The Pagan Hebrews
El is the God of Israel and El had a Wife
There are many people who question religion these days. Americans have been leaving Christian churches in droves for a generation now. Deconstruction has become a trend among fundamentalist Christians who are finding their theology increasingly difficult to rationalize against the advance of modern science and Biblical studies. Christian sexual ethics has also become a major flashpoint in the culture war.
The Christian Bible is said to be the authoritative word of God by believing Christians. Yet modern archaeology and scholarship are putting those claims to the test. We are told many things in Church about the Biblical narrative that do not stand up to scrutiny anymore. Not in the sense of Biblical literalism or belief of the supernatural, but that we can now see how the Biblical writers rewrote their own history to suit their cultural agendas and evolving attitudes.
One of the core tenets of the faith is that monotheism goes back to the beginning of time and that polytheism, or paganism, was a distorted religion invented later on by corrupt sinners. We are taught that the Old Testament Hebrews struggled mightily to preserve their ancient traditions against the perversions of the decadent Canaanites.
But biblical scholars have been saying for a generation now that the early Hebrews were polytheists and monotheism emerged later on. There seems to be scholarly consensus on this, the eminent Hebrew scholar Raphael Patai first identified Asherah as the “Hebrew Goddess” in 1967, and the great archaeologist William Dever added evidence in his book, “Did God Have a Wife?” There has been no serious rebuttal since of their core claims.
The scholars seem to avoid the theological implications of these findings, and the theologians don’t seem interested in the discussion at all. If the early Hebrews were polytheistic pagans, then that means the Biblical narrative as presented is not accurate and we need to reevaluate our views of history.
I dive into this story in my new book, “A History of the Goddess: from the Ice Age to the Bible.” I was fascinated by the question of the Wife of God. Who is this character and what did it mean to worship her? I describe the characters of the lost goddesses of Israel and what their religion was like.
So who were the pagan Hebrews? There is no evidence of a mass exodus from Egypt as told in the Bible, but Canaan and Egypt were neighboring lands with plenty of movement back and forth. As far as we can tell from scholarship, the Hebrews, or Israelites, were one among many Canaanite tribes who worshipped the common Canaanite pantheon.
According to the Biblical narrative, the Hebrews had been monotheistic for centuries going back to Abraham, and that the pagan deities they fought; Baal, Asherah, and Astarte, were foreign deities of the Canaanites that the Israelites had been tempted into worshipping.
The scholarship tells us a different story. We can now see that the Israelites were pagan Canaanites with a tribal identity as the followers of El. El is the well-known chief god of the Canaanites, the Heavenly Father, and Creator of the Universe, he stood above the pantheon of gods, just as described in the Bible. The name El appears many times in the Bible, typically as the variation Elohim, a generic word for god.
Elohim has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment: -Psalm 82:1
Abraham’s grandson Jacob was first given the name Israel, after a night of wrestling with an angel. “Isra-el” means “wrestles with God.” The first thing that Jacob did afterward was to build an altar that declares “El is the God of Israel.”
There he set up an altar and called it El Elohe Israel. - Genesis 33:20
These passages and many others from the Bible indicate the polytheist roots of the Hebrews. The gods of Canaan were originally the gods of Israel too. Monotheism did not start with Abraham, it began with Moses.
God also said to Moses, "I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as El Shaddai (God Almighty), but by my name Yahweh I did not make myself fully known to them.” - Exodus 6:2-3
Moses introduced the name Yahweh as a new name for El, complete with a new character and mythology as the monotheisic god. No longer would El share authority with a pantheon of gods, now Yahweh was to rule alone.
Do not worship any other god, for Yahweh, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. - Exodus 34:14
The later biblical writers rewrote Abraham’s history to have him talking to Yahweh when really he had been talking to El and had never heard the name, Yahweh. We see these competing, intertwined narratives in the scripture when the same stories are retold with different details.
Moses presumably picked up the idea for monotheism from the cult of Aten in Egypt. Akhenaten was the highly unpopular heretic pharaoh who had attempted to install his form of monotheism focused on the sun god Aten on the resistant Egyptian people a century before Moses would have lived (if Moses was real). These reforms lasted less than twenty years and ended with Akhenaten’s death.
The logic of monotheism is that it is intolerant of other gods and religions. Aten closed all the traditional temples in Egypt and consolidated worship in his chosen temple. The people of Egypt did not appreciate these reforms and as soon as the pharaoh died the people went straight back to their traditional ways. Akhenaten was hated so much that the Egyptian people tried to remove all traces of him and his family from the national records. We only know of him know from archaeology.
Somehow, the idea of monotheism became attached to the Israelite tribe and their worship of the El, creator of the universe. The story of the monotheistic reforms played out similarly among the Israelites as it had earlier in Egypt, with the difference that in Israel, the debate played out over 600 years right up until the destruction of Jerusalem and exile to Babylon. Most of the Israelites favored the traditional gods and had no interest in giving up their worship.
In the Bible, we hear about Baal, Asherah, Astarte, and other gods, but their character is never made clear, they are simply condemned. The biblical writers and prophets were Yahwists, partisan followers of Yahweh who railed against the popular culture and worked to close down the rival temples and festivals. They don’t want us to know anything about the traditional gods, especially the popular goddesses. The Hebrew language does not even have a word for goddess.
The Yahwists did have some good arguments in their favor, particularly in regards to their disgust with child sacrifice, a practice that has been confirmed in the Phoenician colony at Carthage. The Phoenicians and Canaanites followed the same gods and had a common culture. According to Greek accounts, the child sacrifices were made to Cronos who the Greeks equated to El. If true, that would fit with the scholars who believe that Abraham did actually sacrifice Isaac to El and later Yahwist editors rewrote Isaac back into the story.
With the discovery of the Ugaritic texts, we get to meet the Canaanite gods for the first time. Ugarit was a prosperous city-state city on the Lebanese coast that fell in dramatic fashion during the Bronze Age collapse. The city was never rebuilt and the burial of the royal halls yielded fantastic archaeological discoveries in 1928. Thousands of cuneiform tablets present us with rare Canaanite mythology that displays El interacting with the rest of the pantheon, the most important gods being his wife and children.
These stories from Ugarit are prequels to the Bible and completely shatter the traditional Biblical narrative because we can see clearly that the Canaanite gods are the Israelite gods. This is the pagan Hebrew religion of the Golden Calf that Moses and the Yahwists sought to exterminate. This is the religion of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the northern kingdom of Israel.
Baal, the great enemy of the Yahwists in the Old Testament, was El’s favorite son and the king of gods, equivalent to the Greek Zeus and Babylonian Marduk from the same period. Yamm, the god of the sea was the equivalent to the Greek Poseidon, while Mot was the god of death like Hades. The Hebrew word for sea is yam and the Hebrew word for death is moth, strong evidence that these gods were native to the biblical Israelites.
Among the Ugaritic texts, we find the Baal Cycle, the most important piece of Canaanite mythology. It is the story of how Baal became king of the gods with the approval of El and Asherah and after defeating Yamm for supremacy. In the story, Baal is killed by Mot and resurrected by his sister Anat. Every pagan religion had a dying-and-rising god at its heart and Christianity borrowed the motif.
In the Baal Cycle, we see the Canaanite gods of the Bible. We see El the kind and compassionate showing great care for people and gods alike. Besides Baal, Yamm, and Mot, we see the powerful goddesses Asherah, Astarte, and Anat - the lost goddesses of Israel.
Modern-day feminists would do well in getting to know these wild and unbridled goddesses. Asherah, Astarte, and Anat are formidable archetypes of the Feminine Divine that are not reflected in patriarchal Western Civilization. The mother of the universe, the warrior love goddess supreme, and the goddess of terrifying powers. They were a Triple Goddess united as Qedesh, with sacred priestesses called qedesha, and a holy city, Kadesh.
Asherah was the wife of El, the wife of God, the Canaanite mother goddess was known as the “Lady of the Sea” and she was the mother of 70 gods that belonged to her, not to their father. Asherah was represented with Asherah poles that appear many times in the Bible, they were a chief source of contention with the Yahwists, who repeatedly chopped them down only to have the people put them back up as soon as they were able. An Asherah pole stood in Israel through its entire history and for two-thirds of the time at King Solomon’s temple.
Astarte was an incarnation of the Babylonian Ishtar and inspired the Greek Aphrodite. The goddess of love and war, the beautiful and beloved Astarte was the Queen of Heaven, the most popular deity in the land. She led the kings to victory in battle and confirmed their rule in the sacred marriage ceremonies (hieros gamos). In the Bible, she is called Ashtoreth, which means “shameful Astarte,” speaking to the biblical writers' disapproval of her highly sexual worship. By modern standards, Astarte/Ishtar was a porn star.
The Canaanites believed that sex makes the flowers grow and the entire society could not have enough sex. The culture does not appear to be monogamous, they had ritual prostitution in the temples and sacred sex in agricultural rituals. Cannabis was a sacred plant and they had the full apothecary of plant drugs at their disposal. The women made strong drink and mystery potions. Eunuchs and transgenders were celebrated and were high priests to the goddesses.
Canaanite worship often climaxed in debauched intoxicated orgies, practices that continued and were well attested right through Roman times in various Mystery religions and cults of Dionysus. The Hebrew prophets go on at length about Canaanite prostitution, promiscuity, and illegitimate children (they had matriarchal bloodlines).
Astarte’s best friend and sister was the blood-soaked Anat, the terrifying goddess of slaughter and vengeance. Similar to the Hindu Kali, Anat delighted in death, massacring her enemies with joy, wading up to her vulva in blood and gore, she wore a necklace of human skulls and a belt of human hands. Anat was the consort of Baal and his greatest defender. The biblical writers would have been familiar with Anat but they dared not mention her in the Bible, probably because they were afraid of her.
Anat is she who must not be named.
Anat is a remarkably powerful goddess. In the Baal Cycle, she approaches her father El and threatens to smash his skull in and make his grey beard run red. El the kind and compassionate was unbothered by his daughter’s tantrums. Asherah, on the other hand, trembled with fear when Anat and Baal approached her, but they came bearing gifts and requesting aid and she was glad to help them.
When Mot killed Baal, Anat confronted the god of death, she grabbed him by his collar and screamed, “give me back my brother!” Anat then cleaved Mot in half with a sword, burned him, ground him up in a sieve, and fed him to the birds, restoring Baal to life and majesty. That is raw power not typically seen in other gods or goddesses in any culture.
Asherah, Astarte, and Anat were combined into a single triune goddess named Qedesh that was popular with the Semitic people of Egypt and Syria. Qedesh was a fertility goddess portrayed nude and riding a lion. She is similar to Shakti of the Hindus, the Goddesshead, the supreme creative force of the universe. Their priestesses were called qedesha, who appear many times in the Bible but are called cult prostitutes or temple harlots in most English translations. Their holy city was Kadesh in Syria, where Miriam, the sister of Moses was buried.
In the Biblical narrative, Baal is defeated repeatedly by the Yahwists. His temples are destroyed, idols smashed, and his priests are killed. But if you read between the lines, the discerning reader can see that the Goddess survives. The Asherah poles are chopped down many times but they are always promptly restored. Even after the destruction of Jerusalem, the women defend their worship of Astarte the Queen of Heaven and they angrily castigate the prophet Jeremiah for accusing them of sin (Jeremiah 44:15-19).
There is a theology of Qedesh that stands in stark contrast to the theology of monotheism. Many of the things we fight about in today’s culture wars can be seen in the ancient goddess worship and Mystery religions. These were women-led religions rooted in nature, they had sexual freedom and were egalitarian, cannabis was a sacred plant and they had a full apothecary of plant drugs, transgenders were celebrated as high priests, and they even had abortions.
Today’s culture wars track directly back to the religious wars of the Old Testament when the Goddess traditions were first repressed.