Were The Israelites Polytheistic?

Robert Wright makes an interesting argument:

Consider this innocent-sounding verse from the thirty-second chapter of Deuteronomy as rendered in the King James Version, published in 1611:

When the Most High divided to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of Adam, he set the bounds of the people according to the number of the children of Israel.

For the Lord’s portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.

This verse, though a bit obscure, seems to say that God—called the “Most High” in one place and “the Lord” in another—somehow divided the world’s people into groups and then took an especially proprietary interest in one group, Jacob’s. But this interpretation rests on the assumption that “Most High” and “the Lorddo both refer to Yahweh. Do they?

The second term—“the Lord”—definitely does; this is the Bible’s standard rendering of the original Hebrew Yhwh. But might “Most High”—Elyon—refer to [the Canaanite god] El? It’s possible; the two words appear together—El Elyon—more than two dozen times in the Bible. What moves this prospect from possible toward probable is the strange story behind another part of this verse: the phrase “children of Israel.”

The King James edition got this phrase from the “Masoretic Text,” a Hebrew edition of the Bible that took shape in the early Middle Ages, more than a millennium after Deuteronomy was written. Where the Masoretic Text—the earliest extant Hebrew Bible—got it is a mystery. The phrase isn’t found in either of the two much earlier versions of the verse now available: a Hebrew version in the Dead Sea Scrolls and a Greek version in the Septuagint, a pre-Christian translation of the Hebrew Bible.

Why would some editor have invented the phrase? Was something being covered up?

Some scholars who have used the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Septuagint to reconstruct the authentic version of the verse say that “children of Israel” was stuck in as a replacement for “sons of El.” With that lost phrase restored, a verse that was cryptic suddenly makes sense: El—the most high god, Elyon—divided the world’s people into ethnic groups and gave one group to each of his sons. And Yahweh, one of those sons, was given the people of Jacob. Apparently at this point in Israelite history (and there’s no telling how long ago this story originated) Yahweh isn’t God, but just a god—and a son of God, one among many.

Wright’s intriguing book from which this excerpt is taken is called The Evolution of God.

And the book also discusses Muhammad’s own flirtation with polytheism.

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Evangelos

    Well, they definitely weren’t monotheists…They dropped their god for their neighbors’ more carpophorous gods more times than Dylan changed his religious beliefs.

  • Dan Fincke

    But was it even an assumption of their own sense of their “proper” understanding of their religion rather than just their inability to stick to a truth of one God that Yahweh was trying to get across? Did the very concept of Yahweh and his alleged self-revelation not rule out other gods at all? And if not, how can a monotheist seriously think that the Old Testament is the revealed truth of a monotheist God?

    How could an omniscient and omnipotent monotheist God make the misleading mistake of revealing Himself as only one of many gods? Surely if he was going to communicate anything true about Himself, He would clear up this one point right out of the gate even if for some mysterious reason He was holding back on other truths from them. No?

  • Evangelos

    Aye, but there’s the rub. The Old Testament is not the revealed truth of a monotheist God. Traditionally the Israelites and then the Jews and a good portion of early Christians, like everyone else living around the Mediterranean and the Levant, recognized there were other gods, but none as great as Yahweh (the book of Psalms attests this many times when it talks about God prevailing over other gods and such).

    A reason I’ve heard to explain this is that God didn’t insist on monotheism because He knew no one would buy it because He would not provide adequate proof for it (magicians and sorcerers were able to do all sorts of fun “miracles” too) without fully revealing Himself as God. That sort of revelation would be tantamount coercion because if one saw God in all His power, that person would have no choice but to believe in God.

    A preferable (and more exciting) argument is that as humans (read=micro-creators), we’re capable of creating and believing in as many gods as we want regardless of their reality outside our own mind. Essentially, there are things which are treated with the same religious fervor as a deity. Do they exist? In the mind of the “believer” of that god, of course. Even if that god does not exist, the actions of a person acting under the sway of their “personal god” matter (I’m not sure if this is overlapping with your more recent post on “belief in belief”). Thus, it’s no accident that monarchs have historically been treated as divine–a subject would act towards a king and ask for such (the analogy works in reverse, of course, so it might be a chicken-egg thing). Any concept, ideology, nation, person, or otherwise powerful force can be made into a god.

    A side note: as I understand it, Scripture does not define God; Scripture conforms (and is made to conform) to a pre-existing definition and understanding of God. Since Scripture is codification of the understanding of God, it couldn’t possibly capture every experience of the understanding of God. This is why the Bible is not actually a book, but a collection of intentionally contradictory books. Often (especially dealing with the first five books of the Old Testament), these books have authors with totally different styled accounts of the same thing. This is in no way scandalizing.

  • VorJack

    Margaret Barker argues that the Israelites were polytheistic up until the reforms of Kings Hezekiah and Josiah in the 7th century. In 2nd Kings 23:1-25, Josiah is reported to have removed the sacred objects devoted to other Gods from the Temple at Jerusalem.

    I take it as the consensus that she’s probably right on this point. Further, Israel Finklestein argues that the Pentateuch and the Deuteronomic Histories were compiled or edited around this time. The book of Deuteronomy itself is likely the book of law that Josiah “discovered” in the temple at this point.