Supposedly, modern archaeological findings hold that ancient Israel was polytheistic (with the exodus from Egypt simply being a legend), and then gradually shifted to monotheism.

How does one approach this knowledge without:

1) resorting to something which others can claim is anti-intellectual though, e.g. "my faith holds that this is not the case, regardless of whatever the findings of science are";


2) becoming "ultra-humanistic", e.g. the stories in the Hebrew Bible are seen only as extremely metaphorical parables, rather than actual historical events?

There is a very related question and answer, but it is worthwhile to note that it refers to claims of monolatrism, rather than claims of polytheism.

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    Tanakh already tells us that many Jews in ancient Israel were polytheists. Big whoop. – Double AA Jul 21 '15 at 3:25
  • @DoubleAA Yes, but that is different from saying that that Judaism was polytheistic, before slowly evolving to monotheism? – user9670 Jul 21 '15 at 3:27
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    Right. It gives a different way of viewing the archeological evidence – Double AA Jul 21 '15 at 3:28
  • or maybe it was moving away from monotheism. Kind of like the Karaites. – ertert3terte Jul 21 '15 at 6:06
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    You make many assertions as if you are more certain about archeology than the archeologists themselves. It is not anti-intellectual to claim that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. – RonP Jul 21 '15 at 6:30

I suggest approaching the issues as follows, as a beginning point:

1) There was no clear monotheist/polytheist dichotomy during the Patriarchal period, those are modern categories. A better way to start would be to ask what did the ancient tribe(s) consider appropriate methods to communicate with and worship their specific ancestral G-d, who led their forefather Avraham out of Mesopotamia? The book of Bereshit is the primary source of evidence (considerably more detailed than the few short inscriptions discovered by archaeologists). It describes the Patriarchs erecting sacred pillars and trees (e.g. Ber. 21:33, 28:18, 35:14), like their neighbors. In addition, when Yaacov discovered idols (clearly related to the worship of different gods), he buried them (35:1-5), suggesting that other gods and their cultic objects were distinct and not acceptable, yet he did not destroy them as Moshe later required (Dvar. 7:5, 25; 12:3). All this indicates that the tribe did not accept other gods besides G-d, yet at the same time there was not a complete break with the religious practices of the surrounding peoples.

2) Bear in mind that a number of different tribal groups throughout Syria/Canaan worshipped various deities with names such as El, El Shaddai, El Eloah, El Olam, etc. The name "El" has been found in Northwest Semitic inscriptions of Phoenecians, Hurrians, and Ugarites, referring to a supreme god. The Patriarchs worshipped at a variety of these local shrines and sought oracles from them, alongside the inhabitants (e.g. Ber. 12:6, 31:13, 35:7, 21:33, 14:13). Avraham even gave tribute to Melchitzedek, a priest of El Elyon (14:18-20). There is no indication that they, or the text of Bereshit, considered that these were shrines to foreign gods, but rather were all part of a similar religio-cultural zone that also directed worship to G-d.

3) The Yisraelim in Mitzrayim are described as having distinct religious beliefs to the Egyptian majority (Shem. 4:30-31, 5:2-3).

4) Modern scholarly views tend to consider parts of the book of Shoftim the oldest extant text of the Tana'k, rather than the Chumash. Considering this book on its own (assuming no Exodus etc), the society described does appear polytheistic (2:11-23) yet side by side with that are descriptions of wars and political oppression attributed to that very polytheism, suggesting ambivalence towards the practice, at best.

5) The words for 'god' are often used loosely: they were also applied to particularly powerful/blessed/important people (Shem. 7:1; 21:6, 22:7-8; 1 Sam. 28:13; Teh. 45:6, 82:1). (This appears in much later texts too, where other people, such as Henoch [Heikhalot, 3 Henoch] and Rashbi [Zohar 1:223a; 3:59b, 201b] are described as 'HASHEM'/'G-d'.) These designations do not signify that the Yisraelim actually worshipped these people/entities as deities.

  • Regarding your #4: Even among secular archaeologists who reject the mesorah and the unified, divine authorship of the Pentateuch, many consider Az Yashir to be at least a pre-monarchic text. So Sh'mos 15:2,11,18 should be of interest to them. – Fred Jul 28 '15 at 22:44

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