When Jehovah Was Not the God of the Old Testament. Part II

When Jehovah Was Not the God of the Old Testament. Part II March 19, 2010

As the very name Israel might indicate on account of its theophoric element el (אל), it appears that the chief god worshiped in earliest Israel was El, the chief god of the Canaanite pantheon in the Late Bronze Age.  The god El has been revealed most clearly to the modern inquirer through the discovery of the Ugaritic texts at Tel Ras Shamra in 1929, a flourishing kingdom-city-state on the Syrian coast during the second half of the second millennium B.C.E.[1] As biblical tradition affirms as represented by the E and P sources (probably to be dated to the eighth and seventh/ sixth centuries B.C.E., respectively[2]), throughout the book of Genesis the ancient forbears of Israel worshiped the god El.  For example, Exodus 6:2-3 (P), recounting the divine theophany of YHWH to Moses at Sinai, states:

And YHWH said to Moses: say to him that I am YHWH.  I appeared to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as El-Shaddai; but (by) my name YHWH I was not known to them.[3] וַיְדַבֵּר אֱלֹהִים אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי יְהוָֽה׃וָאֵרָא אֶל־אַבְרָהָם אֶל־יִצְחָק וְאֶֽל־יַעֲקֹב בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי וּשְׁמִי יְהוָה לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶֽם

In accordance with this affirmation we find a number of El epithets in Genesis, such as El-Shaddai (probably to be understood as “El of the (divine) Mountain,”[4] Gen.17:1; 28:3; 35:11; 49:25), already mentioned above in Exodus 6:2-3 and ostensibly P’s preferred title for god before the revelation of the divine name at Sinai,[5] El-Elyon (“El, the Most High [god],” Gen. 14:18-19, 22), El-Bethel (“El of Bethel [i.e., “the temple of El], Gen. 31:1; 35:7), and El-Olam (“El of Eternity,” Gen. 21:33, here in the J source identified with YHWH).

Nevertheless, the historical reconstruction that El was the chief god of the Israelites is not indebted only to the testimony of the (rather late) biblical witness of P.    Numerous biblical texts attest to the fact that the titles, functions, and the imagery associated with the Canaanite god El, as revealed by the Ugaritic texts and the Canaanite myth of Elkunirša, were assimilated into the profile of the deity YHWH.  According to the Ugaritic texts, El was known for his wisdom (e.g., KTU2 1.4.V.65[6]) and great age (’ab šnm, “Father of Years,” and drd<r>, “Ageless One,” in KTU2 1.4.IV.24 and 1.10.III.6, respectively),[7] his compassionate nature (lţpn il dp’id, “Kind El, the Compassionate One,” e.g.,  KTU2 1.16.IV.9), his role as father of the gods and humanity (’ab ’adm, “father of humanity,” KTU2 1.14..III.47, and bny bnwt, “creator of creatures,” KTU2 1.17.I.24) and creator of the cosmos.[8] El was the divine King (e.g., KTU2 1.2.III.5-6) and the head of the pantheon or divine council (referred to variously as the dr ’il, “circle of El/Family of  El,” KTU2 1.15.III.19; mpħrt bn ’il, “the assembly of the sons of El,” KTU2 1.65.3; bn ’il, “the sons of El,” KTU2 1.40.33, 41; pħr kbbm, “assembly of the stars,” KTU2 1.10.I.3-4; ‘dt ’ilm, “assembly of the gods,” KTU2 1.15.II.7; cf. KTU2 1.2.I; 1.3V; 1.4 IV-V) which met at the sacred mountain.  His consort was the goddess Athirat who bore him seventy sons (šb‘m bn ’atrt, “the seventy sons of Athirat,” KTU2 1.4.VI.46).  El was also known for his divine patronage and blessing of progeny to humans (as in the Epic of Kirta; see, for example, KTU2 1.14.III.46-51), for his appearances to humans in dreams (e.g., KTU2 1.14.I.35-37), as being a healer (KTU2 1.16.V-VI), and for his dwelling at the sacred mountain (e.g., KTU2 1.2.III.5-6) at the sources of the mythical rivers (KTU2 1.2.III.4; 1.3.V.6; 1.4.IV.20-22; 1.17.V.47-48) in a tent (KTU2 1.2.III.5; 1.3.V.8; 1.4.IV.24; 1.17.V.49; c.f. the Canaanite myth Elkunirša which describes El’s abode as a tent[9]).[10]

Many of these features of the god El will sound remarkably familiar to the astute reader of the Hebrew Bible because of their application to YHWH, the god of Israel.  The Ugaritic corpus, which predates the vast majority of the writings of the Hebrew Bible by at least several centuries, is perhaps the most illuminating body of literature for the study of the Hebrew Bible because of its close thematic, linguistic, and stylistic connections to that corpus.  Furthermore, the Ugaritic texts are the only texts from the ancient world that give us direct, native insight into the religious worldview of a society that worshiped many of the gods polemicized against in the Hebrew Bible, and most especially the god Baal and the goddess Asherah (Ugaritic Athirat).  In this case we are able to see that the ancient Israelites, as disclosed through the Hebrew Bible, appropriated a number of terms, themes, and titles from the god El in their portrayals of YHWH.

To underscore the fact that terminology and imagery originally used for the god El was adopted by the Israelites in their descriptions of YHWH, the following brief summary might be placed in comparison to the discussion of El above:  YHWH is an aged, patriarchal deity (Ps. 102:28; Job 36:26; Is. 40:28; Dan. 7.9-14, 22), a father (Deut. 32:6; Is. 63:16; 64:7; Jer. 3:4, 19; 31:9, etc.), merciful and gracious (Ex. 34:6; Jon. 4:2; Joel 2:13; Ps. 8615; 103:8; 145:8, etc.), a divine patron who bestows the blessing of progeny upon Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, often manifesting himself in dreams or visions, a healer (Gen. 20:17; Num. 12:13; 2 Kgs. 20:5, 8; Ps. 107:20, etc.), who dwells in a tent (Ps. 15:1; 27:6; 91:10; 132:3) amidst the heavenly waters (Ps. 47:5; 87; Is. 33: 20-22; Ez. 47:1-12, etc.), the creator of the cosmos, who is enthroned as heavenly King in the divine council (1 Kgs. 22:19; Is. 6:1-8; cf. Ps. 29:1-2; 82; 89: 5-8, etc.) on the sacred mount of assembly (e.g., Is. 14:13).  Additionally, in much Israelite religious practice throughout the monarchic period, YHWH had a divine consort, the goddess Asherah, the Hebrew equivalent of Ugaritic Athirat.[11] This issue will be discussed more fully below.

The question thus arises, were YHWH and El originally separate gods worshiped in Israel, with YHWH being El’s son or chief vizier (perhaps analogous to the way in which Baal functioned in relationship to El in the Ugaritic texts), or was YHWH just another name, or perhaps better, title, of the Canaanite god El?  As noted above in Exodus 6:2-3 (c.f. Ex. 3:13-15), certain biblical texts specifically identify El with YHWH.  Nevertheless, despite the many similarities noted above between El and YHWH, there are also some significant discrepancies.  For example, unlike El, YHWH’s temperament in many texts in the Hebrew Bible can be quite fierce or hostile.  For instance, Exodus 15:3, from the same ancient poetic chapter quoted above that exalts YHWH above all other gods, states, “YHWH is a man of war; YHWH is his name” (יְהוָה אִישׁ מִלְחָמָה יְהוָה שְׁמֽוֹ).  Such passages, both in verse and prose, could be multiplied considerably.  In contrast, there is no significant evidence that El was imagined as a warrior god like YHWH or Baal.  Moreover, like Baal, but entirely unlike El, YHWH is frequently associated with storm imagery.  For instance, Judges 5:4-5, perhaps the oldest text in the Hebrew Bible, states:

YHWH, when you went forth from Seir, when you went forth from the field of Edom, (the) earth shook, (the) heavens also dripped, (the) clouds dropped water as well.  Mountains flowed down before YHWH, This One of Sinai, before YHWH, the god of Israel. יְהוָה בְּצֵאתְךָ מִשֵּׂעִיר בְּצַעְדְּךָ מִשְּׂדֵה אֱדוֹם אֶרֶץ רָעָשָׁה גַּם־שָׁמַיִם נָטָפוּ גַּם־עָבִים נָטְפוּ מָֽיִם׃הָרִים נָזְלוּ מִפְּנֵי  יְהוָה זֶה סִינַי מִפְּנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵֽל

The Hebrew Bible is simply replete with storm imagery for YHWH (c.f. the theophanic manifestation of YHWH at Sinai in Ex. 19:16-20).  Finally, YHWH does not appear to have been a native Canaanite deity, as reflected, for example, in the fact that he is not mentioned in the deity lists discovered at Ugarit.[12]

That YHWH was not originally a Canaanite deity may also be deduced from several other interrelated pieces of evidence.  For instance, as related in Judges 5:4-5 just previously cited, YHWH was seen as coming from the south where Seir, Edom, and Sinai (probably the northwestern Arabian Peninsula and not the Sinai Peninsula itself) are located.[13] Moreover, this same chapter mentions connections with the Amalekites (Judges 5:14; cf. Gen. 36:16; Num. 13:29), a southern group, and the Kenites (Judges 5:34; cf. 1:16; 4:11; 1 Sam. 27:10; 30:29), a group that is also known to have been to the south of Judah.[14] Other biblical texts support this reconstruction.  Thus Deuteronomy 33:2 and Habakkuk 3:3 and 7 state:

And he said: YHWH came from Sinai, he rose from Seir to them; from Mount Paran he shone forth… (Deut. 33:2) וַיֹּאמַר יְהוָה מִסִּינַי בָּא וְזָרַח מִשֵּׂעִיר לָמוֹ הוֹפִיעַ מֵהַר פָּארָן
God comes/came from Teman, the Holy One from the mountain of Paran…Under sorrow I saw the tents of Cushan, the curtains of the tents in the land of Midian shook. (Hab. 3:3, 7) אֱלוֹהַ מִתֵּימָן יָבוֹא וְקָדוֹשׁ מֵֽהַר־פָּארָן. . . תַּחַת אָוֶן רָאִיתִי אָהֳלֵי כוּשָׁן יִרְגְּזוּן יְרִיעוֹת אֶרֶץ מִדְיָֽן

It seems quite likely, therefore, that YHWH originated as a warrior storm god in the south near Edom.[15] Indeed, the biblical story of Moses meeting with YHWH in Midian in Exodus 6:2-3 (when, according to P, YHWH supposedly declared his name for the first time) itself suggests that YHWH’s home was originally in the south, and only later was he imported into the land of Canaan.  Further, there are certain non-biblical texts which also suggest YHWH’s origins are to be located to the south of Israel in this region.  For example, certain Egyptian texts make mention of a Shasu YHWH alongside the Shasu Seir (to the east of Egypt), and an epithet of YHWH in one of the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud inscriptions reads, “YHWH of Teman.”[16] Finally, although not a conclusive argument on its own, it might also be mentioned in conjunction with the foregoing analysis that most names in the oldest texts of the Hebrew Bible have ’l as their theophoric element (as in the case of the name Israel), as opposed to a YHWHistic element.[17] I conclude, therefore, along with such scholars as Mark S. Smith and John Day, that El and YHWH were originally two distinct deities in ancient Israel, and that they were amalgamated at a fairly early stage in the development of Israelite religion, perhaps sometime in the Late Bronze Age, although traces of an El cult seem to appear in Israel even into the Iron I period.[18]

[1] For treatments of the city of Ugarit, its literature, language, religion, and history, as well the relationship(s) between Ugaritic and biblical studies, see Mark S. Smith, Untold Stories: The Bible and Ugaritic Studies in the Twentieth Century (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001); Dennis Pardee and Theodore J. Lewis, Ritual and Cult at Ugarit (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2002); Wilfred Watson and N. Wyatt, eds., Handbook of Ugaritic Studies. Handbuch der Orientalistik, 39. Bd. (Boston: Brill, 1999); and Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism.


[2] For a popular introduction to source criticism of the Pentateuch, see Richard Elliott Friedman, Who Wrote the Bible? (Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall, 1987).  See also Richard Elliott Friedman, The Bible with Sources Revealed: A New View into the Five Books of Moses (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003); and Michael

Coogan, The Old Testament: A Historical and Literary Introduction to the Hebrew Scriptures (New York: Oxford

University Press, 2006), 26-27, 92, 138-151, 173-17, and 405-407.

[3] Of course this claim may be placed in tension with the fact that the J source in Genesis (probably to be dated a couple of centuries earlier than P) declares that the name YHWH was known even in primeval times!  See, for example, Genesis 4:26.

[4] Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, 32-34.

[5] As noted by Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, 32.

[6] KTU2 refers throughout to M. Dietrich, O. Loretz, and J. Sanmartín,  The Cuneiform Alphabetic Texts from Ugarit, Ras Ibn Hani and Other Places (KTU: Second Enlarged Edition) (Muenster: Ugarit-Verlag, 1995) (2nd edn of M. Dietrich, O. Leretz, and J. Sanmartín, Die Keilalphabetischen Texte aus Ugarit. [Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1976]).

[7] Note the references in the Ugaritic texts to El’s grey hair and beard, e.g., KTU2 1.3.V.2, 24-25; 1.4.V.3-4.  It is also worth noting that iconographic evidence often depicts El as an elderly bearded figure.  See Smith, The Early History of God, 35, and the literature cited there.

[8] Note the title of El in the myth Elkunirša: ’l qny ’rş, “El, Creator of the earth” (c.f. Gen. 14:19!). The translations of Ugaritic texts in this paper follow the suggestions of Mark Smith, The Early History of God, 32-43; and The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 135-148.

[9] See the translation of this text by Albrecht Goetze in J. B. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament. 3rd ed. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1969), 519.

[10] For a fuller discussion of these titles and depictions of El, see Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 135-145; The Early History of God, 32-43; and Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, 13-34.

[11] For these points and other issues in the comparison of YHWH and El, see Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 135-145; The Early History of God, 32-43; and Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, 13-34.  Smith, in turn, is advancing the original discussion set up by Frank Moore Cross in Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic.

[12] Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, 15; Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 142-145.

[13] Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 145.

[14] Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 145.

[15] Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 140, 145-146; The Early History of God, 32-33; and Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, 15-17.

[16] Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, 15-16.

[17] Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, 16-17; Smith, The Origins of Biblical Monotheism, 142-143, 147.

[18] Smith, The Early History of God, 7-8; Day, Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan, 14.

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