The humble origins of the bible and the religion of the Israelites belie the significant impact it has had on the history of mankind; crusades, genocides, and political insurrection have all occurred in its name. While few would refute the influence it has had, many of the parables and histories portrayed in the Bible are by no means original. General story lines and motifs from ancient writings are spread throughout the Old Testament. Possibly no culture played a more noteworthy role in the development of this monotheistic writing and religion more than the contemporary culture and cult of the Canaanites.
The use of the term “Canaanite” is ambiguous and can be slightly misleading. In modern biblical readings, it is often used to classify a tribe or ethnicity of people. However, it does not appear that was its original meaning. The name Canaanite, scholars’ agree, refers to a group of independent city-states in an area extending from Lebanon in the north to the Nile in Egypt and from the Eastern Mediterranean coast to the Jordan River Valley. The simplistic view of the Canaanites as a homogenous ethnically similar group of people must therefore be abandoned and replaced with a more accurate portrayal as a loose affiliation of city-states, competing against one another for lucrative trade routes between Ancient Egypt and other major civilizations in Mesopotamia. In spite of this competition (or perhaps because of it), interactions amongst the various city-states did lead to similar cultural motifs, the most addressed of which were their religious beliefs.
The peoples of Canaan, along with most other civilizations of the time, had a belief system that at first appears to be based on highly diverse pantheons of distinct gods (polytheism). Original support for this view of Canaanite religion came from archeological evidence like the cuneiform tablets found at Ugarit which contain lists of numerous gods, their histories and place in the pantheon, and descriptions of rituals to appease them. Written down by Ilimilku from Shubbani through the dictation of the head priest, Attanu-Purlianni, in the early 1300 BCE, it gives us important insight into the beliefs purported by the priesthood. It is important to remember though that nearly all the commoners at this time were illiterate and therefore, unable to utilize these tablets.2 The writings were the product of the elite for the elite.
Once modern misconceptions of ancient people are removed, the polytheism recorded and thus preserved by the Canaanite elite does not seem to represent the religion of the masses. For the vast majority of people living in the land of Canaan during the Late Bronze and Early Iron Age, life was filled with political insurrection and societal infighting. The Egyptian New Kingdom, most notably under Thutmose III in the mid 14th century BCE, campaigned and eventually integrated much of southern Canaan into its empire for a time. Adding to this disarray, pastoral tribes present in northern Canaan began settling in the urban areas of the Canaanite city-states as well as several coastal areas, bringing their conflicting religious practices and culture.3 Under this backdrop, the people of the land of Canaan could not be taken from their toils to appease the hundreds of gods their religion posited.
Possibly in order to simplify matters or to have a more personal connection to a divine being, each city-state had a patron deity or couple deities that protected and controlled their interests. The royal families of each city-state were incorporated to a great extent into this religious system. Divine patronage, a religious practice in which the king derives his power from the patron god, was utilized in most Canaanite city-states (as well as Old Kingdom Egyptians).2 By this claim, the king was given legitimacy to rule and his commands were unquestionable. In return for the people’s obedience, the king was expected to be just and bring peace and prosperity to his people. When the king failed in these duties, the patron god brought retribution in the form of outside enemies and crop failures. An example of this belief is described by Professor Noll of Brandon University; King Mesha of Moab claimed his cities own deity brought outside invaders to destroy the people because of the actions of his predecessor. Only his divine ascendancy to king saved the people.2 If one was to consider the extent to which the patron god was worshipped, the Canaanite religion might be better classified as a henotheism (the elevation of one deity over all the others).
In a similar way, according to Dr. Weippert as cited by Othmar Keel, the Israelite people in pre-exilic times were polytheistic but with the majority of veneration and sacrifice directed toward the national deity Yahweh.4 In his divine capacity, like their contemporary Canaanite city-state patron gods, Yahweh communicated his will and justice to the people through various kings and prophets. An example of this can be found in 1 Kings 3 where Solomon receives guidance from god in a dream after a thousand sacrifices to appease Yahweh had been burnt at Gibeon. In addition, Yahweh punished his kingdom when they did not abide by his wishes. The Israelite God represented in the Bible is in many ways similar to the patron gods of Canaan with one major exception. The covenant with Yahweh was between the people of Israel and not their king.
Going even further to assert the similarities between Canaanite and early Israelite religion, Dr. Weippert proposed, “Yahweh, the national god of Israel did not stand alone in pre-exilic times… he had a goddess [Asherah] next to himself.”4 Asherah was Yahweh’s consort and as such carried significant power. It is important to note that the Canaanite’s originally worshipped Asherah as the consort of their high god El. The temples dedicated to her were home to the prostitutes and sacred fertility rituals later staunchly denounced in the Bible.
The downfall of the significance of Asherah by the early Israelites is asserted by many feminist theologians to be the direct result of an emerging patriarchal society that wished to downplay the role women had in religious affairs. 2 4 In many ways, religious beliefs of the day were a foundation by which the morals and customs of the society could be justified. By removing the fertility goddess Asherah, and thereby any female divinity, priests were able to justify the subservient role women played in the new society.
According to Dr. Weipper, his hypothesis that pre-exilic Israelites were polytheistic is supported by inscriptions at the archaeological site of Kuntillet ‘Ajrud in Sinai.4 Along the unearthed sanctuary walls, inscriptions can be found of both the Canaanite gods (El, Baal, and specifically Asherah) and the Israelite god Yahweh. However, there is a large amount of disagreement about the significance of these inscriptions. Biblical scholars dismiss the findings at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud contending that, while pre-exilic Israelites were aware of the Canaanite religious pantheon, they did not share in the worship of them.
Dr. Weippert rejects this theory by noting the familiarity with which the inscribers wrote of Baal and El, as well as certain characteristics later ascribed to Yahweh that were originally meant to represent Baal.4 Notable similarities between the storm god Baal and Yahweh appear in Deuteronomy 33:26-27. “Ancient sources demonstrate that both gods control the weather, ride on clouds, defeat mythical beasts that symbolize the chaotic floodwaters threatening the earth, and rule as divine king.”2 In name only was there a significant distinction between Yahweh and Baal to the people of Canaan. This must have been noticed by early biblical writers, as many parables and much rhetoric revolved around proving the Canaanite gods false.2 The similarities between Baal, El, and Yahweh are part of a larger trend of adaptation and manipulation of Canaanite deities’ names and attributes occurring well before the Early Iron Age.
Whether or not the Israelites and their religion were descended from an earlier tribe of Canaan or were simply influenced by a contemporary society, it is undeniable that the religion of the people of Canaan had a significant impact on the formation of the Israelites monotheist belief structure. The Canaanites city-state patron god framework created a template that was later built upon by the Israelites. Evolving from a polytheist pantheon of gods, into a henotheist view of an omnipotent Yahweh with his consort, the early Israelites ultimately reformed their ideas into a practical monotheistic view that allowed for no other gods but Yahweh.
Coogan, Michael David. 1978. Stories from Ancient Canaan. Westminster: John Knox
Gnuse, Robert. 1999. “The Emergence of Monotheism in Ancient Israel: A Survey of
Recent Scholarship.” Religion 29: 315–336
Golden, Jonathan Michael. 2004. Ancient Canaan and Israel. ABC-CLIO
Othmar Keel, Christoph Uehlinger, Thomas H. Trapp. 1998. Gods, Goddesses, and
Images of God in Ancient Israel. Continuum International Publishing Group.
Noll, K. 2007. Canaanite religion. Religion Compass 1:61–92.