It’s Easter time again (next Sunday is Easter if you weren’t paying attention.) Easter is that one holiday that Mormons observe, but don’t really celebrate. With Easter comes the story of the Passover. (This is one of those strange years in which Easter occurs a month BEFORE Passover.) In the past, I’ve blogged about various theories of the miracles Moses performed just prior to the Passover. Some people think the Israelites weren’t really slaves to the Egyptians. Others question whether the Exodus actually happened. Others have tried to scientifically explain the biblical miracles.
The fact is there is no physical evidence of 600,000 people leaving Egypt. A group that large should have left evidence behind. So for those in the “Exodus never happened” camp, they believe that Israelites are really the exact same people as Canaanites. In this theory, the Israelites invented Moses and the Exodus and borrowed Yahweh/Elohim (who are Canaanite polytheistic gods) and suddenly became the monotheistic god of Israel. And there is biblical evidence to support this claim.
The Old Testament constantly is harping on idolatry. Israelites worshiped Yahweh, but also worshiped other Canaanite idols: Asherah, Moloch, and Baal, just to name a few. University of Arizona scholar William Dever describes his discovery of the mixing of Yahweh and Asherah in this short clip “Did God have a wife?”
Blessed may [the deceased] be by Yahweh–that’s good biblical Hebrew, but it says by Yahweh and his Asherah. Asherah is the name of the old Canaanite mother goddess.
The narrator notes that more inscriptions of Yahweh and Asherah have been discovered. BYU Professor Daniel Peterson shows how important this imagery is even in the Book of Mormon. In the abstract for his Journal of Book of Mormon Studies article, Nephi and his Asherah, Peterson writes
Asherah was the chief goddess of the Canaanites. She was El’s wife and the mother and wet nurse of the other gods. At least some Israelites worshipped her over a period from the conquest of Canaan in the second millennium before Christ to the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC (the time of Lehi’s departure with his family). Asherah was associated with trees—sacred trees. The rabbinic authors of the Jewish Mishna (second–third century ad) explain the asherah as a tree that was worshipped. In 1 Nephi 11, Nephi considers the meaning of the tree of life as he sees it in vision. In answer, he receives a vision of “a virgin, . . . the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.” The answer to his question about the meaning of the tree lies in the virgin mother with her child. The virgin is the tree in some sense and Nephi accepted this as an answer to his question. As an Israelite living at the end of the seventh century and during the early sixth century before Christ, he recognized an answer to his question about a marvelous tree in the otherwise unexplained image of a virginal mother and her divine child—not that what he saw and how he interpreted those things were perfectly obvious. What he “read” from the symbolic vision was culturally colored. Nephi’s vision reflects a meaning of the “sacred tree” that is unique to the ancient Near East. Asherah is also associated with biblical wisdom literature. Wisdom, a female, appears as the wife of God and represents life.
FAIR Mormon, in answer to the question “Are Elohim and Jehovah the same deity?” notes that many claim that Elohim, Jehovah, Adonai and other similar Old Testament Hebrew names for deity are simply different titles which emphasize different attributes of the “one true God.” In support of this criticism, they cite Old Testament scriptures that speak of “the LORD [Jehovah] thy God [Elohim]” (e.g., Deuteronomy 4:2; 4:35; 6:4) as proof that these are different titles for the same God. In response, FAIR states,
The conviction that Elohim was anciently the Almighty God and Father of us all, and Jehovah was and is Jesus the Christ, his Son is based on modern scripture (D&C 110:1–4) and not Biblical exegesis. The teachings of modern prophets and apostles has tended to reinforce this usage, such as when President Joseph F. Smith taught, “Among the spirit children of Elohim the firstborn was and is Jehovah or Jesus Christ to whom all others are juniors.” 
The LDS use of the name titles Elohim and Jehovah to designate God Our Heavenly Father and His Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ respectively is not meant to insist that this is how these titles were always used anciently, including in the Holy Bible. Rather, these titles are a naming convention used in the modern Church for clarity and precision. Since Christ may be spoken of as “the Father” in a great many senses, the modern Saints use these name-titles to avoid ambiguity, regardless of which ‘role’ of a divine Personage is being discussed.
Since this terminology was not standardized for convenience and clarity prior to the twentieth century, readers are cautioned not to expect the early writings of the Church to always reflect this practice, which arose only decades later. Likewise, attempting to read the Bible as if its writers followed the same modern practice is anachronistic, and may lead to confusion and misinterpretation.
The reality is that El (or Elohim), Baal, Molech, and Asherah are part of a pantheon of Canaanite gods. It should come a no surprise that since Israelites were frequently intermarrying with Canaanites (and in the case of some scholars, Israelites=Canaanites) then Israelites were heavily influenced by this pantheon. Here is a list of deities in Canaanite religion.
- Anat, virgin goddess of War and Strife, mate and sister of Ba’al Hadad
- Asherah or Athirat “walker of the sea”, mother Goddess, wife of El (also known as Elat), known after the Bronze Age as Asherah
- Astarte, a possibly androgynous divinity associated with Venus
- Baalat (or Baalit), the wife or female counterpart of Baal (also Belili)
- Ba’al Hadad, a storm god who superseded El as head of the Pantheon
- Baal-Hammon, god of fertility and renewer of all energies in the Phoenician colonies of the Western Mediterranean
- Dagon, god of crop fertility, usually described as father of Hadad
- El Elyon (meaning “God Most High”) or El
- Eshmun or Baalat Asclepius, god of healing (or goddess)
- The Kathirat (or the Kotharat), goddesses of marriage and pregnancy
- Kothar, Hasis, the skilled, god of craftsmanship
- Lotan, serpent ally of evil,Yam
- Melqart, king of the city, the underworld and the renewing cycle of vegetation in Tyre
- Molech, god of fire
- Mot, god of death
- Nikkal, goddess of orchards (especially pomegranate), lover of Yarikh
- Qadeshtu, Holy One, goddess of love
- Resheph god of plague and healing
- Shalim and Shachar
- Shamayim, the god of the heavens
- Shapash, also transliterated Shapshu, goddess of the sun; sometimes equated with the Mesopotamian sun god Shemesh
- Shemesh (in Ugarit the goddess Shapshu), Sun god (or goddess, its gender is disputed)
- Yam, also called Yam-nahar (meaning Judge Nahar)
- Yarikh god of the moon, lover of Nikkal
With that background, this gives a new meaning to the story of Abraham. Walter Zanger makes a case that Abraham was not a true monotheist. He says,
“It’s hard to talk about Abraham as a monotheist. Abraham had an agreement, a covenant with his one god, who is the Lord. Abraham didn’t say, or believe as far as we know, that there weren’t other gods. All the evidence is that there were other gods for other people. And Abraham’s god never insisted on exclusivity.”
The narrator, Richard Kiley continues, “While experts disagree over whether Abraham was a true monotheist, the Bible does not indicate if he worshiped other gods. It only tells us that led by his fervent faith in his one god, that Abraham informs his family that they will be leaving their secure, familiar world behind.”
It seems that Abraham merely elevated Elohim/Jehovah/Yahweh above all the other gods. This also brings a new interpretation to some other scriptures.
When I was on my mission, if anyone challenged me that exaltation, the idea that we could become like God, was not biblical, I would usually pull out 4 scriptures.
- Genesis 1:26-27,
And God said, Let US make man in OUR image, after OUR likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; MALE AND FEMALE created he them.
I would point to the pronouns, US, OUR, and MALE AND FEMALE and say, “who was god talking to”? Then I would follow up with
- Psalm 82:1, 6,
1-God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.
6-I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.
This one would usually leave people scratching their heads. I would follow up with
- John 10:34-38,
34 Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?35 If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken;36 Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?37 If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not. 38 But if I do, though ye believe not me, believe the works: that ye may know, and believe, that the Father is in me, and I in him.Then I would finish with
- Philippians 2:5-6,
5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:6 Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:
Jesus was accused of blasphemy for several things, but what he said in John 10 infuriated the Jews. I don’t recall any good rebuttals to my scripture tree.
But now that I better understand El and Baal were often used interchangeably (see a list of references here), it also gives a new take on the story of Balaam. Balaam lived at the same time as Moses. Back in 2009, I asked if Balaam was a true prophet. (I said he wasn’t. He is referred to as “the wicked one” in Revelations, and I used that as my main justification for my position.) I didn’t know then that Baal could have been a reference to El (or Elohim/Jehovah). In the Bible, Baal worship is seen as bad, and Balaam makes offering to Baal, yet El/Elohim answers! With my traditional understanding, this made no sense. Why would the God of Israel respond to an offering made to a polytheistic god? I mean does anyone believe that God would answer my prayer if I made an offering to a Hindu cow? That was my thinking in 2009. But if Baal is just another name for the true god Elohim, is this a legitimate offering? When Baal answer Balaam not to curse the Israelites, was that in essence Jehovah talking to Balaam, the non-Israelite prophet? This idea intrigues me. Maybe I shouldn’t have argued so hard back then that Balaam was a false prophet?
But knowing what I know now, Baal, Asherah, El, and Yahweh as part of a pantheon of indigenous gods makes much more sense. It makes much more sense why idolatry was so difficult for the ancient Israelites to overcome. In essence, I think converting from Canaanite worship to Jewish worship, would like being raised as a Jew and becoming a Christian. There’s a lot of overlap, but ancient Jews were rejecting Asherah just as modern Jews are rejecting Jesus. It would be a difficult transition to make.
Regardless of whether one believes in the Exodus or not (and there are good cases to be made for both positions), the fact that Israelites shared the same land as the Canaanites for so many centuries makes the 4 scriptures I quoted above take on a whole new meaning. Congregation of the gods in Psalm 82:6–is that a pantheon of Canaanite gods? Was God in Genesis 1:26-27 talking to Asherah when he said “let US make man in our image..male and female”? I mean this is a radical new interpretation of biblical scripture, but wow it sure seems plausible. What are your thoughts?
I remember our previous discussion of Balaam, and you were still quite unconvinced as far as I could tell. Was there a particular piece of evidence that made you reconsider your previous position on Balaam?
The idea that Old Testament accounts incorporate polytheistic religions is entirely plausible. It is well known that the two Biblical creation stories in Genesis (“Priestly” and “Yahwist”) are modified retellings of older Babylonian and Mesopotamian creation stories. The Genesis garden of Eden story is thought to be a corrupted version of much older myths from surrounding cultures.
I like the example of the “Baʿal Cycle”, an ancient saga that is similar to Genesis 1. The battle between Baʿal and Yamm is the prototype for the vision in Daniel 7.
I would venture to say that much of the OT is similarly derivative. Really, that’s the way culture works. We humans are always borrowing good stuff from one another and shaping it to meet our needs. That’s a wonderful thing.
“let US make man in our image..male and female”?
I’m no Biblical scholar. So is US plural in the original text? Could it be the royal plural as in “We are displeased. Off with his head!”
Yes it is plural (US) in the original text. Elohim is often said to be a plural form of God, although it can be used as a singular term as well.
Daniel, I don’t think it was one event so much as it was simply learning more about archaeology over time, and learning how mixed the Canaanite and Jewish religions were. I didn’t know that El (Elohim) was a Canaanite deity. I didn’t know that Baal and El were often used interchangeably. Frankly this isn’t taught in either Mormon or Protestant/Catholic Sunday School. That’s why, when I used my scripture tree above, nobody could give me a satisfactory answer to the scriptures. This stuff is off the radar for believers. If one reads the Bible without this knowledge, then what I argued makes sense.
We are often told in Sunday School that each city had its own god. If my god is more powerful than your god, then I will win the battle. While we are all familiar with Zues, Apollo, Jupiter are a pantheon of gods in the Greek/Roman world, we don’t know that El, Baal, Asherah, and Molech are a pantheon of gods in the Canaanite worlds. So we essentially read these stories in a vaccuum. We think Asherah is a goddess of a certain city, Molech is a god of another city, and Baal is a god of another city. We think these 3 gods represent 3 different religions. But they don’t! They are really part of the same religion.
Of course the Jewish god Yahweh always wins in the Bible (or so we are led to believe. If these gods do win, it is because of Israel’s sin of idolatry.) Reading it with that understanding, I still think God answering a prayer intended for Baal makes no sense. As I said several times in that post, If thou shalt have no other gods before me, why in the world is God answering a prayer on the altar of Baal? That simply makes no sense. The story of Balaam just makes no sense from that perspective.
But knowing what I know now–that Baal and El/Yahweh were often used interchangeably, and that later Baal became distinguishable from El/Yahweh, the stories make a bit more sense. Still, it’s a bit hard for me to fathom that a prophet was so enamored with money that after he blessed Israel, he would tell his benefactor kings that if they would induce Israel to sin, then Yahweh would no longer protect Israel. I mean I can’t imagine Pres Monson doing something so similar. Hey, go get the Catholics to sin so we can win a war! It is such a foreign idea for a prophet to say something like that. Prophets are supposed to preach repentance, not sin.
“I mean does anyone believe that God would answer my prayer if I made an offering to a Hindu cow?”
A lot to be said for the partial exodus story of a volk wandering of sixty thousand or less returning home.
Yes Stephen, in the last URL in the opening paragraph, I link to other interpretations.
If it was 5000, that’s going to be harder to find than 600,000 families.
It’s neat to look at the OT with the Canaanite pantheon in mind. In the story of Elijah calling down fire from heaven, there are several details that indicate Jehovah was claiming superiority over many of the Canaanite gods, not just one. Many of the huge OT miracles can be seen as Jehovah claiming dominance over other gods (ark of the covenant with Dagon, as one example). Also keep in mind that the word “baal” in Hebrew is translated as “Lord,” so it definitely can be applied to Jehovah in some cases as well as a competing lightning/rain deity. And yes, the Canaanite version of Baal was sometimes seen as preeminent son and successor to El Elyon, similar to how we see Jesus and Heavenly Father.
Others have delved into the pantheon of gods that seems to be referenced in OT scripture. The Deuteronomists are understood to have really put the kabosh on a polytheistic view, emphasizing Jehovah as the *only* god, not just the patron deity of Israel. Margaret Barker has really developed the Asherah angle and seeing Jehovah within a pantheon. A couple LDS scholars I’ve encountered also emphasize the importance of knowing Canaanite, Egyptian, and Babylonian religion to better understand the OT. Just as you find heavy Protestant and Masonic influence on early Mormonism, you would similarly expect elements of surrounding religions in OT theology.
Are you trying to convince us to worship other Gods?
We worship Heavenly Father while acknowledging the existence of Jesus Christ as God, Holy Ghost as God, and Heavenly Mother as [a] God. Discussion of multiple deities does not mandate worship of multiple deities.
Understanding the Canaanite pantheon adds a layer of understanding to the OT. Understanding that Baal the Canaanite deity controlled rain and thunder helps you understand why Jehovah exerting control of rain (including drought) and thunder was such a big deal in so many situations. When Jehovah helped Israelites defeat their enemies, he was showing himself as a god of war. When Jehovah helped barren women bear children, he was god over fertility. Jehovah exerted control over the sea. Jehovah exerted control over death itself. All of these traits were typically governed by different deities, yet Jehovah repeatedly exhibited mastery over all. Jesus repeated many of these same powers – Jehovah still had command over all of nature.
Ji where did you get that impression?
If nothing else, a migration of 600,000 families (1,000,000+ people) on foot would be a logistical nightmare. You’d need food, water, sanitation, shelter, medical care, etc. Plus, they didn’t have GPS and cellphones back then. I can imagine a professional army of 5,000 soldiers perhaps, but if I think of it realistically, I think it was maybe a few thousand men, women and children tops. The written and archaeological evidence would be scant.
Also…. isn’t there a “thing” about ancient cultures writing big numbers to just mean “many”?
One more thing… the Sumerians and Babylonians used a base-60 number system. Is is possible this number system was used by other cultures? The string “600” in base-60 is 21,600 in decimal.
The way to tell is if there are more than 10 symbols used for recording numbers. For decimal, you have 0,1,2,…,9 or 10 symbols. For base-60 you need 60 distinct symbols for digits.
I knew that computer science degree would come in handy one day. 🙂
This blog is perhaps something interesting to consider. It discusses the Exodus story and a possible origin. I’m unqualified to judge the scholarship, but the analysis seems very plausible to me.
From the wiki article on indefinite numbers:
In various Middle Eastern traditions, the number 40 is used to express a large but unspecific number, as in the Hebrew Bible’s “forty days and forty nights”, the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste, the story Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, etc. This usage is sometimes found in English as well.
In Latin, sescenti (literally 600) was used to mean a very large number, perhaps from the size of a Roman cohort.
Ahhh – I am actually reading The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns right now and he just dealt w the question on if God really orders the genocide of the Canaanites by ending w, “there is no evidence that a genocide ever occurred of such a scale at this time (ash, broken pottery, etc.).” His assertion is that they just lived among each other. He is also arguing that you must understand tribal culture and the assyrians, babylonians, canaanites, and egyptions to ever understand the israelites/OT God. I’m only halfway done w the book. Off to learn more abt Canaan.
This whole discussion is an eye opener. Makes me want to go back to school for a divinity degree. 🙂
When I read the Old Testament and am reading about one of the wars the Israelite’ s won and I am leading the Israelite army I go to the king of the enemy and tell him that their god is nothing but a stupid piece of worthless wood and why is it that they don’t feel like a bunch of hamburger brains bowing down to such a thing.
I would then bring the missionaries(Ok, priests) and let whoever wanted to listen to them, to go ahead and listen, and then take those back to Moses.(Let’s say that God hadn’t commanded Moses to kill all of them. I know you don’t get along with that, but this is my story, not yours.) I now have something else to think about. Maybe there were different mindsets among all of them about God. I often wondered why the Israelite’s didn’t preach the Gospel to them and maybe what you are saying had something to do with that.
The one question I have, though, is that in the fact that God did speak against these gods, as having no mouths, ears, noses, and stuff like that. That isn’t exactly how He said it but anyway do you say that some of these gods actually existed? I don’t but am too lazy to prove it.
I don’t think those gods existed, at least not in the way I’ve seen them described. I love examining ancient cultures, but I’m not so enamored as to adopt their religious outlook. What strikes me is that Jehovah is seen as working within the polytheistic culture. Like what you referenced, he (or the prophet) is not above taunting or degrading the other deity as if that deity existed. When one nation defeated another, it was seen as a defeat of one nation’s god over the other. Jehovah often declares victory over other gods.
Later, like with Isaiah, God explains that he governs all the nations. He explains that he used the Assyrians to accomplish a purpose in their defeat of Israel, but they arrogantly think they were victorious because of their own strength. Jonah’s mission to Ninevah, regardless of whether you believe is history or fiction, reflects a belief that God is aware of and cares about those outside of the House of Israel.
There is complexity. There is a type of evolution of thought from Jehovah being mightiest of all the gods to being the only God. It shows the influence of culture on religious thought (for good or ill). It helps me see that even when God speaks to people, their understanding of that revelation will be couched within a cultural framework. Which makes sense when we say that other nations and peoples have received partial gospel truths according to their own understanding. It reminds me that my outlook is likely biased as well, and future revelation will bring us closer to an accurate understanding of deity.
Richard Benson: Nephi seems to have thought that there was some sort of preaching to the people in the land of Canaan before the Israelites came in – see 1 Nephi 17: 32-35. It’s not clear whether he thought the Israelites did this or someone else, but it’s there. That passage has piqued my curiosity ever since I first came across it way back when I was a teenager. No one else seems to have addressed it, either. I also wonder if this is a veiled reference to some kind of effort to preach to the indigenous people the Lehites must have encountered after they arrived in their own promised land.
When I read about the Canaanite pantheon in writing my OP on Asherah, I couldn’t help but think about two parallels with these pantheons: the council in Heaven, and the fact that the church is run by councils. We believe in unanimity. “Where there are 2 or 3 gathered, there will I be in their midst.” If godhood means making decisions in council, that fits a pattern.
My post: http://www.wheatandtares.org/10529/the-plan-of-asherah/