When we read the Bible we assume that its references to God or Lord all mean the same idea: the deity of Judeo-Christian belief. So when we (non-scholars) read that the Bible’s references to the God of the Patriarchs were originally names of various local deities it can be a difficult pill to swallow. But a principal reason I began this blog was to share with the general reader what scholarly research has to inform us about the Bible, so let’s look more closely at the Genesis references to El Shaddai, El Elhon, and the various altars Genesis says the Patriarchs established in Canaan.
Here is Russell Gmirkin’s paragraph in Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts that pulls up the reader who is not familiar with the scholarly background references:
Genesis 11-50 mention a number of local gods, such as El Shaddai, with an altar at Bethel or Luz (Gen 17:1; 28:3, 19; 43:14; 48:3; 49:25); El Olam, with a grove at Beersheba (Gen 21:33); El Elyon, with a temple at Salem (Gen 14:18-20, 22); and Yahweh, with altars at Bethel (Gen 12:8; 35:1, 3, 7) and Hebron (Gen 13:18); the god Bethel (Gen 28:17; cf. Cross 1973: 47 n. 14); cf. Baal Berit (Judg 8:33; 9:4) or El Berit (Judg 9:46), the god of Shechem (cf. Smith 1990: 6; Cross 1973: 39, discussing the Hurrian El Berit). Most of these are thought to be local titles or manifestations of the Canaanite deity El (Cross 1962, 1973: 6-69; Day 2000: 13-43). Yahweh was another local god, worshipped in Iron II Hamath (Dalley 1990), Samaria and Judah, alongside Baal, El, Bethel and other Canaanite gods. Far from being inimical towards their polytheistic religious heritage, the pantheon of Canaanite gods was carried over into the present text of Genesis as local divinities associated with numerous ancient altars and holy sites. In Ex 6:3, El Shaddai was explicitly assimilated with Yahweh, but the identity of the two deities is not evident in the text of Genesis itself. (Gmirkin, 233f — bolding is mine in all quotations)
Let’s take a closer look at each of the above. I have for the most part (not entirely) followed up on Gmirkin’s bibliographical references.
When Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram, and said to him, “I am El Shaddai. Walk before me, and be blameless. (Gen 17:1)
May El Shaddai bless you, and make you fruitful, and multiply you . . . . He called the name of that place Bethel, though previously the city was named Luz. (Gen 28:3, 19)
And may El Shaddai grant you mercy (Gen 43:14)
And Jacob said to Joseph, “El Shaddai appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me (Gen 48:3)
by the God of your father, who will help you, and El Shaddai, who will bless you with blessings of the sky above, blessings of the deep that lies below, and blessings of the breasts and of the womb. (Gen 49:25)
Here is what John Day in Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan has to say about El Shaddai. Italics are original.
El-Shaddai. The most likely interpretation of the divine name El-Shaddai is ‘El, the mountain one‘, with reference to El’s dwelling place on a mountain. . . . (Day, 32)
And Frank Moore Cross in Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic:
A group of names from Ugarit gave additional confirmation of the etymology . . .
The epithet šadday thus proves to mean “the mountain one.” (Cross, 54f)
Many Bibles translate the term as God Almighty, but that translation should be discarded:
Traditionally, El Shaddai has been rendered ‘God Almighty’, following the LXX’s παντοκράτωρ and the Vulgate’s omnipotens, but it is widely accepted that this is a later misunderstanding, possibly arising through association with Hebrew šdd ‘to destroy’ (cf. Isa. 13.6; Joel 1.15, kešōd miššadday ‘as destruction from Shaddai’).
The two most widely accepted views today render the name El-Shaddai either as ‘El, the mountain one’, relating it to Akkadian šadû ‘mountain’ (and šaddā’u, šaddû’a, ‘mountain inhabitant’), or as ‘El of the field’, connecting it with Hebrew śādeh ‘field’. It is a disadvantage to the latter understanding that the Hebrew word for ‘field’ has ś, whereas Shaddai has š. (Day, 32f)
This same god appears among the Hurrians and Amorites:
Cross observes that in a Hurrian hymn El is described as ‘El, the one of the mountain‘ . . . . He also notes that an epithet resembling ‘ēl-šadday, namely, bêl šadê ‘lord of the mountain‘ is employed of the Amorite deity called Amurru; judging from such facts as that this deity is also called Ilu-Amurru and has a liaison with Ašratum, the counterpart of Athirat (Asherah), El’s consort, Cross suggests that Amurru is to be regarded as the Amorite El. (Day, 33)
There is a “Balaam text”, the Deir Alla inscription, from Jordan:
Interestingly, in the Deir ‘Allā inscription, 1.5-6 we read,
I will tell you what the Shadda[yyin have done]. Now come, see the works of the gods! The gods gathered together;
the Shaddayyin took their places as the assembly.
In both sentences it is most natural to take the Shaddayyin (šdyn) and the gods (‘lhn) as parallel terms referring to the same deities, who constituted the divine assembly. Logically, El, the supreme deity, who also features in the text (1.2; II.6) would therefore be Shaddai par excellence. Since, moreover, this epithet is here applied to the gods in their role as members of the divine assembly, which characteristically met on a mountain, the meaning ‘mountain ones’ seems very appropriate, much more so than ‘those of the field’. (Day, 33 – my formatting)
Abraham planted a tamarisk tree in Beersheba, and there he called on the name of the LORD, El Olam (Gen 21:33)
It seems inherently plausible that we have an Old Testament allusion related to El’s being an aged deity in Gen. 21.33, where the patriarchal deity at Beer-sheba is called El-Olam, ‘El, the Eternal One’, which may possibly have meant originally ‘El, the Ancient One’ . . . . Probably El-Olam was the local Canaanite god of Beer-sheba . . . . (Day, 19)
A Canaanite tablet proclaims ‘El is “eternal”, translating “olam”:
Indeed our creator is eternal [= ‘ôlam]
Indeed ageless he who formed us.
Another series of epithets describe ‘El as the “ancient one” or the “eternal one” with grey beard and concomitant wisdom. One is cited above. In another Asherah speaks of a decree of ‘El as follows:
Thy decree O ‘El is wise,
Wise unto eternity [= ‘ôlami],
A life of fortune thy decree.
In the same context Lady Asherah addresses ‘El:
Thou art great O ‘El, verily Thou art wise
Thy hoary beard indeed instructs Thee.
We are reminded of the Ancient of Days in Daniel 7 who sits on his throne in judgement when another god “like a man” comes riding on clouds (Baal was the rider of storm clouds who defeated the beasts of the sea) to be given the rule over the earth.
Olam can be used alone to refer to El. Cross cites and comments on a Phoenician incantation:
The Eternal One has made a covenant oath with us,
Asherah has made (a pact) with us.
The formulaic juxtaposition of ‘Ēl’s consort Asherah with ‘Ôlām . . . argues strongly for the identification of ‘Ôlām as an appellation or cult name of ‘Ēl. The two supreme gods are named and then follows:
And all the sons of El,
And the great of the council of all the Holy Ones.
With oaths of Heaven and Ancient Earth,
With oaths of Ba’l, lord of earth,
With oaths of Ḥawrān whose word is true,
And his seven concubines,
And Ba’l Qudš’ eight wives. (Cross, 17f)
Olam appears in a later (early fifth century BCE) Phoenician account of the origins of the gods as the first god perceptible to human intellect — as we learn from the Christian-era Damascius:
Phoenician mythology according to Mochos. Aither was the first, and Aer; these are the two same principles from which was begotten Oulomos [= Olam] the (first) deity that intellect can perceive, and he, I think, is unmixed mind. . . . This Oulomos himself is the mind that may be intelligible. (from Azize, 219)
Azize also turns back to Cross where he writes:
The name ‘Ôlām also appears in the Phoenician theogony of Moschos reported by Damascius, in the late Phoenician form transliterated into Greek: oulōm(os). Its context strongly suggests, however, that it applies not to a god of the cult such as ‘Ēl, but to one of the old gods belonging to the abstract theogonic pairs. This would equate Moschos’ oulōmos with Philo Byblius’ Aiōn of the pair Aiōn and Protogonos, and, of course, the Aiōn(s) of later Gnosticism.
We also find the epithet ‘ôlām applied to the “old god” Earth in the theogonic pair: “Heaven and Eternal Earth.” (Cross, 18)
Going back to the fifteenth century BCE we have Proto-Canaanite inscriptions in Sinai that point to an El cult in south-west Palestine and identify El Olam with the Egyptian god Ptah, the Egyptian “lord of eternity” (Cross, 18f).
The consort of ‘Ēl, Canaanite and Egyptian Qudšu, whose other names included ‘Aṭirāt yammi, “she who treads on Sea,” and ‘Ēlat, also is well documented in the south. (Cross, 20)
In the case of ‘Ēl ‘ôlām, “the god of eternity” or “the ancient god,” the evidence, in our view, is overwhelming to identify the epithet as an epithet of ‘Ēl. This is the source of Yahweh’s epithets “the ancient one” or “the ancient of days,” as well as the biblical and Ugaritic epithet malk ‘ôlām [eternal king] . . . At Ugarit and in the Punic world, ‘Ēl is the “old one” or “ancient one” par excellence: ‘ôlām, gerōn, senex, saeculum, he of the grey beard, he of eternal wisdom.
. . . . ‘Ēl ‘ôlām is an “executive deity,” a deity of the cult, namely the cultus of the (‘Ēl) shrine at Beersheba. (Cross, 50)
Elyon means “Most High”, hence El-Elyon is God Most High according to Day (1985, 129) though in the view of Cross,
The title theoretically could mean “the god ‘Ēlyōn, creator of (heaven and) earth,” or “‘Ēl, Most High, creator …,” or ‘Ēl ‘Ēlyōn, creator …” (that is, a double divine name). (Cross, 50)
Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, 19and he blessed Abram, saying,
“Blessed be Abram by El Elyon,
Creator of heaven and earth.
20And praise be to El Elyon,
who delivered your enemies into your hand.”
. . . 22 But Abram said to the king of Sodom, “With raised hand I have sworn an oath to
the Lord, El Elyon, Creator of heaven and earth (Gen 14:18-20,22 — “to the Lord” translates “to Yahweh” but Cross notes that these words were not part of the original text according to comparisons of various manuscripts.)
[In] Gen. 14.19, 22, ‘El-Elyon, creator of heaven and earth’, . . . is depicted as the pre-Israelite, Jebusite god of Jerusalem. Elyon also occurs elsewhere as a divine name or epithet a number of other times in the Old Testament (e.g. Num. 24.16; Deut. 32.8; Ps. 18.14 [ET 13], 46.5 [ET4], 78.17, 35, 56, 82.6, 87.5; Isa. 14.14; Dan. 7.22, 25, 27). There is dispute as to whether Elyon was originally the same deity as El or not. Philo of Byblos (c. 100 CE) depicts Elioun, as he calls him, as a separate god from El. Interestingly, he refers to Elioun (Eusebius, Praeparatio Evangelica 1.10.15) as the father of Heaven (Ouranos) and Earth (Ge), which is reminiscent of the creator god El, and also strongly supports the idea that the reference to El-Elyon as ‘Creator of heaven and earth’ in Gen. 14.19. 22 is an authentic reminiscence of the Canaanite deity, and not simply invention. Prima facie the eighth-century BCE Aramaic Sefire treaty also represents Elyon as a distinct deity from El, since ‘El and Elyon’ occur together . . . (Day, 20f)
Day concludes that El Elyon is a separate god from El, but El-like. Cross, however, leans towards Elyon being an epithet of El, the creator god of the Canaanites, and thus identical with El.
Then he proceeded from there to the mountain on the east of Bethel, and he pitched his tent with Bethel on the west and Ai on the east; and there he built an altar to Yahweh and called upon the name of Yahweh. (Gen 12:8)
Then God said to Jacob, “Go up to Bethel and settle there, and build an altar there to God, who appeared to you when you were fleeing from your brother Esau.” (Gen 35:1)
Then come, let us go up to Bethel, where I will build an altar to God, who answered me in the day of my distress and who has been with me wherever I have gone.” (Gen 35:3)
Then Abram moved his tent and came and lived by the oaks of Mamre, which are in Hebron, and there he built an altar to Yahweh. (Gen 13:18)
Yahweh thus has altars at Bethel and Hebron. But “there’s more”. Yahweh was such a prominent deity far north of the kingdom of Israel that kings of Hamath took his name and he was known to be the protector of Arpad.
There is indeed cuneiform evidence indicating that he [Yahweh] was worshipped in inland Syria in the 8th century B.C. (Dalley, 23)
In 738 BCE there was a Syrian rebellion against Assyria. It was led by a ruler named Azri-Yau. Since “Yau” is adapted from Yahweh many historians long assumed that this name must have been an Israelite or Judean king. But it has since become clear that the king in these Assyrian inscriptions had nothing to do with either biblical kingdom and could only be placed squarely in northern Syria.
So where did Azri-Yau rule? Not in Hamath itself, for the ruler at that time is known to have been one Eni-ilu, probably up until about 738 B.C. . . . . It cannot have been less than 250 miles away from Samaria, and the powerful kingdoms of Hamath and Damascus lay between it and Israel. Thus it was by no means a near neighbour of Israel. The interesting fact which emerges from so much muddle and confusion is this: that there was a ruler in North Syria in 738 who bore a name compounded with Yahweh. (Dalley, 26)
A little short of 20 years later there is evidence of another king who has Yahweh as part of his name and this time it is the king of Hamath. This king, Yau-bi’di, led a rebellion against Assyria. It is evident that Yahweh was a prominent god in northern Syria during Assyrian times.
The Bible itself carries a memory of these Yahweh-worshippers from Hamath:
When Toi king of Hamath heard that David had smitten all the host of Hadadezer, then Toi sent Joram [Jo is another derivative of Yahweh] his son unto king David, to salute him, and to bless him . . . And Joram brought with him vessels of silver, and vessels of gold, and vessels of brass: which also king David did dedicate unto the Lord . . . (2 Sam 8:9-11)
Dalley drives home the implication:
At this point we need to ask what implications are latent in the choice of a god as a name element for a king at this period. . . . [I]t is hard to avoid the conclusion that, in the late 8th century both before and after the fall of Samaria, Yahweh was worshipped as a major god in Hamath and its vicinity. (Dalley, 28)
Azri-Yau and Yau-bi’di were indigenous rulers of two north Syrian states where Yahweh was worshipped as a major god. (Dalley, 29)
So when in 2 Kings 18:34 we read that the Assyrian king taunts the people of Jerusalem with the claim that the gods of Hamath and Arpad (near Sefire of the El-Elyon treaty mentioned above) failed to protect them, we should recognize that he is pointing out that the gods of Judea, in particular Yahweh, will not save them.
There are many other sites where the worship of the god Yahweh (and his consort) have been recorded, including beyond the borders of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. These deserve a post of their own which will have to await a future time. Till then, to appreciate the scope of the evidence for finds relating to Yahweh, here is a map from a doctoral thesis by Marlene Mondriaan:
There he [Jacob] built an altar, and he called the place El Bethel, because it was there that God revealed himself to him when he was fleeing from his brother. (Gen 35:7)
I am the God of Bethel, where you [Jacob] anointed a pillar and where you made a vow to me. . . (Gen 31:13)
On these verses and their translation Cross remarks,
This epithet raises special problems in view of the hypostatization of Bethel and the eventual emergence of Bethel as a full-fledged deity. (Cross, 47)
Bethel was the leading god of the Phoenician Tyre:
The treaty of Esarhaddon with Baal II of Tyre lists in order the deities of Tyre as Bethel, Anat-Bethel, Baal Shamem, BaalMalaga, Baal-Saphon, Melqart, Eshmun, and Astarte. The initial position of Bethel would point to his status as the primary god of the Tyrian pantheon. (Smith, 63)
Why Genesis acknowledges traditional Canaanite gods
Russell Gmirkin in Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts makes clear what we surely must conclude: that the inclusion of these gods and their altars in Genesis was considered compatible with Yahweh worship, yet must also be recognized as problematic for monotheism. This is true whether the above names represented deities in their own right or if they were titles for El.
According to Plato, it was important for those establishing a new nation to research ancient local gods, oracles, altars and priesthoods and to integrate them into the official religion in order to give the newly founded government an aura of antiquity and divinity. The appearance of local cult sites in Genesis appears to reflect this strategic concern. (Gmirkin, 234)
In the words of Plato as translated by Benjamin Jowett, Laws 5:738c-d:
Whether the legislator is establishing a new state or restoring an old and decayed one, in respect of Gods and temples — the temples which are to be built in each city, and the Gods or demi-gods after whom they are to be called — if he be a man of sense, he will make no change in anything which the oracle of Delphi, or Dodona, or the God Ammon, or any ancient tradition has sanctioned in whatever manner, whether by apparitions or reputed inspiration of Heaven, in obedience to which mankind have established sacrifices in connection with mystic rites, either originating on the spot, or derived from Tyrrhenia or Cyprus or some other place, and on the strength of which traditions they have consecrated oracles and images, and altars and temples, and portioned out a sacred domain for each of them. The least part of all these ought not to be disturbed by the legislator; but he should assign to the several districts some God, or demi-god, or hero, and, in the distribution of the soil, should give to these first their chosen domain and all things fitting, that the inhabitants of the several districts may meet at fixed times, and that they may readily supply their various wants, and entertain one another with sacrifices, and become friends and acquaintances; there is no greater good in a state than that the citizens should be known to one another.
Later we do read of a conflation of these gods with Yahweh but that such an identification was known to the author of Genesis is not evident. In Genesis, for example, we read that not only Abraham but also the priest-king of Salem worshipped El the Canaanite creator god, not Yahweh.
The other significant point of these chapters in Gmirkin’s study is that the author never condemns the gods of Canaan or other nations.
Although Genesis 12-50 mentioned many other local peoples of Canaan and Transjordan, neither they nor their gods are condemned. Nor, indeed, do we find condemnation of the ancient empires such as Babylonia or Egypt, except for the territorial aggressions of the Mesopotamian confederacy in Genesis 14. One otherwise sees harmonious relations between the families of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and Babylonians (Genesis 24, 29-31), Egyptians (Gen 12:10; 42:1-5; 45:10-11; 46:28, 34; 47:1-6), Philistines (Gen 26:1-31) and Hittites (Gen 23:3-20). Both Egyptians and Philistines give refuge to Abrahamic peoples during times of famine (Gen 12:10; 26:1; 42:1-3; 45:11; 47:4). In the only episodes in which cities (Sodom and Gomorrah, Shechem) or royal individuals (Pharaoh, Abimelech) are portrayed in a negative light, ethical responsibility is always placed on individuals, never on foreign gods or religious practices, and Yahweh is never portrayed as being at war with the nations.
The picture throughout Genesis is that of the gods and peoples of all lands living together in harmony as their usual state. There is a consistent theodicy in which evil has its origin, not in bad gods or bad deeds by the gods, but in unjust or violent acts by humans (Gen 6:5-7, 11-13; 8:21; 13:7-11; 14:1-7; 18:20-32). In these stories set in mythical ancient times, earthbound gods and their angels still have encounters with humans, eating and conversing with them (Genesis 2-3; 4:9-12; 9:1-17; 12:1-4; 17:1-22; 18:1-36; 19:1-17; 32:24-32). This is still the storybook setting of Critias, a world in which humans coexisted with the gods and when the terrestrial gods are all viewed as good, like the supreme god of Creation. (Gmirkin, 235)
Azize, Joseph. The Phoenician Solar Theology: An Investigation into the Phoenician Opinion of the Sun Found in Julian’s Hymn to King Helios. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias, 2005.
Dalley, Stephanie. “Yahweh in Hamath in the 8Th Century Bc: Cuneiform Material and Historical Deductions.” Vetus Testamentum 40, no. 1 (1990): 21–32.
Day, John. Yahweh and the Gods and Goddesses of Canaan. London ; New York: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2002.
Cross, Frank Moore. Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic Essays in the History of the Religion of Israel. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997.
Gmirkin, Russell E. Plato’s Timaeus and the Biblical Creation Accounts: Cosmic Monotheism and Terrestrial Polytheism in the Primordial History. Abingdon, Oxon New York, NY: Routledge, 2022.
Mondriaan, Marlene Elizabeth. The Rise of Yahwism: Role of Marginalised Groups. University of Pretoria, 2010.
Smith, Mark S. The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel. 2nd edition. Grand Rapids, Mich: Eerdmans, 2002.
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