Was early Judaism polytheistic?
Contrary to the Bible’s ultra-mega-wild stories of the Israelites arising in Egypt and later conquering and exterminating the Canaanites, the view of many non-apologetic scholars and archaeologists is that the Israelites instead boringly arose out of the Canaanites and hence likely assimilated much of Canaanite culture and religion.
Ugarit was representative of a much larger Bronze Age Levantine cultural complex that influenced the beliefs of the Iron Age cultures that succeeded it, among which was the small district of Judea, … home of the Jewish, land of the brisks and the brave.
In other words the Ugarit culture and gods preceeded the Canaanites and the Israelites.
Ugarit was destroyed at the end of the Bronze age and was forgotten until 1928 when a peasant accidentally opened an old tomb while plowing a field. Excavations revealed an important city that takes its place along side of Ur and Eridu as a cradle of urban culture with a prehistory that goes back to 6000 BCE. They also found hundreds of stone tablets in “libraries” some of which revealed the Ugarit’s religion.
It was learned that some of the gods of the Ugarits sounded familiar…
The Ugarits had “Baals”
Here is a comparison of the Ugarit gods and those mentioned in the Bible:
Ugarit god: El – Chief god, father of mankind, creator
Bible god: El(ohim/ohym) – One of the names for God in the OT (similar attributes)
Ugarit god: Yawu – One of El’s sons
Bible god: Yahweh/Yehovah – Another name for God in the OT
Ugarit god: Shachar – God of dawn
Bible god (Hebrew word): Shachar – father of Lucifer/Satan – Isaiah 14:12 (Strong’s), (Curiously, from the origins, this makes Satan the grandson of Elohim and the nephew of Yahweh).
Ugarit god: Asherah or Elat – wife of El, mother of Yawu (Yahweh)
Bible god: Asherah is mentioned many times in the Bible as an image of a false goddess. (see 2 Chr 15:16 in either the NRSV or Strong’s for example)
Ugarit god: Baal – Nature / fertility god
Bible god: Baal – Numerous mentions in the Bible, see Judges 2:13 for example
Ugarit god: Yam – god of the primordial chaos, tempests, and mass-destruction
Bible god (Hebrew word): Yam – Hebrew word for “sea” mentioned numerous times in the Bible (see Strong’s)
Ugarit god: Shalem – god of peace and the sunset
Jewish name: Jerusalem (Uru-shalemu, village of Shalem) may have been named for this god
That earlier forms of Judaism may have been polytheistic is indicated by obvious editing of the Pentateuch. Often God is referring to “us” or speaking to someone not revealed in stories (i.e. Let “us” make man in our own image…”). Also the word for God is often in Hebrew plural form. It’s likely that the stories once portrayed a pantheon of gods which were later edited into a single God when Judaism became monotheistic.
Note that Christian apologetics try to explain away the plural nature or God’s schizophrenic self conversations as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit talking amongst themselves.
It appears that various other gods such as Baal and Asherah were railed against by the prophets of the Old Testament because of the tendency for the Jewish people to return to their old polytheistic religion.
So when Judaism went monotheistic El and Yawu were assimilated into a single God and other gods were either demonized as false gods or their names were eventually converted to or at least translated as nontheistic items of nature such as Yam for “sea” and Shachar for “dawn” or “morning”.
Ugarit and the Bible: http://www.theology.edu/ugarbib.htm
Canaanite FAQ: http://www.faqs.org/faqs/mythology/canaanite-faq/