The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel's Polytheistic
Background and the Ugaritic Texts (Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
As a result of comparing biblical and inscriptional evidence with the Ugaritic texts, we can see how the worship of other deities lasted for quite a long time in Israel's pantheon.
By Mark S. Smith
Skirball Professor of Bible and Near Eastern Studies
New York University
For decades, scholars have tried to penetrate the Bible's story about Israelite monotheism. According to traditional interpretations of the Bible, monotheism was part of Israel's original covenant with Yahweh on Mount Sinai, and the idolatry subsequently criticized by the prophets was due to Israel's backsliding from its own heritage and history with Yahweh. However, scholars have long noted that beneath this presentation lies a number of questions. Why do the Ten Commandments command that there should be no other gods "before Me" (the Lord), if there are no other gods as claimed by other biblical texts? Why should the Israelites sing at the crossing of the Red Sea that "there is no god like You, O Lord?" (Exodus 15:11). Such passages suggest that Israelites knew about other gods and did not simply reject them. It seems that Israelites may have known of other deities and perhaps various passages suggest that behind the Bible's broader picture of monotheism was a spectrum of polytheisms that centered on the worship of Yahweh as the pantheon's greatest figure.
In the past, the question of Israelite polytheism has been approached by looking for evidence of specific deities worshipped by Israelites in addition to Yahweh. These would include biblical criticisms of the worship of other deities, such as the goddess Asherah in 2 Kings 21 and 23, as well as apparent references to this goddess or at least her symbol in the inscriptions from Kuntillet 'Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom in the eighth century. In the Kuntillet 'Ajrud...