A little research into Biblical history reveals that, before becoming monotheistic, the worship of Yahweh that would eventually develop into Judaism was henotheistic. That is, while Yahweh was viewed as the main god and the national deity of Israel and Judah, other gods still existed. In fact, several of them were worshipped alongside Yahweh, an arrangement that the Bible condemns. Some of the other gods mentioned in the Bible include:
Ba’al – This is actually a fairly generic name meaning “lord” or “owner,” and was applied to many different gods worshipped by the Canaanites. The Babylonian “Bel” likely comes from the same root, which is common to many Semitic languages. The main god to be referred to by this name was known as Hadad to the Semites and Adad to the Akkadians, and was a rain god who defeated his brother, the sea god Yamm, for supremacy over the pantheon. He was challenged and killed by Mot, the god of death, but restored to life by his allies, hence making him one of the many deities who was associated with an ongoing cycle of death and rebirth. The god’s father was known as El, which just means “god,” and was frequently applied to Yahweh as well. Some of the symbolism in the story of Ba’al also came to be used for Yahweh, as in the mentions in the Psalms of God riding clouds and battling sea monsters. Hadad/Ba’al was known to take the form of a bull, so when Jeroboam of Israel set up golden calves as symbols of Yahweh, he was likely building on this mythology. Most of the references to Ba’al in the Bible, however, likely do not refer to Hadad, but rather to local agricultural deities. One particular Ba’al who comes in for a good deal of criticism is Ba’al of Tyre, also known as Melqart, and likely the Phoenician equivalent of Hadad. King Ahab of Israel, who was married to Jezebel of Tyre, promoted the worship of this Ba’al, leading to the account of Elijah’s contest between Yahweh and Ba’al. The prophet set up offerings to both gods, but only Yahweh was able to ignite His sacrifice. This sounds to me more like something out of an infomercial than a religious service (“Yahweh burns better than the other leading brand!”), but Elijah found it specific cause to have the prophets of Ba’al put to death. While Yahweh obviously won out in Israel, the Ba’als wouldn’t be out of the picture for some time. Hannibal, the Carthaginian general with the elephants, was known to worship Melqart, and his name likely means “Ba’al is gracious.”
Astarte – The consort of Ba’al, who was regarded as a goddess of love and fertility. She is thought by religious historians to be the same as the Greek Aphrodite. The Masoretic text refers to “Ashtoreth,” which is likely a combination of the name Astarte with the word “bosheth,” meaning “abomination.”
Asherah – Originally a separate goddess from Astarte, but the two of them were apparently sometimes conflated. Worship of Asherah was common in Israel and Judah prior to the Babylonian exile, with the kings spoken of unfavorably in the Bible often said to have set up idols of this goddess, while the favored monarchs removed them. These “Asherahs” are thought to have taken the form of wooden poles. Some inscriptions actually refer to Asherah as the consort of Yahweh Himself, a tradition that the priests and prophets likely suppressed.
Molech – A god worshipped by the Phoenicians and Canaanites, usually associated with fire. Since the Tanakh was originally written without vowels, and the word “melek” means “king,” it is commonly thought that Melek might have been the god’s original name. As with “Ashtoreth,” “Molech” would therefore have been “Melek” with the vowels for “bosheth.” And whatever this god’s name was, he was likely even more despised than Yahweh’s other competitors. Leviticus twice forbids the Jews from passing their seed through fire to Molech, the exact meaning of which is unknown, but it was apparently a pretty big problem if it had to be mentioned twice. Looking at it now is kind of like reading the Third Amendment to the Constitution in modern times, as having to quarter troops in your house isn’t something that’s of much concern in today’s society, but was of great importance back when the Constitution was written. So what is “passing seed through fire to Molech”? The most common interpretation is that it refers to human sacrifice, with people giving their own children as burnt offerings during times of extreme hardship. The eleventh century Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki, usually known as Rashi, referred to children being burned in the hands of an idol to Molech made of bronze and heated from below. This later evolved into a specific image of an idol with the head of bull seated on a throne, and containing several compartments for different sacrifices. Whether there’s any truth to this picture doesn’t seem to be known for sure, but it certainly captured imaginations.
Picture by Henry Armitage
Chemosh – The national god of Moab, a neighbor and sometime vassal of Israel. Chemosh is referred to in the Bible as “the abomination of Moab,” and the Moabite Stone inscribed by King Mesha credits his victory against Israel to this god. Solomon is said to have established a center of worship to Chemosh on the Mount of Olives, which was abolished by Josiah of Judah. Not a whole lot is known about Chemosh, but apparently he also received human sacrifices. Then again, since most of the information we have about Chemosh (and Molech, for that matter) was from an enemy culture, this aspect might well have been exaggerated. The origin of the name is also unclear, although About.com suggests that it might mean either “destroyer” or “fish-god.” Quite a difference there, huh?