Arts and Cultures - Many Deities in Early Abrahamic Society

Arts and Cultures

Dr Archana Verma

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There has been so much of emphasis on the monotheism of Abraham with stress on worshipping only Yahweh as the only God, that many people imagine that the Israel of Hebrew Bible displaced all the deities of ancient Canaan and established the worship of only Yahweh. But this is not so. 

Hebrew Bible itself talks about the existence of a composite religious profile of the region where Abraham had settled.

There is a debate about what exactly the term Canaan denoted - an ethnic population, a linguistic population, a geographic expanse of the Semitic-speaking population, or another category. However, most scholars accept Canaan to imply the geographical region including the present-day Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, North Western Jordan and some Western regions of Syria. South of this region was the Land of Edomites.

Abraham's eldest grandson was Esau, who worshipped the ancient deities of Canaan, which included El, Ba'al, Yam, Ashera and many others. This was the reason that his mother Rebecca didn't want him to inherit his father Isaac's mantle and she ensured that his younger brother Jacob inherited after Isaac. The God of Abraham approved of this plan and gave blessings to Jacob, who worshipped him.

Further, Esau went to Paran to his uncle Ishmael's household and married women there. He was the progenitor of Edomites. 

The national deity of Edomites was Qos, whose characteristics almost rivalled those of Yahweh, in that he was regarded as a supreme, all-powerful deity. Besides, there was El a deity older than Yahweh, who was also regarded as the supreme god of Israel. Another widely popular deity was Ba'al, whose name meant "Lord". He started off as a supreme deity and eventually grew into a deity of storm and thunder and a king of gods.

The archaeological evidences from the region of Canaan suggest that Israelites might not have been outsiders in Canaan as the Hebrew Bible suggests. Rather, Israelites might have been descendants of the Canaanites and their religion might have emerged out of the ancient Canaanite religion. To this, there was intermingling from Persia, Mesopotamia and Egypt, the three powerful regions at this time close to Canaan.

Perhaps there were also cultural exchanges with the ancient Indian civilisation which had trade contacts with this region. However, this aspect has not been studied.

Hence, it appears that the ancient Abrahamic people lived amidst a wider population which followed a diverse religious matrix, of many deities and also of many supreme, all-powerful deities akin to the God of Abraham. They were not necessarily following the God of Abraham as the only God and the Hebrew Bible is replete with verses commanding the followers of the God of Abraham to subdue such people.

The exclusive monotheistic worship of a single God seems to have emerged quite late in the history of this region, even after the early Abrahamic religion took shape here.

To the Canaanites, accepting a supreme deity didn't necessarily mean that they had to stop praying to other deities. This was a religious system where supreme deities co-existed with other deities.

Ancient Abrahamic religion attempted to change this equation, where a supreme deity could co-exist with other deities. No other ancient religion had done this before Abrahamic religion. This was an innovation of the ancient Abrahamic religion.