This is a brief account of how the god of the Israelites metamorphosed from his original form as one of several deities in the Levantine polytheistic pantheon into the sole monotheistic One True God of the Samaritans, Jews, Christians, and Muslims of today.
Southern Levantine deities
The first Israelites were polytheists. Their first chief god was not Yahuweh but El. That this was the case is evident from their name, Yisrael in Hebrew, which means “triumphant with El”. El was the chief god of the Levantine pantheon, those deities known collectively as the Elohim, who were worshipped by the Canaanites, Phoenicians, Arameans, Amorites, and other West Semitic peoples, including the Israelites.
El was the father of all the gods and their chief. In the Tanakh, El is often referred to with an epithet, such as El Shaddai (translated Almighty; means Destroyer), El Berith (of the Covenant), El Roi (the Omnisicent), El Olam (the Eternal), El Tzevaot (of Hosts), El Elyon (Most High), Toru El (Bull El), El Qaniyunu (the Creator), El Gibbon (the Warrior), El Elehe Yisrael (of the gods of Israel).
Use of El referring to the god of Israel is almost entirely confined to the Book of Genesis, with the exceptions being twice in the Book of Psalms.
His consort was Athirat (Asherah). El had seventy sons, known as the “sons (or children) of El”. To each of these was allotted one of the seventy nations of humans on Earth. Israel was given to Yahu (Yah earlier, later Yahuweh) just as Edom was given to Qaws, Moab to Chemosh, Ammon to Milcom, Tyre to Melqart, Sidon to Eshmun, Byblos to El, Shechem to Resheph, Jerusalem to Shalim, Philistia to Dagon, Carthage to Hammon, the Nabateans to Dushara, etc.
A triad of gods comparable to the Greek triad of Zeus-Poseidon-Hades at the apex of the Bene El: Hadad, a sky god of storm; Yam, god of the sea; and Mot, god of death and the underworld. As for goddesses, the two most prominent after Asherah were Anath and Ashtart (Ishtar).
Shachar and Shalim were the twin gods of dawn and dusk, respectively; Jerusalem is named for the latter (it does not mean “city of peace”). Attar was the god of the morning star. There was the group of divine midwives who were only known collectively as the Kotharat. Shapash was goddess of the sun, while Yarikh was god of the moon. Eshmun was the god of healing. Resheph was protector against plague and war.
Dagon was imported early on from Mesopotamia and became integrated into the Levantine pantheon as the father of Hadad. Tammuz (Dumuzi in Sumer) was a later import whom the Phoenicians called Adoni, or Lord; to the Greeks he became Adonis, and in that guise returned to the Levant, particularly during the era of the Mystery Cults.
The preeminent human cultural hero of the stories that have survived is Danel, a generous king famous for his wisdom, whose popular stories gave flesh to the also mythical Solomon and whose name in somewhat corrupted form became Daniel, the exile in Babylon.
The central story of Levantine mythology is the rivalry between Hadad and Yam, whose name in some sources is Yaw. When El decides to step down as king of the gods, he makes Hadad king in his place after the latter defeats Yam. In a later conflict with Mot, Hadad dies, and Yam is resurrected to become king.
During Yam’s kingship, Attar attempts to take the throne, but fails, and falls from heaven to Earth, much the same as “Lucifer, thou son of the morning” in Isaiah 14. Most High, Elyon in Hebrew, was a title of El when he was king of the gods, then of Hadad when he ascended, and, of course, Yam during the brief time he was king.
Although Baal could be a title for any of the gods, if used alone it almost always meant Hadad (its literal definition is “master”). In fact, Baal in later centuries was the only way in which the lay people were permitted to refer to Hadad, his priests keeping his name to themselves, exactly like the Jewish (and presumably Samaritan) priests of Yahuweh did.
Another deity imported into the Levant, at least by the city-state of Ebla, was Ia, a Levantine form of the Akkadian-Babylonian god Ea, who in turn was borrowed from the Sumerian original, Enki. Many tablets of religious writings from the city replace El with Ia atop their pantheon. Some claim that “Ia” should be transliterated as “Yah” instead, but they are in a minority, and even those who did were not suggesting that Yah was the same as Yahuweh. If not, it is still quite possible that Ia later morphed into Yah, which became Yahu, then Yahuweh.
Interestingly, the Egyptian pantheon included a lunar deity whose name was Yah.
The god Dagon came to Ugarit, where inscriptions to him were first identified, via the city of Ebla, where he served the same role as Hadad did among the West Semitic peoples.
Regardless of who their early god was or from whence the later one derived, by the ninth century BCE when the Israelites were a major power in north Palestine, their chief god was Yahuweh. And alongside him, they worshipped a divine consort, Asherah. Asherah’s chief epithet was Qadesh, the Holy One, by which name she entered the Egyptian pantheon in the eighteenth century BCE. Presumably by this time, El had been reduced to functioning merely as a generic word for “god”. Tammuz is another deity whom we know had a popular cult among the Israelites of that era.
“Houses of Yahuweh” and cult motifs
Archaeologically, three pre-Babylonian Conquest temples to their national god, each termed “House of Yahuweh”, have been found in Palestine. The largest and most opulent is that at Samaria, where Yahuweh and Asherah were worshipped side-by-side. Omri and his son Ahab also built temples there to Hadad, and several other deities, undoubtedly the major deities of the local pantheon and many imports, such as Tammuz. It was built in 878 BCE.
The other two known places called “House of Yahuweh”, both rather small, have been found in the south, one a shrine in a citadel at Tel Arad, near the modern city on the border of the Judean and Negev deserts, and the other a temple at Tel Motza, on the western outskirts of modern Jerusalem. The shrine at Tel Arad dates from about 820 BCE; the temple at Tel Motza about the same date.
Archaeologists have concluded almost universally that Jerusalem was uninhabited until the return after the exile to Babylon, so there is no “first temple” to find.
Horned altars identified as Israelite have been discovered at Dan, Megiddo, Beersheba, and Ekron, indicating outdoor shrines, but no temples in those cities.
There was a fourth House of David, though not in Palestine. It was in Egypt, at the military colony of Elephantine, built in about the year 650 BCE. From surviving papyri, we known that Yahuweh was worshipped there along with his consort Anath-Yahuweh, plus Bethel, Haram, Eshem, Nabu, and Anath-Bethel, as well as Khnum (whose temple was adjacent), his consort Satet, and his daughter Anuket.
Three inscriptions and images at Kuntillet Arjud, c. 800 BCE, depict Yahuweh, Asherah, El, and Baal (presumably Hadad). Two inscriptions mention “Yahuweh of Samaria and Asherah” and “Yahuweh of Teman and Asherah”. Teman, of course, need not refer to a city as its literal meaning is “the South”, just like “Samaria” could refer to the kingdom based out of the city.
Again, inscriptions at a tomb in Khirbet al-Qom in the Har Yehuda west of Hebron dating to about 750 BCE mention “Yahuweh and Asherah”.
Given this preponderance of evidence, there is no other conclusion but that before the Persian period (and well into it) the Yahuweh cult among the Israelites north, south, and in Egypt was polytheist, though almost certainly the henotheist variety. That this is the undeniable case does not preclude the existence of Yahwist fanatics pursuing monotheist worship of their deity.
The “House of Yahuweh” at Samaria was destroyed, along with the other temples, in the Assyrian conquest of 722 BCE. Both in the South fell to Nebuchadnezzar II in 586 BCE.
That left the House of Yahuweh at Elephantine as the only remaining temple of the Israelite religion to the Israelite national god. A temple which he shared with several other deities, including his consort.
Beginnings of monotheism
The change in Israelite religion from henotheism to monotheism came with the arrival of their new Iranian overlords.
Iranians were the original monotheists. They were monotheists centuries before the Israelites, or any other peoples for that matter. The fact that the Israelites became monotheists because of the Iranians may be why Koroush Kabir, aka Cyrus the Great, is the first person referred to as a “messiah” in the sense of “savior”.
The deity of the Iranians, revealed to them by the prophet Zartosht (Zarathustra, Zoroaster) was called Ahura Mazda in ancient Persian, “Ahura” being a title, and Assara Mazas in the Aramaic language that became the official language of the empire. The name “Mazas” looks suspiciously like “Moses”, which could very well be its Greek form. One of the phrases recurring throughout the teachings of Zartosht is the “law of Mazda”, which would be “law of Mazas” in Aramaic.
When the change came about, no record shows, but when the new temples called House of Yahuweh were constructed in Palestine in the fifth century BCE, there was only one deity worshipped there, Yahuweh. Under the influence of their overlords, the Israelites both north (in Samerina) and south (in Yehud) became firmly monotheist. The temple in Samerina was built in 450 BCE at the newly reoccupied Bronze Age site of Shechem, where it was placed atop the adjacent height of Mount Gerizim. The temple of Yehud was built in 425 BCE on Mount Moriah in the eastern part of the newly reoccupied Bronze Age site of Jerusalem.
The temple at Elephantine remained until it was burned down in 411 BCE by the priests of Khnum, the most likely explanation being that the priests of Yahuweh had recently ceased to sacrifice to Khunm also, which pinpoints their switch to monotheism. The temple was rebuilt four years later, but there is no record, written or archaeological, of how long it remained in use.
Turn of the era dualism
At the three centuries at the turn of the Common Era (2nd-1st centuries BCE and 1st century CE), there was a strain or strains of Judaism that had crossed the line into dualism, but a dualism the mirrors more the variety expressed in Mazdaism, the modern form of Zoroastrianism, which began to develop in this time period, in opposition to the then dominant strain, Zurvanism. In Mazdaism, Ahura Mazda is the supreme creator, with the Spenta Mainyu over Asha, basicially the "light side of the Force", and Angra Mainyu over Druj, or the "dark side of the Force". In the Jewish version, Yahweh is the supreme creator, with the good angel Michael over the Way of Light or the Way of Life and the evil angel Beliar over the Way of Darkness or the Way of Death.
One of the most notable examples of this occurs in the Essene War Scroll, which describes the War of the Son of Light and the Sons of Darkness. But it is not just an Essene phenomenon, as the same dichotomy appears in several apocalyptic works of the era, and even in the Christian Didache. Another apocalyptic work in this period featuring the "Two Ways" was the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs.
Allegory of the Golden Calf
Many have suggested that the “golden calf” portrayed in Aaron and Miriam making for the Israelites at the foot of Mount Horeb/Sinai/Paran was be an image of Hathor, Egyptian goddess of fertility, inebriation, and musics (i.e., sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll). Her usual icon, after all, was of a cow. Of course, even while reiterating that the whole Exodus is a myth, I suggest that this particular part of the myth is an allegory of a return to worship of El, whose usual icon was a bull, as supreme god rather than Yahuweh.
Use of “The Name”
In the first century CE, Jews still used the name Yahuweh, at least in their worship at the temple in Jerusalem, and perhaps also at the one in Leontopolis in Egypt. Elsewhere, it was used, but not as commonly. One of the complaints of first century Samaritans about the Jews was, in fact, that they still did this. By 200 CE, the Jews had likewise ceased its use entirely.
The most common reference in the Tanakh to the Supreme (or only) Deity is “Elohim”, a plural version often used as a singular. What’s tricky about its use is that at various points in the Tanakh, “elohim” clearly refers to “the gods”, though this has been retconned out in other places.
Yahuweh is not the only god
It is a widespread misconception that the Tanakh holds that there is only one deity. In truth, several passages allude to other deities or mention them explicitly, some by name, and not in a way to suggest other deities do not exist. One of the latest examples is found in Micah 4:5, following the messianic passage in the preceding verses: “For all the peoples walk, each in the name of its god, but we will walk in the name of Yahuweh our God forever and ever.”
As late as the first century CE, Paul of Tarsus affirmed the existence of other deities in his First Epistle to the Corinthians (8:5), “Indeed, even though there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as in fact there are many gods and many lords…”.
In this case, I mean specifically the one represented by the four Hebrew letters transliterated as YHVH. Earlier forms of The Name were Yah and Yahu, both of which can still be found in personal names and in words like Halleluyah. When the Masoretes of Babylonia were putting the Tanakh into its current from the seventh thru the eleventh centuries BCE. By the time, superstition about saying the Name aloud was throughly engrained in Jewish culture, even that of the non-Rabbanate Masoretes, who were Karaites. In order that no one pronounce The Name accidentally, when pointing the Tetragrammaton, the Masoretes substituted the vowels for the word Adonai, which means 'Lord', which is how we get 'Jehovah', which too many evangelicals (and other for that matter) forget was pronounced 'Yehowah'. The actual Name, if transliterated into English, would be Yahuweh, but most seem more comfortable with the modern form, Yahweh.