A long time ago I read a controversial book (well, I've read quite a few of them) called Eternity in their Hearts by Don Richardson. The book had three big ideas in, which all seemed very controversial in different ways, but all of which were well argued. Richardson's ideas were:
- God was often to be found in pagan religions as the god underlying their pantheons
- Before the time of Jesus, followers of some religions, if they truly sought after God (as present in their religion) could therefore be saved in much the same way that Melchizedek (for example) was saved
- God has placed things in pagan religions to point people to Jesus
To be honest, I quite liked all three ideas, but officially suspended judgement on their truth until I had more knowledge of the topics. Now seems to be that time, at least for the first idea.
The Bible tells us (Exodus 6:3) that God did not reveal himself by the name "Yahweh" until Moses, but he revealed himself by the name "El" (or its various compounds, especially "El Shaddai") to Abraham and his descendants. But Genesis was obviously compiled by someone after that, so the name Yahweh does get used a fair bit. There's plenty of evidence though that the original stories in Genesis were from before 1500BC though, even though the final compilation might not have been until 1000BC or later.
However, "El" was not just a name plucked out of nowhere. At the time of Abraham, El was the chief god in the Canaanite pantheon. Abraham, having grown up in Mesopotamia, would have been familiar with him by the name "Il", which is the Mesopotamian version. So when God revealed himself to Abraham as "El", Abe would have thought it was the top god in the local pantheon speaking to him.
We get more evidence of this in Genesis 14. Abraham meets a guy called Melchizedek who is priest of El Elyon (which was at the time a kind of title for El), and they clearly recognise that they worship the same god.
It does look very much as if Abraham is a monolatrist (worshipping only one god, even if he recognises that others might exist). Certainly, later on, the worship of other gods from the Canaanite pantheon, particularly Asherah (thought to be El's consort) and Ba'al (El's son, who later became the dominant god in Canaanite worship) was pretty heavily opposed.
So what was God doing revealing himself as a god within the Canaanite pantheon? Well, Richardson's thoughts were that since the Bible tells us we are all descended from people who did worship God (like Noah), that the memory of worshipping God would have been carried down through cultures, even though they might later pick up other gods round the edges (and in later Canaanite religion, these later gods like Ba'al eventually displaced the original El).
The idea is certainly also implicit within the way that the Bible gets translated into other langauges, particularly the word "God". Translators tend to look into the historical religion or mythology of an area, and they almost always find that there is one original god, who is seen as being uncreated and who made all the other gods and stuff, even if he's now only a footnote. And that's usually what they pick to translate "God" as.