Did Israel borrow Yahweh from the Canaanites and slide into monotheism?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture

Question: Is God (Yahweh) borrowed from the Canaanite's polytheistic beliefs? And did the Jews slowly gravitate towards Monotheism from Polytheism? I have heard archaeologists now make the claim the God is just a borrowed character from the pagans. 

Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for submitting such an important question. The issue that you have described comes up quite a bit — and well it should. Christianity’s Jewish roots go back through Abraham (Abram)… but Abraham came from somewhere — and that somewhere had false gods. So, did he bring anything “strange” with him into this new covenant? Or did hearing God’s voice make him a really new man? Those who do not believe God’s revelation think that they have proof that our God is not so pure, whereas we who take God at his word are rarely so encumbered. Yet, it is our duty to respond.

The Bible tells the oldest story, and, generally speaking, it tells it based on the oldest documents. This is not true in every case, though, because archaeologists have found many documents that antedate certain of the biblical narratives. This sets God up for a challenge. His opponents assert that, since they have the older extant documents, that they influenced the Bible. They can be further emboldened by the fact that some stories, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, have similar stories to those in the Bible, like Noah’s flood. They conclude that their legend spawned our legend, but this is far from the truth.

As for Gilgamesh, what we have is two differing accounts of a single true event, the Bible’s account, and a pagan account. The pagan account had long ago branched off the track of truth but continued to run parallel with Noah through time. In this case, the pagans hit the publishers first… but first does not mean true. With two stories on parallel tracks, the date of publishing means nothing. In this case, a single truth caused both stories, but neither story caused the other. Here is the principle: Although precedence is required to prove causation, precedence alone does not.

How does this information help us? Well, as previously stated, Abraham came from somewhere, and that somewhere had a culture. He also traveled to several other places (Haran, Egypt, Canaan) which also had embedded cultures. Everywhere he went, Abraham encountered people, places and things that were older than he was; they had precedence, inertia and inescapability. Because we believers see our heroes as overcomers, we can be prejudiced that these pressures do not matter.

On the other hand, nonbelievers postulate a too-small-god for us and are therefore prejudiced that God cannot overcome the culture. But our All-Knowing and All-Powerful God certainly knows that culture exists and why it exists. He also knows how to call a person out of it. There is nothing neither untoward nor non-congruent about Abraham’s call. God called him from a world of embedded paganism to connect with the one true God. That was the job — not the problem. The Bible only shows conversion. It never shows a progression from polytheism to monotheism. The call of God at a point in time is a phenomenon that is unique to believers. The non-regenerated tend not to understand this having never experienced it.

Please note, however, that the Israelites frequently traveled the opposite way. They slid from monotheism to polytheism like some people change shoes. This cycle (leaving the one true God and later returning after various hardships) is a common theme in the Old Testament. But we are not talking about that phenomenon. We want to know if Israel originally cribbed their God from the pagans.

Additionally, I am not prepared to say that no person or group among the Israelites practiced an original polytheism. In fact, this is plausible, because even the called-of-God will vary as humans vary. They were (as we are) volitional beings in a sin-sick world. But again, this is not the issue at hand. We are speaking about the official body of the nation Israel and not the few outliers among the people. Besides, God’s institution of the Law tells us that these people did not represent him or the conscience of the nation while behaving polytheistically.

One of the challenges used by our opponents is that the Hebrew names for God, like Yahweh and El, come from pagan sources. This is a complex issue, but ultimately, that statement is not true. However, for the sake of argument, let us say this was true and then ask ourselves if God had taken that pagan nomenclature for himself, would that have changed his nature? No. He is forever the Sovereign Lord, Creator of the Universe… or he is not. And if he is, he can call himself anything he likes! That is not what happened, of course. I just wanted to illustrate that those who hold these arguments postulate a god that is not our God. Therefore, their arguments cannot obtain.

Adam and Eve were the only people who never had to deal with culture as we know it. They had to deal with Satan, of course, but not with history. The rest of us still have to deal with Satan plus the burden of living in a culture skewed by sin. There are gods everywhere! And some of their original names come close to the names of the biblically revealed God. But this is not as big a problem for Christians as it sounds. The question is not, which element came first — and this is a good thing because the pagans were running the world well before Abraham’s call! The question is did all that cause God? Hardly. Cultural precedence was a mere circumstance, and all time is evil (which should be an axiom among those who look at history).

When God calls certain persons at a point in an evil time, he need not change their culture or their history, or any other thing save the individual’s heart. The question is then, did God really affect Abraham’s calling? Because, if he did, then the fact that an “older” god may or may not have had a similar name to Yahweh or El does not matter. God can certainly work his way in spite of sin’s detritus. But if Abram were merely a powerful leader who morphed his old gods into one Big One, then the Bible is a lie… and I’m going home. So, there is a lot at stake here.

Because there is a lot at stake, I am going to follow the lead of Christian advocate, Dr. William Lane Craig, who deferred a similar question to subject matter expert, Dr. Richard Hess. Hess is the Professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Denver Seminary and is an expert in ancient Israelite religion. He answers a question exactly like yours at the following link… but be warned. Just the question portion of this discussion is longer than any reasonable question and answer at such a small venue as this one. This speaks to the issue’s complexity. Now, do not worry. You have submitted an entirely answerable question. It just takes a certain word-count to address all the technical points which combine to form the complete answer. Enjoy Dr. Hess.


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