Reclaiming Biblical figures for polytheism

In asserting our polytheism, we often resort to emphasizing the difference between our beliefs and monotheism. This is necessary to a certain degree, if we hope to preserve our movement from being assimilated, something monotheism has proven to be skilled at. Nevertheless, when too stark of a contrast is made, we run the risk of not only overlooking polytheism’s complex history, but also carelessly opposing all what monotheism had unfairly appropriated as its own. This is true of various characters in the Bible, particularly the Old Testament, who are often regarded by monotheists as the heroic founders of their beliefs, blessed at the hands of and guided to their destiny by “the one true god”. Religious elders and scholars in ancient times were able to manipulate disparate stories and myths in such a way that they became serviceable to their system of theology and political ideology. What was once a particular and polytheistic event or figure was transformed into general symbols of monotheism, representing several phases and parts of what was painted as one glorious whole. It is however rather easy for a studious eye to find out many inconsistencies and serious contradictions in this fragile lump that is bound together merely by fervent faith and inane interpretations. Even the Old Testament mentions other Gods besides Yahweh and not always in negative reference. The rediscovery of Canaanite, Mesopotamian and Near Eastern mythology and historical records has, for more than 100 years, been welcomed by monotheists in order to corroborate their tales, but how mistaken are they to use such dangerous material in their own service! Below is a list of notable Biblical characters and their original function & chronological order (as shown by scholarship or inferred from educated guesswork) before monotheism was imposed on them:

Adam- means “man” literally in Phoenician. His myth may be comparable to that of Prometheus in Greece, and Eve comparable to that of Pandora.

Noah- a copy of the character Utnapishtim in the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Moses- an Egyptian follower of Akhenaten who escaped to Canaan during the persecution of Horemheb. His knowledge and leadership made him an ancestral hero of the Jews. Not at all associated with Yahweh.

Samson- a hero very similar to the Sumerian Enkidu (character in the Epic of Gilgamesh) and the Greek Herakles

Yahweh- an epithet of the high Canaanite God “El” or a local weather God of nomadic herders. Later, the patron God of the city-state of Jerusalem where he was worshipped henotheistically by the early Jews.

Asherah- wife of “El” and later consort of Yahweh.

Abraham- a folk hero and progenitor of the early Jews, who may have offered him ancestral worship. May be associated with Yahweh or originally regarded as his son (compare to Greek myths about the ancestry of heroes). Perhaps the mythical founder of Jerusalem. Most probably flourished after Moses if a real character (i.e. during the earlier part of the Third Intermediate Period of Egypt, when control of Canaan was lost), otherwise he is a version of Gilgamesh.

Isaac and Ishmael- likewise semi-divine progenitors of various tribes. May or may not be sons of Abraham.

Jacob and Joseph- Canaanite noblemen associated with Egypt, perhaps seeking opportunity there during the latter part of the Third Intermediate Period.

David- a tribal chief/petty king who became a hero of his people through his great exploits at war. Comparable to Greek heroes of the Trojan war

Solomon- the pious successor of David. He set up a shrine (rather than a temple) to Yahweh, which may have also been used to honor his ancestor Abraham.

19 thoughts on “Reclaiming Biblical figures for polytheism

  1. K

    The best argument I can think of is that every early source, far older than ANY Biblical manuscript, has Yahweh in a polytheistic context with a goddess consort. He is variously called Yah/Yaho or Yahweh, and often after names of localities(Samaria, Tehman), and is known under titles like Baal(lord) or Mar(king). We have entire hymns to Yahweh in the papyri found in Egypt and some extensive documents mentioning worship, so the textual evidence there is pretty good. To make any headway in an argument, Christians and Jews have to insist that all of these worshipers were wrong from the start, and only a good while after the Persians came around did things become kosher.

    The Bible often betrays a polytheistic context, and there are signs of progressive censorship. One of the variants of Deuteronomy 32(confirmed as the oldest by appearing in the Dead Sea Scrolls) has El give Yahweh Israel to be his people, as El allotted all the other nations to his children. The Masoretic text changed an important part of the passage to obscure this because it is polytheistic. This happens quite a bit with variants, editing, and translation or interpretation conventions. There is not one sign of the opposite happening, by the way. I have combed through the thing for years, and not once has there been any evidence of polytheistic context being put in to cover up a monotheistic idea. That to me is a powerful point when arguing from the Bible.

    Look at the names of David and Saul’s children. They named some of them with theophoric names containing Baal, like some other Biblical characters(Jerubaal). David even named places after Baal, because of actions that Yahweh took there. Balaam went to the heights of Baal to sacrifice to Yahweh. There is a lot of association between Yahweh and Baal that some writers wanted to cover up. You can even see how they did it. The history of the kings of Israel and Judah is duplicated between 1-Samuel-2 Kings and the Book of Chronicles. One version changes all the Baal related names that appear(quite a few) to names carrying the word “bosheth” meaning “shame”. Saul’s son Ishbaal becomes Ishbosheth. There is one character though, called Beeliah, or more properly Baaliyah. This comes out to “Baal Yahweh” or “Yahweh is Master”. This name is not modified, probably because it would have been a problem to put “shame” in there with Yahweh. Hosea also gives it away that Yahweh was commonly called Baal. This is on top of the documents I mentioned above.

    Also with Adam, it is interesting that the tribe of Edom(Esau’s descendants) has the exact same root name as Adam. There is also a tribe of Cain(meaning smith) that comes up all over the Old Testament. I suspect that these characters were originally progenitors of other peoples, and were appropriated by the Old Testament writers for Judah. Another character I consider very important is Balaam son of Beor. We have an actual mention of him in the archaeological record, but the Bible seems to have shifted him back into the past and made his religious beliefs different. That is concrete evidence of the real time period the compilers worked from, and evidence of their method.

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply
    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      As always, my friend, your commentary on this topic is valuable. Theologians will try to cast about for ten thousand argumentations against the polytheistic context of the Bible, but they will fail. “The Jews forgot about the original laws of Moses and imitated the Canaanites & Egyptians, thereby diluting their monotheism, until Hezekiah’s and Josiah’s reforms” is probably what it will amount to. The original Jews were henotheists, which is perfectly reasonable in polytheism; in fact, many tribes worshipped in such a manner originally. It is ironically remarkable that the Christians (and Hellenistic Greeks, we must admit) hated the Jews because they were tribal and committed “sins” and the Muslims hated the Jews because they changed the original message (I read this once). If a small group of universalizing & moralizing Jewish priests had not changed the message (i.e. made progressive censorship as you well describe it), the message would have still been polytheistic! I was just a short while ago reading a BBC article in which it was mentioned that a poem by Solomon in praise of erotic love was originally not at all about married couples, but the “censors” later needed to change it.

      That piece about theophoric names is very important and not at all surprising. I have a theory about Yahweh also, which I will need to examine further: The line of thought behind the obsession about Yahweh and Yahweh alone must be attributed to an ambitious priest or a small group who somehow convinced Hezekiah that a plague that destroyed the Assyrian besiegers (in 701 BCE) was sent by Yahweh alone, and therefore it was necessary to worship him exclusively for protection. Alternately, this idea was Hezekiah’s (perhaps following an oath) and he (as kings do) wished to unite all the city by their obedience to his religious mandates. It was afterwards easy for his chosen priests or those who influenced him to tell the people of Jerusalem that the defeats later at the hands of the Babylonians was owing to their worship of other Gods and “breaking the covenant”. It reminds me of what happened to Constantine before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge and afterwards at the Council of Nicaea. This sort of exclusiveness is a feature of power. Mohammed’s father was called “Abd Allah” which is a theophoric name for the God Allah, and for that reason (as well as for his name in Arabic resembling the Syriac spelling of “Jesus”) he took it into his head to become a theocratic leader & remove all opponents, claiming that he was restoring the original teaching of his supposed ancestor Abraham.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
      1. K

        https://www.penn.museum/sites/expedition/the-biblical-song-of-songs-and-the-sumerian-love-songs/

        How something like the Song of Solomon even got into the canon is a mystery to me. Many wanted to throw it out at several points. If it was not just an erotic poem, I wonder if it had some ritual purpose at some point. Its similarity to other examples makes this a possibility. Maybe it was part of the worship of Asherah. Even if a version of this text in paleo-Hebrew were found with mentions of Asherah, signed and dated by Solomon himself, the Jews and Christians(especially them) would find some way to deny the obvious.

        There have been numerous ways that a goddess consort has been snuck back into Judaism. The current iteration is that Yahweh’s divine presence(shekinah) is feminine. So they are half-way toward actually having a goddess, they just don’t want to admit it. Christianity had Sophia, then Mary as Asherah homologues. They call Mary the Queen of Heaven, how much more blatant can it be?

        Recently I sorted through some more heathen related material too. I found an account of a 14th century bishop in Germany complaining of peasants making offerings to the Queen of Heaven in the latter half of December. This refers to Frigg or Frikka(or various other by-names like Frau Wode or Herka or Hulda). Seems that people really hold fast to mother goddesses most of all.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Yewtree

        Yes indeed, and there’s an entire Unitarian Universalist course called “Cakes for the Queen of Heaven”. The UUs and Unitarians aren’t afraid to reference and reverence the Goddess.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Yewtree

        In my experience with the UK and Canada, not that many initiated Wiccans are duotheists. I’m a polytheist Gardnerian Wiccan and I’m definitely not the only one. I don’t have enough experience / data regarding US Gardnerian Wiccans, but I’m inclined to think they’re similarly theologically diverse.

        Sadly, most books about Wicca present a duotheist view, giving the impression that Wiccans are duotheists. That’s why my books present a polytheist perspective.

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Melas the Hellene Post author

        Thanks for the link. “To judge from what we now know of the history and culture of the Ancient Near East, there is good reason to conclude that at least some of the passionate and rhapsodic love songs of which the book is composed, are cultic in origin, and were sung in the course of the hieros gamos, or “sacred marriage,” between a king and a votary of Astarte, the Canaanite goddess of love and procreation whom even so wise a Hebrew king as the great Solomon worshipped and adored, according to 1 Kings 11:5.” I looked up the song and it appeared to be something akin to a lyric love poem. Shekinah is quite an interesting concept and shows how even an absolute masculine monotheistic god needed a feminine form, which betrays was the inherent inescapable polytheism. This concept exists in Islam also, according to a quick search. And you are right to point out that divine femininity was indispensable to the common folk, hence the popularity of Mother Goddesses and the legalized form thereof, Mary. I imagine the remnants of polytheism in Germany were stronger than in Romanized areas of Christendom, and this is what must have fueled up the persecution of witches during the Reformation; the competition with and defiance against Rome did not leave any room for mercy towards those who seemed unfaithful.

        Like

  2. Yewtree

    Nuah was the name of a Babylonian Moon goddess with a big boat.

    I find it very interesting that Ishtar and Mordecai sound very similar to Ishtar and Marduk (though it could just be that these biblical characters were named after these deities; however that still means that there were Hebrew versions of their names).

    Also the creation stories were lifted from polytheism and given a monotheist gloss.

    And look how many times the priests had to stop the Israelite women from setting up Asherah poles.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      I looked up Mordecai and found it to be a theophoric name meaning “Marduk is their lord”. I discovered also that Astarte/Ishtar was sometimes confused with Asherah in Canaan, although the two Goddesses are distinct.

      It isn’t surprising that the Israelite women preserved the worship of Asherah to the disappointment of Jewish monotheists. Women tend to be more conservative in that regard, whereas men are more likely to shift their beliefs according to changing structures of power, especially in urban areas. That’s why many women were branded as witches throughout the years, by men.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
      1. Yewtree

        I meant to mention also, there are a couple of books of interest here.

        One is an analysis of all the times Paul quotes Greek polytheist poets, the most notable being Epimenedes and Aratus (“In him we live, move, and have our being” was a line referring to Zeus).

        The other is a book about all the times the Hebrew Bible (“Old Testament”) imports bits of Assyro-Babylonian and Sumerian mythology.

        Titles to follow.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Melas the Hellene Post author

        Paul lived during the Hellenistic period and was undoubtedly, much like the Christian movement after him, influence by Greek philosophical & literary ideas. By his time, the Stoics were already speaking of one pantheistic Zeus. But I find it remarkable that he would quote directly, as if to impress the Greeks to whom he preached. The second book is worth examination also and I wish every scholarly monotheist would read it! Many thanks for the references.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Yewtree

    In “Eden: The Buried Treasure” (2009), the author, Eve Wood-Langford, shows the sources of all these stories in earlier pagan texts from Mesopotamia, including the Epic of Gilgamesh. For instance, the story of the Flood was originally a story about Ishtar flooding the world because she lost her temper.

    And a commenter on an old blog of mine informed me:

    “In volume 1 of ‘The Life and Work of St. Paul’, F.W. Farrar discusses the classical quotations and allusions of St. Paul in some detail. Beginning at p. 630 in the 1879 edition, if you’re interested. The full text is available at Google Books.”

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
  4. K

    Jewish Magic and Superstition A Study in Folk Religion by Joshua Trachtenberg

    This is a book I have had for years. I noticed it when I was looking around. It is a useful book for this topic. Magic, spirits, divination, veneration of the dead, apotropaic rituals, praying to angels, all that sort of thing is in it. In the medieval folk Judaism described, there are many concepts similar to polytheistic views. At least it shows that much of Judaism back then did not follow what is now considered the orthodox line in every respect.

    I think Samson is the most obviously polytheistic figure in the Bible. His name and places he is associated with, and most of the stories about him, indicate a sun deity. Even his birth was miraculous. He is very similar to Herakles too.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. Melas the Hellene Post author

      Any folk tradition is bound to contain more or less polytheism because of the conservative culture of rural areas. Cicero’s use of “superstitio” towards magic in general is evidence of the bias we see from urban culture in its later stage. I am sure Islam, like Judaism, also has had various folk remnants of polytheism that were once quite strong and still exist (e.g. the Yazidi people in Iraq or the Alawites in Syria) in spite of orthodox persecution.

      I should add Samson to the list above. I had been aware of the name, but after some reading, he appears to be a folk hero with great powers like Herakles and he has also been compared to the Sumerian character Enkidu in the Epic of Gilgamesh. The more you look into Judaism, the more polytheism you find, it seems after all.

      Like

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s