Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Birth of Biblical Monotheism from Canaanite Polytheism, Part 2


For those who would like to listen, I’m going to tell you the second part of a long story, a story which I began in the previous post. Pour yourself another glass of pomegranate juice and read away.

The Hebrew God sends Abram (aka Abraham) a vision.
From Die Bibel in Bildern, Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, 1860


The Israelites’ Beginning
The emerging Israelites lived in a more hostile environment than their Phoenician brothers on the northern coast. The Israelites were rural, pastoral, and often nomadic, trying to survive in an inhospitable place. And something strange happened: they became increasingly monotheistic. No one knows quite exactly when or why, and opinions depend on who you ask. According to their own narrative, Abraham had a vision that he should only worship one god, El. El is the original chief god of the Canaanite pantheon—earlier called Ilu in Ugaritic. Ilu the compassionate never harms people in the Ugaritic narratives, and generally doesn’t punish people. He has many epithets, some of which, like “Father of Years,” get used in biblical narrative.
                By Moses’s time, the understanding of that god changes—it is also arguable that the god himself changes or that they are worshipping a different god now whether or not they are aware of it. This change comes complete with a tale where their god reintroduces himself to Moses at the burning bush. He gives a new name: Yahweh. The name Yahweh is linguistically related to Yah and Yam. Yam, also Yammu, reigned as the sea god in the Canaanite pantheon. Ugaritic tales characterize him as powerful, primeval, primordial, destructive, and power-hungry, and he carries the epithet “Judge River” perhaps indicative of water ordeals. Yammu cares not at all for people, and Baʻlu Haddi (Baʻal Hadad) ends up fighting him for dominion over the earth. Baʻlu’s victory would ensure right rainfall and the wellbeing of humanity while Yammu’s victory would cause flood, chaos, and destruction.

The Rise of Monotheism
Jewish and Christian theologians would say the conversion of Israel to monotheism resulted from divine inspiration. Sociologists may say it was because of the difficult survival conditions: the Israelites had to form a cohesive people with a cohesive narrative to survive and thrive in their situation in a tough climate, then later to preserve their culture during their exile to Babylon. Others may say that Akhenaten’s experiment influenced them. However, the earliest Israelites were polytheistic. This much is noted in Iron Age inscriptions at Khirbet el-Qom and Kuntillet Ajrud, proclaiming blessing by Yahweh and his Asherah. Archaeologists have also uncovered countless simple clay Asherah figures from this era.
                Eventually zealots rose to power and they claimed that only by devotion to the one god could the people survive. It all likely started (almost?) innocently enough with henotheism—a common practice of worshipping one god while acknowledging others exist. The philosophy then grew into monotheism and the people claiming power (Hezekiah and his henchmen) destroyed the wooden poles representing Asherah—symbols which occupied the temple alongside Yahweh’s symbols. These zealots imposed their one-god religion on the people. Eventually, the Israelite people looked upon their relationship with their one-god as a covenant.
                Elements of polytheism continued, but they became an underground movement. You can see evidence in Jewish magic of Greek and Roman times  (and sometimes later). This magic calls on multiple deities or entities. Even the Sumerian goddess Ereshkigal makes her way into the voces magicae used in magic of these times. Also, you can find the Canaanite deities if you look carefully in the Torah/OT. Even Lady Wisdom of Proverbs is the goddess Athiratu in Jewish monotheist drag, and Rashap makes an occasional appearance as a demon or an angel of pestilence.

A Genocide of Polytheists?
I’ve often heard people mention that the Israelites conducted a vast genocide of the Canaanites, however this tale is not historic fact. It never happened. What did happen was a struggle, sometimes bloody, of neighbor against neighbor in regards to a common religion for the common good but it was never a large scale war. This tale results from polemic and poor revisionist history. It is a Burning Times myth meant to make the early Israelites look holy and different—and even foreign—from their polytheistic Canaanite ancestors from the outset. It was a way for a select political group to make the Israelites look powerful, cohesive, and monotheistic early in their formation and it served to unify the people behind a common history, goal, culture, and religion. The narrative contains more fiction than fact. The “cities” they conquered in that trail of genocide were empty cities that resulted from Egyptian politics in an earlier time. The Israelites conquered their ancestors’ own empty cities and rebuilt them. The tale of Elijah’s massacre of the four hundred “prophets” of Baʻal is similar in its nature and fictitious grandeur. Elijah’s story offends and disgusts me on a deep, visceral level, but in the end I know it isn’t true and I know the reasons why they wrote it. By the way, Elijah’s name means “Yah (Yahweh) is god.” However monotheism did, and still does, a great deal to marginalize polytheism.

“Canaanite” Religion as Described Biblically
Over time, Israelite religion became a monotheistic composite of Canaanite, Egyptian, and Babylonian cultural elements, and the polytheistic practices the biblical writers railed about are likely more Israelite (not Canaanite) polytheistic practices for the Canaanites’ heyday was at least four hundred years, oral traditions, natural disasters, and wars before the Torah/OT’s composition and compilation. Their memory of “Canaanite” religion was hazy at best. The monotheism motif became even stronger as the exiled clung to the only bits of cohesion--a narrative, a shared god, and common customs--they had in a different land surrounded by a different culture. This monotheism became vital to their cultural identity and survival. From then on, zealots would periodically purge Israelite society of vestiges of polytheism, even if folk religion grasped at polytheism’s shreds. Over time, we see the rise of Christianity from Judaism in the birth of the Jewish boy Jesus Christ. These seeds of Canaanite polytheism still appear in Judaism and in Christianity, but you have to look closely for them and you have to know what to look for.

Today is
21 [Ugaru], Shanatu 85
It is twenty-one days past the new moon of the reconstructed month of [Ugaru]. It has been eighty-five years since the rediscovery of the Canaanite city of Ugarit, where many of our primary texts were found. Our next holiday is 'Ashuru Zabri, also called 'Ashuru Qazhi, on the Summer Solstice.

Image Credits
Photo credits: Image comes from Wikipedia and is public domain. Woodcut made in 1860 by J. Schnorr von Carolsfeld in Die Bible in Bildern

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