The Evidence of Israel's Polytheistic Origin in the Hebrew Bible

For the better part of a decade, I began most mornings with a recitation of the psalms. In fact, I began my morning as Catholic monastics do with a recitation of the 95th psalm. Every day, I chanted these words, “For the Lord is a great God, and a great king above all gods” (Psalm 95:3) without noticing that this statement stood in conflict with my monotheistic vision.
The Psalm is saying the LORD—this is actually YHWH, the divine name—is a great el (Ancient Canaanite (Ugaritic) word for god). He is not only great but he is king above all elohim (gods). Why not YHWH is great?  This is certainly what one might expect if there is only one god (el) in the universe? How could one be kings of gods (elohim) if there is just god?
Like all good Christians, I read the litany of Old Testament passages condemning of worship of false idols as just that. God does not want his children doing something as foolish as worshipping wood and metal carvings. He wants them to worship the true God. However, a closer reading of the Hebrew Bible indicates that this is not at all the case.
The majority of the Old Testament is macho posturing. It is about one deity striving to demonstrate that he is greater than the other gods by bringing about the military defeat of the worshippers of other deities. It is a usurpation of the role of chief god among the pantheon of gods.
Of course, Israelite religion eventually moves from our god is greater than all gods (Exodus 18:11) to “they were no gods, but the work of human hands” (Isaiah 37:19).
But as Biblical scholars all know and as your pastor probably also knows, but won’t tell you, this was later development and that much of the Old Testament indicates throughout her history, Israel thought that the other gods were very real, and YHWH is jealous of them, like a husband is jealous of a very real other man.
Throughout the Biblical text YHWH seeks to demonstrate his superiority of the gods of the nation. YHWH sends plagues to Egypt because “on all of the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments” (Exodus 12:12). One does not judge things that don’t exist.
The Scripture writer than adds “I am the Lord” (12:12). This is not I am in charge—although that is the implication—but I am YHWH. I am YHWH is repeated over 150 times in the Old Testament as a way of boosting the particular deity who has triumphed.
However, the best piece of evidence of Israel polytheistic roots is probably found in Deuteronomy 32:
When the Most High apportioned the nations,
    when he divided humankind,
he fixed the boundaries of the peoples
    according to the number of the gods;
the Lord’s (YHWH) own portion was his people,
    Jacob his allotted share (Deut. 32:8-9). (NRSV)
Deuteronomy 32 is Moses’s Farewell Song to Israel before his passing (of course, it was written many centuries after the exodus for which there is not much evidence).
The word Most High here is not just another word for God, but El Elyon, the name of the chief God in Ugaritic pantheon. According to Canaanite mythology, he has supposedly fathered 70 sons.[1] This is historical background of this passage.
The Most High (El Elyon) is dividing up the peoples of the world among his sons and setting boundaries for each god. YHWH is one of the gods and Israel is his portion.
This text is such a blow to the Bible’s monotheistic pretensions that most Bible translations cover it up with a more palatable translation. The NIV and NASB translates elohim not as it should “gods” but as “sons of Israel.” The NKJV opts for the gender sensitive but still inaccurate “children of Israel.”
This might make theological sense but it does not make syntactic sense. Why would God set boundaries for other peoples according to the number of sons of Israel? This would also implies that there are only twelve nations.
Over time, Israel decides that it is not enough for YHWH to have Jacob as his portion. The other gods are ineffective and they have to go.
Thus, God calls a divine council:
God has taken his place in the divine council;
    in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
“How long will you judge unjustly
    and show partiality to the wicked?
 Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
    maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
    deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
I say, “You are gods,
    children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
    and fall like any prince” (Psalm 82:1-4, 6-7). (NRSV)
Again, English translators of the Bible seek to cover the pagan origin of the psalm. It is well-known among Biblical scholars that the divine council is a Canaanite setting in which El reigns over the other gods. Thus, the NASB opts for “his own congregation.” The NKJV says, “the congregation of the mighty.” The NIV says “the great assembly.”
In addition, that there are gods in this assembly is also covered up by the NASB, which translates elohim as “rulers.”
Again, this only makes theological sense. If there is not a god addressing other divine beings, then the punishment does not make sense. The psalmist says:
I say, “You are gods,
    children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
    and fall like any prince.”
It does not make sense to condemn a human being to die like a mortal or just a regular, old prince. The human being was already going to die like a mortal.
By the first century, Judaism was a solidly monotheistic religion, thus in the Gospel of John, we find Jesus interpreting the “You” are human beings.
The Jews answered, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.” Jesus answered, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If those to whom the word of God came were called ‘gods’—and the scripture cannot be annulled—can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?  (John 10:33-36).
And that is the story of how God, who was many, became one, and then became three.
Carolyn Hyppolite is the author of Still Small Voices: The Testimony of a Born Again Atheist. She lives in Toronto, ON.

     [1] Michael S. Heiser, “Deuteronomy and the Sons of God,” Bibliotheca Sacra 158, no. 629 (2001): 54.