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Was El Israel's original God?

Discussion in 'Christian Apologetics' started by ShamashUruk, Sep 11, 2017.

  1. ShamashUruk

    ShamashUruk Hello

    United States
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    Outside of proper names, the word ’el occurs about 230 times in the Hebrew Bible. It usually occurs as an appellative designating a foreign deity (Ezekiel 28:2) as well as Israel’s chief deity. Most commonly, the word is used with other elements (such as the definite article or a suffix). El appears as a proper name of the deity in poetic books, such as Psalms (5:5, 7:12; 18 [2 Sam 22]:3, 31, 33, 48; 102:25), Job, and Second Isaiah (Isaiah 40:18; 43:12; 45:14, 22; 46:9; cf. 42:5).

    A common assumption is El’s cult didn’t exist in Israel except as part of an identification with Yahweh. For ancient Israel, this question depends on whether Yahweh was a title of El or secondarily identified with El. Besides the grammatical objections sometimes raised against this view, the oldest biblical traditions place Yahweh originally as a god in southern Edom (northwestern Saudi Arabia), known by the biblical names of Edom, Midian, Teman, Paran, and Sinai. This general area for old Yahwistic cult is attested in the Bible (Deuteronomy 33:2; Judges 5:4–5; Psalm 68:9, 18; Habakkuk 3:3)39 as well as in inscriptional sources. Extra Biblical evidence from Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, a southern shrine preserving inscriptions written by visiting northerners, also attests to “Yahweh of Teman.” These facts argue against designation identification of Yahweh as originally a title of El.

    So how were Yahweh and El related? Biblical evidence necessarily occupies a central place in this discussion. In at least one instance, biblical material points to the cult of El in the Iron I period in Israel. C. L. Seow notes El language and characteristics reflected in aspects of the cult of Shiloh. The tent tradition associated with Shiloh (Psalm 78:60; Joshua 18:1; 1 Samuel 2:22) conforms to the Ugaritic descriptions of El’s abode as a tent. The narrative elements of the divine appearance to Samuel in incubation-dreams, the divine gift of a child to Hannah, and the El name of Elqanah (suggesting an El worshipper?), also cohere with the view that El was the original god of the beˆt’elo¯hıˆm (Judges 18:31; cf. 17:5).

    It is no accident that Psalm 78 repeatedly uses El names and epithets in describing the rise and fall of the sanctuary at Shiloh. Traditions concerning the cultic site of Shechem may also illustrate the cultural process behind the Yahwistic inclusion of old cultic sites of El. In the city of Shechem the local god was ’e¯l beˇrıˆt, “El of the covenant” (Judges 9:46; cf. 8:33; 9:4).

    According to many scholars, this word ’ilbrt apparently appears as a Late Bronze Age title for El (CAT 1.128.14–15).45 In the patriarchal narratives, the god of Shechem, ’e¯l, is called ’elo¯heˆ yis´ra¯’e¯l, “the god of Israel,” and is presumed to be Yahweh. In this case, a process of reinterpretation is at work. In the early history of Israel, when the cult of Shechem became Yahwistic, it continued the El traditions of that site. As a result, Yahweh received the title ’e¯l beˇrıˆt, the old title of El.

    Finally, Jerusalem is seen as a cult place of El, if there is a connection of El Elyon and El “creator of the earth” in Genesis 14:8–22. This record illustrates the old transmission of West Semitic/Israelite traditions. Israelite knowledge of the religious traditions about other deities did not only reflect contact between Israel and her Phoenician neighbors in the Iron Age. In addition, as a function of the identification of Yahweh-El at cultic sites of El, such as Shiloh, Shechem, and Jerusalem, the old religious lore of El was inherited by the priesthood in Israel. At a variety of sites, Yahweh was incorporated into the older figure of El, who belonged to Israel’s original West Semitic religious heritage. Other biblical evidence for El suggests that the cult of El perdured into the Iron II period.

    Whatever one is to make of ’eˇlo¯hıˆm in the “E source” or various El epithets” in the “priestly source,” these materials are interpreted as evidence for the cult of El in the Iron II period within Israel. The usage in the book of Job and Psalm 18 (2 Samuel 22), may point in this direction as well.

    The distinction between El and Yahweh in Israel includes not only biblical texts but also Iron II epigraphic evidence. It is not necessary to interpret ’l in the Kuntillet ‘Ajrud inscriptions as “God” and assume the identification with Yahweh, as M. Weinfeld translates one inscription where b‘l and ’l occur in the

    following manner:

    “[W]hen God shines forth (El appears) the mountains melt...Baal on the day of w[ar] . . . for the name of God on the day of w[ar].”

    It is unclear whether ’l here should be translated as El. Similarly, Hebrew proper names with the element ’l should not therefore always be attributed to Yahweh, as W. D. Whitt has recently argued. J. Tigay’s important study of inscriptional onomastica is compatible with the historical reconstruction that early Israelite tradition identified El with Yahweh. Israelite inscriptions include 557 names with Yahweh as the divine element, names with *’l, a handful of names with the divine component *b‘l, and no names referring to the goddesses Anat or Asherah. Tigay argues that the element *’l in proper names represented a title for Yahweh. Just as no cult is attested for Anat or Asherah in Israelite religion, no distinct cult is attested for El except in his identity as Yahweh. It is unclear whether ’l in all these instances is to be understood as a generic reference to Yahweh.

    At some point, a number of Israelite traditions identified El with Yahweh or presupposed this equation. The Hebrew Bible rarely distinguishes between El and Yahweh or offers polemics against El. West Semitic El lies behind the god of the patriarchs in Genesis 33:20 and 46:3 (and possibly elsewhere). Later tradition clearly intended that this god be identified as Yahweh. For example, the priestly theological treatment of Israel’s early religious history in Exodus 6:2–3 identifies the old god El Shadday with Yahweh:

    And God said to Moses, “I am Yahweh. I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, as El Shadday, but by my name Yahweh I did not make myself known to them.”

    This passage shows that Yahweh was unknown to the patriarchs. Rather, they are depicted as worshippers of El. In Israel El’s characteristics and epithets became part of the repertoire of descriptions of Yahweh. Like El in the Ugaritic texts, Yahweh is described as an aged, patriarchal god (Psalm 102:28; Job 36:26; Isaiah 40:28; cf. Psalm 90:10; Isaiah 57:15; Habakkuk 3:6; Daniel 6:26; 2 Esdras 8:20; Tobit 13:6, 10; Ben Sira 18:30), enthroned amidst the assembly of divine beings (1 Kings 22:19; Isaiah 6:1–8; cf. Psalms 29:1–2, 82:1, 89:5–8; Isaiah 14:13; Jeremiah 23:18, 22; Zechariah 3; Daniel 3:25). Later biblical texts continued the notion of aged Yahweh enthroned before the heavenly hosts. Daniel 7:9–14, 22 describes Yahweh as the “ancient of days,” and “the Most High.” He is enthroned amid the assembly of heavenly hosts, called in verse 18 “the holy ones of the Most High,” qaddıˆsˇeˆ‘elyoˆnıˆn (cf. 2 Esdras 2:42–48; Revelation 7).

    This description for the angelic hosts derives from the older usage of Hebrew qeˇdo¯sˇıˆm, “holy ones,” used for the divine council (Psalm 89:6; Hosea 12:1; Zechariah 14:5; cf. KAI 4:5, 7; 14:9, 22; 27:12) and the tradition of the enthroned bearded god appears also in a Persian period coin marked yhd, “Yehud.” The iconography belongs to a god, possibly Yahweh. D. V. Edelman has studied the depictions of deities and symbols on coins from the Persian period through the Hasmonean period. She concludes that the late Persian period coins are the first to show any avoidance of depiction of gods other than Yahweh in non cultic contexts; as this single example indicates, Yahweh is evidently represented. Based on this part of Edelman’s study and the reference in Judges 17 to an image, apparently of Yahweh, one might be inclined to suggest that ancient Israel tolerated some images of Yahweh outside of the national shrines

    and condemned images of other deities. In short, the prohibition of images of other deities seems to reflect a general worship of Yahweh that discouraged worship of other deities.

    El and Yahweh are rendered with a similar compassionate disposition toward humanity. Like El, Yahweh is a father (Deuteronomy 32:6; Isaiah 63:16, 64:7; Jeremiah 3:4, 19; 31:9; Malachi 1:6, 2:10; cf. Exodus 4:22; Hosea 11:1) with a compassionate disposition, many times expressed as “merciful and gracious god,” ’e¯l-ra¯hfiuˆm weˇhfiannuˆn (Exodus 34:6; Jonah 4:2; Joel 2:13; Psalms 86:15; 103:8; 145:

    8; Nehemiah 9:17). Both El and Yahweh appear to humans in dream-visions and function as their divine patron. Like El (CAT 1.16 V–VI), Yahweh is a healing god (Genesis 20:17; Numbers 12:13; 2 Kings 20:5, 8; Psalm 107:20; cf. the personal name, reˇpa¯’e¯l, in 1 Chronicles 26:7). Moreover, the description of Yahweh’s dwelling-place as a “tent” (’o¯hel) (e.g., Psalms 15:1; 27:6; 91:10; 132:3), called in the Pentateuchal traditions the “tent of meeting” (’ohel moˆ‘e¯d) (Exodus 33:7–11; Numbers 12:5, 10; Deuteronomy 31:14, 15), recalls the tent of El. The tabernacle of Yahweh has qeˇra¯sˇıˆm, usually understood as “boards” (Exodus 26–40); Numbers 3:36; 4:31), whereas the dwelling of El is called qrsˇ, perhaps “tabernacle” or “pavilion” (CAT 1.2 III 5; 1.3 V 8; 1.4 IV 24; 1.17 V 49). Furthermore, the dwelling of El is set amid the cosmic waters (CAT 1.2 III 4; 1.3 V 6; 1.4 IV 20–22; 1.17 V 47–48), a theme evoked in descriptions of Yahweh’s abode in Jerusalem (Psalms 47:5; 87; Isaiah 33:20–22; Ezekiel 47:1–12; Joel 4:18; Zechariah 14:8). Other passages include motifs that can be traced to traditional descriptions of El (Deuteronomy 32:6–7).

    The eventual identification of Yahweh and El within Israel perhaps held ramifications for the continuation of other deities as well. It has been argued that Asherah became the consort of Yahweh as a result of his identification with El. Perhaps originally associated with El, they became part of the divine assembly subordinate to Yahweh. The information in the preceding section makes this question reasonable, despite the apparent complications that this reconstruction may pose for later theology.

    Moreover, it is a reasonable hypothesis because of one basic piece of information: the name of Israel contains not the divine element of Yahweh but El’s name, with the element *’e¯l. If Yahweh had been the original god of Israel, then its name might have been *yis´raˆ-yahweh, or perhaps better *yis´raˆ-ya¯h in accordance with other Hebrew proper names containing the divine name. This fact would suggest that El not Yahweh was the original chief god of the group named Israel.
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  2. Quid est Veritas?

    Quid est Veritas? In Memoriam to CS Lewis

    El was a generic term meaning 'god' in the West Semitic languages. Just because there is also a god by this name, does not mean references to the term necessarily point to this specific god.

    We see the same thing in Arabic, where we have Allah - meaning 'the God'. Mohammad's father was Abdullah, a theophoric name, but this does not mean that this Allah was the same as Mohammad's Allah, that he adopted his father's god. This is probably unlikely, seeing that he claimed a new revelation. Likewise the term allah could also be refering to Hubal or other pagan deities.

    The same can be seen in Indo-European religion. Dyaus Piter, the Proto-Indo-European 'Father of the gods', became Greek Zeus (via Dyaus) and Roman Jupiter (via Dyaus Piter). That term Dyaus also gave us Greek Theos and Latin Deus, their generic term for 'god'.
    So when we see Deus used in Latin, it isn't referencing Jupiter necessarily, nor does Theos reference Zeus - it did not even do this when these terms appeared closer in speech.

    It is common for a language to make a generic term from a common example or for a generic term to be elevated to a specific one - like in Arabic Allah or English use of God (written with a capital).
    You can see it in action if you have children. They will call all dogs of a specific breed by their own pet's name, long after they realised the difference between it and the other dogs. My son calls all pugs Louis, but realises there is our Louis and other Louisses.

    El was a major god of the West Semitic peoples. Maybe he came first and a generic term evolved therefrom, or he may have gotten his name from the term for god, meaning his proper name would be El Elyon or El whichever Epithet, who can say?
    For a specific group to then use the generic term to refer to their God, especially in the monolatric Bronze Age, is really poor evidence to draw such a conclusion. The strongest reason why I say this, is that use of El in theophoric names continued long after Israel comfortably chose YHWH as their national God, even when El was very much still a reviled deity of their neighbours. The linguistic connection does not say nearly as much as you make it out to do.
    Last edited: Sep 12, 2017
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  3. ShamashUruk

    ShamashUruk Hello

    United States
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    My understanding is that El is Enki in Sumerian and that Yahweh is Ba'al in Canaan. Otherwise, good point on El being a generic term meaning 'god' in West Semitic languages. However, I'd contend that appropriately the Israelite's would use the term El to identify the head of their pantheon. Also, the Old Testament was happy to appropriate elements of El religion to Yahwism, though it rejected the symbolism of El as a bull, which Israelites associated with Yahweh. It's strange because in the El religion the Old Testament rejected his wife. The Ugaritic texts reveal that El's consort was a goddess named Athirat. In equating Yahweh with El it would not be surprising Israelites appropriated El's wife to Yahweh. This seems to have taken place, and the name Athirat occurs as Asherah in the Old Testament, but understandably the Yahweh-alone party which compiled the Old Testament rejected the notion that Yahweh had a wife Asherah. The word 'Asherah' occurs forty times in the Old Testament, sometimes in the singular and sometimes in the plural. Though most of these refer to a wooden cult object symbolizing the goddess Asherah, there are several passages where Asherah refers directly to the goddess herself: Judg. 3.7; 1 Kgs 14.13, 18.19; 2 Kgs 21.7, 23.4.

    This is to your Indo-Euro point, we don't see the "true" form of the Female God, instead a replicate of a wooden object symbolizing the Asherah. It's the same concept wherein Indo-Euro tradition the worshiper cannot see the true form of their God or 'god'. Also, most of the Greek mythologies end up being dependent on older Indo-Euro inferences, such as Hekate the cross roads Goddess being seen in earlier Hurrian culture, also GMP identifies Hekate as Ereshkigal, as it has a three thousand year old spell evoking HekateEreshkigal. Concerning Hekate, who we could inevitablly see in Mesopotamia. In consideration Mesopotamian theology traveled far by way of the Semitic Phoenicians. I'm only part way in to my research on their pre-Roman influence, but it's far reaching. It also depends on what your view is on who to Celts were, and what part of Europe you're looking at. If you're looking at the early people from the British Isles, you can trace the Semitic influence by way of the Phoenicians well before the Roman conquests. It's how Ishtar Astarte worship reached there long before the Roman or Germanic invasions, and why I can tell you Eostre is the Anglicanised Ishtar, as we have ancient Phoenician inscriptions to her in England not that far from where Bede wrote about Eostre centuries later. There's also a balance between Indo-Euro coming from the North-East and Semitic Phoenician going on coming from the South-East, depending on the direction of migrations and trade you're looking at. So I would conclude that we see Greek influence in older Indo-Euro culture's as well Mesopotamian. Hence, why in your statement Dyaus Piter becomes Zeus and are generic terms, this is due to adoption and less to do with generically including a "father" or "mother" figure into each pantheon. You could argue for example that Deutschland is stated differently:

    Deutschland (German)
    Germany (English)
    Tyskland (Swedish)
    Allemagne (French)
    Niemcy (Poland)
    Saksa (Finnish)

    In differing languages with the same meaning inherently, so then we conclude that Germany or Deutschland is appropriately both capitalized. Either way in comparison to El, the languages differ but the characteristics of the geographic location of Deutschland remains the same.

    Even in Aramaic with Allah being compared to Nanna the moon God, or in your case a commonality of tracing language to make generic terms, while we see Yahweh in Israel being a storm God, much earlier we see Yahweh in Canaan as Ba'al being a storm God. Even now the Jews speak a defunct Canaanite language, the only thing that remained similar is the functions of Ba'al and Yahweh being both storm Gods. If you wanted to equated Yahweh to Jesus in the NT we can even see in Luke 8:25 wherein Jesus has an ability to control storms. So it is characteristics that reveals why and how a God is passed along culture to culture.

    Correct El is a major God of the West Semites include the Israelite's who adopt El into their pantheon. Gods or goddesses who share a common first name are typically understood by scholars as locally venerated manifestations of one singular deity known by that name, and the geographic epithets are often interpreted as secondary data about local manifestations of that one deity rather than as specific and essential information that defines the manifestation as its own divine entity.