The First & Second CommandmentsYou shall have no other gods before meYou shall not make for yourself an idol
The first two of the Ten Commandments, like many of the others, are the subject of extensive discussion and debate among scholars. The aforementioned numbering problems (is this commandment one, two, or one and two?) have only been part of the controversy. Some of the most interesting discussions surround what it means to have no other gods before Yahweh. Does this mean that other deities could be tolerated as long as Yahweh was given priority (a belief system known as henotheism)? Or, while acknowledging there are other gods, is this a demand that Israel worship only Yahweh (a belief system known as monolatry)? Or are we to understand this command the way it has been traditionally understood, as denying the existence of all other gods except Yahweh (a belief system known as monotheism)?
While the traditional approach is often assumed to be the correct one, cross-cultural comparisons, as well as closer scrutiny of certain biblical passages, have called this understanding into question.
Whether we look at the religions of ancient Mesopotamia, Egypt, Greece, or even Canaan, we find many gods being worshiped. Even though an individual city or nation might have its chief deity, the cultures of the ancient Near East recognized and gave homage to a wide assortment of gods and goddesses. For example, Assyria's chief deity, and the one from whom the nation and capital derived its name, was Ashur. Nevertheless, Assyrian religion acknowledged a whole pantheon of deities and, on occasion, even incorporated new deities into their pantheon from their contact with (usually via conquest of) other nations. In light of this practice, could Yahweh be to Israel what Ashur was to Assyria--the "top god," but not the only god? And if so, did Yahweh always hold this position of priority in Israelite religion?
Did Israel Ever Have Other Gods Before Yahweh?
In a chance discovery in 1928, a Syrian farmer exposed an ancient tomb while plowing a field. What followed was the unearthing of a once bustling coastal city-state known in ancient times as Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra). Within the palace complex at Ugarit there was discovered a collection of sacred writings that give us a unique look into Canaanite religion and society of the fourteen and thirteen centuries b.c.e. While we already had glimpses of Canaanite culture from descriptions in the Bible (usually in the form of condemnatory remarks), the texts from Ugarit give us the perspective of the "other guys." These texts show that although only a small number of gods play an active role in their mythologies, god-lists found at Ugarit demonstrate that literally hundreds of gods were imagined to exist. With this in view, the first of the Ten Commandments, or Decalogue, if we are to interpret it as forbidding the acknowledgment or worship of any other god except Yahweh, would certainly go against the grain of what seems normative for the Canaanite culture that surrounded Israel. Yet, the texts from Ugarit, while giving us greater insight into ancient Canaanite religion, might shed light on the development of ancient Israelite religion as well.
Do Gods Grow Old and Retire?
A motif found in the mythological texts at Ugarit, as well as in other mythologies of the ancient Near East, is that of the senior, retiring god, who, while maintaining his formal position of authority, is largely displaced or, in some cases, completely supplanted by a younger, more energetic and active god. For example, at Ugarit, the senior god, El, usually serves as a backdrop for the exploits of the younger Canaanite storm-god, Baal. When the Canaanite pantheon is threatened by the deified Sea (Yamm) and later by Death (Mot), it is the self-asserting Baal who comes to the rescue. Similar scenarios are attested in the mythologies of ancient Mesopotamia. Both Marduk in Babylon and Ashur in Assyria gradually replace the Sumerian god Enlil as the head of the Mesopotamian pantheon. In Greece, Zeus, who, like Baal, is a storm-god, replaces the older Kronos. The reason for this "changing of the god" seems, in most cases, to be tied to changing political or social configurations within a region. For example, when a people or nation gained supremacy over another people or nation, so did their representative deity. In turn, these changes were reflected in the popular mythology. Thus, when Babylon gained control over all of Mesopotamia, Marduk became the chief hero of the Mesopotamian creation story, as well as the head of the Mesopotamian pantheon.
Some scholars have suggested that a parallel phenomenon may have occurred in the development of Israelite religion, that Yahweh in Israel, like Marduk in Babylon, eventually displaced an "older" regional god, in this case, the Canaanite god El. These scholars argue that while we would not expect to find a myth in the Bible explaining how Yahweh rose to eminence over an older, retiring god, since the prevailing monotheism of later (and perhaps earlier) periods would have seen to it that such a narrative did not make it into Israel's sacred text, there appear to be remnants in the biblical traditions that such a usurpation may have occurred.
What's in a Name?
Biblical epithets for the God of the Patriarchs include El Elyon (God Most High), El Olam (Eternal God) and El Shaddai (usually translated as God Almighty), among others. This would be expected from a people living in Canaan, since, as we have already observed, El was the chief god of the Canaanite pantheon. Yet, this very observation requires us to reconsider the translation of the above names. "El" is usually understood, at least in nearly all translations of the Bible, as a generic name for "God." Thus, El Shaddai is rendered as "God Almighty." However, the evidence from Ugarit suggests that the El of biblical tradition could be understood as a personal name for God. Thus, El Shaddai could be translated as "El the Almighty." Yet, is there any evidence in the Bible that El should be understood as the personal name of a deity rather than simply the generic word for "God"? And if so, should this be understood as representing an earlier phase in Israelite religion where El was the chief deity prior to the emergence of a deity named Yahweh? Let's look at the evidence.
God's Name Change
First of all, while the name Yahweh is used throughout Genesis, a passage in Exodus seems to indicate that its occurrence in these earlier narratives is anachronistic. In Exodus 6:3, Yahweh informs Moses,
I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El Shaddai, but by my name Yahweh I was not known to them.
Yet, a cursory perusal of the patriarchal narratives shows that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob all use the epithet Yahweh. In what sense, then, was the name Yahweh not known to the patriarchs?
It was such a question, along with others, that led scholars to postulate that different sources were used in constructing the "five books of Moses," at least one of which preserved a tradition that the name Yahweh did not come into use in ancient Israel until the time of Moses. Adding support to this theory was the observation that when the narrative strands employing different divine names are separated, many of the so-called "doublets" (stories that are very similar to one another) separate as well. For example, there are two narratives recounting the naming of Isaac. In one, Genesis 17, the divine names used are Elohim, the generic name for God, and El Shaddai. In the other, Genesis 18, only the name Yahweh is used.
The narrative strand that uses the divine name Elohim was referred to by these early scholars as "E." Similarly, the strand that employs the divine name Yahweh was called "J" (from the German Jahweh, as the theory was largely developed in Germany). Yet, it was soon discovered that within "E" there were still more doublets and stylistic differences. Because a group of these texts seemed particularly interested in priestly matters (proper sacrifice, ritual law, etc.), it was called the "Priestly" source, or "P." What was left over retained the designation "E."
Although the discovery of these sources had many stages and included the contributions of numerous scholars, the most complete and compelling presentation was given by a German scholar named Julius Wellhausen, and it is therefore sometimes referred to as the Wellhausian theory, although it is more often called the Documentary Hypothesis or the JEDP theory (D for Deuteronomist, an independent composition consisting of the book of Deuteronomy). While the Documentary Hypothesis is not without its dissenters, it has become the prevailing model within biblical scholarship for understanding the composition of the Torah.
The Worship of "Other Gods" in Ancient Israel
Regardless of whether Yahweh displaced an older and retiring El in the development of Israelite religion, that Israel worshiped more than one god is well attested in the Bible itself, even though the behavior is almost always mentioned only to condemn it. Examples of such judgments against worshiping other gods, like the following from Jeremiah, could be multiplied, quite literally, a hundred times over. In Jeremiah 11:10 Yahweh declares,
They (the nations of Israel and Judah) have returned to the iniquities of their forefathers, who refused to listen to my words, and they have gone after other gods to serve them. The house of Israel and the house of Judah have broken my covenant that I made with their fathers.
Elsewhere in Jeremiah, Yahweh remarks disparagingly,
And where are your gods that you have made for yourself? Let them arise if they can save you in the time of your trouble, for according to the number of your cities, so are your gods, O Judah. Jeremiah 2:28
The worship of many gods was clearly part of the fabric of Israelite society.
The Worship of Goddesses
So far we have spoken mostly of male deities, but what about female deities? Were goddesses worshiped in Israel as they were among Israel's neighbors? The answer is yes. We again turn to our informant Jeremiah to give us a report of goddess worship in Israel, an activity that apparently extended from the home of the commoner all the way to the halls of the royal palace.
The text we will consider records the words of those who have unashamedly made cake offerings to a goddess known as the "queen of heaven." Their only regret, they tell Jeremiah, is that they ever stopped! Their words reveal the extent of goddess worship in Israel:
As for the message that you [Jeremiah] have spoken to us in the name of Yahweh, we are not going to listen to you! But rather we will certainly carry out every word that has proceeded from our mouths, by burning sacrifices to the queen of heaven and pouring out libations to her, just as we ourselves, our forefathers, our kings and our princes did in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem; for then we had plenty of food, and were well off, and saw no misfortune. Jeremiah 44:16-17
Did Yahweh Have a Wife?
Although a number of scholars identify the "queen of heaven" of the above passage with the Mesopotamian goddess Ishtar or the Canaanite goddess Astarte, her actual identity remains a mystery, and many believe her to be none other than the female deity who receives so much press in the Bible--the goddess Asherah. Regardless of her identity, the presence of such a prevalent female deity in Israel raises a tantalizing question. What was the perceived relationship between Yahweh and this goddess? In Egypt, Osiris' consort was Isis, in Babylon, Marduk's consort was Zarpanitum, and at Ugarit, El's consort was Asherah. Did Yahweh have a consort?
Again, the monotheism expressed in the biblical texts would adamantly deny this possibility. Yet, as we have seen from the book of Jeremiah, the religion extolled by the prophets was not always the religion practiced by the masses, or even the royal house. In fact, recent archaeological finds have raised whole new problems surrounding the question of Yahweh's relationship to divinities of the female sort. At Kuntillet cAjrud, located between the border of the southern Negev and the Sinai peninsula, a votive inscription was found dedicated to "Yahweh of Samaria and his Asherah." Should "his Asherah" be understood as the well-known Canaanite goddess or is this simply a noun referring to a shrine or cultic object (perhaps a wooden pole, as we find in the Bible)?
One difficulty with interpreting this as the goddess Asherah has to do with grammar. Proper nouns (such as Asherah) should not take possessive pronouns (in this case, "his"). However, other considerations raise the possibility that this is a reference to the goddess Asherah. If we remember that Yahweh may have been associated with the Canaanite god El, then it may not be mere coincidence that Yahweh was associated with El's consort. That is to say, if we suppose that at some point in Israelite religion El was supplanted by or incorporated into Yahweh (just as, according to the biblical record, the Canaanites were both supplanted by and incorporated into Israel), the prevalent belief may have been that Yahweh, in a sense, "got the girl." Referring to Yahweh's consort as "his Asherah" may have been necessary to distinguish her from "El's Asherah." In Mesopotamia we find that gods and goddesses could be paired with different spouses at varying times and places. For example, Ashur was paired with Mulliltu, the spouse of the "older" Mesopotamian god Enlil. In fact, Ashur became known as the "Enlil of Assyria," a title that gave him greater prestige. So one might refer to Mulliltu as both Enlil's Mulliltu and Ashur's Mulliltu. Therefore, to specify Asherah as Yahweh's by the words "his Asherah" seems quite possible and even appropriate.
Whether or not this "marriage" between Yahweh and Asherah was ever realized in the popular religion of Israel, Asherah certainly played a significant role in Israelite worship. For example, we read in 1 Kings 15 that King Asa deposed his own mother as queen because she had built an image of Asherah. In addition, Jezebel, the Sidonian princess and wife of King Ahab, had 450 prophets of Baal and 400 prophets of Asherah in her employ. Moreover, King Manasseh, whom the Bible considers one of the worst kings in Israel's history, made an image of Asherah and did the unthinkable with it. 2 Kings 21:7 gives us the details:
Then [Manasseh] set the carved image of Asherah that he had made in the house about which Yahweh said to David and to his son Solomon, "In this house and in Jerusalem, which I have chosen from all the tribes of Israel, I will put my name forever."
Therefore, whether or not the Israelites conceived of Yahweh and Asherah as husband and wife, King Manasseh made them to dwell together.
Although more could be said regarding the prevalence of other deities in Israel, the above discussion is sufficient to demonstrate the point--the worship of many gods and goddesses in the ancient Near East, including Israel, was pandemic, and if we interpret the first commandment as meaning Yahweh should be worshiped alone (a position Jeremiah certainly took), then it was a tall order indeed, and one that met with limited success.From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from The Nine Commandments by David Noel Freedman. Copyright © 2002 by David Noel Freedman. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.