Jewish Polytheism

Hi everyone, I’ve just pumped into the evidence around the jews being originally polytheistic.
What are your thoughts on this? How would you answer to someone asking you about it? Also interested in recources to read/learn more about this.

Edit: I’m referring to archeological discoveries like the ones in Ugarit as well.

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Good question, @FreddySoemmi.

Well, Joshua 24:2 does say that Abraham’s father, Terah, had been an idolater. So Abraham grew up in a culture and in a home that was polytheistic, and it is very probable that in his early years he was too. His brother, Nahor’s, lineage definitely continued in idolatry - Genesis 31:30-32.

But at some point prior to his 70s, the God of Noah and Shem became the God of Abraham, and He called Abraham to leave the idolatrous culture of Babylon, and establish a godly lineage in a land that God would lead him to.

Unfortunately, his “godly” lineage would have a very troubled history, often drifting back into the idolatry of their neighbors, though constantly rebuked by the prophets to return to the God of their fathers.

Ultimately, the Israelites were carried away into captivity by the very nation that Abraham had broken away from 14 centuries earlier. They got a good, up close view of what their lives could have been like had Abraham not separated himself from Babylon, and when the Jews returned to rebuild their nation 70 years later, they were forever cured of idolatry. Not a whisper of it from then till now!

I hope this addresses what you were looking for.

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Your answer gives me a starting point. Thank you.
But I was also referring to archeological evidence. I’ve read about someone explaining YHWH and El might first have been considered different gods. Do you know anything about that?

All archaeological discovery is a work in progress. Men necessarily modify their initial theories in the fuller light of ongoing discoveries. That’s just how it works. And the theories are inevitably driven by the biases of the archaeologists - both sacred and secular.

So I would be careful about latching onto any archaeological theory that is inconsistent with the Bible. Given time, archaeologists will usually catch up with Genesis.

I hope this helps!

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@FreddySoemmi The Jews were definitely not polytheistic. It is possible that there was some henotheism - where there was one true God, but they acknowledged other beings with a divine nature.

What you have to remember about secular scholars is that they assume God does not exist and therefore naturally expect that later religious concepts evolve from earlier ones. Because the word “El” was used in Canaanite religion they assume that the Israelites picked it up and perhaps even worshiped some former pagan god. However, their conclusion is based on their initial assumption that no such thing as revelatory religion exists - it’s all just the result of developments in human thought.

It is also possible the word “El” was always a generic title for a deity - like the English word “god”. We can talk about pagan gods or about the Christian God - the word is the same word. Secular scholars prefer the explanation that the Israelite religion developed directly from pagan religion because within their way of thinking there is no room for a living God actually revealing Himself.

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Zechariah 13 seems to indicate that the Jews were steeped in idolatry at Christ’s first appearance. Many writers document that the Babylonian religion came with them back to Jerusalem and never left, remaining to this day. I believe verses 8-9 indicate that a remnant will be spared and those will truly be children of God. Michael Hoffman’s “Judaism Discovered” is a resource that you may want to review. I haven’t read this book (it’s over 1,000 pages) but I’ve read another of his research books. He’s painstakingly historical and I don’t believe you’ll find a better researcher with which to compare your findings. If we remember that Jesus came to His own and that many followed Him, we will remember that even as Christians, there will be a remnant. Many claim Christianity today and yet believe that other faiths will get folks to heaven which is seems to me to be polytheistic. I believe the accusation of harlotry was mostly that of taking up with another god which always came before Israel’s judgments. Returning to idolatry apparently was/is a constant threat, i.e. taking up the religions of those around us which include insidious new so-called Christian doctrines. But try Michael Hoffman to compare notes. He definitely demonstrates why evangelism to the world must include Jews as well as all others of non-Christian beliefs. All -other than true Christians - are idolaters. Christ and the Father are one.

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As already has been posted by @sean, henotheism is a better word to describe what the OT text said. The belief that there is one God among many.

To support this you can ponder the first commandment.

There shall be for you no other gods before me. (Ex 20:3).

Surely Yahweh wasn’t pulling the leg of the Israelites? At the minimum people were henotheistic or at least understood that it was possible.

Generally people go straight to the Shema to refute this idea.

Hear, Israel, Yahweh our God, Yahweh is unique. (Dt 6:4 LEB)

and 10 verses later in the same context

You shall not go after other gods from the gods of the peoples who are all around you, (Dt 6:14LEB)

I am offering this as an introduction to the idea that not all Israelites believed in monotheism. some had a Binitarian view, two powers in heaven a Yahweh in heaven (the unseen), and a Yahweh as an earthly agent that was fully Yahweh and acted on behalf of the heavenly Yahweh.

The leading proponent of this line of thinking is Michael Heiser. You can learn more about him here.

Another resource that I like is bok by Alan Segal, Two Powers in Heaven. He writes from a Jewish perspective with the idea that the ‘Two Powers’ was heretical and indeed it was declared so in 200AD, interesting enough about the time that the Trinitarian Christian view was gaining traction. The takeaway from his book is the fact ‘Two Powers’ was a thing for as far back as 200 BC and persisted well into the 5th century AD. The Mishna and the Talmud contain warning against this belief and I think it a safe assumption that the rabbis didn’t issue warning about hypotheticals. I believe the same can be said for God.
My thoughts.

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Hello. I bumped into this topic lately too, in a book titled “Elohim; They Are God” by Ben Shlomo, a Jewish Christian and ancient Hebrew scholar. He asserts that the Jews were believers in the Trinity, but like many Christians to-day, were not clear exactly what that was, or who they were, if you prefer. An interesting idea and book.

Before dismissing this idea out of hand, consider this. In the New Testament, as far as I recall, Jesus was confronted for claiming to be
God’s son, not for claiming that God had a son. There is no controversy over the Great commission, “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit”. There is no controversy in Acts or the epistles over references to the Father and/or the Son and/or the Holy Spirit.

If the Shema were as central to Jewish belief in Jesus’ day as it is to-day, and understood then as it is to-day, one would, I think, expect at least some controversy about the Three in One God. But the Bible records only disputes about circumcision, meats, days and laws, etc.

Shlomo mentions the date of about 200A.D. as the time when Jewish leaders started downplaying belief in a three in one God and emphasizing the Shema as meaning one God with no Son.

I am not qualified to comment further about this topic, but it does seem to me to be possible.

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