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4-2-1 Canaanite Theology Smashed

An analysis of the surrounding religious beliefs of the early Canaanite tribes at the time of the Exodus indicates that the one true God chose to reveal Himself in language which clearly alluded to the surrounding theological ideas. It has been shown that ‘El’ was the name of the most powerful Canaanite god in the plurality of deities which the Canaanites worshipped (1). The characteristics of Yahweh God of Israel are almost identical to the language of the day used to describe the Canaanite deity ‘El’ (2). For example, ‘El’ married the prostitute Asarte, as Yahweh married the prostitute Israel (Hos. 3:1); and most noteworthy of all ‘El’ sacrificed his own son (3). Significantly, ‘El’ is one of the titles which God uses for Himself in His word. Arthur Gibson points out that the name ‘Yahweh’ has similarities with the Amorite god Ya-Wi, and the Ugarit god Yahaninu (4). So here is clear evidence that God reveals Himself in the language of the day in order to demonstrate, by the very fact of His evident superiority, that these other deities to whom He alludes did not exist; Yahweh was the true ‘El’. Those gods with similar names were nothing compared to the true Yahweh El.

Martin Buber, one of academic Judaism's finest minds, coined the term "Yahweh's demonism" (5). He perceived in, e.g., the record of the Angel meeting Moses at night, seeking to slay him and then 'letting him go', all the language which was typically applied to demons- meeting and seeking to slay a man of God (Ex. 4:24). But the point is, it is not a demon who did this, but a righteous Angel of God, to the extent that it was possible for the record to state that it was Yahweh who sought to slay Moses, and yet changed His purpose because of Moses' repentance and the intercession of a woman. Buber's point was that the text is an allusion to the local beliefs about demons, but the Biblical record deconstructs these beliefs by showing that it is Yahweh and His Angels responsible for those situations which pagans would otherwise attribute to supposed 'demons'. Other examples include how the bull cherubim were understood in the surrounding cultures as the abode or throne of a demon; but it is Yahweh who is enthroned upon the bull cherubim; or how the record of Balaam would've lead the contemporary hearers to expect him to receive inspiration from a demon- but instead the inspiration comes from Yahweh, and is against those who believed in demons and pagan gods. Paul Volz took the idea further when he observed that in the early Old Testament passages where Yahweh is portrayed as doing the things expected of demons, He has "absorbed everything demonic... so that no demons were required any more in Israel" (6). And so there are no further associations of Yahweh with demons / idols but rather an overt mocking of their existence in the later Old Testament. Something similar happens in the New Testament. Initially, the Lord Jesus is presented as dealing with and overcoming real demons; but His miracles are so powerful that it becomes evident that they effectively don't exist, and the later New Testament exalts in the supremacy of God over the demons / idols which in fact are non-existent.

Karl Barth in his roundabout and theological way came to the same conclusion: "God is superior to all other powers. These other powers... appear to be genuinely real. God is not in the series of these worldly powers, perhaps as the highest of them; but He is superior to all other powers, neither limited nor conditioned by them, but He is the Lord of all lords, the King of all kings. So that all these powers, which as such are indeed powers, are a priori laid at the feet of the power of God. In relation to Him they are not powers in rivalry with Him" (7).

Elijah And Elisha

This manner of demolishing the claims of surrounding pagan beliefs in idols and demons is common in the Old Testament. Thus the record in 1 Kings 18 sets up a contest for credibility between Baal, the god of storm and rain, and Yahweh God of Israel. It is evident that Baal did not exist; the onlookers were utterly convinced by the extent of the miracle that “Yahweh, Yahweh, He is the God”.

2 Kings 2:19 (AV mg.) records how the people complained that “the water is naught, and that ground causing to miscarry”. This was evidently an incorrect superstition of the time; barren ground cannot make the women who live on it barren. But Elisha does not blow them into next week for believing such nonsense. Instead he performed the miracle of curing the barrenness of the land. The record says that there was no more barrenness of the land or women “according to the saying of Elisha which he spake”. Normally the people would have recoursed to wizards to drive away the relevant demon which they thought was causing the problem. But the miracle made it evident that ultimately God had caused the problem, and He could so easily cure it. This was a far more effective way of sinking the people’s foolish superstition than a head-on frontal attack upon it.

Lucifer Likewise…

We keep one of the best examples until last. Isaiah 14:12-15 describes how ‘Lucifer’, the king of Babylon, wants to ascend up above the heavens and usurp Yahweh’s throne. This is actually quoting from a Ugaritic legend concerning the god Attr (the Hebrew for ‘Lucifer’ is the equivalent of this) (8). Attr wanted to become the head of the gods, and he succeeded – in surrounding mythology. Isaiah 14 quotes this part of the legend, but shows how he would be cast down to the earth by Yahweh, to the lowest pit. This clearly establishes that the Bible uses allusion to the false ideas of the surrounding world in order to bring home the extent of God’s power and therefore the non-existence of idols/demons.

The Old Testament way of deconstructing pagan ideas carried over into the New Testament. For example, it has been shown by many students that the Gospel and epistles of John are shot through with allusion to the language of surrounding Gnostic philosophy in order to show the infinite superiority of the true Gospel over the vain philosophy of the first century world in which John’s Gospel was first inspired (9). This is a New Testament example of what was done throughout the Old Testament Scriptures.

The Law Of Moses

We could say that the whole concept of 'demons' is not only deconstructed in the Old Testament; it is positively subverted. By this I mean that terms appropriate to demons are picked up and used and yet through this not only their non-existence but also the power of the one God is demonstrated. Thus the golden bells on the High Priest's garments (Ex. 28:33) were familiar in local religions as charm to ward off demons by their noise (10). But they are used in the Divine scheme of things to remind of God's holiness and the danger of human sin impinging upon this and thus leading to death. And thereby fear of demons was to be replaced by fear of God's holiness and human sin. Likewise the plate or rosette on the High Priest's turban would've recalled pagan plates which warded off supposed demons; but this one spoke of "Holiness to Yahweh", again replacing the negative with the positive (11). Ornaments / amulets were worn at the time in order to fend off evil spirits; the way Moses records how at least twice Israel threw them away could be understood as a hint that they needed no defence against demons, because of God's Almightiness (Gen. 35:4; Ex. 32:24). Or again, incense smoke was supposed to drive away demons (12); but the image is used to represent prayer and Yahweh's glory (Lev. 16:3,13; Rev. 5:8).



(1) J.C.L. Gibson, Canaanite Myths and Legends (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1978).

(2) J.Gray The Legacy Of Canaan (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1957); see too F.M. Cross, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973).

(3) This is mentioned by Werner Keller, The Bible As History (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1957 ed.) p. 261.

(4) Arthur Gibson, Biblical Semantic Logic (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1981) pp. 35,137.

(5) Martin Buber, The Prophetic Faith (New York: Macmillan, 1949) p. 47; also see his On The Bible (New York: Schocken Books, 1982) p. 72.

(6) Paul Volz, Das Dämonische in Jahwe (Tübingen, 1924) as quoted in Martin Buber, Moses (Oxford: The Phaidon Press, 1947) p. 57.

(7) Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline (London: S.C.M., 1972) p. 47.

(8) The correspondence is remarkable. A tablet was found at Ras Shamra in 1929 bearing this mythical legend, and including the very words which Isaiah 14 quotes. It is Ugarit Text no. UM129. See C.H. Gordon, Ugaritic Manual (Rome: P.I.B., 1955).

(9) For example, John Carter, The Gospel of John (Birmingham: C.M.P.A., 1943). C.H. Dodd demonstrates that phrases in John’s letters like “We are in the light”, “We know God”, “We dwell in God” etc. are all Gnostic phrases; what John is saying is that we, the true believers, are in this position on account of knowing the true Gospel. Thus the Spirit is alluding to the false claims of the surrounding world and showing that the power of the Spirit exposed these claims as false. See C.H. Dodd, The Johannine Epistles (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1953).

(10) R.E. Clements, Exodus (Cambridge: C.U.P., 1972) p. 182.

(11) Clements, ibid..

(12) Clements, ibid p. 192.