(Baal, right arm raised. Bronze figurine, 14th-12th centuries, found in Ras Shamra, ancient Ugarit img via Wikipedia)
We know the three Abrahamic religions as monotheistic: there is an all powerful unique male god with no equivalent. The popular perception is that Israelites have been monotheistic from the beginning and the traditional view holds that Abraham made a pact with God to worship only him and his followers continued that practice. Thus Joseph took this belief to Egypt, Moses bought it out of Egypt and Joshua went to Caanan and wiped out the polytheists. The monotheists also believe that the polytheistic world is a lie and the eventual destination for them is hell.
A new BBC documentary by Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou steps out of the theological realm, looks at Bible as literature and comes up with the conclusion that the monotheists themselves were polytheists; they worshipped divine beings, quite similar to the ones in the Indian and Greek pantheon of gods. God himself had a competitor and the documentary also makes the revolutionary claim that the God of the monotheists had a female companion.
Once you stop reading the Bible with the preset monotheistic mindset, it reveals many secrets, even though the humans who wrote them attempted to conceal this information. Thus Baal, the Caananite god, was a competitor to the God of the Israelites. Baal was a warrior god, often seen in representations raising his hand to use the thunderbolt weapon. He was the Indra of the Middle East and was important for the people of Caanan who depended on the rains. But in the Bible, Baal and his prophets are ridiculed and in the documentary and Francesca argues the reason is that people were straying from the idea of monotheism and it was necessary to put down other gods.
There is archaeological evidence for the worship for Baal as well as another deity El, who was the Chief Caananite God. El was the head of the pantheon and one who maintained order in the world, like Varuna in the Pre-Upanishidic era. In this pantheon, there were gods for Dawn and Dusk much like other cultures around the world.
While the Biblical God is called Yahweh, he is called El in some places. Jacob calls El, the god of Israel. He is also the god of the Exodus. El tells Moses that he had revealed himself to Abraham as well, similar to what Krishna tells Arjuna in 4.1. A rabbi on the program explains that all these variants are the name of the same God and it indicates what attribute God wanted to reveal to the devotee. The rabbi then agrees that you could read polytheism into it, but that is not the traditional understanding.
For Francesca, in ancient Israel, polytheism was the norm, not the exception and there are clues all over the place. God is mentioned sitting on a throne with diving beings on his right and left. According to Psalm, “God standeth in the congregation of the mighty; he judgeth among the gods”. According to Genesis, “Then God said, “Let us make man in our image” and in Exodus, “Who is like you, O LORD, among the gods?.” Thus in Israelite theology, Yahweh managed a council of divine beings, quite similar to the Caananite theology.
For the Caananites, El had a wife named Asherah, who was considered the goddess of fertility. She had an erotic representation with huge breasts and a pubic region marked with a tree of life motif. Many figurines excavated in Jerusalem and dated to the peak of the Israelite period show that Asherah was still worshipped. Francesca shows that if you skip the translations and read the Bible in Hebrew, Moses refers to God arriving with goddess Asherah. In fact evidence shows that she was even worshipped in the Temple of Jerusalem. An inscription discovered in a shard (dated to 8th century BCE) in Sinai mentions God along with Asherah. Thus God having a female partner maybe a minority position among believers, but not among scholars.
This polytheism is not surprising since the scholarly view is that Israelites were not migrants from outside, but natives of Canaan. Following a social collapse in Caanan, Israel rose and was made of Canaan commoners, the few escaped slaves from Egypt, and dispersed people. They created a new identity, adopted the stories of Moses, Abraham and Joshua and came up with the idea of a monotheistic God from a desert people called Shashu. Thus these people with new identity could have co-existed alongside the polytheistic Caananites and shared some of their practices.
So what happened to Baal, El, Ashera and the divine council of gods? Why were they removed, ridiculed or concealed? The purge of polytheism followed the Babylonian invasion of Jerusalem which happened during the time of Buddha in India. The Israelites were defeated, their temple destroyed and their all powerful God could do nothing about it. This would have been sufficient for most groups to lose their culture, but the Israelites persisted. During exile, while trying to make sense of their defeat, they wrote the Bible. Those authors transferred the power of Caananite gods to Yahweh, blamed the defeat partly on polytheism, and created new myths and histories. According to the NOVA documentary, Bible’s Buried Secrets:
Israelites were reminded that they had broke the covenant with God and hence were incurring his wrath. Still this was not taken seriously till the time the Babylonians exiled the Caananites. It was during this exile that one of the scribes of that era, known as “P”, took all the previous revisions and created the present version of the Bible. The documentary suggests that the Abraham story was created then, by this scribe, to enforce the concept of the covenant. The scribe lived in Babylon and Abraham was placed in the nearby Ur; Abraham’s goal was to reach the promised land, so was the dream of the exiles.
It was also during the exile that the observances like sabbath were emphasized. Israelites learned to pray in groups and to worship without a temple, king or priests. This was the formation of modern Judaism.
This re-write during exile was responsible for dis-empowering women, demonizing other gods and eradicating polytheism which was common till the 6th century B.C.E.
Postscript: You can watch the documentary in four parts on YouTube