Tanakh and Talmud

How many gods did the Hebrews worship?


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Jewish tradition is that Abraham introduced the belief in One God, and that this belief continued uninterrupted from that time onward (though some people strayed, as reported in the words of the prophets).

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The term Hebrews refers to the early Israelites or ancestors of the Jewish people. The scholarly consensus on early Hebrew belief is reflected in Lang, cited by Keel and Uehlinger (Gods, Goddesses and Images of God in Ancient Israel):"In the four and a half centuries during which there were one or two Israelite monarchies (ca. 1020-586 B.C.), there was a dominant, polytheistic religion that was indistinguishable from that of neighboring peoples. Insofar as there were differences between the Ammonite, Moabite, Edomite, Tyrian, etc. versions of religion, these beliefs stayed within the framework of Near Eastern polytheism, and each should be interpreted as a local variant of the same basic pattern. The Israelites . . . venerated their own protector god who was there to provide for health and family. But they venerated Yahweh [God] as well, the regional and national god, whose special domain dealt with war and peace issues. Finally, they worshiped gods who performed specific functions, those that were responsible for various special needs: weather, rain, women's fertility, etc."

This is not the view that has come down to us in the Old Testament, but we are enjoined not to confuse the minority opinion expressed in the religious literature preserved in the Old Testament with the historic religion of Israel in the pre-Exilic period.

We can not yet be sure just how many gods and goddesses were worshipped by the Hebrew people, but there were quite a few. The northern kingdom of Israel was at all times polytheistic until its final destruction in 722 BCE. Monotheism became the official religion of the southern Hebrew kingdom of Judah during the seventh-century-BCE reign of King Josiah, but does not appear to have entirely supplanted polytheism until the end of the Babylonian Exile.

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One. Dictionaries define "Judaism" as The monotheistic religion of the Jews, since the founding principle of Judaism was and is the belief in One God. This was the teaching which was spread by Abraham, and has continued since then. From Judaism, belief in One God has spread through the Western world.See also:

What do Jews believe God is like?

A biography of Abraham

Jews have always worshiped the One God. Abraham worshiped "the Lord God of Heaven and Earth" (Genesis 14:22 and 24:3) and complained about the Philistines' lack of fear of God (Genesis 20:11).

Jacob confiscated the idolatrous images taken from Shechem (Genesis 35:2) and got rid of them (Genesis 35:4); and refrained from invoking the gods of Nahor (Genesis 31:53). Rachel pilfered Laban's statue-images (Genesis 31:19) in order to prevent him from idolatry (Rashi commentary, ibid.). Joseph placed his hope in the God of the Forefathers (Genesis 50:24).

At the time of the Exodus, God wrecked the Egyptian idols (Exodus 12:12) and warned against idolatry (Exodus 22:19). Later, Moses characterized the Golden Calf as "a great sin" (Exodus 32:21, 30) and punished the worshipers (Exodus ch.32). During the rest of his lifetime and that of Joshua (Judges 2:7), no incidents of Israelite idolatry were reported.

Shortly before he died, Moses warned the people that he suspected that they would eventually succumb to the lure of the idols (Deuteronomy 29:17). Joshua gave a similar warning (Joshua ch. 24).
These warnings came true. Many of the Israelites went astray after the foreign gods (Judges 2:11). However, they never invented their own idol. It was always the baneful influence of other peoples. And there were times when the entire Israelite nation repented (Judges 2:1-4) and prayed to God (Judges 3:9, 3:15, 6:6, 10:10). Those who did sin did not represent normative Judaism. They were deviating from the Torah's standard; they were publicly, repeatedly, and scathingly excoriated by the Prophets, and they caused God's retribution to come upon the entire people.

Because of the idol-worship that did happen, ancient images of idols have been found in Israel too. Images of God aren't found because it is forbidden to represent Him through imagery (Deuteronomy 4:15-16).

It should be noted that idolatry was never universal among the Israelites. The tradition of the One God was handed down in every generation, whether by the few or the many; and it is those who handed down that tradition whose beliefs we Jews continue today.

Deborah ascribed victory to God (Judges 4:14), Gideon tore down the idolatrous altar (Judges 6:25-27); Samson prayed to God (Judges 16:28), as did Hannah (1 Samuel 1:11) and Samuel (ibid. 12:18); Eli blessed in the name of God (1 Samuel 2:20), Saul built an altar to God (1 Samuel 14:35); Jonathan ascribed victory to God (1 Samuel 14:12), as did David (1 Samuel 17:46); and Solomon built the Temple for God (1 Kings 8:20). A number of the kings "did what was right in God's eyes": David (1 Kings 15:5), Solomon (see 1 Kings 3:3), Asa (1 Kings 15:11), Yehoshaphat (1 Kings 22:43), Yehu (2 Kings 10:30), Yehoash (2 Kings 12:3), Amatziah (2 Kings 14:3), Azariah (2 Kings 15:3), Yotam (2 Kings 15:34), Hizkiah (2 Kings 18:3), and Josiah (2 Kings 22:2). Even at the height of the unfortunate spread of idolatry among the less-loyal Ten Tribes, there were thousands who remained loyal to God (1 Kings 19:18).
And, of course, the Prophets, who spoke in the name of God and warned against idolatry: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and so on.
The sages of the Talmud, who ridiculed idolatry (Megillah 25b), were simply continuing in the tradition of the Prophets whose verses are quoted in that context (ibid.).

See also:

Jewish history timeline

Are Hebrews, Israelites and Jews the same people?