at local shrines) yet also clearly be transcendent celestial powers.


B. Methodology

I will not write a note on methodology as this issue is covered well in Zevit’s first chapter Surveying Paths: An Essay about Humanities, Religion, History and Israelite Religions.  Of particular interest is Zevit’s discussion of the evolution of the concept of history.  I would also light to highlight the following quotes from his essay –

a)     What Are Israelite Religions? (Quoted from Zevit pp. 14-15)

1. Within the worldviews of ancient Israel and her surrounding cultural milieus… deities – the major ones usually being transcendental – conceived as having names, personalities, functions, egos and histories…. In addition, different ancient Near Eastern worldviews recognized the existence of various ill-defined, lesser, often localized, attendant or indwelling powers both malignant and benign.

2. The term "Israelite religion" does not correspond to any well-defined historical reality and is, like "religion," "Christianity," and "Judaism," also a product of the scholar's study. It is a technical term enveloping the religions of groups with different but overlapping worldviews, patterns of ritual acts, and other activities and expressions that we identify as "religious." The common denominator of "Israelite religion" is found in the adjective and not the noun: the majority of its practitioners considered themselves a people descendant from an ancestor named Jacob/Israel.  But the noun is troublesome also.

(In Ancient Israel) … there was no commonly accepted cultic norm and praxis, cf. the Jerusalem temple cultic calandar and clergy versus those in the temples at Dan and Bethel (1 Kings 12:28-33). Therefore, rather than consider the idealized, Jerusalem perspective of what ought to have been a cultic and behavioral norm for all Israelites "proper Israelite religion," and deviations from this norm "corruptions," - an approach prejudging conflicting truth claims - I prefer the more concrete and historically defensible term, "Israelite religions."

… Accordingly, this work employs the following definition:

Israelite religions are the varied, symbolic expressions of, and appropriate responses to the deities and powers that groups or communities deliberately affirmed as being of unrestricted value to them within their world view.


b)     Objectivity and Phenomenology (Quoted from Zevit pp. 24-27)

The requirement for objectivity that traditionally characterizes (or is supposed to characterize) academic research necessitates that observers or researchers be apart from the religious matters that interest them…. As outsiders, students of ancient religions (or of religions not their own) come from cultures with their own worldviews and mappings of reality, so the conclusions of their research will be delimited by a priori methodological considerations and translated into a language whose conceptional and semantic fields differ from that of their subject…. 

The phenomenological approach recommends tactics for bridging the gap between the paradigm-laden outside observer striving for objectivity and basic signifying meanings of religious constructions maintained within a participant insider's worldview.

Phenomenology is an approach to observing, describing and arranging phenomena so that they may be studied either synchronically or diachronically by other methodologies. It understands a phenomenon to be something perceived in consciousness but not originating in consciousness. Thus, a phenomenon may be something physical or not physical … such as a sacred ark, the temple purification rituals of the first month, even the contents of the heavenly vision of Isaiah. Phenomenology's specific objective is to penetrate through the observed and reported phenomena in order to discern the meanings of symbols, myths, and rituals within a religious culture. Its a priori assumption is that these meanings are available intuitively to those within the culture but not regularly to outsiders. If, however, outsiders are able to gain access first to the concrete surface world of phenomena, their Lebenswelt, through a form of disciplined observation called "reduction" intended to eliminate anachronistic conceptualizing, they may also succeed in accessing the world of meaning underlying the Lebenswelt.

Reduction consists initially of observing carefully, without prejudging, because initially the observer may not know what he or she is observing and therefore what is or is not significant

Reduction, in the phenomenological context, involves bracketing out the observer's preconceived, culturally bound, explanatory paradigms and all prejudices incompatible with and foreign to the observed culture. This is hardly an easy task. It involves concentrated thinking, conscientious self-criticism and self-analysis, as well as the active criticism of others. For example, in observing the culture of ancient Israel it is first of all necessary to bracket out all (theological) notions of deity that are post-Kantian, or that are derived even indirectly from Neo-Platonism and Neo-Aristotelianism. Ancient Israelite thinking was pre-scholastic and pre-Aquinas and pre-Christian and pre-Jewish. As a consequence, certain distinctions between categories of being and of thought shared by most contemporary scholars, heirs of Western philosophic developments since the thirteenth century CE, distinctions that fill this chapter, cannot be ascribed to Israelite thought. They were foreign to that culture and not part of Israelite consciousness; consequently, evaluative distinctions made nowadays between knowledge of observable nature, knowledge of things passed down in oral tradition, and knowledge of intuited or of revealed matters, were not made then. Contemporary scholars have no reason to suppose, then, that Israelites considered faith and reason separate categories of thinking and experience or that they conferred different kinds of validity on their subject matter.

Phenomenological reduction must bracket out contemporary understandings of monotheism; post-Enlightenment notions of evolution, progress and development; all post-geocentric concepts of astronomy; almost all geographical knowledge about the shape of the planet and the global distribution of populations and natural resources; information about microbes and contemporary understandings of pathogenesis and mental illness, weather patterns, economics, gender roles, women, children, slavery, war, kingship, animal sacrifice, early death, astrology, and magic. The bracketing process, if not thought through, may cause one to miss the mark entirely….

Researchers or observers have to bracket in, keep in mind, what is known about sacrifice in Israel, in Jerusalem c. 950-600 BCE. They cannot exclude some form of Israelite awareness, reflected in various biblical sources, of what Israelites may have thought such acts were intended to accomplish and of what individuals experienced when participating in them. If not included, the exercise might lead observers to view Israelite sacrifice as if it took place under isolated conditions in an unreflective, preliterate culture, like those of pre-missionary Polynesia or New Guinea or those of the Chalcolithic period. Reduction, therefore, includes disciplined and controlled bracketing in, and in the case of Israel requires anthropological sensitivities linked to historical controls. This bracketing process enables observers to reduce phenomena to a level of meaning foreign to their own sensibilities, but appropriate to Israel c. 950-600 BCE.

If the observers/researchers have mastered the relevant primary sources, and if the observing and describing have been done properly, the phenomenological approach should enable them to consider phenomena from the subject's perspective. Then, the observers/researchers should be able to intuit the meanings of the phenomena of interest to them, experiencing them almost as insiders….  Unlike insiders, however, observers/researchers have only bracketed their beliefs and disbeliefs, held them in suspension. Having obtained data, observers are prepared to re-engage their own critical faculties and to analyze them according to chosen critical methodologies in order to answer questions of their posing.

Phenomenology provides a propaedeutic approach for describing and analyzing the religious component of world views in ancient Israel. Its exercise, when separated from the considerations that make it appropriate for the study of religion, is employed with greater or lesser self-consciousness in many of the humanities, in most social sciences, and to a much lesser degree even in some physical sciences as well. The process described above is recognizable, therefore, to historians using other terminology. Rather than "phenomenon," historians employ "datum, text, event" and "example;" rather than "bracketing," they prefer expressions such as "thinking historically" or "critically" or "objectively," and rather than "intuiting," words such as "imagining, inducting, inferring, reconstructing," and "concluding. "


1. Canaan before the Israelites

1.1 The Nature of the Country and its Pre-Israelite Ethnic Makeup

It is useful to bear in mind two constants about the Palestinian area that held true throughout the Middle and Late Bronze Ages and beyond:

  • The country was always open to immigration[1] though broken up within itself (see Dever 2005 pp. 12-15).  In the Bronze Age, it had no unified government or army and had, in the Late Bronze Age, large areas of hill country, which had been periodically settled in earlier periods, were almost unoccupied[2].  This was the case in spite of the fact that the technology, in the form of plastered cisterns, metal tools and terracing , necessary to clear and settle the land were available.  In the event, Israel emerged in the form of settlers on this largely unoccupied hill country. 
  • From the north, the country was open to Lebanon, Syria and via Syria to Mesopotamia and Anatolia.  The south was open to infiltration by nomads and to military invasion by Egypt.  The east was open to infiltration by nomads from the Syrian Desert and Arabia.  The western border was the Mediterranean which was the greatest highway of all.  In fact, during the Middle and Late Bronze Ages Egyptian armies frequently invaded from the south; the Bible states that the Israelites tried, and failed to enter Canaan from the south and then entered successfully from the east; and, the Philistines and other Sea People successfully invaded from the sea and took over the coastal plain. Later, both Israelite kingdoms were destroyed by Mesopotamian powers coming from the north in response to rebellions supported by Egypt from the south.
  • While, according to biblical tradition, there were many ethnic groups in Canaan (Amorites, Hittites, Hivites, Horites, Kenites,  Perizites etc.), and even though some of these would appear to be non-Semitic in origin (e.g. Horites (= Hurrians?) and Hittites) they seem to have become assimilated into the Canaanite culture speaking Canaanite and having West Semitic names.
  • There was, from the earliest times, strong Egyptian cultural influence along the coast and strong Mesopotamian influence in north Syria.  Egyptian cultural influence was boosted by Egyptian rule in the centuries preceding the emergence of Ancient Israel.

The great professor Albright has put it, perhaps overstating it, as follows[3]

There has been much misunderstanding of the nature of Canaanite-Phoenician culture. It must be emphasized that this was a relatively homogeneous civilization from the Middle Bronze Age down to the beginning of the Achaemenian period, after which it was swallowed up in large part by much more extensive cultures. Chronologically speaking, it is certain that "Phoenician" is simply the Iron-Age equivalent of Bronze-Age "Canaanite"…. Phoenician culture did not finally expire until the triumph of Christianity in the fourth century. From the geographical standpoint, there was a homogeneous civilization which extended in the Bronze Age from Mount Casius, north of Ugarit, to the Negeb of Palestine, and in the Iron Age from north of Arvad (at least) to the extreme south of Palestine. This civilization shared a common material culture (including architecture, pottery, etc.) through the entire period, and we now know that language, literature, art, and religion were substantially the same in the Bronze Age. From the twelfth century on we find increasing divergence in higher culture, but material culture remained practically the same in all parts of the area. The differences (except in the case of Israelite religion) were no greater than they were in different parts of the Mesopotamian area of culture, which was geographically much more extensive. The situation in Canaan is in a number of ways comparable to that in Egypt, where the distance down the Nile is just about twice the distance along the coast from Gaza to Ugarit and yet the civilization of Egypt was much more homogeneous than even I would maintain with respect to Canaanite culture.

Since Israel emerged from the same Northwest-Semitic background as the Phoenicians and other Canaanite groups which continued to exist down into the Iron Age, one would expect to find extremely close relationships in both material and higher culture. It is true that Israelite ties with Egypt were very strong, both historically and geographically, but it is doubtful whether Canaanite and Phoenician bonds with Egypt were any less close. Quite aside from the close ties of reciprocal trade, it must never be forgotten that Palestine, Phoenicia, and Egypt were as a rule part of the same political organization, in which Egypt generally played the controlling part. So far as we know, the only exceptions, during the period which interests us particularly, were during the 18th century B.C., again at the end of the 13th, and from the middle of the 12th to the late tenth. After the early ninth century B.C. Egyptian political influence in Asia decreased greatly, but was compensated by the steady development of reciprocal trade relations.


1.2 Canaanite Religion

1.2.1 General

Box 1

Near Eastern Religion and Morality

If we study the literature of the ancient Babylonians and Sumerians, we can no longer believe the description of "pagan" religion that has long been part of Western tradition and is still often found in modern religious writing. Instead of capricious gods acting only in pursuit of their own desires, we meet deities concerned with the proper ordering of the universe and the regulation of history. Instead of divine cruelty and arrogance, we find deliberation and understanding. Instead of lawlessness and violence, we see a developed legal system and a long tradition of reflective jurisprudence. Instead of immoral attitudes and behavior, we find moral deliberation, philosophical speculation, and penitential prayer. Instead of wild orgiastic rites, we read of hymns, processions, sacrifices, and prayers. Instead of the benighted paganism of the Western imagination, cuneiform literature reveals to us an ethical polytheism that commands serious attention and respect.

But this new valuation of paganism creates its own dilemmas and awakens new questions. If the Bible is not the first dawn of enlightenment in a world of total darkness, then what is it? If polytheism was not the dark disaster that our cultural tradition has imagined it to be, why was it abandoned in Israel and replaced by biblical monotheism? If the old religions swept away by our own monotheist tradition were not grossly deficient, how can we find the precise significance of one God as opposed to the many? How does a monotheistic religion develop? Did the god of Israel simply absorb all the functions and attributes of the pagan gods, essentially changing nothing? Or did monotheism represent a radical break with the past after all, a break not as simply defined and immediately apparent as has been believed, but no less revolutionary?

The discovery of advanced polytheism poses a central theological issue: if polytheism can have such positive attributes, what is the purpose of monotheism? Did the Bible simply substitute another system, one that represented no advance towards a better understanding of the universe and a more equitable way of living? Indeed, were there some aspects of paganism lost in the transition that present, in fact, a more positive way of living in the world? The immediacy of these issues makes imperative an analysis of the nature of paganism and the precise nuances and essential messages of the monotheist revolution of the Bible. We cannot build our spiritual quest on prejudiced assumptions and polemical attributions. We must attain a profound knowledge of ancient polytheism and a sophisticated reading of the biblical texts informed by this knowledge. Thanks to the discovery of ancient Near Eastern literature, we have the ability to study these questions, understand our own past religious development, and make informed contributions to our future.

From In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth, by Tikva Frymer-Kensky


Our only real view into the world of Middle to Late Bronze Age Canaanite culture is via Ugaritic literature (see my Ugarit and the Bible: Ugaritic Literature as an Aid to Understanding the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament).  

Ugaritic literature reflects a society of independent city-states sharing a common culture; a stratified aristocratic society based on agriculture.

Some of the characteristics of Canaanite Religion were (see Table 8 for more details):

§         It was polytheistic and iconic (i.e. worshiped idols which served as focuses of the presence of cosmic /nature gods).

§         It was tied to nature and the seasons; a religion of renewal of life and fertility.  Not surprisingly, its predominant sense of time was cyclical not linear i.e. it did not provide a good cultural background for the writing of history which presumes real linear change[4]


1.2.2 The Gods


Best general source is van der Toorn

Canaanite and Phoenician religions

The Temple of the Deities - Room One - The Major Deities in the Myths of Ugarit

Canaanite/Ugaritic Mythology FAQ, ver. 1.1

Official Religion and Popular Religion in Pre-Exilic Ancient Israel


The Canaanite religion, from which the Religion of Israel emerged had priests, priestesses[5] and prophets.  At Ugarit, like later Israelite religion, it viewed the universe as having three levels. The highest celestial realm was the realm of El, the earth was the realm of Baal and other gods; and the depth was the realm of Mot[6] (death), Resheph[7] (pestilence) and Horon[8] (perhaps meaning “depth). 

Canaanite religion concentrated on the middle realm.  In Bronze Age Ugarit many gods were worshiped.  However, the pattern in Iron Age Phoenicia, and probably in the territories of Israel and Judah, usually was composed of a triad consisting of a protective god of the place, a goddess, often his wife or companion who symbolizes the fertile earth; and a young god somehow connected with the goddess whose resurrection expresses the annual cycle of vegetation” (see Dever on Popular Religion and Canaanite Religion Compared to Israelite Official Religion As Reflected in the Torah on the confusion of divine names see).  In Carthage the triad was Baal Hammon (may be Ugaritic El or Baal-Haddad with some El features attached), Tanit (his spouse who may be Ugaritic Asherah or an African goddess with similar characteristics) and Melkart (may be derived from Baal-Haddad)

This triad[9], similar to that of Israelite religion about 1000 BCE, can be seen as a reflection of the nuclear family.  At Ugarit, the primary triad was -


A. El[10] – Divine Father

  • In Ugaritic el (‘il) is both the common noun “god” and the name of the head of the Ugaritic pantheon – El.  Similarly, in the Hebrew Bible, ‘el both means god and the Israelite God[11].  The probable root meaning of ‘el is “power”.  
  • Ugaritic El is the patriarchal father. The creator, old, wise, compassionate, the supreme judge, and, in the last resort, all-powerful symbolized by the bullCross writes, that at Ugarit;

'EI a strong but not absolute ruler…. 'El also appears as the divine warrior: 'El Gibbor.... …  'El reflects the patriarchal structures of society in many of the myths and the organized institutions of kingship in other titles and functions. He may be a state god or a "god of the father."

We see 'El as the figure of the divine father. 'El cannot be described as a sky god like Anu, a storm god like Enlil or Zeus, a chthonic god like Nergal, or a grain god like Dagon. The one image of 'El that seems to tie all of his myths together is that of the patriarch. Unlike the great gods who represent the powers behind the phenomena of nature, 'El is in the first instance a social god. He is the primordial father of gods and men, sometimes stern, often compassionate, always wise in judgment….   He is a tent-dweller in many of his myths. (In other texts) he appears to live in a palace, hekal, and live like a king. 'El is creator …. In Akkadian and Amorite religion as also in Canaanite, 'El frequently plays the role of "god of the father," the social deity who governs the tribe or league, often bound to league or king with kinship or covenant ties.

His characteristic mode of manifestation appears to be the vision or audition, often in dreams. This mode stands in strong contrast to the theophany of the storm god (Baal) whose voice is the thunder and who goes out to battle riding the cloud chariot, shaking the mountains with stormy blasts of his nostrils, striking the enemy with fiery bolts. Baal comes near in his shining storm cloud. 'El is the transcendent one.

  • In the Ugaritic literature El:

*      Is the greatest of all the gods with full ultimate authority though he tends to sit back and let other gods, especially Baal, take the spotlight;

*      is the creator of all things[12];

*      Sexually fathered the other gods who participate, under El’s headship in the Divine Assembly;

*      El’s epithets or descriptions include: Bull, Father of Men, Holy, Ancient, Merciful, Supreme Judge, guardian of the cosmic order, Kindly One and Compassionate. Ugaritic El can be drunken and, though he copulates freely with numerous females, his consort is Asherah

*       He is represented as an aged man. El wore bull's horns, the symbol of strength, and was usually depicted as seated.

  • Our own view is that, so far from all other deities in the Ugaritic pantheon being expressions of provinces of the activity of the one original deity, EI, there is a fundamental diversity of nature and interest in the case of EI, the paramount authority in social affairs, and of Baal and the others, whose province was nature. The family relationship of EI and the nature-deities in the Baal-mythology strikes one as artificial, and the comparative superfluity of EI in those texts is an indication of this. The titular supremacy of EI in the Baal-mythology may be an acknowledgement of the supremacy of some invading tribal element to whom the worship of EI was proper, but the fact remains that EI expresses the omnipotence of God above the menace of evil, while Baal expresses the dynamic power of God in the struggle to preserve order in Nature.”[13]
  • In Carthage, a Phoenician-Canaanite colony near present-day Tunis, In Carthage Baal Hammon (may be Ugaritic El or Baal-Haddad with some El features attached) and his consort Tanit were the main or only gods to which child sacrifices, which took place on a massive scale[14], were dedicated.

“The common identity shared by El and Yahweh is impressive…. In the various texts El and Yahweh were both portrayed as 1) father figures, 2) judges, 3) compassionate and merciful, 4) revealing themselves through dreams, 5) capable of healing those who are sick,  6) dwelling in a cosmic tent. 7) dwelling over the great cosmic waters or at the source of the primordial rivers, which is also on top of a mountain, 8) favourable to the widow 9) kings in the heavenly realm exercising authority over the other gods, who may be called ‘sons of gods’, 10) warrior deities who led the other gods in battle, 11) creator deities, 12) aged and venerable in appearance, and most significantly, 13) capable of guiding the destinies of people in the social arena.”[15]

  • In the climate of Syria-Palestine where survival depends on rain, the weather god cult will always predominate and the weather god will tend to displace any god above him in the divine hierarchy.  This was clearly happening in Ugarit and, judging by the dominance of Baal-Hadad and Baal Shamem in the first millennium, a similar process was probably occurring throughout the region.

“Certain conclusions may thus be drawn from the Ugaritic myths … concerning the relationship between El and Baal….   In Ugarit Baal and Anat were the strong, young gods….   That does not mean that they swept away the old gods completely, but what it actually meant can be observed in the texts. The old gods remained, even in their previous positions, but their power was only nominal. The young gods were placed in the foreground, a fact which the texts announce clearly.

“El is still present, in no changed position nominally, as father and apparent leader of the gods. But actually he is only a shadow, receding slowly into the background. In front of the picture Baal and Anat are fighting, struggling with enemies of many kinds, building up a position in close contact with life in nature, in men, women, beasts and vegetation….  when Baal and Anat are in the foreground in the mythical texts, it means that they were also the dominating figures in the religious cult....

“Our conclusion, then, is that there was a silent struggle going on between Baal and El, a struggle that Baal was on the verge of winning, but had not yet won. The Ras Shamra texts emphasize the importance of the role of Baal and indicate that he was a leading figure in the religious cult.

El is slowly receding into the background….  In his house on the mountain from which the rivers flowed, he tries to reign, but the events show that he no longer has any power. Baal is the powerful god….  



B. Ela/Elat-Asherah – Divine Mother


Box 2

Goddess as Role Model

(In the figure of goddesses) women could see divine modeling for their own roles in life. The goddesses provided a way for society to discuss the roles and nature of women. Furthermore, the fact that goddesses play the roles of women in the divine realm reinforces cultural stereotypes about women and makes these stereotypes sacred.

When the goddesses portray and represent women in society, they are women writ large, with the same positions in the god-world that women have in the human world. They appear in well-known familial relationships to men and are the archetypes of woman-in-the family….

By the end of the second millennium, the religious thinkers of Mesopotamia saw the cosmos as controlled and regulated by male gods, with only Ishtar maintaining a position of power. When we see such a pattern of theological change, we must ask whether the religious imagery is leading society, or whether it is following socioeconomic development? Was the supplanting of goddesses in Sumerian religious texts an inner theological development that resulted purely from the tendency to view the world of the gods on the model of an imperial state in which women paid no real political role?  Or does it follow in the wake of sociological change, of the development of what might be called "patriarchy"? And if the latter is true, is the change in the world of the gods contemporary to the changes in human society, or does it lag behind it by hundreds of years? To these questions we really have no answer.

The eclipse of the goddesses was undoubtedly part of the same process that witnessed a decline in the public role of women, with both reflective of fundamental changes in society that we cannot yet specify. The existence and power of a goddess, particularly of Ishtar, is no indication or guarantee of a high status for human women. In Assyria, where Ishtar was so prominent, women were not….  Ishtar, the female with the fundamental attributes of manhood, does not enable women to transcend their femaleness. In her being and her cult (where she changes men into women and women into men), she provides an outlet for strong feelings about gender, but in the final analysis, she is the supporter and maintainer of the gender order. The world by the end of the second millennium was a male's world, above and below; and the ancient goddesses have all but disappeared.


From In the Wake of the Goddesses: Women, Culture and the Biblical Transformation of Pagan Myth, by Tikva Frymer-Kensky


§         She is the universal mother. As such, she is wise, nurturing, symbolizing and supporting the fertility of man, beasts and crops. 

§         Asherah is symbolized by the Tree of Life which, in turn, may be symbolized by a pole. On a thriteent century BCE ewer found near a temple, a female, probably goddess, figure has its pubic triangle replaced by a tree[16].

§         Her title Ela (Hebrew) or Elat (Phoenician) is the feminine form of El and hence means "goddess".  “Another name of ´Asherah in the first milleneum BCE is Chawat, which is Hawah in Hebrew and Eve in English. “Her full title is Rabat Chawat ´Elat, Great Lady Eve the Goddess, and is associated with the serpent.[17]

§         El’s consort and as such clearly subordinate to El.  She provides an avenue of approach to the august El[18].

“Asherah succeeds in convincing El to give his permission for the building of a palace for Baal. Apparently she has a decisive influence on major decisions of her husband, the king of the gods. Later on in the myth of Baal Asherah determines El's choice of a successor for Baal, in the same way as the biblical Bathsheba does for her son Solomon (1 Kgs 1). It is likely that this too reflects the situation on earth where queens, especially queen-mothers, often influenced the political choices of their royal husbands and in many cases decided who would be the next on the throne…. (However, in addition) in the myth, Asherah is depicted as a power-greedy woman who manipulates the heavenly court.” (Korpel p. 131, 137)

As in ancient Egypt, the processes of creation and procreation were not sharply distinguished in ancient Ugarit. El could create by word alone, or by modelling a creature from clay, like a potter, or by sexual , as he deemed fit. What is especially significant is the fact that when creating a new human being ‘adm) El and Asherah were thought to act not by physical interaction, but by way of a mental process in which the god and the goddess both participated.” (Korpel p. 130)

  • Asherah is the divine model of the wife

Asherah is depicted as a respectable old lady, with typical features of a mother…. The goddess is wearing a long robe, covering almost her entire body …. The equally old god EI usually also wears such a long robe, and it seems that this special type of clothing was worn by aged people of high standing….  The Ugaritic goddess Asherah has to be seen as a kind of matriarch….

Despite her high position in the divine hierarchy of Ugarit, the Baal Myth tells us how the goddess was busy with maternal, domestic affairs,


She took her spindle in her hand,

(and) the spindle fell from her right hand."

She carried her clothing into the sea,"

her skirts, the covering of her body,

her two skirts into the river.

She placed a cauldron on the fire,

a washing-copper on the coals.

(In this way) she wanted to charm the Bull EI, the good-natured,

she wanted to please the Creator of creatures. (KTU 1.4:II.3-11)


It is remarkable that Asherah by washing her clothes wants to charm her husband. Obviously fine and clean clothes were essential for a harmonious marriage.” (Korpel p. 131)


In contrast Anat, associated with Baal is shown in the Ugaritic literature to be a ferocious, bloodthirsty, lustful, “virgin”.  She shares many characteristics with the Mesopotamian Inanna-Ishtar of whom Tikva Frymer-Kensky states

As an unencumbered woman, she could not easily be relegated to the domestic sphere. Her role as representative of sexual attraction could not be taken over by a male god …. As goddess of warfare, she maintained and even increased….  On the one hand, she was glorified and exalted as preeminent among gods and men. But she was, to put it mildly, intimidating and frightening. Even her very sexual attractiveness inspired fear, and men expressed their dread that such lust might lead to their doom. Alongside hymns to Ishtar's glory and preeminence, we also find negative portrayals and ultimately a demonization of her image…. which portrays Ishtar as so indiscriminately wild and ferocious that the gods cannot control her…. 


§         Women would have been prominent among the devotees of Asherah and, to the extent that the cult of Asherah had a priesthood, probably Asherah would have had priests of both sexes. Asherah could be counted on to understand the women’s problems such as pregnancy, child rearing and managing family disputes.


C. Baal-Hadad – Divine Son

§        Baal means ”lord”.  Elsewhere he is called Adon (=”lord”) and Recammin (=”thunderer).

§         Baal is also identified as Hadad (Ugaritic haddu), an Akkadian and Babylonian god of the sky, clouds, and rain, both creative, gentle showers and destructive, devastating storms and floods. In Ugaritic literature he is frequently referred to as "Cloud Rider" (rkb rpt) a title that was later used to describe El-YHWH in Psalms 68:5.

Yea, also Baal will make fertile with His rain,
with water He will indeed make fertile harrowed land;
and He will put His voice in the clouds,
He will flash His lightning to the earth.


§         Baal is the vigorous, young god of the triad, not a creator, but basically the executive member of the triad. He is the executive of the divine assembly. Baal is the champion of divine order against chaos. Lightening is his weapon, and he can be found in storms and thunder. However, though he embodies royal power, Baal is vulnerable. He is repeatedly threatened yet triumphant, as in the struggle to maintain order against the chaos represented by the god Yam and to sustain life and agricultural fertility against Mot (Mawet/Mavet in Hebrew), the god of drought, blight, sterility, and decay. When Baal falls into the hands of Mot, the god of death, there is drought and sterility, growth ceases.  With his rescue, by his consort, rains return and vegetation is returned to the earth.  In the beginning of all things, Baal-Haddad warred with and conquered Yamm (Sea), and so brought the unruly waters of Chaos under divine authority and control.

§         Baal is always paired with a female consort whose name varied with place and time – Anat (at Ugarit), Ashtart (paired with the vowels of boshet=shame to make the artificial name Ashtoreth in the Bible).

§         Baal’s consort, whatever her name, had 3 characteristics:

o        Sexual lust;

o        Fecundity; and,

o        Being a bloody goddess of war e.g. Anat, at Ugarit, wading up to her thighs in the blood of her enemies.


1.2.3 Rituals

“Rituals were performed either outdoors on hills or in groves, or inside temples. Outdoor cult places are called bamah, which can be translated with "high place". On these places, pillars were erected, one in stone for the male god, and one in wood for the female goddess. Bamahs could be built on hill tops…. When temples were built, bamahs were sometimes built in front of the entrance — still under open sky. The reason of erecting temples, were that the gods… needed a house, in order to exercise his power over humans and the earth. The house was also believed to be a place where gods could dwell….

“Central to the rituals were offerings that were consummated by the gods. Offerings were both vegetable and animals. We also see that human sacrifice was fairly common in some areas, even though some scientists believe that the frequency of this has been exaggerated by outside sources, like what we read in the Old Testament. But at least in the North-African colony of Carthage we know that children were thrown into a fire in front of a statue of a god. But from Ugarit there are no indications on child sacrifice.

“The myth of Baal's death and resurrection is believed to have been the source of some of the main religious festivals. Other festivals appear to have involved eating and drinking (alcohol) by the partakers. A third group of rituals involve that statues of gods were carried down to the sea, rituals that could involve either a sacred marriage or the blessing of the sea and the ships. A fourth group of rituals were the very central festival where sacrifice were hung from trees, and then put on fire.

“Priests in Ugarit were called khnm (there must have been vowels in the pronunciation, but these were not written, and cannot be reconstructed). Under the priest … (there may have been) qdshm, sacred prostitutes, performing their sexual rituals in the temples to promote fertility. There was also room for oracle priests or prophets that received messages from the gods during states of ecstasy.[20]


1.2.4 Myths


 a) Creation[21]

"The authors of ancient cosmologies were essentially compilers. Their originality was expressed in new combinations of old themes, and in new twists to old ideas.[22]"

”From the sources we have, texts from Ugarit and indirect recounts by contemporary writers, creation myths dominate. There are several of these, but they resemble one another. The main theme of the creation myths is that basic elements of nature mix, and from them gods are created, and then heaven and earth.

“A central element of the creation myths is the egg — a symbol that is found in many other religions as well. Within the egg, the potentials of the complex world is found, and then this is carried out.

“The primary gods of creation are not important to the religious rituals, and neither El nor Baal are among these. Most of the primary gods, or rather qualities and powers of nature, seem to disappear from the mythology after that the creation of the world is accomplished….”[23]


b) Order out of Chaos - Baal and Yahm (the Sea a son of El)

“Foremost of the non-creation myths is the death and resurrection of Baal. Then, from the Ugarit myths we hear about an important battle, where Baal defeats Yam, the god of the sea, resulting in Baal's total domination of the world. Yahm “… may embody wild, chaotic earth-encircling ocean waters and winter floods and sea storms. When in conflict with Ba`al, he is identified as a seven-headed sea serpent or dragon. His other names - or perhaps the names of his henchmen - include Tannin, the Primeval Serpent, Lotan, the Crooked Serpent, the Sea Monster, the Close-coiling One, the Tyrant of Seven Heads. He is eventually defeated and subjugated by Ba`al. Their battle is told in altered form in the Bible as the story of the sea monster Leviathan and Behemoth, the gigantic bull-monster. Although he is Ba`al's adversary in part of the myth, he regularly received offerings in the temples of Ugarit, featured in peoples' theophoric names, and was otherwise honored, so he is a god to be revered. He was not an evil or villainous deity, merely powerful and potentially dangerous… The Sea in the West Semitic tale Astarte and the Tribute of the Sea is called Tiamat. Yam's name is linguistically cognate with Tiamat, the Akkadian primordial ocean goddess, who is ta- (serpent) + yam- (ocean) + -at (fem. ending). She was the personification of salt water, counterpart of Abzu, who was fresh water. Originally creatrix of the world … (Tiamat) was demoted and considered the primary force of chaos and evil, eventually slain by Marduk, who created heaven and earth from Her body.”[24]


c) Fertility for the Land – Baal and Mot

Mot[25], a son of El, is the god of senility and death. Mot brings Baal into the netherworld (i.e. kill him), which causes the vegetation to die which is a metaphor for the rainless summer of Syria-Palestine. With the help of his sister Anat, Baal returns to life, and with this nature returns to fertility (fall, winter, spring) [26].


d) A House for Baal

This myth that must have been central to the rituals of building temples[27] cf. Solomon’s building of a temple in Jerusalem.

Box 3

Near Eastern Primordial Myths in the Hebrew Bible


 “A number of apparent myths and mythical subjects which found their way into the Bible, have been collected and compared with extra-biblical parallels. In the prophetic and poetic books, references are made to the Lord's struggle with the primeval dragon, variously named Tannin ("Dragon," Isa. 27:1, 51:9; Ps. 74:13; Job 7:12), Yam ("Sea," Isa. 51:10; Hab. 3:8; Ps. 74:13; Job 7:12), Nahar ("River," Hab. 3:8; Ps. 93?), Leviathan (Isa. 27:1; Ps. 74:14), and Rahab (Isa. 30:7; 51:9; Ps. 89:11; Job 9:13; 26:12–13). A special parallel to this theme is found in the Ugaritic myth of Baal and his struggle against Yam, in which mention is made of Leviathan (ltn; C. H. Gordon, Ugaritic Textbook (1965), 67, 1:1) and Tannin (tnn; nt, ibid., 3:37) as well as of Nahar (nhr). In this myth the dragon is called, as in Isaiah 27:1, bari'ah ("fleeing serpent") and aqallaton ("twisting serpent"; cf. Gordon, ibid., 67, 1:2–3). The same theme is found in the Babylonian creation epic Enuma elish (Marduk's fight with Tiamat, "Sea") and in the Hittite myth of the storm-god and the dragon Illuyankas (Pritchard, Texts, 125–6), and with variations in Sumerian, Egyptian, Phoenician, and other literatures.” Encyclopedia Judaica

Leviathan[28] (Hebrew liwyatan), in the Bible, one of the names of the primeval dragon subdued by Yahweh at the outset of creation: "You crushed Leviathan's heads, gave him as food to the wild animals" (Psalm 74:14; see also Isaiah 27:1; Job 3:8). In ; Amos 9:3 it is probably the that is called the “serpant (Hebrew naHash the same word as is used for the serpant in the Eden story). Biblical writers also refer to the dragon as Rahab[29] (Job 9:13; Psalm 89:10) or simply as the Abyss (Hebrew tehom) (Habakkuk 3:10).

The biblical references to the battle between Yahweh and Leviathan reflect the Syro-Palestinian version of a myth found throughout the ancient Near East. In this myth, creation is represented as the victory of the creator-god over a monster of chaos. The closest parallel to the biblical versions of the story appears in the Canaanite texts from Ra's Shamrah (14th century BC), in which Baal defeats a dragonlike monster: "You will crush Leviathan the fleeing serpent, you will consume the twisting serpent, the mighty one with seven heads." (The wording of Isaiah 27:1 draws directly on this text.)

A more ancient version of the myth occurs in the Babylonian Creation Epic, in which the storm god Marduk defeats the sea monster Tiamat and creates the earth and sky by cleaving her corpse in two (Assyro-Babylonian Literature). The latter motif is reflected in a few biblical passages that extol Yahweh's military valor: "Was it not you who split Rahab in half, who pierced the dragon through?" (Isaiah 51:9; see also Job 26:12; Psalm 74:13, 89:10)[30].

Amos 9:3 Though they hide themselves on the top of Carmel, from there I will search out and take them; and though they hide from my sight at the bottom of the sea, there I will command the sea-serpent (Hebrew nāHāš the same word as is used for the serpant in the Eden story), and it shall bite them.

Psalm 74:13-15 You divided the sea by your might; you broke the heads of the dragons in the waters. You crushed the heads of Leviathan; you gave him as food for the creatures of the wilderness. You cut openings for springs and torrents; you dried up ever-flowing streams.

Isaiah 27:1 On that day the LORD with his cruel and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will kill the dragon that is in the sea.

Job 3:7-8 Yes, let that night be barren; let no joyful cry be heard in it. Let those curse it who curse the Sea[31], those who are skilled to rouse up Leviathan

Job 9:13 (600-300 BCE) "God will not turn back his anger; the helpers of Rahab bowed beneath him.

Psalm 89:10 You crushed Rahab like a carcass; you scattered your enemies with your mighty arm.

Habakkuk 3:5-10 (very end of 7th century BCE) Before Him went Pestilence/pestilence (Hebrew reshef), and plague followed close behind. He stopped and shook the earth; he looked and made the nations tremble. The eternal mountains were shattered; along his ancient pathways the everlasting hills sank low. I saw the tents of Cushan under affliction; the tent-curtains of the land of Midian trembled. Was your wrath against the River Yam/rivers (Hebrew neharim), O LORD? Or your anger against the River Yam/rivers, or your rage against the Sea/sea (Hebrew yam), when you drove your horses, your chariots to victory? You brandished your naked bow, sated were the arrows[32] (Reshef bore the title of Lord of the Arrow) at your command. Selah You split the earth with rivers. The mountains saw you, and writhed; a torrent of water swept by; the Abyss/depths (Hebrew tehom[33]), gave forth its voice.



See also Annex 5 - Phoenician Religion


2. Alternative Views on the Emergence of Israel and Israelite Religion[34]


2.1 The Fundamental Problem – the Nature of the Evidence

The reason for serious scholars coming up with very different ideas about Israelite history and religion is rooted in the paucity, illusive nature, ambiguity and of the ambivalence of the relevant data.  Short of major discoveries of contemporaneous religious and historical texts of the kind we have for Pre-Hellenistic Mesopotamia, Egypt and Ugarit, this situation is not likely to change.  This results in the field of Ancient Israelite History and Religion being extremely open to academic faddism.

In fact, we have almost no certain knowledge of anything in Israelite history before the time of King David[35] (c.1010-970 BCE) at the earliest and almost no reliable biblical evidence regarding what religious beliefs and behaviour were before that reflected in the Torah. Since the Torah was only finalized in the early Persian period (late 6th- 5th centuries BCE) the evidence of the Torah is most relevant to early Second Temple Judaism.  The Judaism reflected in the Torah would seem to be generally similar to that later practiced by the Sadducees and Samaritans.


2.1.1 Sources for the Cultural History of Syria-Palestine (1200 BCE-600CE)

Since, at least, 1200 BCE, the peoples of Syria-Palestine – Canaanites, Phoenicians, Israelites, Aramaeans and Hellenistic Greeks wrote using alphabetic scripts on papyrus or wood etc[36].  For non-permanent records they used broken pieces of pottery (called ostraca) writing on them using water-soluble ink.  These materials usually do not long survive in the climate of the region.

As N H. Niehr wrote[37] -

“With regard to the sources, the distinction between primary and secondary evidence is paramount for working out a religious history or aspects of this history of Judah and Israel.  Due to the Judean censorship of the texts of the Hebrew Bible during the Second Temple period, the evidence contained in the texts for reconstructing  the religious history of Judah and Israel is of secondary or tertiary value.  This evidence has to be corroborated, corrected or refuted by primary evidence provided by inscriptions and archaeological findings.” Primary Sources

§         Rare fragments of writing that have survived against all the odds – e.g. Dead Sea Scrolls, Arad and Lachish ostraca;

§         Equally rare inscriptions and graffiti; and,

§         Other archaeological evidence. Secondary Sources

These are documents prized by groups having direct cultural descendants (Jews, Christian cultural tradition etc.)  Since it was very laborious to copy books, normally only a small selection could be copied and these would be the items that the community, at the time of copying, considered important[38].  The community valuation of what is worth preserving varies with period.  E.g. In Hellenistic times Sappho’s poetry was considered a classic and was produced in a standard collection in Alexandria.  However, only one complete poem has come down to us. 

1.      Copies of copies, often many times removed, of documents, originally contemporaneous with the events or situations described but may have been subject to editing during the history of transmission;

2.      Histories in the Greek or biblical traditions[39] (see)

Of course, the most important of the documents are those contained in the Hebrew Bible.  Though, it can be argued that we have a reasonable idea of the political history of Israel from, say the late 10th century to 586 BCE[40], and we have, from Ugaritic literature, a fair idea of Canaanite religion of the Middle and Late Bronze Ages, it is unclear how much we know of Israelite religion before the Babylonian exile.  Odd remarks preserved in the stories, not the framework, of the books of Judges[41] and Samuel probably provide some information.  However, the overt information provided in the Torah-Deuteronomic History is anachronistic and tendentious.

In the Deuteronomistic History, from Joshua to Kings, there was clear evidence of Israel’s polytheistic roots, but readers often viewed the material as evidence of backsliding from original monotheism, because they followed the intimations provided by the final editors of these books.  The editors were trying to promulgate monotheism in their own exilic age by projecting their religious values in idealized fashion back into the past.  Some scholars went beyond the idealized portrait of the Deuteronomistic and Priestly editors and envisioned a religion more ideal and ethical than even those biblical editors suggested; Yehezkiel Kaufmann’s work would be a good example.

The Deuteronomistic Historians …. Viewed their past through a Yahwistic lens and saw their history not only as it was but very much as it should have been.  The guidelines by which they measured their past included strict allegiance to Yahweh, rejection of other deities, rejection of native cultic activities (such as golden calves, asherim and the bronze serpent), centralized worship in the Temple, and a great deal of egalitarianism and social justice in society.  Their criteria for evaluating the past are laid out in their great manifesto the book of Deuteronomy.  They evaluated the past as though their spiritual ancestors, the prophetic minority, were the true leaders meant to define the religious life of Israelites from the time of Moses onward when in reality they were but a progressive minority within society.  Therefore, beguiled by the rhetoric of the redactors of the biblical text, readers sometimes missed the truly dramatic story in the Deuteronomistic History; the great struggle of the progressive thinkers in the ‘Yahweh-alone’ movement who gave birth to a new value system over the years and helped an entire people evolve toward monotheism.

“The Deuteronomistic Historians were not liars; they did not deceive more than historians of any age.  All historians seek to craft a narrative of the past by selecting those aspects which they consciously or unconsciously consider most valuable in order to communicate a meaningful message to the present so as to shape the direction of the future…. The Deuteronomistic Historians were theologians and preachers who wished to achieve significant religious goals with their interpretation of history; they were above all preachers, and the Deuteronomistic History is primarily a sermon.”[42] 

“The task of reconstructing the cult of Yahweh includes biblical claims and sets them within a wider framework that accounts for the available information.  The data in the attested sources indicate a pluralism of religious practice in ancient Israel that led sometimes to conflict about the nature of correct Yahwistic practice.  It is precisely this conflict that produced the differentiation of Israelite religion from its Canaanite heritage during the second half of the monarchy.”[43]

The approach of the Deuteronomistic Historians is not at all dissimilar to the retrospective definition of Normative Judaism in the rabbinic tradition. The Voiceless People

The only Middle-Late Bronze Age (1950-1250 BCE) group in Syria-Palestine to leave us an extensive literature was the ruling class of Ugarit.  No group did so in the Iron Age (1250-587 BCE).  The only Iron Age groups in the region to have survived to the present are the Jews and Samaritans.  The Jews, and the Christian church, have preserved important documents relating to Israelite-Jewish history 1200 BCE-600 CE.

The many other groups of the region, together with the illiterate, women, slaves, children, minority groups etc. remain voiceless.  Who knows what they might have told us had there been records and had they survived.

First Temple and Second Temple Jewish society was fairly literate[44].  However, due to the scarcity of stone inscriptions, and the use of perishable writing materials, all the written remains could be printed on a few pages.

This contrasts sharply with the situation in Egypt and Mesopotamia.  In Egypt papyrus lasts for thousands of years and there were many inscriptions on stone.  The papyri include personal letters, legal documents, tax receipts, literature of all kinds.  In Mesopotamia the clay tablets, inscribed in cuneiform, last for ever.

Sumerian (third to early second millennium BCE), has left us copious records and a cultural heritage –

“The Sumerians were prolific writers, scratching their cuneiform script with a stylus on moist clay tablets…. They recorded stories and poems, songs and technical data, laws, receipts, medical prescriptions.  They recorded, it seems, everything of interest in their world and to their imaginations, and much of what they recorded has survived, an enormous body of documentation that surpasses that of the Romans and Chinese.  ‘We have more from the Sumerians than from any culture in history before the invention of the printing press,’ …. We know the names of their gods and the list of their kings; we know their epics – including the world’s first tales of creation and of the flood, and the oldest written tale of paradise – and … we know their legacy; the legal and religious tradition the Sumerians bequeathed to Israel, and of the magical, astronomical and mathematical lore bequeathed to Greece.  We know it because it became part of our legacy too.”[45]

This plentitude of documentation continued in the post-Sumerian period when the Semitic Akkadian became the main written language of Mesopotamia.

“Akkadian is first attested to in proper names in Sumerian texts (ca. 2800 BCE). From ca. 2500 BCE one finds texts fully written in Akkadian. Hundreds of thousands of texts and text fragments have been excavated, covering many subjects, e.g.

-economy (business, administrative records, purchase and rentals),

-politics (treaties),

-law (witnessed and sealed contracts of marriage, divorce; codes of law),

-history (chronological text, census reports),

-letters (personal, business and state letters),

-religion (prayers, hymns, omens, divination reports),

-scholarly texts (language, word lists, history, technology, mathematics, astronomy) and

-literature (narrative poetry, recounting myths, epics).

The last texts date from the first century A.D. By then Akkadian was already an extinct language, replaced as a spoken language by Aramaic.”[46]

Many Mesopotamian tablets were private records recording contemporary issues and concerns meant only for the eyes of the recipient.  Thus we have a better idea of what life was like and what people thought in Mesopotamia, under Ur III in 2100 BCE that we have for almost any period of pre-modern Jewish history!


2.2 The Origin of Ancient Israel

The best review of current and past theories of Israel’s origin and the archaeological background is presented in Dever 2003.

There are basically three alternative hypotheses (see Table 1 ) about the origin of Ancient Israel. Only one of these, in my view, seems a reasonable enough hypothesis to merit serious consideration, i.e. that ancient Israel, and its constituent tribes, emerged after the settlement in the almost unoccupied hill country of central Palestine by diverse groups originating from outside and within Canaan[47]. Most reconstructions assume that the worship of Yahweh and the traditions of Aramean-Mesopotamian origin, Sinai Experience and Egyptian were brought in, not necessarily by the same groups, from outside Canaan at, or before, the end of the Late Bronze Age (approximately 1200 BCE). 


Table 1

Hypotheses Regarding the Origin of Ancient Israel[48]


Alternatives for Emergence of Israel (Probable meaning of Israel (Heb. yisra’el) is God or El Rules)

How Well Does it fit Known Archaeological, Environmental and Historic Facts

1. Pan-Israelite Exodus and Invasion[49] as per Book of Joshua. Israel exists as a people before entering Canaan.

Not supported by archaeology. Fits with descriptions in Torah and Book of Joshua. Extremely unlikely to be historically accurate.

2. Independent migrations & Settlement by separate extended family (Hebrew bet ‘av), Clan (Hebrew mishpaa) etc[50]., in unoccupied hill country as per Alt[51], Noth, Aharoni. Israel, and its constituent tribes, form after settlement in the hill country on the basis of geography.

Fits reasonably with archaeology record and with descriptions in Book of Judges.

3. “Conquest” as Internal Revolt[52]  -Canaanite peasants moving into hills to escape oppressive conditions under city-state aristocracies where they join up with small groups from outside Canaan as per Mendenhall, Gottwald[53].” Israel, and its constituent tribes, form after settlement in the hill country on the basis of geography.

Fits reasonably with archaeology record but contradicts what the Israelites themselves said about their past in Hebrew Bible.

4. Independent Migrations & Settlement by separate extended family (Hebrew bet ‘av), Clan (Hebrew mishpaa) etc., in unoccupied hill country where they merged with Canaanites leaving the city-state ruled low lands as per Finkelstein[54] and many others. Israel, and its constituent tribes, form after settlement in the hill country on the basis of geography.

Fits well with archaeology record and with descriptions in Book of Judges.  In my view most likely to be correct.




On the Origin of the Israelites

Archaeological data enable us to discern the significant, basic discontinuity between the Late Bronze and the Iron Age populations in the type and pattern of settlements, the zones of settlements, their use of terracing for agricultural purposes, their employment of plastered cisterns for water storage, their architecture, their demography, and by implication their social and political organization. Study of pottery allows the discernment of an important - not a basic - discontinuity in their ceramic traditions. These discontinuities reflect innovations in the contents and distribution of the material culture of the Iron Age population. The confluence and overlapping of elements from the concrete, material culture along with first-order inferences derived about the people who created it within well-defined geographical areas suggest that they constituted an ethnic group.

Literary evidence, that is, traditions reflected in biblical narratives and historiographic observations, in combination with the above-mentioned congeries of archaeological data considered in their spatial and chronological distribution, indicates that Iron Age Israelites of the central mountains did not originate or derive from the preceding Late Bronze population of the local Canaanite city-states and, therefore, were not traditionists bearing and passing on some form of the antecedent, local Canaanite culture. Although it is assumed reasonably that they had prolonged contact with some ideational and technical aspects of this culture during its latest stages through some Iron Age Canaanite descendants, … and although they were aware of some evolved developments of Late Bronze Canaanite culture among some of their Iron Age neighbors to their north and north-east, no direct continuity may be posited between the technical and ideational culture of the tribes and that of the prior inhabitants of the territories occupied by the Israelites. The data do not support an inference that local Canaanites became Israelites in the way that Gauls became the French and Romans the Italians.

A. Kempinski notes that at the end of the twelfth century BCE, Merneptah referred to an exurban ethnic group living in the central mountains as "Israel," whereas in an eleventh century Hebrew poem about events in the twelfth century, Judges 5, an Israelite poet referred to those living in the same area by the same term. Both outsiders and insiders employed the same ethnicon. These independent but mutually-corroborating data indicate that such a self-identified people did live there and that connectedness and continuity between them is posited reasonably…. 

People can work together, trade together, live adjacent to each other for generations, and have no inkling of what makes the "other" tick. Jews lived in Christian Europe for over 1,600 years. Nowhere did Christians as a community have anything other than a superficial notion of what Judaism was about; despite patterns of acculturation and social accommodation necessary for their existence in Europe, nowhere did Jews as a community have any deep understanding of Christianity…. 

A line can be drawn distinguishing between the local Canaanite culture, whatever it was, and that of the later Israelites. This line should be a broken one since I do assume some admixture of population as well as regular, ongoing cultural contact. Furthermore, I assume that some of these contacts may have stimulated responses in ideational components of Israelite culture that may be construed from available textual and archaeological data. But a broken, permeable line is a line, nevertheless….

As stated above, this position does not deny that non-Israelite peoples and cultures influenced the thought-content and ritual practices of Israelite religion. At different points in the history of the Israelite kingdoms there were contacts between Jerusalem and Ammon, Moab, Egypt, Tyre, Assyria, Babylon and Egypt, and contacts between Samaria and Tyre, Damascus, Assyria and Babylon, all of which may have had cultic consequences and some of which definitely did, e.g., the reforms of Ahaz. Many are mentioned in historiographical or prophetic texts. In addition, historiographical sources mention that a few Canaanite cities persisted among the weaker tribes of the north, along the periphery of the central hill country…. The only indigenous groups recognized explicitly as non-Israelite in the heartland area were four Hivvite cities whose residents were subjugated into a caste of wood cutters and drawers of water for some Israelite group and for the cult Josh. 9:17, 27; 11:19)….  

… I posit and attempt to demonstrate that various cultic practices were performed by Israelites functioning within overlapping but not completely congruent kin, guild, residential, mantic, and cultic groups with the first being considered the most concrete and meaningful. These not only defined a person but also, to some extent, influenced his destiny. Moving from the smallest to the largest organization considered consanguineous, family, father's house, clan, tribe, fraternity of tribes, fraternity of tribes supporting a king, data presented above indicates that all the Passover, and others ad hoc, e.g., any zeba šelamiym offered by an Israelite; some "traditional," e.g., the zeba mišpaa, and others "innovative," e.g., the dedicatory sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple.

I have suggested that by the end of the united monarchy c. 930-920 BCE, if not earlier, at least three common threads united many of these celebrations throughout the tribes of the central mountains: (1) a shared sense of a common past; (2) a common recognition that YHWH was the chief patron but not the only deity; (3) acceptance of the guild-clans of Levites as cultic experts and, through them, of a shared repertoire of sacrificial rituals and lore.  As a consequence they shared cultic familiarity….  They would have been attuned to the mood of the ritual and understood what was and what was not appropriate for the occasion….



2.3 Origin and Nature of Ancient Israelite Religion

A good and extensive review of current and past theories of Israel’s religious development origin is presented in Gnuse chapter 2 Recent Scholarship on the Development of Monotheism in Ancient Israel (pp. 62-128).

There are basically three alternative hypotheses (see Table 2) about the origin of ancient Israelite religion.


Table 2

Hypotheses Regarding the Origin of Israelite Religion[56]


Alternatives for Emergence of Israelite Religion

How Well Does it fit Known Historic Facts

1. Israelite religion was originally a local variety of the pattern in Iron Age Phoenicia in which there was a triad of deities: a protective god of the city (often El), a goddess, often his wife or companion (in Ugarit and Israel Asherah) who symbolizes the fertile earth; and a young god (in Ugarit and Israel Baal) usually her or their son), whose resurrection expresses the annual cycle of vegetation[57].  Through the processes of convergence and differentiation this developed into Biblical Monotheism. At an early stage a new god Yahweh was brought in from outside urban Canaan, identified with the Canaanite High God El[58], and accepted as the main object of worship by the emerging Israelite confederacy i.e. association of clans and tribes.

Appears to fit very well

2. It developed from early Semitic religion which was a “practical monotheism” in which only El was worshiped[59].

Unlikely since the biblical evidence is that Israelite religion was preceded by polytheism.

3. It came into being as a sui generis innovation unrelated to the Semitic polytheism which preceded it.  This hypothesis is further divided into 3 subcategories:


3.1 Verbal Revelation i.e. the Pentateuch was Virtually Dictated by God[60]

3.1.1 Traditional Jewish Divine Revelation[61] – God gave Moses on Mt. Sinai the written Pentateuch that we have today together with the Oral Law i.e. the tools for developing the laws of the Pentateuch to meet all future needs.  This Oral Law was later embodied in the Talmuds and other Rabbinic literature;

3.1.2 Traditional Karaite and Samaritan Divine Revelation – God gave Moses on Mt. Sinai the written Pentateuch that we have today as an immutable, all-encompassing, law.

The results of Higher Criticism of the Bible make this extremely unlikely.

In fact, the only way to intellectually maintain these positions would be to reason[62]:

Higher Criticism of the Bible deduces that the Torah was written and edited by people, over a long period, by comparing the Torah to other documents, showing similar characteristics, that can be shown to have been written and edited by people, over a long period;

For this to be valid one must compare like to like;

The Torah is the only divinely written document that has ever existed so comparisons with other documents are fundamentally invalid.

3.2 Various Modern Jewish Thinkers e.g. non-Orthodox Jewish theologians[63] and, perhaps Kaufmann* – God intervened, perhaps progressively, to reveal his totally new religious teaching**

Given the evidence available, it is almost impossible to prove or disprove these sorts of hypothesis though, by what is known, they seem to me improbable.

3.3 A teacher, say Moses or one of the Isaiahs, got a brilliant intellectual insight or revelation from God, depending on your beliefs, instantly grasping the concept of ethical monotheism which was totally alien to his, and the people’s, early polytheistic beliefs and practices.***  Of course, the founder/prophet would need to express the ethical monotheism through the linguistic semantics, images and  at least some of the accustomed religious practices, of the time (eg. Sacrifices) provided that these did not fundamentally contradict the ethical monotheism.[64]

* Yehezkel Kaufmann[65] was a distinguished Israeli scholar of the first half of the 20th century. Many of Kaufmann’s ideas are interesting but his overall thesis[66] does not seem to me, or to most modern scholars[67], to be supported by what is known. 

**  we could use the image of Beethoven’s sketch books where a rough idea, which may or may not have been crystal clear in Beethoven’s head from the beginning, is extensively changed until the composer recognized that it was perfect.

*** we could use the image of Mozart’s manuscript which were perfect as initially written down.



2.3.1 That Israelite monotheism came into being as a sui generis innovation unrelated to the Semitic polytheism which preceded it.


2.3.2 That Israelite monotheism developed progressively out of Canaanite religion.



On the Emergence of Israelite Religion[68]

“Israel does not leap full-formed into history like Athena from the head of Zeus. The study of origins is always difficult but has a unique fascination. The possibility of such a study in concrete detail is recent….

“Two dynamic societies, Israel and Greece, rose from the ruins of the ancient Near Eastern world. The first societies of the ancient Near East blossomed and grew old and moribund in the course of the third and second millennia B.C.E.. The cataclysms that began about 1200 B.C.E. were symptoms of the end of essentially static and hierarchical societies.

Israel as a nation was born in an era of extraordinary chaos and social turmoil. Egypt's empire had collapsed and the Hittite kingdom had fallen, the Middle Assyrian Empire was in decline and invasions brought the destruction of the great Canaanite city states of Syria and Palestine, most notably at the hand of Greek Sea Peoples (which included the Philistines).

…. We are interested in the emergence of certain characteristic features of Israelite religion: (l) the shift from pure myth, stories of the gods, the central focus of Canaanite religion and cult, to the centrality of epic memory in Israelite religion; (2) the shift from hierarchical notions of equity to Israelite conceptions of justice as redemptive; and (3) the change from sacral or divine conceptions of state and church, king and priest, to the desacralizing of state and the critical, provisional view of temple and priesthood.

In sum we are interested in tracing the progressive secularization of religion in ancient Israel. Practical Monotheism?

Most scholars would argue that the earliest unambiguously monotheistic texts in the Bible date to the Exile[69].


The study of Israelite religion often involves studying practices more than creedal beliefs because the Bible more frequently stresses correct practices than correct beliefs or internal attitudes.  Christian scholars, however, tend to focus more on beliefs or internal attitudes because Christian theology has often emphasized this aspect of religion.  The study of Israelite monotheism is complicated by this factor, as monotheism has usually been defined as a matter of belief in one deity whereas monolatry has been understood as a matter of practice, specifically, the worship of only one deity, sometimes coupled with a tolerance for other peoples’ worship of their deities.  However, if ancient Israelite religion is to be viewed primarily as a matter of practice, then the modern distinction between monotheism and monolatry is problematic.”[70] The Process - Convergence and Differentiation

a. Dynamics of the Process

The great gods of the Canaanite pantheon were cosmic deities. There is, indeed, a double movement clearly discernible in Syro-Palestinian religion. A great god such as 'El or 'Asherah appears in local manifestations in the cult places and gains special titles, attributes, hypostases[71]. In the process, one cult or title may split apart and a new god emerge to take his place beside 'El or 'Asherah in the pantheon. On the other hand, there is a basic syncretistic impulse in Near Eastern polytheism which tends to merge gods with similar traits and functions. A minor deity, worshipped by a small group of adherents, may become popular and merge with a great deity; major deities in a single culture's pantheon may fuse; or deities holding similar positions in separate pantheons may be identified.” Cross p.49


Table 3

Hypotheses Regarding the Original Nature of YHWH

Alternatives for the Original Nature of YHWH


Path to Monotheism

1. YHWH as  manifestation of the El known from Ugaritic

Under this hypothesis, YHWH starts out as a local manifestation of Canaanite El who is accepted as the national god of the early Israelites.  The only Baal type characteristic he might have at this stage would be that as warrior hero.

“Our evidence also points strongly to the conclusion that yahwe is a shortened form of a sentence name taken from a cultic formula…. Yahwe şba’ot …. On the basis of the mythological parallels, şba’ot in this context probably means "the hosts of heaven[72]," the banii 'ilima, "sons of 'EI" or "holy ones." In this case Yahweh is described as du yahwi şba’ot "He who creates the (heavenly) armies," a title of the divine warrior and creator. It is thus not greatly different from 'El's epithets, "Father of the gods," "creator of creatures." Moreover, such an epithet lent itself to use not merely as a creation formula, but as an appropriate name of the god who called together the tribes to form the militia of the League, who led Israel in her historical wars. In the holy war ideology Yahweh led the cosmic forces of heaven alongside the armies of Israel. At the beginning of the conquest proper, Joshua was confronted by the śar haş-şaba’ yahwe, "the general of the (heavenly) army of Yahweh," Joshua's cosmic counterpart. In the victory song in Judges 5 we are told that "the stars fought from heaven, "and at Gibeon even the sun and moon support Yahweh's host ". . . the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the nation had taken vengeance on their enemies."


“In order top meet the needs of farmers Yahwism also owes a debt to the myths of Ba'al. In the earliest poetic sources the language depicting Yahweh as divine warrior manifest is borrowed almost directly from Canaanite descriptions of the theophany of Ba'al as storm god.”

From Cross

1. The Israel group of El worshipers, of assorted origins, is formed in the hill country (later tribal territories of Ephraim and Cis-Jordan Manasseh) at the end of the Late Bronze age.  El’s consort Asherah probably features in the family religion and Baal-Hadad is worshiped as the giver of the all-important rain.  This is the Israel mentioned in the Merneptah Stele.

2. The YHWH worshipers enter Canaan and develop relationship with this Israel.

3. YHWH is reidentified with El gaining a consort, Asherah

4. In the crisis of the imposition by Ahab of Tyrean Baal (probably Melkart likely with his consort Tyrean Ashtart) - in the mid-9th century BCE – the prophetic movement demanded the rejection of the native weather deity Baal-Hadad (likely with his consort the native Ashtart/Ashtoreth) as un-Israelite and disloyal to YHWH. Baal’s characteristics are appropriated by YHWH. (see Elijah on Carmel).

5. Perhaps spurred on by the establishment of Astarte-Ishtar-Queen of Heaven worship in the 8th- 7th centuries; the Deuteronomic movement of the late 7th century BCE demanded the rejection of the native Asherah as un-Israelite and disloyal to YHWH. By this time Asherah may just have been seen as a manifestation of the nurturing side of YHWH. As far as feasible, given YHWH’s male language, Ashera’s characteristics are appropriated by YHWH.



2. A YHWH as Baal-Haddad type storm-warrior god.

See Box 4

1. The Israel group of El worshipers, of assorted origins, formed in the hill country at the end of the Late Bronze age.  El’s consort Asherah probably features in the family religion and Baal-Hadad is worshiped as the giver of the all-important rain.  This is the Israel mentioned in the Merneptah Stele.

2. Baal replaces El as main god of worship – El becomes a figurehead-folk memory.

3.  YHWH worshipers enter Canaan and develop relationship with this Israel.

4. YHWH absorbs El characteristics and possibly gains consort, Asherah. YHWH and Baal-Hadad each lay claim to control of the vital ability to control rain.