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An overview of the gods, goddesses and ritual practices of Canaan and its inhabitants
and the effect of the Canaanite religion(s) on the Israelites and the biblical text

To determine the nature of the religions of the area of ancient Canaan, a territory generally considered to consist of Palestine and much of the Lebanon and the Syrian coast, a number of sources can be examined. Available literary materials include:

  •      mythological and historical texts
  •      royal and public inscriptions
  •      treaties
  •      personal names
  •      god lists
  •      dedications

In addition, depictions of deities and their symbols exist in various formats, and the remains of temples, altars, tombs, cultic tools, and sacrifices have been excavated.
The descriptions of Canaanite beliefs and practices contained in the Old Testament must also be taken into account, but caution must be exercised when reading the polemical reports of the Israelite writers. In the past, studies have focused on finding seasonal patterns and decadent activities connected with fertility cults, leading to the persistent idea that sacred marriage, cultic prostitution, and graphic re-enactments were commonplace in Canaan (Dever, Did God Have a Wife?, 34). There is little evidence for this, however, and Albertz correctly states that “to describe ‘Canaanite religion’ sweepingly as a ‘fertility religion’ when we know so little of its details is largely a caricature created by Protestant prudery” (Albertz, A History of Israelite Religion, 87).
Another difficulty in reconstructing the character of popular religion in Canaan is that the vast majority of extant written evidence comes from official circles. This means that seemingly powerful or important gods may have been simply the favorite deities of kings, dynasties, or religious functionaries, as seen in inscriptions and stelae found throughout the ancient Near East which refer to gods as belonging to royalty or regions (Block, The Gods of the Nations, 35–37). Furthermore, deities were often equated, divine names conjoined, and attributes, tools, and places deified, causing much debate about who or what the Canaanites considered to be divine.
While the boundaries of the area itself are unclear, Canaan is known to have included many peoples. The greatest number of extrabiblical texts from the region were found in 1929 at Ugarit (modern Ras Shamra in Syria), a kingdom which some argue cannot be considered as a Canaanite society (Grabbe, “Some Methodological Observations”; Hillers, “Analyzing the Abominable,” 254). Nevertheless, there is a strong linguistic relationship between Ugaritic and Canaanite, and while the Ugaritic culture was possibly geographically as well as temporally removed from that of the biblical Canaanites (the civilization was destroyed in the 13th century BC), a wide range of sources show that material and traditions known at Ugarit were transmitted in the areas described in the Old Testament as Canaan and Israel (Smith, Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 17). The term “Canaanite,” therefore, can be used as a general label for those who lived in Bronze Age Syria-Palestine and their cultural successors (Hillers, “Analyzing the Abominable,” 254, Dever, Did God Have a Wife?, 255).

Early Canaanite Religion (Second Millennium BC)
The main literary sources for reconstructing the religion of the northwest Semitic area in the second millennium BC include:

  •      The Mari documents (18 century BC)
  •      Egyptian inscriptions and letters from the New Kingdom (16th–11th century BC)
  •      Ugaritic tablets from the north Syrian coast

The Ugaritic tablets are particularly useful for understanding the nature of the religion in Bronze Age Canaan; Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Hurrian, and Hittite ideas would have influenced, as well as been affected by, Ugaritic traditions (Smith, God in Translation, 84–86). Furthermore, all the existing texts are connected with royal or official religious institutions, not the religion of the general population. People throughout Canaan worshiped many deities, as indicated by theophoric names, toponyms, biblical texts, and inscriptions; over 150 Canaanite gods can be found in the Ugaritic texts (Pardee, Ritual and Cult at Ugarit). The structure of the Canaanite pantheon can be compared to a divine family or governmental hierarchy, and the concept of the assembly of gods seen throughout the ancient Near East can be clearly seen in the Ugaritic myths. The following are the most prominent Canaanite deities.

The common Semitic term for God is etymologically difficult, but El is clearly the high god, and head of the divine assembly. While there were regional differences in the pantheons, the view that Baal rebelled against El and took over as chief god has very little textual basis (see L’Heureux, Rank among the Canaanite Gods). Ugaritic texts describe El’s dwelling as “at the source of rivers”; a Hurrian hymn calls him “the one of the mountain,” possibly referring to his divine assembly which convened on a mountain (Clifford, The Cosmic Mountain, 169–71; Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 52–60). The Ugaritic epithet “Bull El” demonstrates his strength toward other gods and men, as does the fact that he is considered to be the father of mankind, the “creator of creatures.” This attribute is supported by the existence of a Canaanite myth attested in Hittite, in which the chief god is known as Elkunirsa, “El, creator of the earth” (Smith, God in Translation, 82–83). In addition, El can cure disease, is shown to be benevolent and good-natured, old and wise, and is referred to as “holy.” While thousands of bronze figures from late Bronze Age Syria and Canaan may represent El, his iconography can be difficult to ascertain with certainty (Dever, Did God Have a Wife?, 138).

The term “Baal” is a common Semitic noun meaning “lord, owner.” Third millennium BC texts from the Sumerian city at Abu Salabikh include the first recorded uses of “Baal” as a divine name. It is used as an element in personal and place names at Ebla. It is unclear whether Baal was originally a Canaanite deity, and if he should be distinguished from Hadad, a name which probably means “thunderer.” Hadad is frequently mentioned in the Mari texts and other west Semitic material from the second millennium onward, especially concerning Aleppo where he had his sanctuary. Some consider Hadad to be the real name of the west Semitic weather god, for whom Baal was an epithet which became a name (Day, Yahweh and the Gods, 68); others argue that Hadad was later applied to the Canaanite Baal in the west. In any case, they were often identified and can be found in parallel in many Canaanite texts from the second millennium. The Ugaritic Baal lived on Mount Zaphon (modern Jebel al-Aqra), supported by the title Baal-Zaphon which is found on seals and votive stelae. He was a storm god who wielded thunder and lightning, possessed power over all wind and weather, and provided fertility for the land. He is referred to as the son of both Dagan/Dagon and El, who was a patriarchal figure for all the gods.
Three main sections of the Ugaritic myths concern Baal (see Baal Cycle):

  1.      Describes the building of his temple or palace on Mount Zaphon.
  2.      Describes his conflict with the god of the Underworld, Mot, by whom he is killed and must rise again to ensure the renewal of the world’s fertility. Baal was known as the “mightiest of the heroes” and “victorious Baal.”
  3.      Describes his fight for kingship with Yam, the god of the sea (and rivers) who reflects the chaotic aspect of water. Yam often occurs with (and is probably identified with) various sea serpents. This myth celebrates Baal’s kingship and might against powers of chaos and destruction, and may also show his protection of sailors, as votive anchors were found in his temple in Ugarit (Day, Yahweh and the Gods, 135).

Religious texts depict Baal as the god of the city of Ugarit, but the pantheon lists repeat his name seven times, suggesting that he appeared in different manifestations. This can also be seen in Palestinian place names and on the Moabite Stone. Hermann notes that “since the separate population groups within the Syria-Palestine area each knew their own Baal, as the literary documents show, it may be assumed that people had a well circumscribed image of the god as a deity of fundamental significance for the human existence” (Hermann, “Baal,” 133). Figures and stelae at Ugarit and the wider Syro-Palestinian area show Baal in various guises, often depicting him with a crown and scepter or thunderbolt and weapons, sometimes in a smiting pose and standing on mountains.
Baal’s female equivalent, Baalat, is also attested as a divine name and epithet from the third millennium BC onward. She is often associated with goddesses of fertility and birth, or specific goddesses of cities. For example, Baalat is connected with Anat in Ugarit, and possibly with Asherah, who was also linked with the Egyptian Hathor, identified with the Baalat of the Proto-Sinaitic inscriptions from the 15th century BC. She is best known as Baalat Gebal, the Mistress of Byblos, where she had a temple probably as early as the third millennium BC and was considered the patron of the city.

The etymology of Asherah is unclear; it could mean “shiny,” “happy,” “upright,” “(sacred) place,” “following” (meaning “wife”). The translation “to tread, go straight” is also possible, giving her the name “She Who Treads/Subdues Sea” at Ugarit (Dever, Did God Have a Wife?, 101). She was probably of west Semitic origin, but the earliest evidence of her is in an 18th century BC Sumerian votive inscription. She appears often in Akkadian texts as well.
Asherah is the principal female deity of the pantheon, probably the consort of El and the mother of the gods (the “70 sons” of Asherah). She also intercedes with El for Baal and Anat. The Ugaritic texts call Asherah “of the Tyrians, and the goddess of the Sidonians,” but she was worshiped over a wide area, sometimes under the names Elat, meaning “goddess” (on a ewer from Lachish, see Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 19–22), and Qudshu meaning “the holy one” (appears often in Egypt; but see Wyatt, “Asherah,” 100, who asserts that there is no justification for the connection of Asherah with Qudshu).
Many metal or terra cotta plaque figurines of nude female goddesses with wide hips, full breasts, and sometimes an exaggerated pubic triangle have been discovered in Canaan. These figures sometimes wear a necklace or an arrow quiver, can hold sacrificial animals, snakes, or lotus blossoms, and are often riding on lions or war horses. They most likely symbolize Asherah (Dever, Did God Have a Wife?, 185).
References to Asherah include:

  •      She is named in a letter from Taanach from the 15th century
  •      An Aramaic inscription identifies her as a goddess of Tema
  •      Many Hittite texts mention her
  •      Jars marked with dedicatory inscriptions to Asherah have been found at Ekron (Tel Miqne)
  •      It appears to be part of the name of a ruler of Amurru, south of Ugarit, mentioned many times in the Amarna letters

The most information about Asherah has been found from Ugarit, including sacrificial and pantheon lists, mythological texts, and theogonic tales.

Anat (possibly means “force,” or “violence”) was probably originally northwest Semitic, as she is included in the following documents:

  •      As a personal name in a document from 18th–16th century BC Hazor.
  •      In names from Byblos in the Amarna letters.
  •      Levant in Egyptian campaign records.
  •      A 13th century BC Egyptian ostracon, which mentions a festival of Anat in Gaza.
  •      A stelae from the temple at Beth Shan, which depicts her as “the queen of heaven, the mistress of all the gods.”

Ugaritic texts depict her as a volatile and feisty huntress who vanquishes both human and divine foes; in some texts, she claims to have defeated Baal’s enemy, Yam. One particularly gory passage describes her as adorned with her victims’ skulls and hands, a description which reflects the Indian goddess, Kali. She appears to be the consort of Baal (although this is never explicitly stated) and may have had a role in the fertility cult. The popular view that all ancient Near Eastern goddesses are basically sexually active fertility goddesses has been applied to Anat, who some state has overtones of sexuality and a cult of sacred marriage and ritual prostitution. However, no references to any sexual activity of Anat are included in Ugaritic texts (see Walls, The Goddess Anat, 13–75).

Virtually no evidence of the existence of Mot (“death”) exists outside of Ugarit texts and the Old Testament. His name may possibly occur in personal names from Emar and Ebla; also, Philo of Byblos makes a very late note of him in a minor role. However, other than these possible instances, Ugaritic myths are the only sources for Mot; he does not feature in the religious texts, offering lists, or onomastica from the city. This has led to the conclusion that he was not worshiped as a god; however, the texts demonstrate that he was nevertheless a powerful, immortal figure.
Mot represents the death-dealing sterility of summer heat and drought, swallowing everything with his enormous appetite and gullet, which are symbolic of the muddy and murky Underworld in which he lives. He also plays an important role in the annual renewal of Baal’s authority in the religion, as Baal must submit to him so that he can be resurrected and restore the land to fruition.

Three main views concerning the etymology of Dagan/Dagon include:

  •      His name derives from the word for “fish,” which is why he has often been seen to be a fish god. Though this is the most well-known view, it lacks ancient support.
  •      The name comes from the term for “corn” or “grain” The late testimony of Philo of Byblos, representations of the god alongside grain at Palmyra, and Semitic uses of the word to mean “grain” support this view. On the other hand, it is possible that the word “corn/grain” derived from the deity’s name.
  •      Earliest sources describe Dagon as a storm god (see Montalbano, “Canaanite Dagon,” 396), suggesting that he was originally connected with the root “to be cloudy, rainy” (Day, Yahweh and the Gods, 86–88). This root is only attested in Arabic, however.

The earliest confirmed reference to Dagon is on an inscription of Sargon of Akkad from the third millennium BC. He is well attested in texts from Mari and Ebla, where he was the chief deity; Ebla even dedicated temples, festivals, and a section of the city to Dagon. Although Ugaritic texts repeatedly identify Baal as the son of Dagon, Dagon plays no part in the myths; it is possible that his role as storm and fertility god was taken over by his son (Day, Yahweh and the Gods, 89). He is, however, mentioned in offering and pantheon lists and dedicatory stelae, indicating he may have been more important in second millennium BC Canaan than the texts suggest.

The etymology of Astarte remains obscure, but she is probably the feminine version of the deified planet Venus, the morning star. She is known by various names, including:

  •      Ashtoreth/Ashtaroth by the Canaanites
  •      Ashtart in the Ugaritic texts
  •      Astarte by the Phoenicians

She was worshiped as a goddess of love, fertility, and motherhood. Egyptian sources also identify her as a goddess of war who was seen as the military patron of the pharaohs in the 15th–12th centuries BC. Ugaritic texts mention her many times. However, few myths concern her, so we do not know much of her nature. She may have been considered as a consort of Baal. The pantheon lists record Astarte as the equivalent of the Akkadian Ishtar. She came to be identified with Aphrodite by the Greeks.

Shemesh/Shapash and Yarikh
The name of the Canaanite sun deity, Shemesh, is probably related to a root meaning “to be brilliant’. Place names in Palestine, such as Beth-Shemesh (mentioned in a 19th century BC Egyptian execration text) and Shamash-Edom (on Thutmose III’s 15th-century BC Palestinian town list) show that the sun cult held an important place in the area. Shapash plays a fairly major role in the mythological and ritual texts from Ugarit, as she carries Baal’s body back from the Underworld. She appears to be connected with the dead, perhaps seen as escorting them to the Underworld, as the setting sun was believed to descend to that region every night.
While Shapash and the sun deity referenced in the Amarna letters are female, evidence suggests that there also existed a masculine form in Canaan (Day, Yahweh and the Gods, 162–63). The west Semitic moon god is most commonly known as Yarikh, which may be connected with the verb “to travel.” The deity is attested in texts from third millennium BC Ebla under a couple of different names, and in personal names from second millennium Mari. The name Yarikh is referenced in myths, god lists, incantations, and ritual texts throughout Syria. Thirteenth century BC Hazor has a temple containing a statue of the god with a crescent on its chest and stele depicting two hands stretched upwards toward a crescent with a disc in it (Day, Yahweh and the Gods, 163).

Later Canaanite Religion (First Millennium BC)
The most important sources for Canaanite religion in the first millennium BC include:

  •      The Old Testament
  •      Aramaic and Phoenician (and later Punic) inscriptions
  •      The traditions preserved by Philo of Byblos (1st–2nd century AD) in the writings of Eusebius of Caesarea (fourth century AD)

While some biblical texts differentiate between the beliefs of the different peoples around them, the later political entities of Moab, Ammon, Edom, Phoenicia, and Israel itself were in essence “Canaanite” peoples with Canaanite religions.
First millennium texts from Byblos, Karatepe, and Deir ‘Alla show that the concept of the assembly or meeting of the gods was prevalent in that time. They also demonstrate some areas still considered El to be the supreme deity and creator of the earth. However, in some parts of Syria and Phoenicia, Baal-Shamem (meaning “Lord of the Heavens”) appears to have reached the top of the pantheon. One of the many manifestations of Baal, Baal-Shamem, may have become a separate deity in the first millennium BC. However, he nevertheless retained his nature as a weather god and was later linked with Zeus. The Phoenician Karatepe inscription from the eighth century BC also connects him with the Hittite storm god, and depicts him as appointing a king to make his people prosperous, showing continuity with the Baal known from the previous millennium. Baal-Shamem appears in a similar role as the god of ruling families of several Phoenician and Aramean cities. Baalat had the same function at Byblos, where she was the leading dynastic deity. Baal Zaphon was still a prominent manifestation of Baal, as seen in the treaty between the king of Tyre and Esarhaddon of Assyria. Hadad and Baal became separate deities; Hadad became the head of the Aramean pantheon, known as the god of Damascus, and used the epithet Rammanu, meaning “the thunderer” (compare 2 Kgs 5:18; Zech 12:11). Baal became the god of the Canaanites and Phoenicians (Hermann, “Baal,” 132).
Asherah/Athirat may be found in Inscriptions from Tel Miqne and seems to be worshiped under the name Tanit/Tinnit in seventh century BC Phoenicia and throughout the Mediterranean (Day, Yahweh and the Gods, 47). Anat is also found in the area, present on a Hebrew seal from the eighth—seventh centuries BC, and in Phoenician colonies from circa seventh century BC. Astarte is most commonly associated with the heavens in the first Millennium BC. While she is not often found in biblical sources, she is referred to as the goddess and abomination of the Sidonians in 1 Kgs 11:5, 33; 2 Kgs 23:13. She was also the head deity of the city and the royal family at Sidon in the sixth and fifth centuries BC (Day, Yahweh and the Gods, 129, 149). She also seems to have taken the role of Baal’s consort from Anat, although this may reflect regional variations; it is generally believed that the two goddesses merged to become Atargatis. Lucian of Samosata describes the cult of this deity at Hierapolis in northern Syria in De Dea Syria, connecting her and Hadad with Hera and Zeus. Fourth and third century BC coins from this city also depict her, often with or on a lion, similar to Asherah’s symbolism.
The Old Testament is the main source of information for Dagon in the first millennium BC. The biblical text identifies two places in Palestine called Beth-Dagon, implying that there were temples to him there (Josh 15:41; 19:27). Otherwise he is described only as being worshiped by the Philistines, for whom he was the chief deity. The text also mentions a sacrifice made to Dagon at Gaza (Judg 16:23) and a temple of Dagon in Ashdod (1 Sam 5:1–7), which was apparently still standing in the second century BC (1 Macc 10:83–84; 11:4). The sun deity does not seem to have been particularly popular in the Iron Age, but archaeologists have found a cult stand from Taanach which depicts a horse and a sun disc, and a small horse’s head with a disc symbol on the forehead from Hazor, both dating from around the 10th century BC (see Taylor, Yahweh and the Sun, 37–40). Canaanite artifacts and names testify that the moon god continued to be worshiped in the area, and the cult of the lunar deity achieved some notoriety at the Syrian city of Harran.
In addition to the gods known from the second millennium, local and functional deities added to the complexity of the pantheons in first millennium BC Canaan. According to Block, “in most localities one deity tended to emerge above the remainder, but the rest were still recognized officially and unofficially. Therefore the situation could at best be characterized as territorial henotheism” (Block, The Gods of the Nations, 63). Predominant deities from this time include:

  •      Baalat, the “lady of Byblos.”
  •      Astarte, the top of the pantheon at Sidon.
  •      Eshmun, the Phoenician god of healing. A forerunner of this god seems to have been known at Ebla, Ugarit and Ibn Hani, but evidence is scarce. His cult is well attested epigraphically in Syria-Palestine in the 6th–5th and 3rd–2nd centuries BC, as well as in the Punic colonies.
  •      Melqart, who was popular in the colonies. He appears to have been “king of the city” in Tyre. Considered the Baal of Tyre, Melqart was later equated with Heracles (Day, Yahweh and the Gods, 73–75).
  •      Qos, the national deity of Edom. Found in royal and popular names from the ninth century onward, but not biblical texts. Qos is also apparent in theophoric names on Egyptian lists from the area well before the emergence of an Edomite state (Block, The Gods of the Nations, 42–43). He stayed popular in the region after the decline of the state of Edom in 552 BC.
  •      Chemosh, the patron deity of Moab. Attested in popular names and biblical texts (e.g., Num 21:29).
  •      Milcom, a god connected with the Underworld and with fire. Important to the Ammonites (Block, The Gods of the Nations, 43–45).

Apparent Rituals and Concepts in Canaanite Religion
The archaeology and historical geography of Canaan confirms several religious features known from the Bible. Canaanites often worshiped deities in places which were considered holy—frequently at “high places,” which were associated with gods and divine assemblies. Canaanites often worshiped outside, at altars of unfinished stones and soil. They also considered temples, which often stood on the sacred ground, to be the dwelling of the god(s).
The most common temple design in second millennium BC Canaan, dating to the Chalcolithic era, was the “broadhouse” temple. These temples consisted of one long room, which contained a niche to house divine figures or stelae. Broadhouse temples have been found at Megiddo, Jericho, Lachish, and Hazor. A temple at Hazor includes a platform in the courtyard which contained a channel to drain blood, showing evidence of an altar. Temples sometimes also contained burial pits for bones, votive objects, basins, and raised areas for incense. Several Phoenician style temples from the 9th–8th centuries BC have also been excavated in Syria, often built in the “long house” design of Solomon’s Jerusalem temple.
Priests and temple functionaries cared for and controlled the sacred area and buildings, oversaw the sacrifices and religious rituals, and probably practiced divination. They may also have been the conveyors of mythological and wisdom traditions. The role ascribed to the first millennium BC priest Sanchuniaton fits with what we know about religious functionaries in Canaan. A Punic inscription from Cyprus asserts that religious complexes also employed sacrificers, servants, masons, and scribes; other texts also list singers, musicians, and “holy ones.” Forms of liturgy are difficult to trace in Canaan. While there are sometimes remarkable comparisons of vocabulary, themes, and style between the biblical Psalms and poems from Ugarit, the literary traditions are undoubtedly elitist, and prayers are archaeologically invisible unless figurines can be considered as “prayers in clay” (Dever, Did God Have a Wife?, 106, Coogan, Stories from Ancient Canaan). Deities were believed to be able to reside within cult statues, and votive objects represented the desires and beliefs of the worshipers.
It is impossible to say with any certainty that Canaanites reenacted mythological narratives as a part of rituals and religious festivals in Canaan. However, there is a connection between the myths and rites, so the extant literature can offer information about the Canaanites’ concepts and practices. The Mesopotamians recited the Babylonian Creation Epic—in which Marduk is crowned king—at the New Year Festival in Marduk’s honor. The Baal Cycle from Ugarit, in which Baal’s reign is established as a result of his victory over chaos and disorder, demonstrates that Canaanites likely linked the New Year to mythic traditions; Baal’s reign is celebrated after his resurrection from the dead renews the land. The Israelite Feast of Tabernacles, which marks the end of one year and the beginning of the next, was derived from the Canaanite autumn festival held at the ingathering of fruit, wine, and oil, when Baal had risen again to provide the life-giving rains. The biblical texts also demonstrate that his time spent in the Underworld over the summer was part of the religion; Zechariah 12:11 refers to a mourning rite celebrated in the plain of Megiddo where people mourned the death of Baal (Hadad-Rimmon) and attempted to revive him through prayers and rituals. The Ugaritic texts describe that mourning rites involved laceration, ripping out of hair, and the wearing of sackcloth and ashes; Ezekiel 27:30–31 portrays these actions as Canaanite.
Biblical and Ugaritic texts and recovered animal remains close to excavated altars demonstrate that Canaanite religion centered on slaying sacrificial animals (Pardee, Ritual and Cult at Ugarit, 3). Canaanites offered cattle, sheep, goats, and birds (in addition to grain and wine) to the gods along with prayers. Remains and Punic sacrificial tariffs indicate that this continued in the Phoenician colonies. The biblical holocaust sacrifice is depicted as a Canaanite ritual in 2 Kgs 10:24, and we find burnt offerings presented to the deity (but not consumed by the people) in Ugaritic and Hittite literature. Communion sacrifices—regular offerings in the Israelite tribal period (1 Sam 10:8)—seem to have existed in Canaanite, Moabite, Ammonite, and Greek societies. Ugaritic texts suggest that the ritual had a covenantal quality. Deuteronomy 32:38 states that the Canaanite gods “ate the fat of their sacrifices and drank the wine of their libations,” indicate that Canaanites viewed the rite as a meal taken with god.
Textual and archaeological evidence suggests that child sacrifice was also part of Canaanite religion. Various Greek and Latin sources bear witness to Punic child sacrifice. They also attest to a great bronze statue of Kronos, in whose arms children were placed over a fire. Sacred precincts or cemeteries known as “tophets” have been discovered at several sites where the Phoenicians established colonies (e.g., Sardinia, Sicily, and Malta); at Carthage, thousands of burial urns filled with the charred bones of infants or small sacrificial animals and birds (which may have functioned as substitutes for children) have been found (Dever, Did God Have a Wife?, 218).
These discoveries align with the assertions in 2 Kgs 23:10 and Jer 32:35 that children were sacrificed to Molech in Topheth in the Valley of Hinnom. Molech may have been the name of a god of child sacrifice, probably a distortion of the root מלך (mlk), “king,” using the vowels of the Hebrew בֹּשֶׁת (bosheth), “shame” (Heider, The Cult of Molek; Day, Molech). It is possible, however, that the biblical term is simply a cognate of the Phoenician and Punic term molkmulk/, which appears in inscriptions and seems to designate the sacrifice of a child or an animal substitute. The divine element Malik is well attested in names at Ebla. A similar deity at Ugarit appears to be connected with the Underworld and the cult of the dead; while this may support the existence of a Canaanite god of child sacrifice, attempts to equate him with Melqart or Milkom should probably be rejected. In addition, it should be noted that not all scholars are convinced that the archaeological evidence points to child sacrifice in either Phoenicia or the Punic colonies.
It is difficult to determine the Canaanite view of life after death and the nature of dead spirits because there is very little literary and archaeological evidence. Texts and burial rites from Ugarit and throughout Syria seem to attest to a form of ancestor worship. The Ugaritic rpum (Rephaim in the Old Testament), a name probably linked with the root “to heal,” appears to refer to the dead spirits. It is unclear whether these dead spirits should be seen as the “privileged” dead—kings, lower deities, or heroic warriors. They were most likely considered to be deceased ancestors who have achieved a semidivine status, which is why they are defined as “gods” in the pantheon and sacrificial lists (Lewis, Cults of the Dead, 56).
The Hadad inscription (eighth century BC Zincirli) mentions that the heir was obligated to invoke the name of the dead king in Hadad’s temple in a sacrificial context. This notion occurs in the Hebrew Bible as well (2 Sam 18:18) and at Ugarit. The custom of the marzeah, which is still not well understood, may have involved some sort of communion with the dead, and is attested in the Old Testament in connection with mourning (Jer 16:5–7) and excessive feasting (Amos 6:4–7). Although mythological texts from Ugarit describe feasts with the dead ancestors, there is no substantial archaeological evidence that there was a continuing practice of providing food and libations for the dead, or that the marzeah was seen as a banquet with the ancestors, rather than a property owning, feasting society only secondarily associated with funerary traditions (Lewis, Cults of the Dead, 80–94).
Canaanites also erected stone stelae for ancestors. These may have been connected with rows of stone slabs erected at sanctuaries in Gezer, Hazor, and Ugarit. However, these stones were more likely symbols of deities, and seem to have been worshiped as such from the second millennium BC until Roman times. In the second millennium, the Temple of Obelisks was built on top of the sanctuary of Baalat in Byblos, so called because more than 26 votary obelisks stood in its courtyard. The Ugaritic texts describe an announcement and a whispering of stones, which may refer to an oracular purpose. The Old Testament also tells of מַצֵּבוֹת (matstsevoth), standing stones commemorating the appearance or presence of deities, which belong to the Canaanites (Exod 23:24) or are associated with the early stories of the patriarchs (Dever, Did God Have a Wife?, 99–100).

The Portrayal of Canaanite Religion in the Old Testament
God tells the Israelites they must not defile the land of Canaan as its previous inhabitants did, identifying that their inappropriate practices caused them to be “vomited out” of the land (Lev 18:24–28). This demonstrates how Old Testament writers looked upon Canaanite religion and morality with disgust, especially the Deuteronomistic historian(s) who was heavily biased and polemical in his account. Some minimalists consider the Hebrew writers to have been so prejudiced that they assert that the Canaanites and their religions described in the Old Testament are fictional (Lemche, The Canaanites and Their Land, 155, 171), but it seems much more likely that they were real but not as different from the Israelites as they are made out to be. This can be seen in 2 Kgs 23, which describes the practices prohibited by Josiah’s reform of the country’s religion, and which therefore acts as an inventory of “Canaanite” religious behavior practiced by the general people of Israel (Dever, Did God Have a Wife?, 212–13).
The biblical writers never criticize those who worship the god El. While various reasons have been suggested for this, it is El who is called the god of Israel and of the fathers in the Pentateuch (e.g., Gen 33:20; 46:3), and it is likely that he was worshiped at least by some of the proto-Israelites. The very name Israel, which probably means “El will rule” and which is already found on the Merneptah stele from the 13th century BC, supports this view (Day, Yahweh and the Gods, 16–17), as do the altars built at Bethel by Abraham and Jacob (Gen 13:3–4; 31:13). The later monotheistic writers and editors still acknowledged, then, that the god of the fathers was El, who was probably originally a separate deity from Yahweh but was later assimilated by him (for views on this, see Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 60–75; Day, Yahweh and the Gods, 13–14).
The biblical writers, however, had a very different opinion of the worship of Baal or “the Baals.” The Israelites are condemned for turning to Baal-Peor in Moab at the time of their entry into Canaan (e.g., Num 25:3–5; Deut 4:3), and for worshiping the Baals during the period of the judges (e.g., Judg 2:11–13; 1 Sam 7:4). We are told that the northern king built an altar to Baal in Samaria (1 Kgs 16:31–32), a story which is supported by the presence of five Baalistic names (in addition to nine Yahwistic names) on the ninth century BC Samaria ostraca. Ahab clearly did not consider his veneration of Baal to be incompatible with Yahweh worship, as two of his sons have Yahwistic name; the majority of Israelites likely wouldn’t have criticized those who worshiped Baal. On the other hand, the canonical prophets, especially Hosea and Jeremiah, were so angered by this “infidelity” that they falsely portrayed the cult of Baal as containing child sacrifice (Jer 19:5; 32:35) and cultic prostitution (Hos 2:15 [Eng 13]), and used the imagery of Baal as a dying and rising god against him (Hos 13:14). The redactors of the Old Testament substituted the Hebrew בֹּשֶׁת (bosheth), “shame,” for the Baal component of various personal names, cleverly hiding the Israelites’ fondness for the god, and the name Baal-Zebub (“lord of the flies”) in 2 Kgs 1 and that of Satan, Beelzebul, in the New Testament (e.g., Matt 10:25; Mark 3:22), are almost certainly deliberate distortions of the now known epithet “Prince Baal” (Day, Yahweh and the Gods, 77–83).
Anat appears to have been largely ignored by the Israelites, but Astarte is said to have been worshiped by the people (Judg 2:13–14; 10:6–7; Jer 7:16–20) and by Solomon (1 Kgs 11:5–9), for which they were condemned. Asherah is mentioned some 40 times in the Old Testament, in both the singular and the plural, and many were criticized for worshiping her. Her cult seems to have been very prevalent in both official and popular circles, which explains why the monotheistic writers condemned it. The cultic symbol of Asherah (see below) stood in Yahweh’s temples in Jerusalem and Bethel, and in Samaria, and the Jerusalem temple also contained vessels dedicated to her, and an area for women to weave for the goddess (2 Kgs 13:6; 23:4–7). In addition, many Asherah figurines from eighth—seventh century Judah have been found, which are pillar based and resemble the earlier Canaanite figures, emphasizing female fecundity (Dever, Did God Have a Wife?, 187). It is possible that Asherah was seen as Yahweh’s consort, on the basis of texts such as Deut 16:21 and the eighth century BC inscriptions found at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud in the Sinai Desert and Khirbet el-Kom, just west of Hebron, which speak of “Yahweh of Samaria/Teman and his Asherah” (see Hadley, The Cult of Asherah; Olyan, Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh). There is still much debate over whether the Asherah of these inscriptions and the Bible refers to the goddess or to her cultic symbol, and if to the latter what form it would have taken. It may have been a living or stylized tree, a grove or a sacred pillar or pole, and can be seen on the 13th century BC Lachish ewer, and the 10th century BC cult stands from Taanach and Pella (Dever, Did God Have a Wife?, 50–57). The lack of description in the Old Testament strongly suggests that the general population was familiar with the symbol and its meaning. While the idea that the biblical Asherah was a real goddess is rejected by some, it seems clear that the cultic image represented the presence of the deity (Day, Yahweh and the Gods, 60–61).
The popularity of the cult of Asherah in Israel led Hosea to use her imagery to condemn idolatrous worship (Hos 14:9 [Eng 8]). The biblical editors portrayed her cultic symbols as connected with Baal, “all the host of heaven,” divination, sorcery and child sacrifice (2 Kgs 17:16–18). In addition, despite texts such as 2 Kgs 23:7 and Deut 23:17–18, no evidence currently exists to link the worship of Asherah with cultic prostitution. The biblical writers likely exaggerated the sexual nature of Canaanite religion. Similarly, the dangers of cults of the dead may have been overstated because the people found them so compelling. Deuteronomy 14:1 bans mourning rites such as laceration, and the Law prohibits the Israelites from consulting mediums or necromancers, who will themselves be put to death (Lev 20:6, 27). Nevertheless, Saul uses a necromancer to conjure up the spirit of Samuel at En-Dor (1 Sam 28), and texts and burials attest to a form of ancestor worship in Israel. When a man dies, he is said to be gathered “to his kin” (e.g., Gen 25:8) or “to his fathers’ (e.g., Judg 2:10), and the dead are sometimes referred to as “gods” as they are in the Ugaritic texts. Some archaeological evidence suggests that food and libations were offered to the dead, but this may only have been at the time of interment.

The Influence of Canaanite Religious Concepts on Israelite Religion
At various times, the Israelites worshiped some of the same gods as the Canaanites and took part in their religious practices. However, the cultural interchange with the surrounding peoples also meant that “foreign” concepts had an effect on what the Israelites later saw as their own religion (see also Israelite Religion). The worship of the god El effected patriarchal religion, and the traits of this Canaanite god appear to have been assimilated into the character of Yahweh. The god of the Israelites shares El’s old age (compare the biblical epithet El-Olam, which may have originally meant “El, the ancient one,” Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 50), wisdom, and merciful and gracious nature (e.g., Exod 34:6; Psa 103:8; Deut 4:31). Yahweh is also a creator god like El; in fact, His name may be a causative form of the verb “to be,” meaning “He creates’ (Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 60–71). In addition, Yahweh had a divine council, a concept well known throughout the ancient Near East. A direct line of influence from the assembly of El to that of Yahweh can be seen in that the “70 sons of Asherah” (and therefore El) are equivalent to the “sons of God” in Deut 32:8 (LXX), who are equal in number to the 70 nations (Gen 10, 1 Enoch 89:59–77; 90:22–27; see Day, Yahweh and the Gods, 22–24; Mullen, The Assembly of the Gods). Texts such as 2 Kgs 21:3, 5 and Zeph 1:5 suggest that this council was worshiped as the “host of heaven,” an influence which came to provide the voiceless subordinates of 1 Kgs 22:19, and eventually the assembly of angels in the New Testament (Luke 2:13; Acts 7:42).
It has been suggested that some groups equated Yahweh with Baal, supported by names such as Bealiah, meaning “Baal is Yahweh” (1 Chr 12:6 [Eng 5]) and Yehobaal, meaning “Yahweh is Baal.” Though this theory lacks sufficient evidence, Yahweh did assume characteristics of Baal. His association with winds, clouds, rain, and thunder demonstrates that Yahweh was considered to be a storm god, as does the depiction of Him riding a storm chariot (Psa 104:3). This description can be connected with Baal’s common epithet, “rider of the clouds” (de Moor, The Seasonal Pattern, 98). The two gods were also connected with the fertility of the earth (e.g., Gen 27:28), and Yahweh took on Baal’s role in his combats with other deities. The biblical cosmogony is sometimes depicted as a conflict between Yahweh and the personified sea and, like the fight between Baal and Yam, the combat is seen as resulting in the kingship of the victorious god (e.g., Psa 74:13–14). At some point, these ideas may have been combined with the exodus traditions (e.g., Psa 74:16–21; Exod 15:8–10), and were later projected into the eschaton (e.g., Isa 27:1; Rev 21:1).
There are also many similarities between the description of Solomon’s temple in 1 Kings and the Phoenician style temples found from 9th–8th century Syria—particularly the Aramaic temple of ‘Ain Dara in northwestern Syria, which has more than 50 parallels with the biblical sanctuary. Although the cult of Yahweh apparently rejected images of the god, Jeroboam set up golden calves at high places in Bethel and Dan (1 Kgs 12:28–31; 2 Chr 11:15) which probably represented Yahweh but derived from the association of El with a bull. A bronze bull has been found at the 12th century BC sanctuary in the hill country of Ephraim and Manasseh which is almost identical to a Canaanite one from 14th century Hazor (Dever, Did God Have a Wife?, 135–36). It is also likely that some Israelites used stelae to symbolize Yahweh’s presence before the Deuteronomistic reforms, a practice which the prophets criticized (e.g., Amos 5:26; Isa 37:19). The epithet “rock” is applied to both Yahweh (Gen 49:24) and Jesus (Matt 21:42; 1 Pet 2:7–8).
The religious practices of the Israelites, as well as their beliefs, seem to have been influenced by those of their neighbors. The book of Judges describes yearly rural festivals with feasts and dancing, and many have traced links between the festivals of the Israelites and earlier Canaanite rituals. Dever asserts that “the primacy of animal sacrifice—the shedding of blood, as the symbol of life—is obvious in both the Canaanite and the Israelite cult,” and in many respects Israelite sacrifice and its terminology resemble that of the peoples around them. The later biblical writers, however, may have thought that the Israelite sacrificial system was unique. The concept of kosher food does not appear in Canaanite texts, even though all sacrificial animals in the ancient Near East had to be unblemished. This notion of things as clean or unclean may have helped the Israelites to establish ethnic markers against the Canaanites (Dever, Did God Have a Wife?, 266–67). At the same time, Israelite literature borrowed from Canaanite mythology, as seen in the Baalistic language of Psa 29, the El traditions of Isa 14:12–14 and Ezek 28:2, and the clever uses of Mot’s appetite and gullet in Hab 2:5 and Isa 25:8. These references indicate that these ideas were so familiar to the people of Israel that they were no longer considered foreign, but a part of their own religious heritage.

Related Articles
For more information, see these articles: Israelite Religion; Canaan; Baal; Baal Cycle; Asherah; Anat; Goddess; Dragon and Sea; Leviathan; Ugarit; Ugaritic and the Bible; Hittite Religion; Creation Myths; Cosmology; Divine Council.

  Albertz, Rainer. A History of Israelite Religion in the Old Testament Period. Lousiville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994.
  Block, Daniel I. The Gods of the Nations: Studies in Ancient Near Eastern National Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2000.
  Clifford, Richard J. The Cosmic Mountain in Canaan and the Old Testament. Harvard Semitic Monographs 4. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972.
  Coogan, Michael D. Stories from Ancient Canaann. Philadelphia: Westminster, 1978.
  Cross, Frank M. Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973.
  Day, John. Molech: A God of Human Sacrifice in the Old Testament. Cambridge Oriental Publications 41. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
  ———. Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan. JSOTSup 265. London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002.
  Dever, William G. Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005.
  Grabbe, Lester L. “ ‘Canaanite’: Some Methodological Observations in Relation to Biblical Study.” Pages 113–22 in Ugarit and the Bible: Proceedings of the International Symposium on Ugarit and the Bible, Manchester, September 1992. Edited by G.J. Brooke, A.H.W. Curtis, and J.F. Healey. Ugaritisch-Biblische Literatur 11. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1994.
  Hadley, Judith M. The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah: Evidence for a Hebrew Goddess. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  Heider, George C. The Cult of Molek: A Reassessment. JSOTSup 43. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1986.
  Hermann, Wolfgang. “Baal.” Pages 132–39 in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. 2nd rev. ed. Edited by Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst. Leiden: Brill, 1999.
  Hillers, Delbert. “Analyzing the Abominable: Our Understanding of Canaanite Religion.” Jewish Quarterly Review 75 (1985): 253–69.
  Lemche, Niels P. The Canaanites and Their Land: The Tradition of the Canaanites. JSOTSup 110. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991.
  Lewis, Theodore J. Cults of the Dead in Ancient Israel and Ugarit. Harvard Semitic Monographs 39. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1989.
  L’Heureux, Conrad E. Rank among the Canaanite Gods: El, Ba’al, and the Repha’im. Harvard Semitic Monographs 21. Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1979.
  Montalbano, F.J. “Canaanite Dagon: Origin, Nature.” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 13 (1951): 381–97.
  de Moor, Johannes C. The Seasonal Pattern in the Ugaritic Myth of Ba’lu. Alter Orient und Altes Testament 16. Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1971.
  Mullen, E. Theodore. The Assembly of the Gods: The Divine Council in Canaanite and Early Hebrew Literature. Harvard Semitic Monographs 24. Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1980.
  Nakhai, Beth A. Archaeology and the Religions of Canaan and Israel. Boston: American Schools of Oriental Research, 2001.
  Olyan, Saul M. Asherah and the Cult of Yahweh in Israel. Society of Biblical Literature Monograph Series 34. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988.
  Pardee, Dennis. Ritual and Cult at Ugarit. Writings from the Ancient World 10. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002.
  Smith, Mark S. The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  ———. God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World. Forschungen zum Alten Testament 57. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008.
  Taylor, J. Glen. Yahweh and the Sun: Biblical and Archaeological Evidence for Sun Worship in Ancient Israel. JSOTSup 111. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1993.
  Walls, Neal H. The Goddess Anat in Ugaritic Myth. Society of Biblical Literature Dissertation Series 135. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1992.
  Wyatt, Nick. “Asherah.” Pages 99–105 in Dictionary of Deities and Demons in the Bible. 2nd rev. ed. Edited by Karel van der Toorn, Bob Becking, and Pieter W. van der Horst. Leiden: Brill, 1999.
  ———. Religious Texts from Ugarit. 2nd ed. Biblical Seminar Series 53. London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002.
  Yon, Marguerite. The City of Ugarit at Tell Ras Shamra. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2006.



CANAANITES The people group living in the land of Canaan prior to and during the rise of the Israelites.
The history of the Canaanites is debated; Lemche, Thompson, and Davies have gone so far as to say that the Canaanites were fictional antagonists invented to oppose the Israelite protagonists (Lemche, The Canaanites and Their Land, 7). This extremist position, however, is not the norm in ancient Near East studies.
The land of Canaan changed shape and size over time. The way the word is used in the Amarna letters suggests that “the whole of Egypt’s province in the Levant was called ‘Canaan,’ ” (Drews, Canaanites and Philistines, 47). Neo-Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, and Greek sources make no mention of Canaan, suggesting that by the eighth century, the geographical region was no longer known by that name.

Bronze Age

Ugarit was a city-state along the Syrian coast that, in the words of Kuhrt, “illuminate[s] in considerable detail the history, society, and culture of a Canaanite state” (Kuhrt, The Ancient Near East, 300). Ugarit was technically not within the land of Canaan, but it provides information about the Canaanite people. Many of the Ugaritic texts refer to people in the city as “coming ‘from Canaan’ ” (Drews, Canaanites and Philistines, 47). The texts found at Ugarit detail the history and culture of the region from 1400–1200 BC. Outside of the city proper, the king of Ugarit held control of numerous small towns and villages. Ugarit fell under the control of the Hittite Empire in the mid-14th century BC.
Ugarit was a center of trade in the ancient Near East. Because Ugarit was on one of the most important trade routes of the time, merchants from Cilicia, Cyprus, Minoa, Mycenae, Carcamesh, Emar, and the Hittite court were common sights in Ugarit. Ugarit produced commercial quantities of olive oil, wine, and salt for export. Craft industries, such as purple-dyed clothing and cloth, were prominent in Ugarit as well. Gold, silver, and ivory—particularly used in elaborate bowls, cups, and weapons—were exported to the Hittite kingdom. Although Ugarit was a major and prosperous city, it was not unique. Several other city-states, both along the coast and a little further inland, were very similar to Ugarit. Ugarit stands out due to its wealth of written materials.

Egyptian Domination
In addition, Egyptian texts, cultural items, and poetry found in Palestine, the Transjordan, Lebanon, and southern Syria provide much of the information available about the different Canaanite peoples. The basic political structure in the land of Canaan was a fortified city, and the surrounding countryside was controlled by a king or a prince. The majority of these cities were located either along the coast or along rivers further inland; few cities were located in the hill country.
During the late Bronze Age (1550–1150 BC), the Canaanite peoples fell under Egyptian rule. The Egyptians moved through the land of Canaan aggressively, destroying cities and deposing kings. They then established control over the land and instituted imperial organization. The Egyptians ruled Canaan as a suzerain over vassal states, as seen in the Amarna letters. During the period of Egyptian rule, many fortified strongholds were built to defend the land from foreign invaders from the north.

Iron Age
The land of Canaan was drastically changed by the “Great Catastrophe,” an event that took place around the beginning of the 12th century at the end of the Bronze Age, destroying nearly 50 cities throughout Greece, Crete, Anatolia, Cyprus, Syria, and the Southern Levant, including the city of Ugarit, which was destroyed by fire. Every major city along the Via Maris, the trade route that ran from Northern Canaan and Syria down to Egypt, was demolished. The cause of the Great Catastrophe was likely the change in military technology combined with the invasion of the sea peoples from the west (Drews, The End of the Bronze Age, 209–11). The Canaanites mentioned in the biblical text were those who rebuilt the cities and trade routes after this catastrophe.

Amos and Jeremiah refer to the Philistines, a people native to the land of Canaan during the time of the Judges and the early monarchy, as “a remnant of Caphtor” (Jer 47:4; Amos 9:7). Robert Drews notes that the Septuagint translates “Caphtor” as “Cappadocia,” although “for the last hundred years most scholars have believed that the Biblical ‘Caphtor’ was the island of Crete” (Drews, Canaanites and Philistines, 41).
Archaeological evidence suggests that a large number of immigrants from Caphtor moved into the coastal cities of Canaan. Drews argues that this intermingling of Aegean immigrants and the descendants of Bronze Age Canaanite population resulted in the biblical Philistines; he claims that the biblical Philistines are the same people group as the Bronze Age Canaanites and that these terms should be used interchangeably as a term for “non-Israelites of the Promised Land” (Drews, Canaanites and Philistines, 45–51). Others view the Philistines as strictly Aegean peoples living on the coast (Snell, Life in the Ancient Near East, 97). The Hebrew word פלשתים (plshtym), which is translated “Philistines,” occurs 290 times in 240 verses, whereas כנעני (kn'ny) only occurs 73 times in 71 verses. Understanding the term “Philistines” as any non-Israelites in the land of Canaan allows for a broader understanding of the role of Canaanites in the biblical text.

The Phoenicians were a people living in Canaan from the Late Bronze and Early Iron age in the city-states of Tyre, Sidon, Byblos, Beirut, Arvad and Sarepta. These city-states were either unaffected by or quickly rebuilt after the catastrophe, and they were untouched by both the Aramean and the Israelite invaders. These settlements were all located on the coast, some on islands offshore, allowing some protection from the mainland empires. The word “Phoenician” is thought to be a Greek rendering of the word “Canaanite”; the Phoenicians called themselves Canaanites.

Pre-Conquest Culture

The languages spoken and written in Canaan during the Late Bronze and Iron Ages were of the Northwest Semitic branch of the Semitic language family, which included Aramaic along with Ugaritic and Canaanite. Strictly speaking, Hebrew is a dialect of Canaanite, along with other dialects such as Phoenician and Moabite.
For more information about the Canaanite language, including Hebrew, see these articles: Hebrew Language; Canaanite Language; Semitic Languages.

The majority of the information available about the Canaanite economy comes from the texts at Ugarit and at Byblos. Kuhrt notes that these texts describe the Canaanite cities, particularly the Phoenician cities, as “playing a central role in the trading and production system of the Near East, and that their commercial activities were stimulated by … the large centralized states” (Kuhrt, The Ancient Near East, 407). The major exports were ivory-inlaid furniture, textiles, and timber. According to Snell, the Phoenician craftsmen held such renown that the Assyrian royal inscriptions “gave anecdotes about kings; having captured Phoenician artists working in ivory and wood” (Snell, Life in the Ancient Near East, 83). They were also excellent shipbuilders. Egyptian and Assyrian documents indicate that trade was organized through mercantile companies that were not associated with the local king.
The commercial relationship between the Phoenician cities, particularly Tyre, and Israel was a good one. Phoenician craftsman were involved in Solomon’s building projects, including the temple (1 Kgs 7:13–46). In addition, Phoenician merchants were on good terms with the major empires, and Egyptian wares and goods even reached Greek cities through Phoenician merchants. Kuhrt notes, however, that the Greek texts appear to use the word “Phoenician” to refer to any eastern trader, which allows us to apply this idea of Phoenician merchants “to the enterprises of all the Levantine states, which developed into important manufacturing and commercial centres in the early Iron Age” (Kuhrt, The Ancient Near East, 409–10).

Canaanite religion was polytheistic; the Canaanite god El, known as the father god and creator god, was the head of the pantheon (Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, 15). Ba’al, the storm and fertility god, came to replace El as the ruler of the gods. The famous battle between Ba’al and Yamm, the sea, is paralleled in the biblical text (Psa 74:12–17; Isa 51:9–11). Canaanite myths were exported into nearby cultures as early as the late second millennium, as the Hittites adopted religions from the areas they had conquered (Van De Mieroop, A History of the Ancient Near East, 153).
The religious texts of the Canaanite peoples reveal much about their belief systems. The hymns and prayers found at Ugarit are quite similar to the biblical psalms in that the language is similar and the types of parallelism used were almost identical. The funerary texts from Ugarit also reveal some distinct features of their belief system, such as certain rites representing a step-by-step process of descending into the underworld (Sparks, Ancient Texts, 116–17, 199).

Canaan and the Israelite Conquest
Stager describes three theories to account for the emergence of Israel within the land of Canaan (Stager, “Forging an Identity,” 94–104).

The Conquest Hypothesis
The Conquest Hypothesis supposes the historicity of the conquest narratives found in the book of Joshua. According to this theory, three criteria must be met in order for the conquest to have possibly occurred:

  1.      The Israelite culture must be distinguishable from the previous Canaanite community’s culture in the settlement area.
  2.      The Israelites must have been present, their material culture depicted, and their temporal precedence established in Egypt or the Transjordan area.
  3.      The migration/invasion route must be traceable and plausible for archaeological, historical, and geographical plausibility.

The archaeological data does not allow for even the first criteria to be met; therefore, many do not believe that the Israelites entered Canaan from an outside land (Nelson, Joshua, 3; Coogan, Archaeology and Biblical Studies, 19–32).

The Pastoral Nomad Hypothesis
Alt suggested the Pastoral Nomad Hypothesis in 1925 when he argued that the conquest of Canaan was simply the Hebrew people transitioning from pastoral nomadism into agricultural sedentarism (Alt, “Settlement”). This view allows for the many settlements that popped up during the time period of the conquest, but the fact that pastoralists compose a very small percentage of any population poses serious trouble to the theory.

The Peasants’ Revolt Hypothesis
The Peasants’ Revolt Hypothesis, proposed by Mendenhall, argues that the Israelites were Canaanite peasants who revolted against their Canaanite masters; in essence, there was no influx of people from outside of Canaan. The apiru people, mentioned in various second millennium texts, seem to fit this description (Snell, Life in the Ancient Near East, 68). The problem with this theory is that for every Canaanite village and town that overthrew their masters, an equal number, lying outside of pre-monarchic Israel, did not.
Stager concludes that none of these hypotheses are fully acceptable, and suggests that Israel initially started as some sort of small movement through Moses of Midian and his Yahwism, which then “led a subset of Canaanite culture, coming from a variety of places, backgrounds, prior affiliations, and livelihoods, to join a supertribe united under the authority of and devotion to a supreme deity, revealed to Moses as Yahweh” (Stager, “Forging an Identity,” 105).

  Alt, Albrecht. “The Settlement of Israelites in Palestine.” Pages 172–221 in Essays on Old Testament History and Religion. Translated by R. W. Wilson. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968. Translation of Die Landnahme der Israeliten in Palästina. Leipzig: Reformation Program of the University of Leipzig, 1925.
  Coogan, Michael. “Archaeology and Biblical Studies. The Book of Joshua.” Pages 19–32 in The Hebrew Bible and Its Interpreters. Edited by B. Halpern and David Noel Freedman. Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1990.
  Cross, Frank Moore. Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic: Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973.
  Drews, Robert. “Canaanites and Philistines.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 81 (1998): 39–61.
  ———. The End of the Bronze Age: Changes in Warfare and the Catastrophe ca. 1200 BC. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1993.
  Joüon, Paul. A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew. Translated by T. Muraoka. Rome: Gregorian and Biblical Press, 2006.
  Kuhrt, Amelie. The Ancient Near East: C. 3000–330 BC. 2 vols. New ed. New York: Routledge, 1997.
  Lemche, Niels Peter. The Canaanites and Their Land: The Tradition of the Canaanites. New York: Continuum, 1991.
  Mendenhall, George. “The Hebrew Conquest of Palestine.” Biblical Archaeologist 25 (1962): 66–87.
  Nelson, Richard D. Joshua. The Old Testament Library. Louisville, KY.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997.
  Snell, Daniel C. Life in the Ancient Near East, 3100–332 BC. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.
  Sparks, Kenton L. Ancient Texts for the Study of the Hebrew Bible. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2005.
  Stager, Lawrence E. “Forging an Identity: The Emergence of Ancient Israel.” Pages 90–131 in The Oxford History of the Biblical World. Edited by Michael D. Coogan. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  Van De Mieroop, Marc. A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000–323 BC. Blackwell History of the Ancient World. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004.



  Hays, J. Daniel. “The Cushites: A Black Nation in the Bible.” Bibliotheca Sacra 153 (1996): 395–409.
  Keener, Craig S. Acts: An Exegetical Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2012–13.


Beth Steiner, “Canaanite Religion,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

DIVINE COUNCIL A term used by Hebrew Bible scholars for the heavenly host, the assembly of divine beings who administer the affairs of the cosmos under Yahweh, the God of Israel. All ancient Mediterranean cultures had some conception of a divine council, including Israel. However, Israelite religion’s divine council was distinct. The structure of the Israelite divine council has implications for understanding God and the unseen world in biblical theology.

Textual Evidence and Its Ancient Canaanite Context

The Council of the Gods/God
Most Bible translations show that Israel believed in an assembly of heavenly host under the authority of Yahweh. Modern translations do not show clearly that this assembly is similar to pantheons of ancient Near Eastern cultures. A close reading of the Hebrew text and comparisons with other ancient non-biblical texts from Canaan demonstrate this similarity (Mullen, Handy, “Host”; Cross “Epic”; Smith “Early”; Smith, “Origin”; Korpel, Rift in the Clouds).
The clearest example is the cuneiform literature from Ras Shamra (Ugarit), discovered in the late 1920s. As a Semitic language, Ugaritic is closely related to biblical Hebrew—it shares vocabulary, as well as morphological and syntactical features. Many of the Ugaritic tablets describe a council of gods in words and phrases that are conceptually and linguistically parallel to the Hebrew Bible. The Ugaritic divine council was led by El, the same word used in the Hebrew Bible for gods and as the proper name for the God of Israel (e.g., Isa 40:18; 43:12). References to the “council of El” include: pḫr ʾilm (assembly “of El” or “of the gods”; KTU 1.47:29, 1.118:28, 1.148:9); pḫr bn ʾilm (assembly “of the sons of El” or “of the gods”; KTU 1.4.III:14); mpḫrt bn ʾilm (“assembly of the sons of El”; KTU 1.65:3; compare 1.40:25, 42); and ʿdt ʾilm (assembly “of El” or “of the gods”; KTU 1.15.II:7, 11).
The Hebrew Bible has phrases that explicitly parallel these Ugaritic expressions (Parker, “Sons of [the] God[s]”; Cooke, “The Sons of [the] God[s]”). Psalm 82:1 is perhaps the best example. It calls the council (עֲדַת־אֵל, adath-el) and describes gods under the authority of Israel’s God: “God (אֱלֹהִים, elohim) stands in the council of El/the divine council (עֲדַת־אֵל, adath-el); among the gods (אֱלֹהִים, elohim) he passes judgment.” The second occurrence of אֱלֹהִים (elohim) must be semantically plural due to the preposition “in the midst of.” This does not refer to the Trinity—Psalm 82 goes on to describe how Israel’s God accuses the other אֱלֹהִים (elohim) of corruption and sentences them to die “like humankind.” This plurality does not refer to human beings. Psalm 89:5–7 places the God of Israel “in the assembly of the holy ones” (בִּקְהַל קְדֹשִׁים, biqhal qedoshim) and then asks “For who in the clouds (בַּשַּׁחַק, bashshachaq) can be compared to Yahweh? Who is like Yahweh among the sons of God (בְּנֵי אֵלִים, beney elim), a god greatly feared in the council of the holy ones (בְּסוֹד־קְדֹשִׁים, besod-qedoshim)?” Psalm 29:1 commands the same sons of God (בְּנֵי אֵלִים, beney elim) to praise Yahweh and give him due obeisance. Divine “sons of God” (בְּנֵי אֵלִים, beney elim, בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים, beney ha'elohim; or בְּנֵי אֱלֹהִים, beney elohim) appear in other biblical texts (Gen 6:2, 4; Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7; and Deut 32:8–9, 43 (Septuagint; Qumran); Heiser, “Deuteronomy 32:8”).

The Divine Abode and Meeting Place of the Divine Council
At Ugarit, the council of El and its gods met on a mountain or lush garden (Clifford, The Cosmic Mountain). These descriptions are actually the same place. The abode of El was at the “source of the two rivers” (mbk nhrm) in the “midst of the fountains of the double-deep” (qrb ʾapq thmtm). El and his “assembled congregation” (pḫr mʿd) met to issue divine decrees from the “tents of El” (ḏd ʾil) and his “tent shrine” (qrš; KTU 1.1.III:23; 1.2.III:5; 1.3.V:20–21; 1.4.IV:22–23; 1.6.I:34–35; 1.17.VI:48). This description of gods living and meeting in “tents” (ʾahlm) or “tabernacles” (mšknt) is common at Ugarit (KTU–19). The Ugaritic god Baal, the deity who oversaw the council for El, held meetings on Mount Ṣpn. Baal’s palace had “paved bricks” (lbnt) that made Baal’s house “a house of the clearness of lapis lazuli” (bht ṭhrm ʾiqnʾum).
The Hebrew Bible uses similar place descriptions. The most obvious are the tabernacle (מִשְׁכַּן, mishkan) and Tent of Meeting (אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד, ohel mo'ed), both common in the Old Testament narrative. Yahweh also dwelled on mountains (Sinai or Zion; e.g., Exod 34:26; 1 Kgs 8:10). In Psalm 48:3 the Jerusalem temple is said to be located in the “heights of the north” (יַרְכְּתֵי צָפוֹן, yarkethey tsaphon). Mount Zion is the “mount of assembly” (הַר־מוֹעֵד, har-mo'ed), again located in yarketê ṣpn (יַרְכְּתֵי צָפוֹן, yarkethey tsaphon; Isa 14:13). Additionally, Zion is described as a watery habitation (Isa 33:20–22; Ezek 47:1–12; Zech 14:8; Joel 3:18). Ezekiel 28:13–16 equates the “holy mountain of God” (הַר קֹדֶשׁ אֱלֹהִים, har qodesh elohim) with Eden, the “garden of God” (גַּן־אֱלֹהִים, gan-elohim). Eden appears in Ezek 28:2 as the “seat of the gods” (מוֹשַׁב אֱלֹהִים, moshav elohim). The description of Eden in Gen 2:6–15 refers to the “ground flow” that “watered the entire face of the earth.” At Sinai, Moses and others saw the seated God of Israel, under whose feet was a “pavement of sapphire stone” (לִבְנַת הַסַּפִּיר, livnath hassappir; Exod 24:9–10).

The Structure of the Divine Council
The divine council at Ugarit may have had four tiers, but the evidence is not conclusive (Smith, Origins, 41–53). A three-tiered understanding may be better.
The top tier consisted of El and his wife Athirat (Asherah). The second tier was the domain of their royal family (“sons of El”; “princes”). One member of this second tier, Baal, served as the co-regent of El. Despite being under El’s authority, he was called “most high” (Wyatt, “Titles”). A third tier was for “craftsman deities,” while the fourth and lowest tier was reserved for the messengers (mlʾkm), essentially servants or staff (Cho, Lesser Deities).
There is solid evidence in the Hebrew Bible for a three-tiered council. In the divine council of Israelite religion, Yahweh was the supreme authority over a divine bureaucracy that included a second tier of lesser אֱלֹהִים (elohim), also called the “sons of God” (בְּנֵי אֵלִים, beney elim, בְּנֵי הָאֱלֹהִים, beney ha'elohim, or בְּנֵי אֱלֹהִים, beney elohim) or “sons of the Most High” (בְּנֵי עֶלְיוֹן, beney elyon). It may be significant that these “sons of God” are never clearly referred to as angels (מַלְאָכִים, mal'akhim) in the Hebrew Bible, as that word denoted the lowest tier of the Canaanite council, and thus a third tier in the Israelite version. Still, mlʾkm at Ugarit were considered gods, despite their subordinate role. It is possible that מַלְאָכִים (mal'akhim) are referred to as אֱלֹהִים (elohim) in the Hebrew Bible.
In Israel’s divine council, the highest tier is different from the Canaanites’ conception. Instead of El and Baal, his vice-regent, Yahweh occupied both slots in a sort of binitarian godhead (Heiser, “Divine Council”). Yahweh is described in the Hebrew Bible by means of titles and abilities that both El and Baal have in Canaanite literature—these two were conceptually fused in Yahweh. This literary and theological device shows Yahweh superior to the two main divine authority figures in wider Canaanite religion.
The way Yahweh filled the positions both of supreme ruler and vice-regent is also shown by His occasional visible appearances (Hamori “When”; Hamori, “Embodiment”; Sommer, The Bodies of God). For example, the Angel of Yahweh is sometimes indistinguishable from Yahweh (e.g., Exod 3:1–14). The Angel is said to have Yahweh’s “Name” in him (Exod 23:20–23). Scholars have long noted the presence of a “name theology” in the Hebrew Bible (Mettinger “Dethronement”; Huffmon, “Name”) where the name is another way of referring to Yahweh Himself. Thus, Yahweh was in the Angel, and yet Yahweh and the Angel could be simultaneously present (Judg 6). Both the God of Israel and the Angel are said to have brought Israel out of Egypt (Judg 2:1–3; 1 Sam 8:8; Micah 6:4)—an observation that makes Deut 4:37 an important consideration for binitarianism, since that verse tells us the “Presence” of Yahweh was responsible for the deliverance from Egypt. The divine presence must be understood as Yahweh Himself, His “essence” as it were. The angel—as co-regent—fills Baal’s role as El’s warrior. It is the angel who led Israel to the promised land as the captain of the Lord’s host, “sword drawn in his hand” (חַרְבּוֹ שְׁלוּפָה בְּיָדוֹ, charbo sheluphah beyado)—a precise description found in only two other places in the Hebrew Bible, both of which describe the angel of Yahweh (Num 22:23; 1 Chr 21:16). The result is that—while orthodox Yahwism could not accommodate cosmic rule being shared by two separate and distinct deities (El and Baal)—it could tolerate Yahweh in two personages. That the angel had the presence/name/essence of Yahweh in him, but was a distinct personage, meant he “was but wasn’t” Yahweh.
The Israelite binitarian godhead is also indicated by the “rider on the clouds” motif in the Hebrew Bible. This epithet was a well-known title for Baal (Herrmann, “Rider upon the Clouds”). For orthodox Yahwists, Baal’s attributes were taken over by Yahweh, their rightful bearer. The Hebrew Bible consistently refers to Yahweh as the one who rides the clouds (Psa 68:4, Psa 68:5 in Hebrew; 68:33, Psa 68:34 in Hebrew; 104:3; Deut 33:26; Isa 19:1) with one exception: the “son of man” in Dan 7:13. This character in Dan 7 is distinct from the enthroned deity, the ancient of days, who was expected to bear this Yahweh-title of the Hebrew Bible. This passage, along with the “man of war” (the angel) formed the basis for Judaism’s doctrine of two powers in heaven, a point of orthodoxy until the second century AD (Segal, Two Powers in Heaven).
The Hebrew Bible also informs us that at least some Israelites considered Yahweh to have had a divine wife, Asherah (2 Kgs 21:1–7; 2 Chr 15:16). The archaeological picture echoes this belief, most notably in the finds at Kuntillet ʿAjrud and Khirbet el-Qom, where inscriptions include prayers to Yahweh and “his Asherah” (Dever). It should be noted, though, that “his Asherah” may refer to a shrine and not the goddess (Hess, “Yahweh and his Asherah?”). It cannot be demonstrated that the theology of the prophets and biblical writers contained this idea, or that it was permissible. Other figures and motifs include “wisdom and the word” (Ringgren, Word and Wisdom).

Decision Making in the Divine Council
In the Ugaritic council, members would sometimes challenge each other during their deliberations (Handy, “Authorization”). However, there are also passages in the Ugaritic material that nearly equate El with the entire council (see Mullen)—the decrees of the council are the decrees of El. The Israelite conception of the divine council also included deliberation and opposition, yet the will of God was ultimately done.

Council Member Participation. First Kings 22:19–23 is an important text regarding the participation of council members:
“And Micah said, ‘Therefore hear the word of the LORD: I saw the LORD sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; and the LORD said, “Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?” And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the LORD, saying, “I will entice him.” And the LORD said to him, “By what means?” And he said, “I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.” And he said, “You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.” Now therefore behold, the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these, your prophets; the LORD has declared disaster for you.’ “
Yahweh decided that Ahab should die, but allows discussion about how he should die. After some discussion, one spirit steps forward with a proposal. Yahweh accepts it and says that it will succeed. Nothing in the passage suggests that Yahweh learns anything here, or that He didn’t know what the suggestion would be. Nor does it support the idea that Yahweh predestinated the suggestion. The narrative only demonstrates that Yahweh allowed council members to choose how to carry out the decree.
The aftermath of the Babel incident shows that Yahweh expected that council beings use their own free decision making capacity. In Deuteronomy 4:19–20 and 32:8–9, Yahweh divided and assigned the nations to lesser gods (Heiser, “Sons of God”). Yahweh delegated authority—He rejected the nations as His own people and took Israel as His portion. While Yahweh is ultimately sovereign, He does not unilaterally govern the other nations. He leaves that to subordinates, who should rule according to His will. When they don’t, they are judged. This is precisely the point of Psa 82, where Yahweh judges the gods of his council who are responsible for corrupt rule over the nations of the earth.

Yahweh’s Will and Council Activity. Two examples of council deliberation in the book of Daniel make the council almost a part of Yahweh.
Daniel 4 contains Nebuchadnezzar’s second dream. The announcement of Nebuchadnezzar’s punishment is described in Dan 4:17: “The sentence is by the decree of the Watchers, the decision by the word of the holy ones, to the end that the living may know that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will and sets over it the lowliest of men.” Seven verses later (Dan 4:24) the sentence is described thus: “This is the interpretation, O king: It is a decree of the Most High, which has come upon my lord the king.” This line is followed by the ambiguous plural of 4:26: שַׁלִּטִ֖ן שְׁמַָיּֽא (shallitin shemay'). This Aramaic phrase can be translated either “heaven rules” (corporate personification), or “the heavenly ones rule” (council authority). The second seems likely—the decree is from the Watchers—but it is the (singular) Most High who rules.
Daniel 7 opens with the vision of the four beasts, symbols which parallel the four kingdoms in Dan 2. Daniel 7:9–12 describes a divine council meeting. “Thrones” (plural) are set up. The Ancient of Days is seated—the Son of Man does not sit. In Daniel 7:10 the “court” or council is then seated. The books of judgment are opened, and the fourth beast is killed. The jointly ruling Ancient of Days and the Council (and the Son of Man by implication) are identified with one another:

  1.      The judgment occurs after the council was in session. “The court shall sit in judgment and his dominion shall be taken away” (Dan 7:26).
  2.      In Daniel 2 the fourth kingdom is destroyed by the kingdom of God.
  3.      The kingdom of God in Daniel 7 is given by God to the Son of Man, who shares it with the “holy ones” of the Most High (Dan 7:25). These are probably not humans—humans are brought into joint kingship later: it “shall be given to the people of the holy ones of the Most High” (Dan 7:27). “Heavenly ones” is a term that refers to the divine council elsewhere (e.g., Psa 89:5–6; Job 15:15).

The Saṭan. The saṭan (הַשָּׂטָן, hassatan) in Job 1–2 is not a proper name—it has the Hebrew definite article prefixed to the noun (Peggy Day, An Adversary in Heaven). This “Adversary” (the meaning of the Hebrew term) is therefore not the Devil, as known in the New Testament. Lowell Handy points out that the Adversary’s behavior in Job 1–2 is consistent with that of various deities in council scenes in Ugaritic material, where a lesser deity reports to a higher deity (Handy, “Authorization”). The Adversary is the deity responsible for checking on the misbehavior of humans. He is actually not talking back to God, but pointing out that humans behave well if they are not under duress. Yahweh decides to test the Adversary’s estimation, knowing full well that Job will endure.

Monotheism in the Hebrew Bible and the Divine Council

Biblical Polytheism?
The presence of a divine council in the Hebrew Bible does not mean that Israel’s religion was at one time polytheistic (there are many gods) or henotheistic (there are many gods, but one is preferred) and later evolved to monotheism. Both views presume that the gods were equal. Archaeological remains and passages in the Hebrew Bible show polytheism in Israel, but this was not orthodox Israelite belief. The biblical writers refer to Yahweh as “the God” (הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim; 1 Kings 18:39)—He could not be compared with any others. While Yahweh was an אֱלֹהִים (elohim), He was unique among the אֱלֹהִים (elohim). The orthodox Israelite knew that only one deity was the pre-existent Creator of all things (Isa 45:18). His status as Creator prevented other אֱלֹהִים (elohim) from being equal. Yahweh was viewed as the Creator of the “host of heaven,” the other divine beings (Pss 33:6; 148:1–5; compare Neh 9:6; Job 38:7–8; 1 Kgs 22; Isa 14:13; Deut 4:19–20; 32:8–9, 43; with Deut 17:3; 29:25; 32:17).

Understanding the Term אֱלֹהִים (elohim)

The Confusion of English Translations. Modern English translations often obscure the Hebrew text’s plural אֱלֹהִים (elohim), probably from a fear that it would undermine a belief in monotheism. For example, the NASB renders the second אֱלֹהִים (elohim) in Psa 82:1 as “rulers.” Other translations are more faithful, opting for “gods” or “divine beings,” but study Bibles usually note alternative readings like “rulers” or “judges.” While rendering the second אֱלֹהִים (elohim) “gods” in Psa 82:1, the NIV nevertheless in Psa 29:1 has “mighty ones” for bĕnê ʾēlı̂m (literally “sons of the gods”). NASB (“sons of the mighty”) and NKJV (“mighty ones”) follow suit. The translations for Deut 32:17 are also obscure. There are two issues: whether to render אֱלֹהַּ (eloha) as singular or plural and how to translate the verbless clause in which it appears לֹ֣א אֱלֹהַּ (lo' eloha). For example:

  •      ESV—“They sacrificed to demons that were no gods, to gods they had never known …”
  •      RSV—“They sacrificed to demons which were no gods, to gods they had never known …”
  •      CEV—“You offered sacrifices to demons, those useless gods that never helped you, new gods that your ancestors never worshiped.”

Translations which translate אֱלֹהַּ (eloha) as plural produce a reading that denies that שֵׁדִים (shedim, “demons”) are gods. Such translations, however, are forced to juxtapose this denial with the next clause, אֱלֹהִ֖ים לֹ֣א יְדָע֑וּם (elohim lo' yeda'um, “gods which they did not know”) which appears to clearly contradict that denial. How can the demons be gods and not gods in the same verse? Translations which take אֱלֹהַּ (eloha) as singular do not suffer this tension. There are in fact no occasions in the Hebrew Bible where אֱלֹהַּ (eloha) is contextually plural or is used as a collective noun (Heiser, “Deuteronomy 32:17”). Denying the existence of gods in Deut 32:17 means denying the existence of these demonic entities.

The Variety of אֱלֹהִים (elohim). There are a number of entities referred to as אֱלֹהִים (elohim) in the Hebrew Bible. This variety gives a clue as to how the term should be understood. It can be used to mean:

  •      Yahweh, the God of Israel (over 2000 times)
  •      The אֱלֹהִים (elohim) of Yahweh’s heavenly council (Psa 82)
  •      The gods of foreign nations (e.g., 1 Kgs 11:33)
  •      Demons (Deut 32:17)
  •      Spirits of the human dead (1 Sam 28:13)
  •      Angels (possible due to Gen 35:7, depending on the context of the plural predicator with אֱלֹהִים, elohim; subject)

The אֱלֹהִים (elohim) of Yahweh’s council in Psa 82 are divine beings, not human rulers. This is obvious from the parallel passage in Psa 89:5–8. In Psalm 82:6, the plural אֱלֹהִים (elohim) are called “sons of the Most High.” These אֱלֹהִים (elohim) are not human since Psa 89:6 (Psa 89:7 in Hebrew) locates their assembly or council in the clouds or heavens (בַשַּׁחַק, vashshachaq) not on earth.
With respect to 1 Samuel 28:13 (part of the “medium of Endor” narrative), the text tells us that, after being solicited by Saul to conjure the dead prophet Samuel, the medium exclaims, אֱלֹהִים רָאִיתִי עֹלִים מִן־הָאָרֶץ (elohim ra'ithiy olim min-ha'arets). The text could be translated two ways: “I saw gods coming up from the earth” or, “I saw a god coming up from the earth.” Both are possible since the plural participle form could reflect the plural morphology of אֱלֹהִים (elohim). Saul’s subsequent question helps us decide with a singular reading since he asks the medium in 28:14, “What is his (third masculine singular suffix) appearance?” The deceased Samuel who appears to Saul is an אֱלֹהִים (elohim). While this might seem strange to us, the notion that the departed dead were “gods” (אֱלֹהִים, elohim) is similar to ancient Canaanite thinking.
In Genesis 35:7, אֱלֹהִים (elohim) is the subject of a plural verb; and angels (מַלְאָכִים, mal'akhim) may be part of the context. Genesis 35:1–7 reads in part:
“God said to Jacob, ‘Arise, go up to Bethel and dwell there. Make an altar there to the God (לָאֵל, la'el) who appeared to you when you fled from your brother Esau.’ So Jacob said to his household … ‘let us arise and go up to Bethel, so that I may make there an altar to the God (לָאֵל, la'el) who answered me in the day of my distress and has been with me wherever I have gone.’ And Jacob came to Luz (that is, Bethel), which is in the land of Canaan, he and all the people who were with him, and there he built an altar and called the place El-bethel, because there God had revealed himself to him (or, “the gods revealed themselves to him”; נִגְלוּ אֵלָיו הָאֱלֹהִים, niglu elaiw ha'elohim) when he fled from his brother.”
This passage is not referring to Gen 28—that was not the episode in which Jacob was explicitly described as fleeing from his brother. It seems to refer to Gen 32, in which Jacob has two encounters with the divine while fleeing from Esau. The lesser known of these two encounters occurs in Gen 32:1, where we read, “Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God (מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים, mal'akhey elohim) met him” (ESV). Upon seeing these beings, Jacob’s response was the exclamation, “This is the camp of elohim” (Gen 32:1). In Genesis 32:22–32, Jacob wrestles with “a man” (Gen 32:24) whom Jacob refers to as elohim (32:32). The divine nature of the man is reiterated in Hos 12:3–4 (12:4–5 in Hebrew). This angel is also apparently deified in Gen 48:15–16 (ESV):
“And he blessed Joseph, and said, ‘God (הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim), before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God (הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim) who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day, The angel (הַמַּלְאָךְ, hammal'akh) who has redeemed me from all evil, bless (יְבָרֵךְ, yevarekh; note the singular verb) the boys; and in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac; and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.’ “
The plural verb form of Gen 35:7 may be due to the fact that both Yahweh and the Angel who is the visible Yahweh appeared to Jacob as he fled. However, the other angels of God may also be included in the plural verb form. Angels as אֱלֹהִים (elohim) would agree with Canaanite culture and religion, and makes good sense in light of what the term אֱלֹהִים (elohim) really means.

Defining the Term אֱלֹהִים (elohim). The fact that five different entities are called אֱלֹהִים (elohim) shows that the word does not refer to only one set of attributes. This is the mistake of modern interpreters and translators, who are accustomed to using the term “god” only when referencing the God of Israel and His attributes. The biblical writers would not equate Yahweh in a qualitative sense with demons, angels, the human disembodied dead, the gods of the nations, or the gods of Yahweh’s own council.
All the things called אֱלֹהִים (elohim) in the Hebrew Bible have one thing in common: they all inhabit the non-human realm. That is, they are by nature not part of the world of humankind, a world of ordinary embodiment. אֱלֹהִים (elohim) as a term describes residence—it identifies the proper domain of the entity described by it. Yahweh, the lesser gods, angels, demons, and the disembodied dead are all rightful inhabitants of the spiritual world. They may cross over to the human world, as Scripture informs us, and certain humans may be transported to their realm (e.g., prophets; Enoch), but their proper domain and humanity’s proper domain are two separate places. Within the spiritual world—as in the human world—there are differences of rank and power. Yahweh is an אֱלֹהִים (elohim), but no other אֱלֹהִים (elohim) is Yahweh. This was what an orthodox Israelite believed. Yahweh was not one among equals; He was unique. The modern term “monotheism,” coined in the 17th century (MacDonald, “Deuteronomy and the Meaning of Monotheism,” 1–21), only uses the term god to describe a being with attributes like Yahweh’s. This does not reflect the Hebrew Bible’s use of אֱלֹהִים (elohim). However, the thought behind the term—that Yahweh is utterly and eternally unique—is consistent with the sense of the modern word “monotheism.”

“No Other Gods beside Me”?
Common phrases in the Hebrew Bible which seem to deny the existence of other gods (e.g., Deut 4:35, 39; 32:12, 39) actually appear in passages that affirm the existence of other gods (Deut 4:19–20; 32:8–9, 17). These phrases show that Yahweh is incomparable among the other אֱלֹהִים (elohim), not that the biblical writers contradict each other or that they are in the process of discovering monotheism.
Isaiah’s “denial statements” express incomparability, not non-existence of other gods (Isa 43:10–12). Similar language is used in Isa 47:8, 10. Babylon claims, “I am, and there is none else beside me.” The claim is not that Babylon is the only city in the world, but that it has no rival.
A close reading of Deuteronomy and Isaiah shows the denial language’s context (Heiser, “Monotheism”). The denials are not based on any claim that other אֱלֹהִים (elohim) do not exist, but on Yahweh’s unique qualities. In Isaiah 43:10–12, the reference points are Yahweh’s pre-existence, ability to save, and national deliverance. In Isaiah 45, the focus is on Yahweh’s justice, salvation, the deliverance of His children, and the impotence of the other gods. Yahweh is being compared to lesser gods—it would be empty praise to compare Him to beings that did not exist.

Human Beings as אֱלֹהִים (elohim)?
The structure and terminology of Psa 82 shows that the psalm describes a council of divine beings (Mullen, Divine Council; Prinsloo, “Psalm 82”; Tsevat, “God and the Gods”; Kee, “The Heavenly Council”). The plural אֱלֹהִים (elohim) of Psa 82:1 are called “sons of the Most High” in 82:6. The orthodox Israelite knew that the Most High is Yahweh (Psa 83:18). The plural אֱלֹהִים (elohim) of the council are therefore “sons” of the God of Israel. Elsewhere the “sons of God” are obviously divine beings (e.g., Job 1:6; 2:1; 38:7–8). However, there is one passage, Hos 1:10, that uses a similar phrase of humans (“sons of the living God”), and Israelites on occasion were referred to as Yahweh’s “sons” (Exod 4:22–23).

Psalm 82 and Psalm 89 in Tandem. Psalm 82’s council of plural אֱלֹהִים (elohim) would be ambiguous if it were the only example. Without context, it might seem to describe Yahweh presiding over a council or group of human judges. However, there is another passage that both uses the same language of divine plurality in a council and rules out that language with human beings.
Psalm 89:5–7 places Yahweh’s council of אֱלֹהִים (elohim) “in the clouds.” This shows that these “sons of God” are not humans—no text in the entirety of the Hebrew Bible suggests that there are a group of human judges in the heavens ruling with Yahweh over the nations.

Deuteronomy 32 as the Backdrop to Psalm 82. Psalm 82 judges the council אֱלֹהִים (elohim) for their corrupt administration—this also shows that they are not human. The last verse of the psalm shows what the council אֱלֹהִים (elohim) were supposed to be administrating. The psalmist implores the God of Israel to rise up and “inherit” all the nations. The lemma behind “inherit” (נחל, nchl) is precisely the same lemma used to describe Yahweh’s punitive judgment of the nations at the tower of Babel. He allotted the nations to the sons of God, and allotted those same divine beings to the nations that he was disinheriting. The key passages are Deut 32:8–9 and its parallel, Deut 4:19–20:

  •      Deuteronomy 32:8: “When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance (נחל, nchl), when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God (בני האלהים, bny h'lhym) But the LORD’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage (נַחֲלָתוֹ, nachalatho).”
  •      Deuteronomy 4:19: “Lest you lift up your eyes to heaven, and when you see the sun and the moon and the stars, all the host of heaven, you be drawn away and bow down to them and serve them, whom the LORD your God has allotted to all the peoples under the whole heaven. But the LORD has taken you and brought you out of the iron furnace, out of Egypt, to be a people of his own inheritance (נַחֲלָה, nachalah), as you are this day.”

Both of these passages assume the reality of other אֱלֹהִים (elohim). Passages in Deut 4:19–20 through 32:8–9 identify the “host of heaven” as “other gods” (אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים, elohim acherim) worshiped by Israelites in defiance of Deut 4:19–20. For example, Deut 29:23–25 (Deut 29:24–26 in English) contains phrases found in Deut 32:8–9, where the nations were allotted by Yahweh to the sons of God:
“All the nations will say, ‘Why has the LORD done thus to this land? What caused the heat of this great anger?’ Then people will say, ‘It is because they abandoned the covenant of the LORD, the God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt, and went and served other gods (אֱלֹהִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֔ים, elohim acherim) and worshiped them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them.’ “
Deuteronomy 32:17 identifies these אֱלֹהִ֣ים (elohim) (the hosts of heaven and sons of God) as demons—real beings (Heiser, “Deuteronomy 32:17”). These אֱלֹהִ֣ים (elohim) are not simply idols, pieces of wood and stone.
Ancient Near Eastern idolaters knew that idols were not the actual deities they represent. While both the entity and the cult object might be called אֱלֹהִ֣ים (elohim), this does not mean that ancient people considered a human-made statue to be identical to the god it looked like. As Robins, a scholar of ancient cult objects notes: “When a non-physical being manifested in a statue, this anchored the being in a controlled location where living human beings could interact with it through ritual performance … In order for human beings to interact with deities and to persuade them to create, renew, and maintain the universe, these beings had to be brought down to earth.… This interaction had to be strictly controlled in order to avoid both the potential dangers of unrestricted divine power and the pollution of the divine realm was brought about through their manifestation in a physical body, manifestation in one body did not in any sense restrict a deity, for the non-corporeal essence of a by the impurity of the human world. While the ability of deities to act in the visible, human realm was brought about through their manifestation in a physical body, manifestation in one body did not in any sense restrict a deity, for the non-corporeal essence of a deity was unlimited by time and space, and could manifest in all its ‘bodies,’ in all locations, all at one time” (Robins, “Cult Statues in Ancient Egypt,” 1–2).

Human Elder-Judges of Israel and Plural אֱלֹהִ֣ים (elohim). There are passages that seem to use אֱלֹהִ֣ים (elohim) to mean the human elders of Israel acting as judges, but this is not the correct reading.
Exodus 22:6–8 (translation from the JPS Tanakh):
“When a man gives money or goods to another for safekeeping, and they are stolen from the man’s house—if the thief is caught, he shall pay double; if the thief is not caught, the owner of the house shall come near to God (הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim) that he has not laid hands on the other’s property. In all charges of misappropriation—pertaining to an ox, an ass, a sheep, a garment, or any other loss, whereof one party alleges, ‘This is it’—the case of both parties shall come before God (הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim): he whom God (אֱלֹהִים, elohim) declares guilty (יַרְשִׁיעֻן, yarshi'un) shall pay double to the other.”
If the אֱלֹהִים (elohim) and הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) in Exod 22:6–8 were human beings (the elder-judges of Israel), Psa 82 may be describing Israelite judges. The plural predicate in Exod 22:8 (יַרְשִׁיעֻן, yarshi'un) would seem to support this—if the passage speaks of Israel’s judges rendering decisions for the people. However, there are several problems with this use of the passage.
First, these judges (if הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim; and אֱלֹהִים, elohim; are plural and referring to people) give decisions for the nation of Israel—not the nations of the world as is the case in Psa 82 and Deut 32. Also, אֱלֹהִים (elohim) and הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) in Exod 22:8 might be singular, and might not refer to human beings.
Exodus 18:13–24—where Moses appoints judges—might suggest that אֱלֹהִים (elohim) and הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) in Exod 22:8 are humans. However, the story of the judges uses אֱלֹהִים (elohim) and הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) to refer to God:
“The next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening. But when Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, ‘What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening? Moses replied to his father-in-law, ‘It is because the people come to me to inquire of God (אֱלֹהִים, elohim). When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.’ But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, ‘The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God (אֱלֹהִים, elohim) be with you! You represent the people before God (הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim): you bring the disputes before God (הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim) and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow. You shall also seek out from among all the people capable men who fear God, trustworthy men who spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you. If you do this—and God so commands you—you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied.’ Moses heeded his father-in-law and did just as he had said.”
There is nothing in Exodus 18 to suggest that אֱלֹהִים (elohim) or הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) are plural—these refer to the singular God of Israel. The same is true of Exodus 22. A singular translation referring to God Himself is the correct reading. Without evidence for a plural translation, the אֱלֹהִים (elohim) cannot be assumed to be the elders of Israel. Also, the men appointed by Moses in Exod 18 are never actually called אֱלֹהִים (elohim) or הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) in the text. This account of the appointment of judges, then, does not support the אֱלֹהִים (elohim) in Psa 82 being humans.
There is one other passage that speaks of אֱלֹהִים (elohim) in a context similar to that of Exod 22:8. Exodus 21:2–6 reads:
“When you buy a Hebrew slave, he shall serve six years, and in the seventh he shall go out free, for nothing. If he comes in single, he shall go out single; if he comes in married, then his wife shall go out with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the wife and her children shall be her master’s, and he shall go out alone. But if the slave plainly says, ‘I love my master, my wife, and my children; I will not go out free,’ then his master shall bring him to God (הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim), and he shall bring him to the door or the doorpost. And his master shall bore his ear through with an awl, and he shall be his slave forever.”
It is possible that the master is commanded to bring the slave before the elder-judges of Israel (הָאֱלֹהִים, ha'elohim) before piercing his ear. However, this unlikely.
First, הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) can be singular, referring to the God of Israel—as in Exod 18 and Exod 22. The promise about the status of the slave is being made in truth before God. However, there is evidence that the redactor-scribes responsible for the final form of the text did not interpret הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) as singular—and also did not interpret a plurality as referring to human beings. The parallel passage in Deut 15 shows that redactors saw הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) as semantically plural: the parallel in Deut 15:17 removes the word הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) from the instruction. If this were thought to mean the God of Israel, the redactors would not have removed it from the text. Again, if הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) had been understood as plural humans, Israel’s judges, they would not have removed it. If הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) were intended as a semantically plural word that referred to gods, then the reason for deleting was theological (Gordon, “אלהים, 'lhym; in Its Reputed Meaning of Rulers”). Gordon argued that הָאֱלֹהִים (ha'elohim) in Exod 21:6 referred to “household gods” like the teraphim of other passages. Bringing a slave into one’s home in patriarchal culture required the consent and approval of one’s ancestors—departed human dead, אֱלֹהִים (elohim)—as in 1 Sam 28:13. This phrase was later removed after Israel’s struggle with idolatry. Only a plural referring to multiple divine beings can coherently explain the deletion. As a result, this passage also does not support the plural human אֱלֹהִים (elohim) view.

The Divine Council as Prophetic Warriors and Witnesses
The prophets sometimes refer to the divine council when they declare eschatological holy war (Miller, “Call to War”). The divine council (along with human warriors) forms a cosmic army on the day of the Lord (Isa 13:1–8; Joel 3:11–12; Zech 14:1–5). This language draws upon other material in the Hebrew Bible that describes the divine council as an army (Deut 33:1–5; Psa 68:16–17; 2 Kgs 6:15–17). This is also the context for the common title for Israel’s God, “Lord of hosts”—“host” is a word used frequently in the Hebrew Bible for a military force (e.g., 2 Sam 3:23; Psa 108:12).
The divine council is the army of God, but also witnesses God’s decrees and acts. This idea is common outside the Hebrew Bible in other descriptions of divine councils (Bokovy, “Invoking the Council as Witnesses”). God often commands an unidentified group in a context that rules out a human audience (Cross, “The Council of Yahweh”). “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” (Isa 40:1–2). The two imperatives “comfort” are grammatically plural in Hebrew, as are the ensuing commands “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her” (Isa 40:3). These commands are not directed at Jerusalem or Israel, for they are the objects of the commands—they may be directed at the divine council (Cross, “The Council of Yahweh”). Amos 3 describes the Lord’s intention to punish Israel. In Amos 3:7, we read that “the Lord God does nothing without revealing his council (סוֹד, sod) to the prophets.” Plural imperatives follow: “Proclaim to the strongholds … and say” and “Hear and testify against the house of Jacob, declares the Lord God, the God of hosts” (Amos 3:10; 3:13). Again, Israel and Judah are not the recipient of the commands—the divine council may be called upon to witness the judgment of the Lord (Bokovy, “Invoking the Council as Witnesses”).

The Divine Council and New Testament Views of Christ
The binitarian structure of the Israelite divine council has implications for the high view of Christ in the New Testament (Segal, “Trinitarian”; Stuckenbruck, “Angel”; Boyarin, “Memra”)

The Second Power in Heaven/Second Yahweh
A number of Jewish writers ca. 516 BC—AD 70 offered opinions as to the identity of the “second Yahweh,” the second power in heaven (Mach, “Concepts of Jewish Monotheism”; Hurtado, “How on Earth”; McGrath, The Only True God; Fossum, “Name”). These Jewish writers suggested significant men from the Old Testament—such as Adam, Enoch, Abraham, and Moses—and specific angels—Gabriel, Michael, and the “Prince of the Host” from Daniel 10. Some did not attempt to further identify the angel of Yahweh (Gieschen, Angelomorphic Christology; Hannah, Michael and Christ; Stuckenbruck, “Angel”).
For Christians, the second Yahweh was Jesus. It is for this reason that the New Testament describes Jesus with all the descriptions of Yahweh’s co-regent: the name (which Jesus manifests by his presence: John 17:6, 11–12, 26), the word (John 1:1), the cloud-rider (Matt 26:64), wisdom (1 Cor 1:24), and the angel of Yahweh (Jude 5; Num 14:29; Fossum, “Name”; Fossum, “Image”; Segal, “Two Powers”; Boyarin, “Memra”).

Jesus as the Unique Son of God (μονογενής, monogenēs)
Jesus is the “only begotten” Son of God—but “only begotten” is a confusing translation. The Greek word is μονογενής (monogenēs). Not only does the translation “only begotten” seem to contradict the obvious statements in the Old Testament about other sons of God, it sounds as though there was a time when the Son did not exist—that He had a beginning. The Council of Nicaea in 325 taught that the Son had always existed, but the idea of the uncreated, eternal Son had been understood since the beginning of the Church—it was believed to be the teaching of the New Testament.
The Greek word μονογενής (monogenēs) doesn’t actually mean “only begotten.” It presents a problem neither with respect to Jesus having a beginning, nor with respect to divine “sons of God” who are called gods (אֱלֹהִים, elohim) in the Old Testament. The confusion extends from a misunderstanding of the root of the Greek word. For many years, μονογενής (monogenēs) was thought to have derived from two Greek terms, μόνος (monos, “only”) and γεννάω (gennaō, “to beget, bear”). Scholars of Greek eventually discovered, though, that the second part of the word μονογενής (monogenēs) does not come from the Greek verb γεννάω (gennaō), but rather the noun γένος (genos, “class, kind”). The term literally means “one of a kind” or “unique” with no connotation to time, origin or solitary existence. The validity of this understanding is shown by the New Testament itself. In Hebrews 11:17, Isaac is called Abraham’s μονογενής (monogenēs)—but Isaac was not the only son Abraham fathered, since he fathered Ishmael prior to Isaac. The term must mean that Isaac was Abraham’s unique son—the son of the covenant promises and the line through which the messiah would come. Just as Yahweh is an אֱלֹהִים (elohim), and no other אֱלֹהִים (elohim) are Yahweh, so Jesus is the unique son, and no other sons of God are like Him.

Jesus’ Quotation of Psalm 82 in John 10
John 10:34 may seem to imply that the אֱלֹהִים (elohim) in Psa 82:6 are human beings. However, this interpretation nullifies any sense that Jesus’ argument in John 10 is a defense of His own deity. In John 10:30, Jesus tells his audience that He and the Father were one. The Jews were deeply offended by this comment, as indicated by their response in 10:31–33. They picked up stones to kill Him, for they thought He was making Himself equal with God. Jesus’ response is usually interpreted as a concession. That is, He was only saying of Himself what the Jews could say of themselves, and used Psa 82:6 to show that humans can be called אֱלֹהִים (elohim). This view both ignores the Old Testament context of the divine council and undermines John’s presentation of the deity of Jesus in his gospel:

  •      Jesus asserted that He and the Father were one (Jn 10:30).
  •      The Jews thought this was blasphemy—Jesus was claiming to be God (Jn 10:33).
  •      In defense of His claim that He was one with God, Jesus quoted Psa 82:6.
  •      Following the quotation, He states that the Father is in Him, and He was in the Father.

The usual interpretation of this passage—that the אֱלֹהִים (elohim) were human—is based on two assumptions:

  1.      Judaeo-Christian monotheism could not have other אֱלֹהִים (elohim).
  2.      “To whom the word of God came” refers to the Jews who received the law at Sinai (i.e. the Pharisees’ forefathers).

However, both of these assumptions are wrong. It is already clear that there were other uses of אֱלֹהִים (elohim). Also, “the word of God” was not the Law, and those who received it were not human. Psalm 82:6–7 says, “I said, ‘You are gods (אֱלֹהִים, elohim), even sons of the Most High (בְּנֵי עֶלְיוֹן, beney elyon), all of you; nevertheless, like humans you will die, and fall like any prince.’ “
The speaker (“I”) in the passage is the God of Israel, the God who is standing in the council in 82:1 among the lesser אֱלֹהִים (elohim). God announces that the אֱלֹהִים (elohim) of the council are His sons, but because of their corruption (Psa 82:2–5), they will lose their immortality. The “word of God” in the original context is the specific utterance of Yahweh to His council members. They, in turn, are the recipients of that word (utterance). The recipients are not the Israelites at Sinai or any other group of Jews.
Jesus refers to the original utterance spoken by God when He quoted the psalm, not the Jewish nation receiving revelation, at Sinai or at any other time. Jesus is defending his statement to be one with the Father by reminding his hearers that their Old Testament teaches that there were divine sons of God who were אֱלֹהִים (elohim).

Differences in the Views

Common Interpretation
This Proposal
Jesus’ strategy assumes אֱלֹהִים (elohim) are human
Jesus’ strategy assumes אֱלֹהִים (elohim) are divine
The “word of God that came” = revelation from God at Sinai, or some other event
The “word of God that came” = the utterance itself in Psa 82:6—the pronouncement from God
“to whom the word of God came” = the Israelites at Sinai, or the Jews generally
“to whom the word of God came” = the אֱלֹהִים (elohim) of the divine council in 82:1
The Jews are the “sons of the Most High” and אֱלֹהִים (elohim)—so Jesus can call himself an אֱלֹהִים (elohim) as well, since he is a Jew. (This view emphasizes Jesus’ mortality)
The Jews are not אֱלֹהִים (elohim), and Jesus reminds them that their Scriptures say there are other אֱלֹהִים (elohim) who are divine sons.

In John 10:36–38, Jesus asserts that his high status as the Son is based on Him doing the works of His Father: the Father is “in him.” This phrase parallels Exod 23:20–21, where the Name—Yahweh’s Presence—was in the angel of Yahweh. In John 10:36–38, Jesus claims that the Presence is in Him. He is claiming to be the second power, or second Yahweh, which would in turn mean He was Lord of the divine council with the invisible Yahweh (the Father). Thus, Jesus’ claim of oneness with the Father is developed by the quotation and by what follows. The result is a powerful claim to deity, consistent with the rest of the gospel of John.

Prophets and the Divine Council

Prophetic Commissioning: The Classical Prophets
There is also a connection between the divine council and the office of prophet (1 Kings 22).
A prophet or prophetess was a spokesperson for Yahweh. They were commissioned in an encounter with the divine: the prophet appeared in the divine throne room, where the council met and decrees were issued (Kingsbury, “Prophets and the Council of Yahweh”; Nissinen, “Prophets and the Divine Council”). Isaiah was taken to the throne-room of Yahweh (Isa 6:1–8), and the throne of the LORD came to Ezekiel (Ezek 1:1–14, 26–28). Jeremiah was called by the word of the Lord (Jer 1:4). This word was Yahweh (Jer 1:6–7), but was embodied in human form (Jer 1:9). Yahweh refers to this call when He said of the false prophets, “If they had stood in my council, then they would have proclaimed my words to my people, and they would have turned them from their evil way, and from the evil of their deeds” (Jer 23:16, 22).

Prophetic Commissioning: The Broader Context
Someone who serves as the righteous spokesperson for God is also a prophet. God often meets with humans for spiritual business in the Bible:

  •      God walked with Adam in the garden, the divine abode. He was God’s first human representative. Job 15:7–8 apparently alludes to this scene, as Eliphaz, one of Job’s friends, asks Job, “Are you the first man who was born? Or were you brought forth before the hills? Have you listened in the council (הַבְסוֹד, havsod) of God? Have you restricted wisdom to yourself?”
  •      Enoch “prophesied” (Jude 14; 15) and “walked with God” (Gen 5:24).
  •      Noah also “walked with God” (Gen 6:9). He was a “herald of righteousness” (2 Pet 2:5), and warned his fellow men of the coming judgment of the flood (1 Pet. 3:20).
  •      The glory of Lord “appeared” to Abraham before he journeyed to Haran (Acts 7:2–4; Gen 15:1).
  •      Yahweh appeared to Isaac (Gen 26:1–5) and Jacob (Gen 28:10–22; 31:11–13; 32:22–32; see Hos 12:3–4). The patriarchs were Yahweh’s spokesmen, through whom the world would be blessed (Gen 12:1–3).
  •      He commissioned Moses at the burning bush (Exod 3:1–15) and many subsequent occasions (e.g., 19:16–20:21; 24:9–18; 33:7–11).
  •      Yahweh also directly commissioned the elders of Israel under Moses (Num 11:24–25).
  •      He also commissioned Joshua (Deut 31:14–23; Josh 5:13–15).
  •      Gideon met both Yahweh and the angel who was Yahweh—simultaneously (Judges 6).
  •      Deborah received messages from Yahweh under “the Palm of Deborah” (Judg 4:4–5).
  •      The word of the Lord “appeared” to Samuel to inform him of Eli’s fate (1 Sam 3:20–21).

The Divine Council as Prophetic Warriors and Witnesses
The prophets sometimes refer to the divine council when they declare eschatological holy war (Miller, “Call to War”). The divine council (along with human warriors) forms a cosmic army on the day of the Lord (Isa 13:1–8; Joel 3:11–12; Zech 14:1–5). This language draws upon other material in the Hebrew Bible that describes the divine council as an army (Deut 33:1–5; Psa 68:16–17; 2 Kgs 6:15–17). This is also the context for the common title for Israel’s God, “Lord of hosts”—“host” is a word used frequently in the Hebrew Bible for a military force (e.g., 2 Sam 3:23; Psa 108:12).
The divine council is the army of God, but also witnesses God’s decrees and acts. This idea is common outside the Hebrew Bible in other descriptions of divine councils (Bokovy, “Invoking the Council as Witnesses”). God often commands an unidentified group in a context that rules out a human audience (Cross, “The Council of Yahweh”). “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God” (Isa 40:1–2). The two imperatives “comfort” are grammatically plural in Hebrew, as are the ensuing commands “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and cry to her” (Isa 40:3). These commands are not directed at Jerusalem or Israel, for they are the objects of the commands—they may be directed at the divine council (Cross, “The Council of Yahweh”). Amos 3 describes the Lord’s intention to punish Israel. In Amos 3:7, we read that “the Lord God does nothing without revealing his council (סוֹד, sod) to the prophets.” Plural imperatives follow: “Proclaim to the strongholds … and say” and “Hear and testify against the house of Jacob, declares the Lord God, the God of hosts” (Amos 3:10; 3:13). Again, Israel and Judah are not the recipient of the commands—the divine council may be called upon to witness the judgment of the Lord (Bokovy, “Invoking the Council as Witnesses”).

Michael S. Heiser, “Divine Council,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

  Ackerman, James S. “The Rabbinic Interpretation of Psalm 82 and the Gospel of John.” Harvard Theological Review 59, no. 2 (1966): 186–91.
  Bokovy, David E. “Invoking the Council as Witnesses in Amos 3:13.” Journal of Biblical Literature 127, no. 1 (2008): 37–51
  Boyarin, Daniel. “The Gospel of the Memra: Jewish Binitarianism and the Prologue to John.” Harvard Theological Review 94, no. 3 (2001): 243–284.
  ———. “Two Powers in Heaven; Or, the Making of a Heresy,” Pages 331–370 in The Idea of Biblical Interpretation: Essays in Honor of James L. Kugel. Edited by Hindy Najman and Judith H. Newman. Leiden: Brill, 2004.
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  ———. Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973.
  Davis, Carl Judson. The Name and Way of the Lord: Old Testament Themes, New Testament Christology. JSNTSup 129. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996.
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  ———. The Name of God and the Angel of the Lord: Samaritan and Jewish Concepts of Intermediation and the Origin of Gnosticism. Tübingen: Mohr, 1985.
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  ———. “Divine Embodiment in the Hebrew Bible and Some Implications for Jewish and Christian Incarnational Theologies.” Pages 161–183 in Bodies, Embodiment, and Theology of the Hebrew Bible. Edited by S. Tamar Kamionkowski and Wonil Kim. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 465. London: T&T Clark, 2010.
  Hannah, Darrell D. Michael and Christ: Michael Traditions and Angel Christology in Early Christianity. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 109. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1999.
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  ———. Among the Host of Heaven: The Syro-Palestinian Pantheon as Bureaucracy. Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1994.
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  ———. “The Divine Council in Second Temple Literature.” Ph.D. diss., University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2004.
  ———. “Divine Council.” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Wisdom, Poetry, and Writings. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2008: 112–116.
  ———. “Divine Council.” Dictionary of the Old Testament: Prophets. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2011.
  ———. “Monotheism, Polytheism, Monolatry, or Henotheism? Toward an Assessment of Divine Plurality in the Hebrew Bible.” Bulletin for Biblical Research 18, no. 1 (2008): 1–30.
  ———. “Does Deuteronomy 32:17 Assume or Deny the Reality of Other Gods?.” Bible Translator 59, no. 3 (July 2008): 137–45.
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  ———. “The Binitarian Shape of Early Christian Worship.” Pages 187–213 in The Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism, Papers from the St. Andrews Conference on the Historical Origins of the Worship of Jesus. Edited by Carey C. Newman, James R. Davila and Gladys S. Lewis. Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 63. Leiden: Brill, 1999.
  ———. Lord Jesus Christ: Devotion to Jesus in Earliest Christianity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003.
  ———. How on Earth Did Jesus Become a God? Historical Questions about Earliest Jesus Devotion. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005.
  Kee, Min Suc “The Heavenly Council and Its Type Scene.” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 31, no. 3 (2007): 259–73
  Kingsbury, Edwin C. “The Prophets and the Council of Yahweh.” Journal of Biblical Literature 83, no. 3 (1964): 279–86
  Korpel, Marjo C. A. A Rift in the Clouds: Ugaritic and Hebrew Descriptions of the Divine. Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1990.
  MacDonald, Nathan. “Deuteronomy and the Meaning of Monotheism“. Future American Theologians 2. Series 1. Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 2003.
  Mach, Michael “Concepts of Jewish Monotheism during the Hellenistic Period.” Pages 21–42 in The Jewish Roots of Christological Monotheism, Papers from the St. Andrews Conference on the Historical Origins of the Worship of Jesus. Edited by Carey C. Newman, James R. Davila and Gladys S. Lewis. Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 63. Leiden: Brill, 1999.
  McGrath, James F. The Only True God: Early Christian Monotheism in Its Jewish Context. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2009.
  Mettinger, Tryggve N. D. “The Dethronement of Sabaoth: Studies in the Shem and Kabod Theologies.” Coniectanea Biblia Old Testament Series 18. Lund: CWK Gleerup, 1982.
  Miller, Patrick D. “The Divine Council and the Prophetic Call to War.” Vetus Testamentum 18 (1968): 100–07.
  ———. “Cosmology and World Order in the Old Testament and the Divine Council as Cosmic-Political Symbol.” Pages 422–45 in Israelite Religion and Biblical Theology: Collected Essays. London: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000.
  Mullen, E. Theodore Jr. The Divine Council in Canaanite and Early Hebrew Literature. Harvard Semitic Monographs 24. Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1980.
  Nissinen, Martii “Prophets and the Divine Council.” Pages 4–19 in /Kein Land für sich allein: Studien zum Kulturkontakt in Kanaan. Israel/Palästina und Ebirnari für Manfred Weippert zum 65. Geburstag. Edited by U. Hübner und E. A. Knauf. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Rupprecht, 2002.
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  Prinsloo, W. S. “Psalm 82: Once Again, Gods or Men?.” Biblica 76, no. 2 (1995): 219–28.
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  ———. “ ‘Two Powers in Heaven’ and Early Christian Trinitarian Thinking.” Pages 73–98 in The Trinity. Edited by Stephen T. Davis, Daniel Kendall, and Gerald O’Collins. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004.
  Smith, Mark S. The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  ———. The Early History of God: Yahweh and Other Deities in Ancient Israel. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002.
  ———. God in Translation: Deities in Cross-Cultural Discourse in the Biblical World. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010.
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  Stuckenbruck, Loren T. Angel Veneration and Christology: A Study in Early Judaism and in the Christology of the Apocalypse of John. Wissenschaftliche Untersuchungen zum Neuen Testament 70. Second series. Tübingen: Mohr-Siebeck, 1995.
  Stuckenbruck, Loren T., and Wendy E. S. North, eds. Early Jewish and Christian Monotheism. London: T&T Clark, 2004.
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  Wyatt, Nicholas. “The Titles of the Ugaritic Storm God.” Ugarit Forschungen 24 (1992): 403–24.


Michael S. Heiser, “Divine Council,” ed. John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).

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