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Can Someone Elaborate On Jewish Polytheism?


Ahh!
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Does anybody have any essays on Jewish polytheism and historical proof for it?

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Here's a link to a related article from another thread I'm in over in the Lion's Den. It's about Asherah (an earth goddess) who's mentioned in the bible too.

 

Briefly, from the article:

Hadley's work shows not only the possibility of accepted polytheism in early Israel, but reviews the large and growing positive archaeological evidence of goddess worship, including Asherah, by the ancient Hebrews.

 

mwc

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All I know is what my Old Testament teacher told me. She talked about the different names for God such as Yaweh and Elohim. Elohim, I understand, is plural. I further understand that "el" (first part of Elohim) means to ask of God. We find this in names like Samuel and Emanuel and Israel.

 

If anyone has more accurate information feel free to say so. This is pulled out of a memory that is less than accurate at all times.

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All I know is what my Old Testament teacher told me. She talked about the different names for God such as Yaweh and Elohim. Elohim, I understand, is plural. I further understand that "el" (first part of Elohim) means to ask of God. We find this in names like Samuel and Emanuel and Israel.

Normally words that end in "im" are plural but there are also the words for "sky" and "water" (I believe...I can't recall them right now) that end as such and are obviously not plural. The big however to this is that, from what I've been told, these words all started as plural in the original Semitic language to evolve to the singular form in the later Hebrew which makes comparisons like the one I made above not entirely accurate (but one you'll commonly find if you search around). So truly understand the word a scholar would need to trace the word as far back as they could to understand its origin and then try to figure out the how and when of its entry into the Hebrew usage. From all this big giant mess it's a pretty safe bet that it came from the plural usage describing the Canaanite god El and his host of gods in his court. As most things in this debate this can't be stated with 100% certainty though.

 

If anyone has more accurate information feel free to say so. This is pulled out of a memory that is less than accurate at all times.

Hey! What are you doing with my memory! :grin:

 

But likewise...I'm always looking for more, and more accurate, information (especially than what I can just pull off the top of my head...which is most every post).

 

mwc

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Hi Ahh!

 

I just happen to have a small essay from two weeks ago I wrote on this very question: Was "biblical religion" monotheistic?

 

Here is it (just my viewpoint!!), footnotes excluded:

 

An unsatisfactory answer to the inquiry regarding the status of monotheism in biblical religion is this: Biblical religion was—or was not or might have been but no one knows for sure—monotheistic. Professor Cohen himself has stated, quite refreshingly I might add, that often he is “thoroughly puzzled,” “confused,” and “confounded” in his attempt to understand the plain (surely, an unfit adjective in this case) text—and meaning—of the Hebrew Bible. In approaching this question in hope of reaching a conclusion, it is necessary to separate popular religious expression of the Hebrews-Israelites-Judeans from the orthodox ideal practiced by the professionally religious (e.g., priests and prophets).

 

The Hebrew on the street was notoriously polytheistic in their popular worship. This much is clear—just ask any of the prophets! While one might attribute a measure (of unknown quantity) of the heterodoxy exhibited by the masses to more or less harmless variations in the understanding of the who, what, when, where, why and how of YHWH or to a slight theological accretion or evolution of thought in Israel or Judah that had not yet filtered down (or up) to the other Kingdom, many Hebrews-Israelites-Judeans most definitely did believe in gods other than YHWH and often engaged in ritualistic worship of these gods, despite the voluminous catechesis and thunderous prophetic judgments against doing so.

 

Post-Exodus Israel was explicitly warned against “being lured” by Canaanite ways and following the gods of the peoples they would soon “dispossess”: “Do not inquire about their gods saying, ‘How did those nations worship their gods? I too will follow those practices.’” If a “prophet” or “dream-diviner” sought to convince Israel to seek “another god,” the offender was “put to death.” In protecting the sanctity of YHWH, an Israelite must not hesitate to take the life even of his apostate brother, wife, son or daughter: “Let your hand be the first against him to put him to death…Stone him to death, for he sought to make you stray from the LORD your God.” If an entire town were to embrace “other gods,” its citizens were “put to the sword.”

 

While it is true that in this Deuteronomic polemic YHWH does not explicitly declare that the gods of the inhabitants of Canaan are non-existent nor does he announce that he alone is of divine status (and perhaps he could have been more clear), the keynote teaching is that YHWH precludes Israel from following other gods. The existence or non-existence of these “other gods” is not the matter at hand. The harsh admonition did not work, anyway. The Israelites incessantly “went whoring” after other gods.

 

One cannot, however, infer definitive statements about doctrines of any religion merely by observing the actions of those professing to belong to that group. Did all the people of Israel believe only in YHWH? Absolutely, they did not. Did the actions of many ordinary Israelites and Judeans betray a theology of henotheism, Max Müller’s term for the worship of one God (in this case YHWH) without denying the existence of other gods? There is no doubt, at least to me. Were some Israelites-Judeans pure monotheists? Yes, including most priests, prophets, psalmists and the historians and editors who compiled the Bible. So, what did the authors of the Bible, the architects of biblical religion, believe?

 

Depending entirely on the manner in which one interprets the biblical texts, various authors either do or do not deny the existence of other gods. Psalm 96 is a study in oxymoronic language precisely around this question. The author declares that YHWH is “held in awe by all divine beings.” Is it possible to be “held in awe” by “beings” if those beings do not exist? Yet, in the next line, the author confidently proclaims that “all the gods of the peoples are mere idols.” Which is it? Are the “gods” who are “mere idols” the same “divine beings” who are “in awe” of YHWH? Is the former verse assertion nothing more than hyperbolic praise language, while the latter pronouncement that the gods of others are “mere idols” is a doctrinal statement? I say yes.

 

When speaking of other gods and “divine assemblies” among “divine beings” over which God “pronounces judgment,” as in Psalm 82, or the language of Psalm 96 (previous paragraph), the author is using symbol and metaphor. God does not literally stand, as he does in Psalm 96. Likewise, there is no literal divine assembly—a Mount Olympus of Jerusalem, if you will. These word-pictures, literary devices, reveal the mind of the author as he contemplates the majesty and glory (kavod) of YHWH. They offer nothing in support of a biblical basis for belief in any god other than YHWH.

 

Writing that YHWH is “Most High” does not imply that there are other “less high” ones over whom YHWH rules. In reciting a biblical (creedal) truth that YHWH is the “god of gods” there need not be any implication that in fact other “gods” do exist. While there is paradox and inconsistency and even surface-level confusion about who and what and how the biblical YHWH is, there is no doubt in my mind that in biblical religion one fundamental principle is firmly established: YHWH is one and is alone. There is none beside (or below or above) YHWH.

 

 

-CC

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I did once have a Hebrew class with a lecturer from Oxford, who said that a huge amount of the meaning of the original Old Testament was altered when the Masoretes added vowels, as the original was solely in consonants. Thus, the name of the goddess "Asherah" is actually innacurate, and the vowels chosen by the Masoretes change the meaning of her name to 'abomination', even though this is in no way implied by the original text, which seemingly recognises her as the wife and fellow deity of 'YHWH'.

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