What about all the different gods in Hebrew scripture?

Posted by Alice L. Camille
Saturday 01, September 2012 | Category:   Scripture,Doctrines & Beliefs

I can say this about polytheism in the Bible: It’s there. The worship of many divinities leads to the central conflict for the prophets: Which God is to be Israel’s God? Just because Abraham steps out of the polytheism of his ancestors into a radical covenant with the God YHWH doesn’t mean he, or his heirs, stop believing in the existence of other deities. They simply choose to cast their lot with the God of many promises: land, descendants, and future. YHWH will be their God, and they will be his people.

Blake
WILLIAM Blake's Ancient of Days.

Many names for God are used in the Hebrew Bible. YHWH (pronounced “Yahweh”) is the name Abraham and Moses are given to identify God. God is also called El, a common Semitic word (among Israelites, Arabs, ancient Akkadians, and others) for divine beings both as the generic el and the proper name El, the father of all of Canaan’s gods. El occurs 286 times in the Old Testament. When used to refer to Israel’s God, it’s usually added to another term: for example, El Bethel, the God revealed to Jacob at Bethel. Shaddai, the almighty “God of the mountain,” was an even older name for God that shows up in poems in the Books of Genesis, Numbers, Job, some psalms, and Ezekiel. That Israel’s God would be identified with Mt. Sinai isn’t surprising, given the centrality of the covenant with Moses.

God has many names in scripture, but did Israel worship more than one God? Yes, to their shame, if the Books of Samuel, Kings, and prophecy are taken seriously. Baal-worship is the bane of the prophets, and Jeremiah asserts the women of Jerusalem chased after “the Queen of Heaven,” so goddesses were in the mix, too. The Book of Deuteronomy warns against the sun- and moon-worship practiced by the Amorite and Phoenician peoples, and King Josiah had to end sacrifices to heavenly bodies in 2 Kings 23.

Scholars of the biblical creation story have viewed it as a systematic subjugation of other gods: the Persian belief in the uncreated light (Day 1); Baal who brings forth rain and growing things (Days 2 and 3); all heavenly bodies including the Egyptian sun god Re (Day 4); primeval sea monsters of Mesopotamian mythology (Day 5); and humanity, whose purpose is to share creation’s stewardship with God in dignity rather than bear the yoke of the gods as in the stories of other deities (Day 6). Most ancient creation stories speak of divine rest; only in Israel’s story is humanity invited to share in it with the institution of the Sabbath (Day 7). It could be argued that none of that needed to be written if there weren’t a significant attraction to polytheism in ancient Israel.

Scripture
Genesis 1:1-2:4; Joshua 24:1-24; YHWH: Exodus 3:4-15; Shaddai: Genesis 17:1; 28:3; 35:11; 43:14; 48:3; 49:25; Exodus 6:3; Numbers 24:4, 16; Psalms 68:15; 91:1-2; Ezekiel 1:24; 10:5

Books
The Collegeville Pastoral Dictionary of Biblical Theology ed. by Carroll Stuhlmueller, C.P. (Liturgical Press, 1996): entries on “God,” pp. 383-386; “El/Elohim,” pp. 243-244; “Yahweh,” p. 1111-1114; “Names,” pp. 665-667
The Names of God in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: A Basis for Interfaith Dialogue by Máire Byrne (Continuum, 2011)

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