That is one way to tell the story. We tell it like that because the three major Abrahamic religions are all monotheistic, and are very uncomfortable with the idea of polytheism, which, without knowing too much about its nature or history, they regard as a species of error which afflicted the cultures which preceded their existence.
Polytheism from this point of view represents a failure of the purely human intellect to understand the nature of the divine. Polytheism is therefore a barbarous phenomenon, and is irretrievably associated with all that is coarse and unintelligible in antiquity, along with the ritual actions which have been jettisoned along the way, such as the sacrifice of animals and men, divination by entrails and the liver, augury by birds, the use of oracles, sacred prostitution, and so on. Even as a child I caught the rank smell of polytheism and its association with all other sins. Polytheism was close to damnation itself.
The evidence however, can be read another way.
'The Idea of Being in Israel' looks at a variety of passages which refer to polytheism and the worship of other gods in several of the books of the Bible. Some of these can be interpreted as referring to experience of worship in early Israel, but other passages clearly reflect the experience of Babylonian religion and practice during the time of the exile. And we now know some interesting things about the scope and function of polytheism in Mesopotamia which make it possible for us to change our perspective on religious developments in Israel. We now have some notion of what kind of ideas were in circulation in Israel after the exile. And these ideas, perhaps borrowed from Mesopotamian sources, if they were not already present as part of the cultural milieu of Israel, were quite sophisticated.
The polytheism of Mesopotamia was not, as might be imagined, a loose array of different cults, without essential connection. This is not to dispute the long accepted argument that the ultimate origins of the individual cults were likely to be local and tribal for the most part, and that their importance changed over time. But Mesopotamian polytheism in the 2nd and 1st millennia BCE, is not what it has seemed to be. The clue as to what is going on is in the properties and attributes of their gods, not their names. These can be detached and transferred to other deities, or shared, which process we can detect at work in the liturgy of the Babylonian New Year Festival, Enuma Elish.
These processes are not explored in 'The Idea of Being in Israel', but in other chapters in The Sacred History of Being. There are two main points made by this chapter however, which are relevant to our understanding of how divinity was understood in Israel during the time of its existence in the 1st millennium. The first is that there is rational argument about the nature of the divine and its worship going on, and the second is that the history of this argument has been garbled and reframed by later scholars who either did not fully understand the nature and scope of the argument, or otherwise chose not to understand it, for largely political reasons.
It is possible to read the emergence of monotheism in Israel as a prolonged theological and philosophical controversy, in which the nature of a deity without form, colour, and shape, similar in nature to ‘the one thing’ that we should look to, as referenced by Plato, is debated. This debate was mired in the complex politics of the time, with the overbearing presence and interference of Israel’s neighbour to the north east, Assyria. And so there was also a political aspect to the debate, which helps to explain some of the decisions that were made concerning representation and ritual practice, and sometimes their reversal or modification, which we learn of in a number of the books of the Old Testament. The treatment of images in the history of Israel (as we know it) is complex and often confusing, which may reflect the confusions present in Israel at the time.
A concept explored elsewhere in The Sacred History of Being is that the phenomenal polytheism of the Mesopotamian states of Assyria and Babylonia enshrined a profound and noumenal monotheism, in that it had at its very core the idea that it was focused on ‘looking to the one thing’, which was also, as in Greece, understood as without shape, colour or form, and that this focus can be traced back at least as far as the middle of the 2nd millennium BCE. That is what the god Aššur actually represented, even when given shape and form. * 1
This may always have been an idea of the divine present in the religion of Israel, or it may have been borrowed from Mesopotamian sources. However, the violent struggle in Israel and the eventual triumph of the ‘Yahweh alone’ group, which compiled the documents in the Old Testament, mean that we do not know with any certainty the nature of religion in Israel during the first half of the 1st millennium BCE.
The documents - as we have them - tell us that there were other gods in Israel, both Canaanite and foreign, and that there were prohibitions issued against their worship. These prohibitions eventually took in religious iconography and religious objects, and later images of any kind. In the end, private religious practice was discouraged, save with a simple altar of earth. The final stage was the removal of private worship of Yahweh altogether, and communion with the god of Israel was centralised in the Temple at Jerusalem.
As discussed elsewhere in The Sacred History of Being, in Greece and Mesopotamia divine images functioned as a part of a complex system, a chain of images of Being, to enable intellectual access to the most difficult of all images which might be apprehended by man or god: the one true thing, which is the nature of reality itself, and the source of all knowledge.
Over time, the polytheistic show was entirely removed in Israel. The monotheism which emerged in Israel was necessarily no longer about access to knowledge of the divine and its apprehension - a mental discipline - but about belief.
1. It is suggested that forms of polytheistic religion which are built around a noumenal and transcendent monotheism should be distinguished by a term other than polytheism, which restricts our capacity to discuss the phenomenon without confusion. ‘’Eidetic-monotheism’ could be used to define a monotheism which uses images to recall Being itself. ‘Monotheism’ would then indicate an idea of transcendent Being which is not accessible through images, and is not represented in any way, as in Israel in the later 1st millennium BCE. The term ‘polytheism’ then could be used to refer to assemblages of gods which are clearly not intended to function as a way of recalling Being itself.