(And much of what has been dug up still hasn't been translated or published.)
Researchers hold opposing views, each with strong proofs for their stance. Without interviewing a selection of actual ancient Babylonians, Egyptians, or any other Mesopotamians, etc, it's hard to know what their attitudes really were. Furthermore, researchers in this field do not usually recognize the Divinity of the Torah and tend to compare it with other Ancient Near East literature as if it's all human-sourced (while noting that Judaism was radically different than its neighboring belief systems), which makes researchers innately wrong about certain things.
So with that disclaimer...
The Torah is eternal and the bare fact that Hashem and His Neviim (Prophets) repeatedly remind us through the entire Tanach that there is only One God, and that we shall have no other gods before Him, and that Hashem is Loving, Just, Compassionate and Omnipotent means that we still have the tendency to drift away from these facts of monotheism.
If God is so Good and His Perfection, Omnipotence, and Oneness are the Truth, then why would we struggle with this fact?
And why is polytheism (or a fractured belief in God) so compelling?
The Illusion of Control
And because there is a type of “physics” within kochot hatumah, these tricks can work (or appear to work) for a time. But eventually, the price gets higher and usually, the end is pretty dark. And that’s just what happens in This World, let alone the Afterlife.
Whether a person chooses to ignore God in an atheistic manner or in a polytheistic manner, God generally attempts to shake a person awake at some point.
(And though beneficial, it’s not fun when that happens.)
Also, polytheists seemed kind of weird. They could be kind of nice, but also manipulative and even heartless and brutal. Sometimes, they just seemed kind of blasé about everything.
(Read the Torah and you'll see what I mean.)
So if you look over whatever writings have been dug up from those times, you'll notice that people didn’t seem to think very highly of their gods. In fact, almost no published literature expresses the idea that a god is innately good or just or wise or compassionate.
This is interesting because Christianity and Islam do say this about their trinity or Allah.
But we said it first!
So they got it from us.
Until Avraham Avinu came to restore things, these ideas don't seem to have existed among the surrounding cultures.
However, you can find lots of literature expressing the desire on the part of the penitent that the god will behave in a manner defined by that penitent as good, just, wise, or compassionate.
Some researchers believe that these people simply didn’t possess an independent standard of goodness. “Good” was defined as relative to the people themselves.
If they liked something, it was good. If they didn’t like it, it was bad.
This is shocking today because many people throughout Western society have this idea of “universal values” and "following your conscience."
But the ancients in the Biblical era and area apparently did not have such ideas.
So the idea of “universal values” likely stems from Judaism (even as it has been warped to mean anything liberals deem good).
As Professor John H. Walton says:
The operative question in their minds, for instance, is not, “Is the deity just?” but, “Does the deity administer justice?”
It is not important whether the deity is inherently good—is the deity doing good for me?
(This is actually the attitude people today reflect regarding their favorite politicians, sports teams, or celebrities.)
In other words, the ancients were okay with a god not being perfect. They didn't have expectations otherwise.
If the more capricious or malicious gods got the upper hand, then the polytheist simply felt appeasement was needed or that the intervention of another god was called for.
Cheshbon Hanefesh as a Form of Jewish Radicalism
Professor K. Van de Toor seems to say that a Babylonian living in that time was capable of feeling guilty about personal wrongdoings and being concerned for personal integrity, but there was no cultural idea or guide for such values as emphasized in Judaism (values which today are considered "universal" and "self-evident").
Van de Toor says:
The Babylonians did not have an introspective tradition…Individual identity, in this view, is not what you are deep down, but what you manifest to be: it is public and social.
Despite the fact that it's usually not real or complete self-introspection (it’s impossible to perform a complete cheshbon hanefesh in all its raw honesty without involving Hashem), but people today at least give lip service to the idea.
Another researcher, Tzvi Abusch, postulates that aspects considered internal today were externalized and objectified within the non-Jewish culture of Biblical times.
"In that sense," adds Walton, "self and soul are external identity constructs rather than internal ones."
With all today's talk of one's "inner self" and understanding or internalizing things at the "soul level" and much more, it's hard to see these intrinsically internal aspects as external. Yet apparently, this is how these aspects were seen at that time.
It’s bizarre to think that these ancient societies, for all their genius as displayed in their astronomical tables and architecture and more, were so shallow and superficial.
(The same, however, could be said today. The geniuses behind all the hi-tech stuff aren’t necessarily deep thinkers nor introspective ones.)
This provides additional insight into the scope of Avraham Avinu’s power and influence in the world at that time.
Imagine him and Sara Imeinu as the lone voices in the world informing people of an independent and unmoving standard of good, of right and wrong, and of Hashem Who is Always Right and Perfectly Tzaddik (Righteous & Just), in addition to being Compassionate, Gracious, and Slow to Anger (even if the individual does not experience certain events as Compassionate or Tzaddik).
In other words, "Please meet the Only God there is...and He's Perfect."
Imagine them introducing people to the fact that Hashem does not possess any base human qualities like whims or lusts.
And that people needed perform an accounting of their deeds based on objective standards of right and wrong.
Imagine them speaking to people of the need to internalize things, of the human soul as deeper part within one's self.
It must have been mind-boggling.
Public Shame vs Personal Guilt
For example, if something went wrong in a person's life, it was embarrassing because others saw it as a sign that this polytheist hadn’t taken care of his god properly. So he was ashamed before his society.
But he didn’t feel bad necessarily about having actually done something wrong.
(Or maybe he personally did, but it wasn't culturally appropriate to feel so.)
In other words, he didn’t necessarily feel guilty or any sense of healthy accountability.
There was no examining himself and his deeds, but only his deeds in relation to his occult worship.
In light of this, another researcher in the field, K. Van der Toorn, notes that in the world surrounding the Jews of the Tanach, these ancient polytheists valued “shame over guilt” and “success over integrity.”
This is shockingly similar to the dynamic of toxic shame today. Within society, a person might be shamed for being overweight or for not dressing “right” or not keeping a clean enough home or for being socially awkward or for not being up with the latest popular fad/TV show/whatever.
But certain types of lashon hara or snipey humor or demeaning dress or raunchy behavior might be perfectly fine and even laudable within society.
And of course, modern culture abounds with examples of people choosing success over integrity.
So we see that a lot of people feel bad about the wrong things and feel good about the wrong things too.
The few laments archeologists have recovered show the desperation idol-worshipers felt when things didn’t go their way, like from this Mesopotamian:
I wish I knew that these things were pleasing to one’s god!
What is proper to oneself is an offense to one’s god;
What in one’s own heart seems despicable is proper to one’s god.
Who knows the will of the gods in heaven?
Who understands the plans of the underworld gods?
Where have mortals learned the way of a god?
This is so obviously pathetic.
He is ready to confess anything, ready to do anything to appease.
He ends with:
Man is dumb; he knows nothing…what does he know?
Whether he is committing sin or doing good, he does not even know.
All that mattered was that the god was appeased and that the suffering ended.
The above verse “What in one’s own heart seems despicable is proper to one’s god” is particularly disturbing.
What did this Mesopotamian feel expected to do?
What was “despicable” in his eyes that desperation was leading him to do?
People felt if they didn't appease whichever god they'd offended, then their suffering would just go on until for the rest of their life. And who can stand that?
So you can see from this why polytheism led to the foulest and cruelest acts being committed as a form of worship.
(All quotes are from the book Ancient Near East Thought and the Old Testament by John H. Walton)
And the Winner is…Monotheism!
So the thing is, polytheism was a way of covering all their bases.
Suffering happened or people wanted protection from future suffering, so they turned to whatever they thought could possibly be behind it.
They had no problem including Hashem in the picture, and they could accept him as the Most Powerful, but they struggled to accept him as the One and Only God and as the Only Force in the Universe.
The problem is that the minute you think that Hashem isn’t behind everything or that He isn’t operating in your best interests, then this is the first step in a slippery slide.
So this is the pull of any polytheistic belief system:
- I don’t want to deal with the paradox of a Loving God in a hateful world.
- I want to feel in control of my own destiny.
- I want to feel like I can get what I want—guaranteed!
- I don’t want to have to examine myself in a cheshbon hanefesh or do real teshuvah.
- I don’t want to deal with the guilt of not living up to my potential and fulfilling the purpose for what God put me here.
- I don't like the idea of absolute morality; I prefer to do whatever brings me pleasure and helps me avoid pain.
- I’ll do anything to avoid shame while reaping adulation as defined by whatever society in which I live.
So while we don't have the actual yetzer hara to go and bow down to an idol, we still struggle with the underlying tendencies that led to avodah zarah (occult-/idol-worship).
We can also be grateful that Hashem orchestrated things so that Judaism influenced the world so profoundly that the above Ancient Near East value system now seems mind-boggling to us.
May we all merit to live every moment in complete emuna.