Polytheistism, God, and the Ugarit Text

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The Stoic philosophers debated the nature of God without the “authority” of a scared book, so for them the idea of God was just that–an idea (or evolutionary meme) that was ever-changing and open to personal interpretation.  Then along came the Christians and their claim to authority was not just the words of their Jewish Messiah but also the Hebrew scripture and letters of the Apostles. From that time to this, people have hotly contested the idea of God found in “Holy Writ” because what is written down is thought to have only one correct, right and true meaning–for the Apostle Peter states there should not be any “private interpretation” of scripture. As a result people have been quick to adopt denominational teachings of their church and slow to dispute the “authority” of their spiritual leaders. Without scholarly knowledge, few stop to question this authority of the Bible itself.

But what if the book that believers call “the Holy Word of God” is no more authoritative than a collection of Stoic philosophy? It would be rather silly to think a collection of writing by Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle are the complete Stoic wisdom for all ages without including Epictetus, Eratosthenes, or Marcus Aurelius. No one would make the claim yet this is exactly what Christian’s believe about the books of Bible. Sure, this is what people have been taught to believe, but what if that is wrong. What if the Bible didn’t just fall out of the sky? What it is was the product of a cultural progression in mythical story telling–the evolution of human ideas.

When most people use the word “God” they are implying the creator of heaven and earth, the all powerful, all knowing and all present Supreme Being. But as this idea of God having a perfect knowledge of the future is largely a Stoic invention and not one found in the Hebrew scripture. Many times the God of the Bible is said to repent, change His mind, become frustrated, angry, and surprised. This doesn’t sound like the God that the Greeks imagined, but that is the Elohim from the Jewish scripture.

Theological filters will cause an individual or group to read a passage and interpret it according to their predetermined Biblical view. A classic example is Genesis 1:26 which states, “Let us make man.” When a Christian reads this they will automatically, without any investigation, simply say, “The ‘us’ is the Trinity, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” However, there is nothing in the text to support this view (learn more).

If you want to experience the Bible from a whole new perspective, remove your filters; don’t come to the text with any preconceived ideas. Challenge your beliefs by reading the text for what it says. Ask yourself, where did this Jewish idea of one supreme God come from? Have you ever asked your self that question? There is an answer, albeit one that remains largely unknown, but the answer (written in stone) was uncovered in 1928 but not deciphered until 1932.

In the 1928 a Syrian farmer was plowing his field when his plow struck a slab of stone. Though initially assuming it to be a flagstone, he noticed that it had square corners. Upon extracting it from the soil, he discovered a huge, underground vault containing vases, jugs, tablets, gold, silver, and pieces of ivory. Unknowingly, he had unearthed the ancient Canaanite city-state of Ugarit. What was found there has become of utmost importance or those who study the Old Testament and indeed monotheism in general.

Basic PremiseThe idea of God is an evolutionary idea. One which has had a cultural progression from polytheism to monolarity in various places throughout human history, from Kemet (Egypt) to Levant (Canaan). The religion of ancient Israel is a product of this same process. They borrowed not only their neighbor’s architecture but the name of their god as well, then the nature of this tribal deity changed over time.

Before you reject this out of hand, you should know that archaeology is revealing that the Israelites were merely nomadic Canaanites, and there is much evidence that they were originally polytheistic. Indeed, Yahweh was only one of the gods in their pantheon, but being their national god he became the prominent figure and eventually the only one to survive in the Jewish tradition.

All this was mere speculation on the part of a few “conspiracy theorists” until eighty years ago. Before that, and even to this day, the vast majority of Christians look to the Hebrew scripture as their authority and thus their single source of faith. Even those who uphold the authoritativeness  of “Holy Writ” will admit polytheism in Israelite history had a long run until under Hezekiah and then later Josiah destroyed the temples, idols and altars of other gods. Josiah’s reign is one of monolarity pushing towards monotheism which doesn’t fully take root until after the Jewish exile.

The Biblical word for God is “EL” and that word is not Jewish in origin, but rather it traces back to older Levant (Canaanite) religion. The patriarch Abraham is known as the father of the world’s three great monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. For centuries his faithfulness to one god (at a time when people worshiped many deities) has been regarded as a monumental break with the society around him. However, an archaeological discovery known as the Ugaritic texts is opening a window onto a different cultural context for Abraham’s story and it is turning most assumptions about “god” on their head.

EL is the supreme creator god of the Canaanites who lives with the other gods on Mount Zaphon (similar to Mount Olympus of the Greeks but located at the mouth of the Orontes river near the border between Turkey and Syria). He is the father of all the gods and men and is often addressed as such by the Canaanite gods. He is the god of the earth and the air who is represented by a bull. He is derived from the Sumerian god AN. In the Bible EL is translated as God. Elohim is the plural form of EL yet in most places in the Bible it is used in the singular sense so it is also translated as God instead of gods. Strict monotheism was not fully developed in Israelite thought until their exile to Babylon. Before then Yahweh (translated as Lord in the Bible) was the god of Israel and Judah (officially their only god) whose principle power and characteristic was that of justice and righteousness. Because he judged other peoples and gods he soon came to be seen as the supreme God (the equivalent of EL), and finally as the only God for all people.

According to the Hebrew scripture, Abraham first encounters EL (or rather a priest of EL Elyon) in the city of Jerusalem, which was known in antiquity as Salem. In the Book of Genesis, Abraham rescues his kidnapped nephew, Lot, from the Mesopotamians, and on returning from battle he meets Melchizedek, king of Salem, who gives him bread and wine and blesses him in the name of El Elyon (“God Most High”). Until the Ugaritic texts were decoded, it was just assumed this was the same God to whom Christian pray–but was it? Or was this EL the Canaanite “Father of gods” and YHWH one of his many sons who the Jews would later claim as their own?

God also said to Moses, “I am the Lord. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty (El Shaddai) but by my name the Lord (YHWH) I did not make myself known to them.” – Exodus 6:2-3

The greatest discovery made at the Ugarit site was a collection of tablets carved with (a then) unknown cuneiform script. In 1932 some of the tablets were deciphered. The literature of the city and the theology contained therein go a very long way in helping us to understand the meaning of various Biblical passages as well as aiding us in deciphering difficult Hebrew words, phrases, concepts, and ideas.

No less than seven different scripts were in use at Ugarit: Egyptian and Luwian hieroglyphs, and Cypro-Minoan, Sumerian, Akkadian, Hurrian, and Ugaritic cuneiform. These “Ugaritic texts” contain detailed descriptions of the Canaanite religion that Abraham encountered after he left his native Ur. Most interesting among these details are references to a god named EL or Elohim, which translates loosely as “the Lord.” From these inscribed clay tablets we learn that while many gods were worshiped, in the Canaanite Pantheon it was EL who reigned supreme over all the deities.

Christian and Jewish apologists tell us the religion of Ugarit and the religion of ancient Israel were not the same, but there were some striking overlaps. For example, the name of the ultimate divine authority at Ugarit was EL, one of the names of the God of Israel (e.g., Gen 33:20). EL was described as an aged god with white hair, seated on a throne. However, at Ugarit, EL was sovereign, but another god ran things on earth for EL as his vizier. That god’s name was Baal, a name quite familiar to anyone who has read the Old Testament.

It turns out that that while EL was called the “creator god” it was believed this “father of all gods” had as many 52 sons, Baal and Dagon being chief among them. Then were were the lesser gods, Mot, Ashtar, Astarte, Lotan, Melqart, Resheph, and others. Most shocking of all is the name Yahweh. This son of El  does more than make an appearance in the Hebrew scriptures, he become the central character. However, 100 years before Abraham was born EL and Yahweh were written about by pantheist and preserved in clay at Ugarit.

The Akkadians had a pantheon similar to that of the Hebrews and the Canaanites. The Akkadian god Marduk corresponded to the Canaanite-Hebrew god EL. In the Akkadian Creation Epic the god Marduk was king of the secondary gods called Anunnaki: “Marduk, the king of the gods divided all the Anunnaki above and below … three hundred in the heavens he stationed them as guard.” The Anunnaki correspond to the “host of heaven” or “sons of God” of the Hebrews. Marduk allotted portions to the Anunnaki: “To the Anunnaki of heaven and earth (Marduk) had allotted their portions.” Likewise, the Canaanite-Hebrew god EL Elyon allotted portions to his sons:

“Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past. Ask your father and he will tell you, your elders, and they will explain to you; When the Most High (El Eloyn) gave the nations their (portions of) inheritance, when he set up the boundaries for the peoples according to the number of the sons of God (EL). For the Lord’s (YWHY) portion is his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance.” – Deuteronomy 32:7-9

The plural form EL, “Elohim”, originated when the sons of EL were considered separate beings yet it was still used after the functions of the various gods were seen to be simply differing characteristics of the same one God. This development is similar to the transition in usage of the phrase “United States.”  Today we say the United States “is” (singular) instead of “are” (plural) despite its plural form and its original meaning as a combination of states. Again, this is an example of cultural evolution not unlike what we find with the nation of IsraEL and their worship of the one God with many names.

Yes, the Bible was edited and monotheism evolved from Canaanite paganism. Knowing this can liberate you from Chirstian cultism, but it should not mean you stop seeking meaning found in that religous tradition. Why did Jesus say, “You must hate your father and mother?” He was saying you must break free from ALL false authority, and worship the Divine in spirit and truth.” The Bible need not be literally true for Jesus message is true. Always remember: Faith is real, even if most people’s object of faith is false.

Learn more:
Understanding the Hebrew word most often translated as “God” 

2 thoughts on “Polytheistism, God, and the Ugarit Text

  1. Pingback: Polytheistism, God, and the Ugarit Text | unSpy

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