Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The Birth of Biblical Monotheism from Canaanite Polytheism, Part 1

For those who would like to listen, I’m going to tell you a long story, so you might as well grab a glass of pomegranate juice. Indeed this story will take place in two parts with the second part provided later.

The Polytheists
This story takes place in the sands of time, at least 3200 years ago, in a thriving metropolis called Ugarit which although huge in its time is comparable to our small towns of today. This is a time before Christianity, before Judaism, but roughly about the same time as the Egyptian heretic Akhenaton. In this city of Ugarit, scribes wrote of the deities and the heroes. We know the name of one of the scribes: Ilimilku--whose name means “the god Ilu (El) is king.” He and his fellow scribes wrote of gods and goddesses like Ilu (known later in Hebrew as El), Athiratu (known later in Hebrew as Asherah), ‘Athtartu (known later in Hebrew as “Ashtoreth”), and Baʻlu Haddi (also known as “Baʻal”), and many more—a careful reading of the Torah or the biblical Old Testament, and you will see their names sprinkled throughout. Scholars consider Ugarit as indicative of a larger Canaanite culture: the land of Canaan was never a cohesive whole nation or empire, but a collection of sometimes affiliated/sometimes unaffiliated city states that shared a common culture and similar languages.

                Now the Canaanites, and the Ugaritans in particular, weren’t a let’s-hold-hands-and-sing-kumbaya-bunch, but they did alright considering the Hittites and Hurrians north of them vied for power with the Egyptian empire in the south. Ugarit’s army, like most Canaanite armies, was small, but Canaanite cities made a great deal of wealth from their strategic position and they managed to keep much of it through careful, often contentious, diplomatic relations. Although primarily merchants, they would get their hands bloody if the situation demanded it. The Ugaritans had their own language, Ugaritic, which they wrote in an alphabetic cuneiform script: the language is in the same language family as several little-known Canaanite dialects and the lingua franca of the time and place—Akkadian—as well as Hebrew and Phoenician, languages which came later. Scholars see in polytheistic Ugaritic texts the very seeds of biblical narrative, from poetic techniques to outright plagiarism. The Ugaritans, and the Canaanite culture they represent, are the ancestors of the Israelites from whence both Judaism and Christianity sprang.

Ancient Canaanite Religion
We understand Canaanite religion from the fifteen-hundred some-odd primary documents preserved in the city of Ugarit—and this number grows with more discoveries. Some texts tell narratives and epics about the deities and heroes, while other texts describe seasonal rites and offerings. The state-wide religion focused on offerings and ensuring the peace and continuity of the royal dynasty, but also involved honoring the dead. The Ugaritans documented many offering types intended to serve different purposes: two of the most important included those for the expiation of misdeed, and those for strengthening of the soul/vitality (napshu) of the deities, the ancestors, or even other living people.
                 The temple had areas of graduated sanctity, with the inner holy-of-holies room being the most sacred, through the outer sanctuary, then to the courtyard: Canaanite temples usually had a bipartite or tripartite floor plan with a courtyard. The design of Solomon’s legendary temple comes from Canaanite tradition. Temple complexes acted as centers not just of religious importance, but administrative and financial importance. These temple complexes held a large portion, if not all, of a city’s wealth, and the temple’s administration often spearheaded the collection and the redistribution of wealth when necessary. The Christian tale of Jesus’s rage at the money-changers demonstrated an abhorrence of a polytheistic Canaanite economic institution which had changed over time and had begun in days no one in Jesus’s time could remember clearly.

The Bronze Age’s End
Around the end of the Bronze Age, a roving band of people called the Habiru caused problems for settled cities and travelers. These nomadic Habiru and highwaymen came from various cultures, often exiled from their cities for crimes, or were people who found themselves homeless for reasons like crop failure. The Egyptians in the Amarna letters complained about the Habiru nuisance and yet the Egyptians of the Nineteenth Dynasty caused more of them to roam as a result of Egyptian foreign policy. The Egyptians fortified and sustained cities strategic to their own interests, but caused other cities to languish. These Habiru, often of mixed ancestry from all around the Near East, Middle East, and Egypt, nonetheless had a strong representative population of Canaanite ancestry. Scholars debate whether or not the Hebrew people had beginnings in the Habiru, but at the very least we can say that the Habiru are a cultural element in the Israelite population.
                During the end of the Bronze Age, a series of events sometimes called the Aegean Apocalypse befell: an era of natural disaster, fire, destruction, war, famine, plague, and invaders. When the dust and ashes settled, the resulting cultures—although carrying on in the footsteps of their ancestors—had forever changed. For this time period, scholars begin to refer to the Canaanites less, and speak more of the emergence of the Israelites and the Phoenicians. Both are daughter-cultures to the Canaanites. The Phoenicians lived along the coast of the Mediterranean, and managed to put their cities back together. They became strong and metropolitan again, and gained wealth through trade and their good agricultural situation: it rained more on the coasts than it did inland or in the southern deserts. The Phoenicians maintained their polytheistic religion for a long time—a religion based on and evolving from Canaanite polytheistic tradition. Later, the Carthaginian religion evolved from the Phoenician religion, and can claim Canaanite religion as its grandmother.

The rest of the tale will continue in Part Two coming soon.

An envisioning of the "Golden Calf" tale in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament. 
From Providence Lithograph Company, 1901. Found at Wikimedia.
Image is public domain.


  1. Does the golden calf correspond to anything specific in Canaanite religion? I like the image a lot.

  2. Hi, Heathenchinese.
    The bull (full grown, in tact male bovine--not the young calf) has long been a symbol of strength, virility, and leadership to the Canaanite gods.

    Often craftsmen overlaid Canaanite deity statues in gold. Canaanite deity statues typically represented the deities in a human forms, not in animal forms.

    The "golden calf" is a misrepresentation of Canaanite religion, which comes from what the later Israelites thought of Canaanite polytheistic religion, and the poor memory of their own ancestral polytheistic religious practices.