Early Israelite religion may once have shared the Canaanite belief in El and other gods, before the Jewish monotheistic tradition emerged.
Canaanite religion describes the belief systems and ritual practices of the people living in the ancient Levant region throughout the Bronze Age and Iron Age. Until recently, little was known of these traditions outside of the Hebrew Bible, which denigrated them as idolatrous and licentious. Twentieth century archaeological excavations, however, unearthed several texts, as well as many artifacts, which provided previously unknown details and insights into the nature of Canaanite religion.
Although the literary sources are still scarce, the Canaanite religion seems to have involved a rich mythological tradition which served as a bridge between the more ancient Mesopotamian religions and the later Greek and Roman gods. Several of the most famous Greek gods, for example, clearly evolved from Canaanite antecedents, just as several of the Canaanite gods grew out of Mesopotamian roots.
Like other ancient cultures, Canaanite society was largely concerned with agricultural themes. As a land dryer than either Egypt or the Fertile Crescent, which were blessed with large rivers, Canaanite traditions were particularly concerned with rain and drought. The supreme deity of the Canaanite pantheon was El, together with his consort, Asherah. As with the Greek tradition, these early gods were later supplanted by younger, more immediate presences, especially the rain/thunder god Ba’al and his consorts, such as the warrior goddess Anat and the love/fertility goddess Astarte. Early Israelite religion may once have shared the Canaanite belief in El and other gods, before the Jewish monotheistic tradition emerged.
Until the excavation of Canaanite Ras Shamra—the site historically known as Ugarit—and the discovery of its Bronze Age archive of cuneiform clay tablet texts, little was known of Canaanite religion except for accounts in the Hebrew Bible. Papyrus seems to have been the preferred writing medium, and these documents have simply decayed. Meanwhile accounts of the Bible regarding Canaanite religion, provided an outsider’s view from an adversarial perspective. A few secondary and tertiary Greek sources included (Lucian of Samosata’s De Syria Dea (The Syrian Goddess), fragments of the Phoenician History of Philo of Byblos quoting Sanchuniathon of Berythus (Beirut), and the writings of Damasacius). More recently, the detailed study of the Ugaritic material from Ras Shamra—together with inscriptions from the Ebla archive at Tel Mardikh and various other archaeological finds—have cast more light on the early Canaanite religion.
Canaanite mythology was strongly influenced by Mesopotamian and Egyptian traditions. At the same time, Egypt appears to have inherited certain religious traditions from the Canaanites as well. Canaanite religious beliefs were polytheistic, with families typically focusing worship on ancestral household gods and goddesses, while honoring major deities such as El, Ashera, Baal, Anat, and Astarte at various public temples and high places. Kings also played an important religious role, especially in certain ceremonies, such as the sacred marriage of the New Year Festival, and may have been revered as gods.
Pantheon of Canaanite Religion
The Canaanite pantheon was conceived as a divine clan, headed by the supreme god El; the gods collectively made up the elohim. Through the centuries, the pantheon of Canaanite gods evolved, so that El and Asherah were more important in earlier times, while Baal and his consorts came to fore in later years. Many of the Canaanite deities found their way into the Greek and Roman pantheon. For example, the characteristics of both El and Baal may be seen in Zeus, while Astart resembles Aphrodite, Anat is similar to Athena, Yam to Poseidon, and Mot to Hades or Thanatos. Some of the deities listed below are mentioned only briefly in the Canaanite texts, while others were important locally or nationally—such as Chemosh—but not throughout the region. Still others, such a Moloch, are known mainly from Hebrew texts
- Anat—goddess of war, ever-virgin sister-wife of Baal, honored as a protector, agent of vengeance, and bearer of life
- Asherah—early semitic Mother goddess, “Lady of the sea,” consort of El, also called Athirat, the mother of 70 gods
- Astarte—goddess of love and fertility, sometimes the consort of Baal/Hadad
- Baalat or Baalit—the chief deity of Byblos, also identified with Astarte and Aphrodite
- Ba’al—meaning “Lord,” god of rain, thunder, and fertility, sometimes synonymous with Hadad; also used as a title prefixing the names of local deities
- Baal-Hammon—god of fertility and renewal in the Phoenician colonies of the Western Mediterranean
- Chemosh—the national god of Moab, referred to in both Moabite and Hebrew texts
- Dagon—god of crop fertility, sometimes identified with Hadad
- El—the chief deity, god of the sky, father of many lesser gods and ruler of the divine assembly, also worshiped by the Israelites
- El Elyon—Special title of El as “God most High”
- Eshmun—Phoenician god of healing
- Kathirat—a group of goddesses appearing in the Ugartic texts as divine midwives
- Kothar—full name Kothar-wa-Khasis, the skilled, clever god of craftsmanship and weapon-making
- Lotan—the seven-headed sea serpent or dragon, the pet of Yam or Yam’s alter ego, related to the biblical Leviathan
- Melqart—also called Baal-Melkart, the god who is king of the city, the underworld, and the cycle of vegetation in Tyre, also the patron of the Israelite queens Jezebel and Athaliah
- Moloch—title for the god who is “king,” probably identical with Milcom and known mainly from the Hebrew Bible as the deity to whom child sacrifices were offered
- Mot—god of the underworld, sterility, death, and the waterless desert
- Nikkal—goddess of fruit and orchards, married to Yarikh
- Qadeshtu—the Holy One, goddess of love, also a title given to Asherah and related to the Egyptian goddess Hathor
- Resheph—God of plague and healing
- Shalim and Shachar—twin gods of dusk and dawn
- Shamayim—the god of the sky or the heavens
- Shemesh—Mesopotamian god of the sun also worshiped in Canaan, meaning “sun” in Hebrew possibly related to the hero, Samson
- Tanit—Phoenician lunar goddess, worshiped as the patron goddess at Carthage, and sometimes identified with Astarte or Anat
- Yam—god of the sea
- Yarikh—god of the moon, after whom the city of Jericho was named; Lord of the sickle, provider of nightly dew; married to the goddess Nikkal
- Yahweh—The Israelite god, worshiped not only by the Hebrews but also by eastern Canaanites such as the prophet Balaam (Numbers 22) and the Shashu of Edom
n Ugarit, the gods were called ‘ilhm (elohim), or the children of El, a probable parallel to the the biblical “sons of God.” The chief god, a progenitor of the universe, was El, also known as Elion (biblical El Elyon), who was the father of the divinities. In the Urgaritic material, El is the consort of Ashera, who is described as the “mother of 70 gods.”
In the Urgaritic Baal cycle, Baal, the god of storms and fertility, earns his position as the champion and ruler of the gods by defeating the tyrannical Yam, the god of the sea, and later triumphing over Mot, the god of death. Yam had been placed over the other gods by El but ruled them tyrannically. Asherah offered herself as a sacrifice if Yam will ease his grip on her children. He agreed, but Baal boldly declared that he will defeat Yam, despite Yam’s being endorsed by El. With the aid of magical weapons given to him by the divine craftsman Kothar-wa-Khasis, Baal is victorious. However, the god of death and the underworld, Mot, soon lures Baal to his own death in the desert, spelling drought and ruin for the land. Baal’s sister/wife Anat retrieves his body and assaults Mot, ripping him to pieces and scattering his remains over the fields. El, meanwhile, has had a dream suggesting that Baal would be resurrected, which indeed takes place. However, Mot, too, had revived and mounted a new attack against Baal. After their titanic but indecisive battle, Mot finally bows before Baal, leaving Baal in possession of the land and the undisputed regent of the gods.
Thus, Baal came to replace even El as the most important deity, although El himself remained theoretically supreme. In practice, temples to Baal were fairly common in Canaanite culture, and many ritual objects devoted to Astarte and Anat have also been uncovered. Even the Israelites honored Baal and the “asherim,” the latter term referring to poles, standing stones, and even trees devoted to a goddess and accompanying altars to both Baal and Yaweh/El.
In the Greek sources describing Canaanite religion, the union of El Elyon and his consort bore Uranus and Ge, Greek names for the “Heaven” and the “Earth.” Biblical scholars see a parallel between this and the opening verse of Genesis 1:1 “In the beginning Elohim created to the Heaven and the Earth.” A further parallel is seen with the story of the Babylonian creation myths.
The Greek sources also describe El as married to Beruth. This marriage of the divinity with the city seems to have biblical parallels with the stories of the link between Melkart and Tyre, Yahweh and Jerusalem, Chemosh and Moab, and both Tanit and Baal Hammon with Carthage. El Elyon is called “God Most High” in Genesis 14.18–19 as the God whose priest was Melchizedek king of Salem. Psalm 78:35 appears to identify El Elyon and the Hebrew God, Elohim, also called Yahweh (the Lord).
The earliest Canaanite places of worship were simple stone or brick altars usually located at a high place. Sacred groves are also indicated, especially in Israelite texts, which speak of fertility rites practiced under trees: “Have you seen what faithless Israel has done? She has gone up on every high hill and under every spreading tree and has committed adultery there” (Jer. 3:6).
Bronze Age Canaanite temples usually consisted of a large room, together with a porch and courtyard. A stone altar for sacrifices is often found outside the entrance to the inner temple. Later examples sometimes contain inner sanctums within the main temple, referred to as a “Holy of Holies.” Sacred objects unearthed include incense altars, sacrificial offering stands, tables for drink offerings, bronze statuettes, numerous nude clay figurines of goddesses, vessels for oil and wine, seals, and standing stones.
El is seen in Canaanite religious art as a seated male figure, often with arms raised in blessing. Asherah—and later Ba’al and Astarte or Anat—was associated with a cult of fertility. Asherah’s sacred animal was the lion, and Astarte is sometimes associated with a serpent.
Priests or priestesses clothed and sometimes “fed” the deity through various rituals and offerings. In cities, the king had a particularly important relationship with the local patron deity. Family devotions, especially to the female deity, are indicated by large numbers of goddess figurines found in private homes, as well as by biblical references such a Jeremiah’s: “The children gather wood, the fathers light the fire, and the women knead the dough and make cakes of bread for the Queen of Heaven. They pour out drink offerings to other gods to provoke me to anger.” (Jeremiah 7:18)
Relationship to Biblical Religion
Although the biblical writers cast Canaanite religion as the antithesis of Israelite monotheism, historians of religion tend to view the early Israelite religion as largely evolving out of Canaanite culture, of which it was once part. The Book of Genesis itself describes the patriarch Abraham as a worshiper of El—also called El Shaddai and El Elyon—building altars, offering sacrifices, and paying tithes to him. Exodus indicates that the Hebrews knew God only as El Shaddai until the time of Moses, who learned God’s true name, Yahweh (the Lord), at Mount Sinai: “I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob as God Almighty (El Shaddai), but by my name the Lord I did not make myself known to them” (Exodus 6:3).
Certain passages in the Bible imply that Israelite religion was once polytheistic. For example, Deuteronomy 32:8-9 indicates a moment when El Elyon assigned Israel to Yahweh:
When the Most High (Elyōn) divided to the nations their inheritance, he separated the sons of man… the Lord’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted inheritance.
Similarly, Psalm 82:1-6 says that “God (Elohim) presides in the great assembly; he gives judgment among the gods… I said, ‘You are gods; you are all sons of the Most High (Elyon).’ But you will die like mere men; you will fall like every other ruler.”
What may be described in these verses is a process of El and Yahweh merging into the one supreme God and then reducing the other Canaanite deities into something less than gods altogether. Indeed, some versions of Psalm 82 render the word “gods” as “heavenly beings” or even “angels.” Similarly, Job 1:6 states that “One day the sons of God (also sometimes translated as “angels”) came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came with them.”
According to many historians of religion, the angels of later Jewish mythology were once members of the divine assembly consisting of El and the ben-elohim (sons of God), who were originally the lesser deities described in the Canaanite pantheon. Such a divine assembly appears several times in the Canaanite texts.
The Hebrew prophets not only denounced Canaanite religion for its polytheism and idolatry but also for its sexual immorality and practice of human sacrifice. That the Canaanites practiced the rite of hieros gamos, involving ritual sex between the king or priest, representing a god, and a woman or priestess, representing a goddess, seems well attested—even if it was not as common as the prophets claimed. The practice of human sacrifice also seems to have occurred among the Canaanites, as it once did among the Israelites in the case of Jephthah’s daughter, for example (Judges 11). In the time of Jeremiah, Israelites still offered their children as sacrifices, a practice apparently intended to satisfy Yahweh Himself, who insists through the prophet that He never commanded such a thing, “nor did it ever enter my mind” (Jeremiah 7:31). Jeremiah similarly denounces the common practice of Israelite families of offering honey cakes to the Queen of Heaven. Archaeological evidence also supports the fact that not only Canaanites, but Israelites as well, kept figurines of goddesses in their homes at least until the time of the Babylonian exile.
Whether one sees Israelite religion as growing out of Canaanite religion or being perverted by it, the reality seems to be that Israelite religion did not completely separate from its Canaanite counterpart until the return of the Jews from Babylon or later.
- Cross, Frank Moore. Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic. Harvard University Press, 1997.
- Day, John. Yahweh & the Gods & Goddesses of Canaan. Sheffield Academic Press, 2000.
- Dever, William G., Did God Have A Wife? Archeology And Folk Religion In Ancient Israel. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2005.
- Finkelstein, Israel. The Bible Unearthed: Archeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts. Free Press, 2001.
- Gibson, John C. Canaanite Myths and Legends. T. & T. Clark Publishers, Ltd., 1978.
- Hadley, Judith M., The Cult of Asherah in Ancient Israel and Judah. Cambridge University Press, 2000.
- Kapelrud, Arvid Schou. The Violent Goddess: Anat in the Ras Shamra Texts. Oslo: University Press, 1969. ASIN B000JJK24G
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- Smith, Mark S. The Origins of Biblical Monotheism: Israel’s Polytheistic Background and the Ugaritic Texts. Oxford University Press, 2003.
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Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 03.23.2018, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.