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Canaanite Dieties

Ba'al with raised arm, 14th-12th century BC, found at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit), Image found in the Louvre Museum in Paris

Ba’al with raised arm, 14th-12th century BC, found at Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit), Image found in the Louvre Museum in Paris

It’s Easter time again (next Sunday is Easter if you weren’t paying attention.)  Easter is that one holiday that Mormons observe, but don’t really celebrate.  With Easter comes the story of the Passover.  (This is one of those strange years in which Easter occurs a month BEFORE Passover.)  In the past, I’ve blogged about various theories of the miracles Moses performed just prior to the Passover.  Some people think the Israelites weren’t really slaves to the Egyptians.  Others question whether the Exodus actually happened.  Others have tried to scientifically explain the biblical miracles.

The fact is there is no physical evidence of 600,000 people leaving Egypt. A group that large should have left evidence behind.  So for those in the “Exodus never happened” camp, they believe that Israelites are really the exact same people as Canaanites.  In this theory, the Israelites invented Moses and the Exodus and borrowed Yahweh/Elohim (who are Canaanite polytheistic gods) and suddenly became the monotheistic god of Israel.  And there is biblical evidence to support this claim.

The Old Testament constantly is harping on idolatry.  Israelites worshiped Yahweh, but also worshiped other Canaanite idols: Asherah, Moloch, and Baal, just to name a few.  University of Arizona scholar William Dever describes his discovery of the mixing of Yahweh and Asherah in this short clip “Did God have a wife?”

Blessed may [the deceased] be by Yahweh–that’s good biblical Hebrew, but it says by Yahweh and his Asherah.  Asherah is the name of the old Canaanite mother goddess.

The narrator notes that more inscriptions of Yahweh and Asherah have been discovered.  BYU Professor Daniel Peterson shows how important this imagery is even in the Book of Mormon.  In the abstract for his Journal of Book of Mormon Studies article, Nephi and his Asherah, Peterson writes

Asherah was the chief goddess of the Canaanites. She was El’s wife and the mother and wet nurse of the other gods. At least some Israelites worshipped her over a period from the conquest of Canaan in the second millennium before Christ to the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC (the time of Lehi’s departure with his family). Asherah was associated with trees—sacred trees. The rabbinic authors of the Jewish Mishna (second–third century ad) explain the asherah as a tree that was worshipped. In 1 Nephi 11, Nephi considers the meaning of the tree of life as he sees it in vision. In answer, he receives a vision of “a virgin, . . . the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.” The answer to his question about the meaning of the tree lies in the virgin mother with her child. The virgin is the tree in some sense and Nephi accepted this as an answer to his question. As an Israelite living at the end of the seventh century and during the early sixth century before Christ, he recognized an answer to his question about a marvelous tree in the otherwise unexplained image of a virginal mother and her divine child—not that what he saw and how he interpreted those things were perfectly obvious. What he “read” from the symbolic vision was culturally colored. Nephi’s vision reflects a meaning of the “sacred tree” that is unique to the ancient Near East. Asherah is also associated with biblical wisdom literature. Wisdom, a female, appears as the wife of God and represents life.

FAIR Mormon, in answer to the question “Are Elohim and Jehovah the same deity?” notes that many claim that Elohim, Jehovah, Adonai and other similar Old Testament Hebrew names for deity are simply different titles which emphasize different attributes of the “one true God.” In support of this criticism, they cite Old Testament scriptures that speak of “the LORD [Jehovah] thy God [Elohim]” (e.g., Deuteronomy 4:2; 4:35; 6:4) as proof that these are different titles for the same God.  In response, FAIR states,

The conviction that Elohim was anciently the Almighty God and Father of us all, and Jehovah was and is Jesus the Christ, his Son is based on modern scripture (D&C 110:1–4) and not Biblical exegesis. The teachings of modern prophets and apostles has tended to reinforce this usage, such as when President Joseph F. Smith taught, “Among the spirit children of Elohim the firstborn was and is Jehovah or Jesus Christ to whom all others are juniors.” [1]

The LDS use of the name titles Elohim and Jehovah to designate God Our Heavenly Father and His Only Begotten Son, Jesus Christ respectively is not meant to insist that this is how these titles were always used anciently, including in the Holy Bible. Rather, these titles are a naming convention used in the modern Church for clarity and precision. Since Christ may be spoken of as “the Father” in a great many senses, the modern Saints use these name-titles to avoid ambiguity, regardless of which ‘role’ of a divine Personage is being discussed.

Since this terminology was not standardized for convenience and clarity prior to the twentieth century, readers are cautioned not to expect the early writings of the Church to always reflect this practice, which arose only decades later. Likewise, attempting to read the Bible as if its writers followed the same modern practice is anachronistic, and may lead to confusion and misinterpretation.

The reality is that El (or Elohim), Baal, Molech, and Asherah are part of a pantheon of Canaanite gods.  It should come a no surprise that since Israelites were frequently intermarrying with Canaanites (and in the case of some scholars, Israelites=Canaanites) then Israelites were heavily influenced by this pantheon.  Here is a list of deities in Canaanite religion.

  • Anat, virgin goddess of War and Strife, mate and sister of Ba’al Hadad
  • Asherah or Athirat “walker of the sea”, mother Goddess, wife of El (also known as Elat), known after the Bronze Age as Asherah
  • Astarte, a possibly androgynous divinity associated with Venus
  • Baalat (or Baalit), the wife or female counterpart of Baal (also Belili)
  • Ba’al Hadad, a storm god who superseded El as head of the Pantheon
  • Baal-Hammon, god of fertility and renewer of all energies in the Phoenician colonies of the Western Mediterranean
  • Dagon, god of crop fertility, usually described as father of Hadad
  • El Elyon (meaning “God Most High”) or El
  • Eshmun or Baalat Asclepius, god of healing (or goddess)
  • The Kathirat (or the Kotharat), goddesses of marriage and pregnancy
  • Kothar, Hasis, the skilled, god of craftsmanship
  • Lotan, serpent ally of evil,Yam
  • Melqart, king of the city, the underworld and the renewing cycle of vegetation in Tyre
  • Molech, god of fire
  • Mot, god of death
  • Nikkal, goddess of orchards (especially pomegranate), lover of Yarikh
  • Qadeshtu, Holy One, goddess of love
  • Resheph god of plague and healing
  • Shalim and Shachar
  • Shamayim, the god of the heavens
  • Shapash, also transliterated Shapshu, goddess of the sun; sometimes equated with the Mesopotamian sun god Shemesh
  • Shemesh (in Ugarit the goddess Shapshu), Sun god[1] (or goddess, its gender is disputed)[2]
  • Yam, also called Yam-nahar (meaning Judge Nahar)
  • Yarikh god of the moon, lover of Nikkal

With that background, this gives a new meaning to the story of Abraham.  Walter Zanger makes a case that Abraham was not a true monotheist. He says,

“It’s hard to talk about Abraham as a monotheist. Abraham had an agreement, a covenant with his one god, who is the Lord. Abraham didn’t say, or believe as far as we know, that there weren’t other gods. All the evidence is that there were other gods for other people. And Abraham’s god never insisted on exclusivity.”

The narrator, Richard Kiley continues, “While experts disagree over whether Abraham was a true monotheist, the Bible does not indicate if he worshiped other gods. It only tells us that led by his fervent faith in his one god, that Abraham informs his family that they will be leaving their secure, familiar world behind.”

It seems that Abraham merely elevated Elohim/Jehovah/Yahweh above all the other gods.  This also brings a new interpretation to some other scriptures.

When I was on my mission, if anyone challenged me that exaltation, the idea that we could become like God, was not biblical, I would usually pull out 4 scriptures.

  1. Genesis 1:26-27,

    And God said, Let US make man in OUR image, after OUR likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth. 27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; MALE AND FEMALE created he them.

    I would point to the pronouns, US, OUR, and MALE AND FEMALE and say, “who was god talking to”?  Then I would follow up with

  2. Psalm 82:1, 6,1-God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods.
    6-I have said, Ye are gods; and all of you are children of the most High.This one would usually leave people scratching their heads. I would follow up with
  3. John 10:34-38,
    34 Jesus answered them, Is it not written in your law, I said, Ye are gods?35 If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken;36 Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?37 If I do not the works of my Father, believe me not.38 But if I do, though ye believe not me, believe the works: that ye may know, and believe, that the Father is in me, and I in him.

    Then I would finish with
  4. Philippians 2:5-6,
    5 Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God:Jesus was accused of blasphemy for several things, but what he said in John 10 infuriated the Jews.  I don’t recall any good rebuttals to my scripture tree.

But  now that I better understand El and Baal were often used interchangeably (see a list of references here), it also gives a new take on the story of Balaam.  Balaam lived at the same time as Moses.  Back in 2009, I asked if Balaam was a true prophet.  (I said he wasn’t.  He is referred to as “the wicked one” in Revelations, and I used that as my main justification for my position.)  I didn’t know then that Baal could have been a reference to El (or Elohim/Jehovah).  In the Bible, Baal worship is seen as bad, and Balaam makes offering to Baal, yet El/Elohim answers!  With my traditional understanding, this made no sense.  Why would the God of Israel respond to an offering made to a polytheistic god?  I mean does anyone believe that God would answer my prayer if I made an offering to a Hindu cow?  That was my thinking in 2009.  But if Baal is just another name for the true god Elohim, is this a legitimate offering?  When Baal answer Balaam not to curse the Israelites, was that in essence Jehovah talking to Balaam, the non-Israelite prophet?  This idea intrigues me.  Maybe I shouldn’t have argued so hard back then that Balaam was a false prophet?

But knowing what I know now, Baal, Asherah, El, and Yahweh as part of a pantheon of indigenous gods makes much more sense.  It makes much more sense why idolatry was so difficult for the ancient Israelites to overcome.  In essence, I think converting from Canaanite worship to Jewish worship, would like being raised as a Jew and becoming a Christian.  There’s a lot of overlap, but ancient Jews were rejecting Asherah just as modern Jews are rejecting Jesus.  It would be a difficult transition to make.

Regardless of whether one believes in the Exodus or not (and there are good cases to be made for both positions), the fact that Israelites shared the same land as the Canaanites for so many centuries makes the 4 scriptures I quoted above take on a whole new meaning.  Congregation of the gods in Psalm 82:6–is that a pantheon of Canaanite gods?  Was God in Genesis 1:26-27 talking to Asherah when he said “let US make man in our image..male and female”?  I mean this is a radical new interpretation of biblical scripture, but wow it sure seems plausible.  What are your thoughts?

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One comment on “Canaanite Dieties

  1. My understanding, based largely on Robert Wright’s “The Evolution of God”, is that in their most primitive state, all religions were polytheistic, with a pantheon of gods personifying aspects of nature, life, and death, and those gods were represented and worshiped through idols. But around the axial age, there was a curious nearly-world-wide evolution away from polytheistic gods and toward a more philosophically abstract all-powerful God (singular). This occurred in India, with the Upanishads identifying Brahman as the essence from which the Universe and all gods have sprung–making Brahman the “most high” God. In China, the pantheon of nature gods was challenged by the Tao. In Israel, it was the Most High (sometimes identified as El, other times as Yahweh) who was exalted above competing gods.

    What is interesting to me is the overlap between the Indian/”Hindu” conception of Brahman and the conception of the God that appears to Moses in the burning bush. In Indian/”Hindu” scripture, Brahman is defined as the energy and consciousness that underlies and permeates the Universe. In the Bible, the burning bush represents energy (fire) and identifies itself as “I AM THAT I AM”–consciousness. It is worth noting that most Biblical scholars believe the five books of Moses were written while the Jews were in Persia–right next door to India.

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