Yet this is exactly the claim I see running around on the internet lately inside and outside of our communities. The concept of sin has roots which extend into Canaanite polytheism. Judaism and Christianity, over a very long time, over several cultures and throughout a large swath of geography, ended up altering the Canaanite idea of sin from what it had been. Sin is an ancient polytheistic concept which predates the religions which co-opted it. The concept of sin is originally polytheistic. The Ugaritic word for sin and the Hebrew word for sin are identical. (The Ugaritans were a polytheistic culture considered part of a cultural continuum of Canaanites.) There is a 3200-year old primary document in Ugaritic cuneiform which details a rite intended to cleanse the city of sin, and the concepts therein find their way into ancient ideas of the Jewish Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement), and from there into Christianity.
Sin is an ancient polytheistic concept.
It may not be a concept in your polytheistic religion, but sin is an ancient polytheistic concept which the polytheistic Canaanites practiced. And, the ancient concept of sin is not what the modern concept of Christian sin is, nor is it the unconscious and conscious associations we make with the idea of “sin.”
People are (legitimately!) upset and frightened from the abuses and the dysfunctions of the Big Three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, in a general sense). However often people are so frightened, upset, and angry that they don’t settle those churning emotions for a moment to stare straight in the eyes of these things that upset them long enough to ask “Are there ideas in these monotheistic religions which may have roots in polytheistic religions? Are there parts of the story we’re missing?” This is one of those situations. Thus Canaanite polytheism, an original polytheistic context from which the Big Three sprang, gets thrown under the bus. Again. Only this time, Canaanite polytheism isn’t just a casualty of the Big Three’s dysfunctions and the diversity-killing homogenization which drives these dysfunctions, but also a casualty of the fear, ignorance, and accidental diversity-killing homogenization of we polytheists ourselves, and some of our neighbors in other communities.
There is a complex relationship here between the Canaanite concept of sin and the Christian concept of sin because although they are not alike, there are aspects of the Canaanite concept which inform the Christian concept, and there are aspects of the Canaanite concept which become decidedly changed over time so as not to be the same concept any more. The death of Jesus Christ as an expiation sacrifice can trace themes back to Jewish observance of Yom Kippur, and then further back to the Canaanite concept of a king offering an expiation sacrifice during a mushru rite to facilitate a collective clearing of misdeed for the entire city. As awkward as it is, and as much as it pains me to say it, when some of you react poorly to the idea of sin and claim that sin isn’t polytheistic, you’re in part reacting poorly to an idea of sin which ended up getting culturally misappropriated and misused from ancient Canaanite polytheists, right along with a few Canaanite deities recast as Christian demons, texts plagiarizing descriptions of Baʽlu Haddu the storm god then used in descriptions of Yahweh, and many, many more ideas ripped off, pilfered, and riffed from the polytheistic Canaanites.
And now, I have the laborious, unenviable task of trying to separate out what this polytheistic concept of sin is...from the emotional baggage, misuse, abuses, dysfunctions, and compounded misunderstandings which have gone on, unchecked, for aeons, just so that there is even a chance at beginning to understand this concept.
Talking about sin is a difficult topic, and it’s all the more difficult for a Canaanite polytheist since these ideas got hijacked. The topic of sin is actually becoming increasingly taboo from a well-meaning socially progressive standpoint which is uneducated on the subject and seeks to obliterate anything which they may see as an infringement on free will, or anything which they fear may, by having structure and standards, be the misuse of structures and standards to create human-based oppression. The dysfunction of structures and standards should never be confused for how structures and standards really function.
“Sin” is a loaded word with a difficult past. Like how the word “cult” has been misused (“cult” just means a system of religious veneration, it does not mean some kind of brainwashing group or some kind of group which tortures animals or some other nonsense), sometimes we just need to acknowledge the baggage layered on a word and move past and through that baggage, but we also need to be as clear as we can about what we mean when we use the word “sin.” Furthermore, we need to be conscious of the often quick unconscious associations we make with the word so that we can better look at what the word means in the context it’s being used.
Before we discuss this matter further, please take a moment to consider whether or not you’re the intended audience for this discussion.
What follows here in this post is less about what the Canaanite idea of khats’a (sin, transgression, misdeed) is, but more an exploration of the associations, whether conscious or unconscious, that people often associate with the idea of sin, and the associations people may read into the Canaanite concept of sin which aren’t there. I do this because sometime the best way to know what something is, is also to know what that something is not. This unconscious association can happen to a person especially coming from a Western dominant cultural perspective and especially coming from a desire (understandably!) to run, screaming, from the misuses of power dynamics found in some Christian backgrounds. Note that I am not condemning Christianity: I am condemning a dysfunctional and inappropriate use of power and the use of concepts of sin as a tool to further that misuse of power, and I am condemning the diversity-killing homogenization which is frequently behind these dysfunctions and abuses.
Sin, in Context Here
Sin is simply a transgression, a misdeed. In Canaanite polytheism, sin is understood as a matter of social interaction (people and/or deities and/or other beings), social context, and locality, and as such it can be context-specific. (When something is context-specific, it means that the context informs the situation. It does not mean that it is relativistic in the sense that “anything goes, it’s all ok” and “nothing matters” or “it’s all the same.”) Most societies and cultures, whether an individual person likes it or not, also have ideas and preferences as to how folks should participate in the communities and with the people, beings, and Beings around them. This is normal, and when it functions well, it is not a sign of oppression, it is the sign of a healthy society.
The Canaanite polytheistic concept of sin is not a mechanism to coerce people. The Canaanite polytheistic concept of sin acknowledges that we as people sometimes do things which damage relations (with other beings and Beings) and along with this acknowledgement that we people sometimes make mistake and damage relations, there are methods which help restore those relations and restore the damage done to ourselves and those relations. The Canaanite polytheistic concept of sin has no concept whatsoever that a person is born “sinful,” nor is “sinful” the natural state of humanity.
The Canaanite polytheistic concept of sin is not necessarily a matter of shame. It can be a matter of shame, personal shame, or public shaming, if a person has done something truly shameful, such as torturing small animals or engaging in child abuse. Often, sin is simply a misdeed, a mistake, with no more guilt, shame, or bad associations than having folded an origami crane wrong. (One must remember that shame can be and often is misused, but the abuse of shame is not to be confused with the appropriate expression or experience of shame. Shame, as an internal function, is the experience of remorse in response to having done something wrong. Shame, as an external function, is an action and/or attitude used by others to elicit a person to understand the depth of that person’s wrongdoing. A person who has committed rape should be ashamed, and the chances are higher that a rapist should be or will be publicly shamed. But, this post isn’t about shame at all and I digress.)
The Canaanite polytheistic idea of sin, and the clearing of it, have nothing to do with the Catholic rite of confession. The Canaanite polytheistic concept of sin does not involve the Seven Deadly Sins. There’s no Canaanite concept of a Hell, either. There’s also no codified set of rules, no Ten Commandments. The Christian concept of being “saved” does not apply here. The clearing of misdeed in Canaanite polytheism is not about avoiding a fiery, painful afterlife; it’s about living in good relations.
The Canaanite polytheistic concept of sin is not necessarily a matter of ultimate, absolute good versus ultimate, absolute evil, even if it sometimes (often) includes some idea of good and evil, ideas which are often context-specific. I won’t even get into that debate of what good and evil are and how this fits into sin or doesn’t fit into sin here because that will take us pretty far afield.
The Canaanite polytheistic concept of sin is not necessarily about right or wrong, or the extra baggage people carry when considering matters of right and wrong. Sin can have overlap in matters of “wrong” but not always. And no, I’m not going to get into a debate about what right or wrong is, either broadly, or more contextually-specific here because again, that’s moving further afield.
The Canaanite polytheistic concept of sin is not a matter of reward versus punishment. It’s not a matter of violation of arbitrary rules, and often it’s not even necessarily a matter of written rules. An angry god is not necessarily going to render you into smoking ashes for your having committed a misdeed. Likewise, a satisfied god isn’t necessarily going to give you free ice cream and pony rides for having done the right thing. However, accruing goodwill with a deity through being observant in regards to ethics can result in blessings; and likewise a lackadaisical attitude can sometimes land you in challenging situations. Even as being a decent neighbor may earn you a good relationship with that neighbor, being a jerk will not further any goodwill between you.
The Canaanite polytheistic concept of sin is far less about good versus evil, right versus wrong, and reward versus punishment, or the misunderstandings and dysfunctions of these dichotomies. The Canaanite polytheistic concept of sin is far more a matter of personal responsibility, collective social responsibility, and living in right relations with beings and Beings.
Because there is a Canaanite polytheistic concept of sin, this does not mean that a person is expected to be perfect and without sin all of the time. That’s misguided, illogical, and impractical. Most of our deities (“our” being in reference to Canaanite polytheists) have an understanding that this is not going to happen and that that level of perfection is in some ways…imperfect and not helpful. The key here is that misdeed and transgression happen, and we can do what we can to limit our misdeeds and transgressions if we want, and/or there are methods of cleansing after these things occur. It’s not about some idea of perfection or guilt about how a person will never measure up; it’s about acknowledging that there are two different states here and that one can pass from one state to another. If a person has done wrong, then the person ideally should atone for that wrongdoing; this does not mean that the person is inherently “evil” or “bad,” it just means they’ve done something wrong and they’re taking steps to repair the damage and to be better people moving forward.
The Canaanite polytheistic concept of sin is not preoccupied with matters of sexuality. There are basic ethics in regards to sexuality: take care of babies you make, be responsible sexually, don’t rape people. Also, we need to be mindful that there is an interplay sometimes amidst sexual ethics and issues of purity / impurity and there are times, places, and states where some activities, sexual or not, are appropriate and some activities are not. Sexual acts, as well as bodily discharges, childbirth, menses, excessive sweat, vomit, blood, dirt, contact with corpses, and so on, can render a person into a state of impurity for a short time, but that state of impurity in these cases has nothing to do with sin. That state of impurity can be shifted back into purity, and there is no sense of shame, or of inherent wickedness, or guilt associated with these things. The Canaanite polytheistic concept of sin has a relationship with Canaanite concepts of purity and impurity, but it can also function somewhat on its own, apart from but in relationship to matters of purity and impurity. Accruing sin can bring a person into an impure state, but it is not the only way a person may end up being in an impure state.
Impurity, dirtiness, and profanity absolutely have their places, their importance, and their usefulness, and their value. Yes value. Yes I value the impure, the dirty, and the profane, …and the sinful…when in appropriate context. Do not insert broken value judgments on these things, or worse insert broken value judgments on these things and assume that this was what I meant or that these things are part of Canaanite polytheism. They’re not. However, just because I say that impurity, dirtiness, and profanity are useful and valuable, it doesn’t mean that anything goes and everything is ok: these things are context-specific, and there are places where impurity, sin, dirtiness, and profanity are not ok.
The Canaanite polytheistic concept of sin is not a matter of people making the rules then forcing other people to follow them. It is not a matter of people making rules and then trying to cover for that fact by saying a deity told them to do it. Sometimes deities do have rules and they will make these known. However, also in Canaanite polytheistic culture, sometimes a deity may well expect you to keep the laws of your locality and of your king (who is also required to adhere to those rules) if you have a king. This would be part of a relationship negotiated amidst people, land, king, and deity or deities. If you are a Canaanite polytheist who adheres to this structure, and adheres to these relationships, then this is a matter of concern for you; but for everyone else, this is not about you at all and you are in no way obligated in this manner. (Please keep in mind that the dysfunction of these structures and power-dynamics is not to be confused with how they can, should, or could work in a functional way). This matter is specific to a very tight context.
Adhering to a Canaanite polytheistic context sin is not the same thing as abrogating free will. You can choose how (or if) you want to (or don’t want to) participate with these matters and in relationships with deities and with beings and Beings who take these matters seriously and who support these structures and standards. And, if you are not a Canaanite polytheist, this does not pertain to you at all.
It seems absurd to go through an entire almost 3000-word essay on what, generally speaking, the Canaanite polytheistic concept of sin is not. Considering how many unconscious associations people make with the concept of sin in a general sense, it is necessary to clarify. Indeed, my post on what khats’a actually is, is a much shorter post. I do this because when we do not know what something is not, sometimes we do not know what something is. Sometimes people do not realize where their knowledge ends, and they start filling in with assumptions about what something is, and forcing that thing to fit those preconceptions. In so doing, they prevent themselves from seeing what something actually is, apart from their erroneous assumptions and projections.
Because of the layers of misunderstanding and preconception, it has taken me a full three posts (plus a post to clarify my audience) to get through the Canaanite polytheistic concept of sin, so that a decent foundation could be laid and some misunderstandings could be (hopefully) prevented.
These posts include:
Free Will, Restrictions, and Misdeed
Khats'a, Misdeed in Canaanite Polytheism
This post here on Sin
...and a word about my Intended Audience.
Image Credits: Le Péché Originel. Circa 950-955 CE. Public Domain.