Was the earliest Jews polytheistic until they elevated the Canaanite god Yahweh post exile?

One argument I often hear is that the earliest Israelites were polytheistic worshippers who had many gods snd after exile a handful headed back to Jerusalem and elevated Yahweh as the supreme God?

Ive always heard and read it differently. That before the tribe that became Israelites existed they were part of the Canaanites which were not unified. Eventually a family, potentially Abraham’s family broken away as they grew powerful and that’s when Yahweh reached out to him and became his God. Then later one down then road some of his descendants became what was the Israelites who were henothestic and believed in many gods but only worshipped Yahweh.

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Main reason why I am asking is because I’m just not seeing real evidence either way. I’m not seeing anything other than basic speculation. I know I’ve read dozens of books over my life that goes with the first concept and dozens that go with the second concept. But I don’t see any actual archeological journals or anything thst can even say for sure when oral tradition became written tradition, what the oral tradition was, how to scientific mythology to interpreting art found or even what art was definitely from this or that period and so on. It seems as if there is only speculation and that atheists and pagans go with the first set and provide vague reasoning thst can be interpreted multiple ways and Jews and Christians, and often Muslims all go with a concept more similar to the second with equally useless support as far as concrete evidence goes.

I have read people claiming that they worshiped some other Cananites gods but they exclusively worshiped YWHW and Ashera(which is some kind of female YWHW if i had understood correctly? or something like that. Havent done that much research on this. Good question

We can see trough the bible i guess how Israel was prone to polytheism. It always took a prhophet or a man of action to turn them back from their ways. Dont know if that was the case before they were “Israel” but i suppose it couldve been

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Wouldn’t surprise me. Presumably Israelites went through same progression as everyone else on their way to humanity. I imagine they may have been canables at one time too. It is very hard to establish exactly what went on pre-historically.

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Asherah was the standard regional consort for Baal/Ba’al/Bel (be it Hadad, Melquart, Marduk, Asshur, Molech, Kemosh, or any number of others). Baal/Ba’al/Bel was a generic term, very much equivalent to the english “lord”, which was applied to kings and deities alike, but typically referred to a king deity, associated with storms (think Zeus or Jupiter). Asherah was typically associated with warfare and beauty.

Astarte (Ashtoreth) was the consort of El (generic for “god”, but usually referring to Ba’al’s father) (Kronos is his equivalent in Greek mythology). She was associated with fertility and warfare (Inanna was a Mesopotamian equivalent).

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Sure. What i was saying is that they were worshiping her as some kind of “female YWH”(meaming at the same level of YWHW) . At least thats what i remember people claiming. Thanks for the info

Most of those claims are based on unrealistic “here is my system for how history linearly progresses, never mind reality” schemes (analogous to Marx’s ideas).

One point of evidence I have seen raised against the “came out of Canaan” idea is that we see a clear increase in population in the area from ~20,000 in 1250 BC to ~50,000 in 1200 BC. The newcomers primarily lived in the highlands, made different pottery, and ate essentially no pork, while the old inhabitants ate a lot of it.

We know from the style of writing that some form of it (the covenant is of a distinctive style), was written between 1300 and 1200 BC, with some minor later edits (e.g. “and it is here to this day”, or updating place names).

Arguments along the lines of “we find remnants of other worship in the area around 1000 BC, therefore they weren’t monotheists, and the whole account is a retrojection” fall into the problem that the Bible explicitly describes people worshipping other deities, and a failure to drive out all Canaanites.


I’ve seen a few scholars claim this too. I haven’t evaluated their reasoning though. But I would probably not expect homogenous beliefs 4,000 years ago. I think some of the belief might come from the names (Yahweh vs Elohim). Isn’t Elohim plural? This is not my area of expertise?

What do we make of the plural for God in Genesis? I’m not buying into it being trinitarian. The Angel of the Lord? Multiple gods?

Let us make man in our own image
He will be like one of us
Let us go and confuse their language

Or statements by God saying he will smite non existent beings?

Exodus 12:12 “On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt.

Exodus 20:3: “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.”

Is having no other Gods before me supposed to be the same thing as saying no other God’s exist?

In Exodus 32 after all the plagues, the red sea parting, God delivering them from Egypt, giving them water from a rock, when Moses in on Sinai for an extended duration, he comes down to them worshiping a golden calf:

32 When the people saw that Moses was so long in coming down from the mountain, they gathered around Aaron and said, “Come, make us gods who will go before us. As for this fellow Moses who brought us up out of Egypt, we don’t know what has happened to him.

I wonder how challenging it really would be for scholars to show monotheism developed out of former polytheistic beliefs. I’m guessing monolatry ruled the day for a while.


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No doubt they were polytheistic in Genesis 31 where Rachel stole Laban’s household gods and took them with her when fleeing with Jacob. By the time we get to Moses, the commandment to “Have no other gods before me” would not have been necessary had they been monotheistic.


The actions of a few though is not the same. Even when Aaron and all of them was worshipping the golden calf it’s being portrayed as a sin, and not as God as just one of many. Which is what this is about. If Yahweh is just some Canaanites god that served under El then he’s no different from Zeus, and any other. Jesus would be no different than Hercules.
Which is not my personal dilemma. But that’s what the implications are.

I don’t believe in the Trinity and I don’t think Jesus existed until he was born by Mary. I think Tim Mackie lined out a very good understanding that the “us” is nothing more than Yahweh and his heavenly hosts. God and his angels coruled the cosmos and now God and his humans coruled the lands. Elohim is something that we seem to see being used to describe a family of beings that includes gods, angels and humans.

Or monolatric, rather than monotheistic.


It’s true. It took the Babylonian captivity to make them truly monotheistic.

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That’s an interesting word that I hadn’t heard before – and does seem to fit with many passages in the Old Testament where God is to be worshipped above other gods, which seems to admit that there are others, they just aren’t as great as he is.

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I agree. But that’s part of just I was saying when I said they seemed to have been henothestic until around the Babylonian exile was over. Butnim not convinced that they ever actually became Monotheistic like we use the term. Especially considering Elohim is a term used for people and angels and is just a theological clade that happens to contain Yahweh as well.

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It’s certainly a possible interpretation of the “us” lines but I am not sure why I should accept it over polytheism or monolatric beliefs or even God in his providence, leaving us evidence of his triune nature in the very beginning.

I don’t think they had fully modern skeptics like us back then. There were many gods and we find those beliefs primitive and silly today. Back then, the idea that there was just one God would probably have seemed silly to most (3,000 years ago). The Pentateuch is littered with God being greater than the other gods. To me, given all the surrounding cultures, it’s hard to see how Judaism didn’t somehow developed out of polytheistic beliefs into a monolatry and then at some point, into full blown monotheism. @beaglelady may be right that it took Babylonian captivity for full blown monotheism to emerge. Much of the Pentateuch is dated roughly around half a millennia before Jesus’ birth with some much older stories.

The Bible itself clearly supposes a monolatry and constantly warns Israel not to put other god’s before God. If many of them weren’t actually polytheistic or monolatric, why even bother giving them the first commandment?

There is probably a lot more to the golden calf story than what it is embedded in. Did these people really witness a sea open before their eyes, the Nile turn red and witness the wailing in Egypt and smell the stench as every first born child died? Then when Moses goes up a mountain a little too long they decide to make another God to worship? I think we have to read between the lines a bit on this story.

I can’t defend full blown polytheism for many ancient Jews three to four thousand years ago but for those who don’t take much of Genesis as fact-literal history as it’s written, the writing is very clearly on the wall just based on the Biblical witness alone.

I’d be interested in seeing the actual evidence scholars come up with though.


Interestingly enough, as an aside, all this monolatry in the Pentateuch is probably a good argument for accommodation over concordism, not to sidetrack the the main point though so I’ll stop there.


The best reason on why it’s most likely the heavenly host is because they were the other beings mentioned. Would make no sense for it to be jesus snd the holy spirit when they were not mentioned for thousands of years. But routinely the heavenly host is mentioned as being around God. Essentially all Jews teach the heavenly host is the us.

Plus I have no reason to believe in the Trinity or a Jesus who was always here. Jesus was the incarnation of the holy
Spirit. Prior to that word becoming flesh, it was not Jesus. But that’s a completely separate issue and hopefully it will be discussed elsewhere and not on this thread.

I think it’s related. It’s what I think. I think the higher power
Picked the name Yahweh because it was a name they were already using.

There is a story in the Old Testament where the Hebrews were wondering if a particular valley had a different god. I don’t recall where.

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