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Exodus & Israelite Polytheism (Part 3 of 7)

Ancient Israelites believed in a pantheon of gods.  They weren’t monotheistic.  In our next conversation with biblical scholar Colby Townsend, we’ll learn more about the Canaanites and Israelites.

GT:  From what I understand, one of the big issues in the Bible was idolatry. And so, the Canaanite religion had a bunch of deities. You had Jehovah. You had Elohim. You had Ba’al. Who was the female?

Colby:  Asherah.

GT:  Asherah. It was kind of like the Greek gods Zeus and Jupiter and Mars and Venus and everybody. The Canaanites have the same thing. And so, you had some tribes that [said] Jehovah is our God. No Elohim is our God. No Ba’al is our God. And we’ve even got the story of Balaam who worships Ba’al.  And so, from what I understand is they had to decide, okay, well we’re not going to be polytheistic anymore. Who is our God? And so, J and E kind of merged together it. Is that a fair understanding of how that works?

Colby:  Yeah, you’re describing some scholarship. Yes. So, one of the big issues with that, is exactly what you just described, the turning point with Josiah’s reform. As far as the archaeological record is concerned, there’s no difference between Canaanites and Israelites. For example, the worship of Asherah continued very popularly throughout Josiah’s reign and well after so that description in Samuel and Kings both about this push against idolatry is a much later, post-Josiah depiction of early Israelite history. You not only get God’s name as YAHWEH and Elohim. You also have Ba’al. I think it’s in Hosea. And you have a handful of other names as well.

GT:  Moloch I think is another one.

Colby:  Right. Yeah. So, that depiction and that attempt to make it seem like Israelite belief wasn’t “tainted” by all of these others polytheistic [gods], this isn’t an accurate portrayal, historically, of what was going on. As scholars have continued to develop our understanding of that, in particular, I’d recommend Mark Smith’s writings on the development of monotheism within Israelite literature and practice. He has a lot of books, and some of them are more affordable than others and really approachable. He’s a great scholar.

We’ll talk about some biblical stories and ask questions about whether the Exodus and stories of Jericho have archaeological support, or if they bear resemblance to other stories in the Middle East.

Colby:  But in Joshua, you get a really famous story about the destruction of Jericho. And for Jericho, it’s when the Israelites are finally coming in and fighting off the Canaanites and, and purging the land. They come up to this great walled city of Jericho. The walls are massive. They’re all around the city. And they’re told to basically lay siege, and then walk around it for three days. And on the third day, the trumpet sounds and then the walls come crashing down, and then they go in and take over the city. It’s a fascinating story, and I love it. Joshua and Judges are both some of my favorite texts to read in the Hebrew Bible.

But the archaeological record doesn’t not only not support it, it argues against it, unfortunately. It’s just a story. So sometime, centuries after that…

GT:  The walls didn’t fall down? Is that what you’re trying to tell me?

Colby:  The walls were never up.

GT:  There were no walls?

Colby:  There were, but it only covered half the city. So in the 1960s, when archaeologists finally made it to Jericho and had the funding and the people to be able to go through and actually do a full look at the full city, they realized that the wall only covered the one side of the city. They were surprised by that, particularly with the significance of the walls in the biblical record.

Colby:  But that still represents where scholarship is at on the question of whether or not the Exodus happened. A lot of scholars don’t think that it did happen, because it’s not that there isn’t evidence. The majority of the evidence just doesn’t really support that. And then particularly when, archaeologically speaking again, in Canaan there isn’t a massive influx of population at the time. There are a handful of just different issues that really don’t support that.

And if you don’t have a historical Exodus, do you have a historical Moses and Joshua? Because that’s a key narrative turning point to each one.

Do you think the Exodus happened?  Did Moses and Joshua exist?  Check out our conversation….

Colby Townsend questions whether the Exodus happened. Did Moses and Joshua exist? We’ll also discuss Israelite polytheism.

Don’t miss our previous conversations with Colby!

427:  Old Testament scholarship 101

426:  Intro to Documentary Hypothesis